Friday, May 17, 2019

What’s NEXT? Part VIII

Since I’ve been off that topic for a couple of week, I feel the need to recap the exploration. You may remember that I was challenged at the NEXT Church National Gathering to become more sensitive to the difference between Christianity itself and what we might call “White Christianity.” The phrase “White Christianity” does not refer to a branch of Christianity or a particular church where every single person in it is manifestly light-skinned and has European origins. And so, whenever I am writing about “White Christianity,” please don’t hear me assuming that it looks like this photo. 

This church is indeed a “White Church” and their brand of Christianity – if one is willing to call it Christianity at all! – needs to be identified as a particular, peculiar, and baleful form of “White Christianity.” But this is not what I am talking about when I speak of “White Church” or “White Christianity.” Please know that. 

When I use the term “White Christianity” I am not speaking of active racist attitudes, active exclusive practices, or 100% European stock membership. I am using the term to become more aware of historical-cultural characteristics that often go unnamed and unnoticed. For example, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has a designation for some of its churches as “Racial Ethnic Congregations.” In the Presbytery of Los Ranchos there are 46 congregations, 19 of which are designated as “Racial Ethnic Congregations.” Among them is New Hope in Orange, which was an intentional startup church for the purpose of reaching out to African Americans. There is the Vietnamese Presbyterian Church in Garden Grove, which has one service in Vietnamese and a simultaneous service for young, second-generation members in English. There are nine Korean congregations, three Taiwanese congregations, two Hispanic congregations, an Arabic, Indonesian, and an African congregation. Each of them has deliberate practices for the sake of reaching out to persons who share a common story. 

But, if those churches are the “Racial Ethnic” churches, what are the rest of us? What are we at St. Mark? Do we lack race? Are we without ethnicity? Of course not. We have – on one hand – a significant variety of racial and ethnic roots among us. And we have – on the other hand – a common set of practices and assumptions that enable us to be “one.” Those commons practices and assumptions (whether good nor bad) are what I am trying to discern in these posts, because some of them are wonderful and need to become even more pronounced among us, and some of them are subtle and make us more biased and exclusive than we might imagine.

Until next time, 
Mark of St. Mark

Friday, May 3, 2019

What’s NEXT? Part VII

Speaking of Roman numerals, can you identify the Roman numeral for zero? No, there isn’t one. The Romans had a word, nullus, but no numeral for zero. In fact, none of the most sophisticated ancient numerical systems – Sumerian, Babylonian, etc. – had zero as an integer. Over time, systems developed a “placeholder,” that would help distinguish the difference between, say, 15 and 105 by putting something in between the 1 and the 5 for the latter, but it was a late development. One of the first known recordings of using a dot for a placeholder, is not until the 3rd or 4th Century CE. And the first known instance of zero written as a circle is from the Chaturbhuj Temple inside of the Gwalior Fort in India, from a 9th Century inscription of ‘270.’ 

You might be wondering what this focus on ‘zero’ has to do with my ongoing reflections on what constitutes “White Christianity.” The reason I am thinking about zero today is because there may be religious reasons why the number zero does not appear in some ancient cultures and finally does appear in others. Particularly, western cultures were more resistant to zero than eastern cultures. In India, where the mathematical concept of zero was first developed, the tem for zero, shunya in Sanskrit, seems related to the Buddhist understanding of shunyata, emptying one’s mind of impressions and thought. 

On the other hand, there’s this: “There was a time in the early days of Christianity in Europe when religious leaders banned the use of zero because they felt that, since God is in everything, a symbol that represented nothing must be satanic.”[1] I imagine that this resistance was based on a reading of the creation story in Genesis where the world was a lot of nothing until God created the heavens and the earth. In this reading, often called creatio ex nihilo, nothingness is in opposition to God’s order of creation. 

With that in mind, it is not hard to imagine that Christian communities would devalue things that might be described as nothing, zero, emptiness, vacuum, or void, as being the opposite of God’s created order. And that attitude, I want to suggest, has impacted how Christians have seen many things. 

The “Protestant work ethic,” for example, is an expression of how many Christians have seen the proper stewardship of time, energy, and effort. But, within this framework, what happens to the concept of the rest and restoration of Sabbath? Think, for example, how pejoratively we use the word “lazy” to describe people who don’t necessarily share our attention to (or obsession with) time and productivity.  A biblical illustration might clarify: When Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh to let God’s people go out into the wilderness to worship for three days, here is Pharaoh’s response: “Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work? Get to your labors!” Then Pharaoh continued, “Now they are more numerous than the people of the land and yet you want them to stop working!” It’s amazing how many good WASP business owners said Pharaoh’s exact words when confronted with labor unions began demanding a five-day workweek or how many good Christian people say the same today when describing persons on assistance as “Welfare Queens.”

Likewise, the need to fill every single moment of worship with something, whether it is organ music, somebody saying something, or (in mega-churches) repeated ovations may be another expression of our distrust of zero. In the process, the biblical concepts of ‘being still’ in order to know God or ‘keeping silence’ as a proper way to honor God may be lost. 

My point is, if we want to identify parts of “White Christianity” that are more reflective of “White” than “Christianity,” a great place to begin might be to reconsider our attitudes toward “zero.” Let me conclude with a story: 

When Alexander the Great visited India, he met a yogi, sitting on a rock, staring at the sky. Alexander asked, “What are you doing?” The yogi replied, “I’m experiencing nothingness. What are you doing?” “I am conquering the world,” Alexander said. They both laughed. Each one thought the other was a fool, and was wasting his life.

I wonder how many Christians would automatically assume that Alexander was right. 

Mark of St. Mark 

[1]I am relying on two online articles and some past readings for a lot of this information. If you want to quibble with it, please do so to the original authors. Or, just read them because they’re interesting.

Friday, April 26, 2019

What’s Next, part VI

This week I want to resume asking this question, “What are some of the elements of ‘White Christianity’ that are different from ‘Christianity’ itself?” Keeping in mind that I do not believe we are able to tease out anything that could be called ‘pure Christianity,’ since the substance of religion seems always to be found in some kind of cultural form. What we’re after is not culture-less Christianity, but a self-awareness, self-critical ability to see how some forms of Christianity-as-we-know-it, are reflective of a peculiar cultural shape we can call ‘White Christianity.’ And this is not just an academic exercise. It is deadly serious, because throughout its history White Christianity has sanctioned things like crusades, holy wars, genocide, misogyny, and slavery. Unless we take a serious and deep self-critical look at the Christianity that we have inherited, we might well be serving the exact opposite of the gospel made known to us in Christ. So, this is not about political correctness; it is all about faithfulness. 

In response to my invitation a few weeks ago to suggest qualities of White Christianity, one reader name Bill asked, “Is the almost mechanical understanding of ‘substitutionary atonement’ a product of the rise of science and manufactory in 18th-19thcentury Western thinking?” I find Bill’s question compelling in two respects. First, it renews for us the question of how much our doctrines of “atonement” are shaped by western culture. Second, it questions whether the Industrial revolution causes us to look at things that are not mechanical as if they were. Let’s look at both questions briefly. 

The doctrine of “Atonement” refers to how we speak of being reconciled, or “at one” with God. The question of atonement is, “How are we reconciled to God, after being separated from God by sin?” The consistent Christian answer is, “through Jesus Christ,” but if the follow-up question is, “and how so?” then we get into various doctrinesof atonement. The most popular doctrine of atonement is often called the “satisfaction theory” of atonement. It says something like: 
Sin is an offense against God, because God is just. So, God’s justice demands satisfaction of a penalty paid. Yet, because of loves us, God provides the 
payment in the form of God’s only child who is crucified in our place.
In this theory, Jesus has “satisfied” the payment of the penalty for sin by being our “substitute,” bearing the punishment that we deserve. 

The substitutionary approach to atonement coheres nicely with our doctrines of sin and grace. Bill’s question is whether the development of science and manufactory in the 18thand 19thcentury has shaped us to see the doctrine of atonement almost as a mechanism, rather than something more dynamic, like a birth or a journey of transformation. The mechanical transaction could even be a way of avoiding the cost of discipleship. Instead of focusing on Jesus’ words, “If anyone would be my disciple, let them take up their cross and follow me,” we might say instead, “Jesus has paid it all for me.”  

Perhaps I’m reading some of my own questions into Bill’s question. Partly that is because Bill is currently serving a church in Sri Lanka, where three Christian churches and three hotels were bombed in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, resulting in over 300 deaths. Bill’s own congregation was not among those that were bombed and although his communication channels have been limited, we do know that his congregation are safe for now. Notice that the bombers targeted Christian churches and luxury hotels. To some extent that would indicate that the bombers see Christianity as part of the same kind of western influence as capitalism and affluence. And while Bill raised his question before the bombings, his sensitivities to how much “Western” influence there is in Christianity in Sri Lanka were prescient. 

Has our doctrine of atonement allowed us to be comfortable with income inequality, oppression of the poor, and other such sins, because at least we know that Jesus paid the price for our sins? Does our doctrine prevent us from hearing the call to be part of God’s liberating activity on the earth, because we already have our blessed assurance? Does our doctrine tell us we are saved from sin of the world, rather than a calling to be engaged in transforming the world? 

It is possible that if we see atonement chiefly as something Jesus did 2,000 years ago, which automatically ensures our salvation today, we may leave off fully embracing the meaning of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. 

I have perhaps oversimplified the substitutionary atonement theory in this brief note. But, I do think it is one reason why White Christianity has been able so tolerant of oppression is because we have separated the process of salvation from the real conditions in which we participate. 

Mark of St. Mark 

Friday, April 19, 2019

With a Kiss

For today, I'm going to take a break from my topic and share the meditation that I offered at last night's Maundy Thursday service at St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach.  

While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, ‘Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?’ When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, ‘Lord, should we strike with the sword?’ Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched his ear and healed him.Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!’ 
Luke 22:47-53

Of all things, Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss. So, let’s talk about kissing for a moment. There is a strong tradition of kissing in the Scriptures and the history of the church, believe it or not, and it's a bit of a muddle. There are times when kissing seems to be a biblical sign of reconciliation. One notable example is when Joseph finally reveals his true identity to his brothers. They had treated him abominably years before and even sold him into slavery. Later in the story, Joseph yields astounding power and could easily have taken vengeance on them. Instead there is a moment when he reveals his identity and, instead of demanding obeisance from them, he weeps and kisses them all. Those are the moments when a kiss is really a magnificent gesture of peace. Perhaps that is why no less than five times in the letters of the New Testament, the writer says to the church, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”  In addition, there’s that wonderful metaphorical reference in the 85thpsalm that says, “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” In that moment, a ‘kiss’ signifies joining two things that belong together. It’s lovely. 

But, sometimes a kiss is not just a kiss. There is a brief moment in the book of II Samuel, when a general named Joab took a man named Amasa by the beard with his right hand – the fighting hand, a gesture of peace – to kiss him. What Amasa didn't realize is that in his left hand Joab was holding a sword, with which he killed him. Perhaps that story is what prompted the writer of proverbs to say with distrust, “Well meant are the wounds a friend inflicts, but profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” 

There are also some significant ways that a kiss is noted in the history of the church. An early church father, Justin Martyr, wrote that on Easter when newly baptized persons would take their place in the assembly, they would be welcomed with prayers and a kiss. And there is the story of St. Francis, who was told in a dream that the thing that made him shudder would be what he came to love. Shortly after, when he encountered a leper, he pushed past his initial revulsion, took the person’s hand, and kissed it. The next day he went to a leper hospital, gave a large sum of money, and kissed each person there on the hand. Francis demonstrates the power of a kiss to affirm someone’s dignity and value. 

In Luke’s gospel, there are several references to kissing before we get to our story. There’s the story of a woman at a dinner where Jesus was a guest and who tearfully washes Jesus feet and kisses them over and over. It was a gesture that Jesus noted when the host of the dinner criticized the woman. Then Jesus says that when he entered the host did not wash his feet or give him a kiss. Likewise, in the story of the Prodigal Son, when the son returns after treating his father so shamefully, his father sees the boy coming along the road, chucks his dignity aside, hikes up his robe, and runs to welcome him with a kiss. 

A kiss, then, can be a powerful symbol of welcome and intimacy. A kiss is a powerful symbol becauseit requires us to be vulnerable. It exposes us to one another – whether we’re talking about germs to which we are exposed or the flesh that we yield to the other or the feelings that we put out there that might not be reciprocated. But, the vulnerability of a kiss is also why it can be so misused in an act of subversion or betrayal. Nobody is so easy than to betray someone who is vulnerable and open. 

And that is the part of the human story that we are called to confront when we hear the story of Judas. He does not only betray Jesus – either out of a love of money, or because Satan entered him, or out of a frustrated impatience of waiting on Jesus to be the king he was hoping he would be – Judas does not only betray Jesus. He does it with a kiss. And it is a kiss that is forever etched into our minds as the ultimate betrayal. Under the guise of peace, friendship, love, welcome, intimacy – Jesus is betrayed. 

God have mercy. 

Friday, April 12, 2019

What's Next, pt. V

Many thanks to those of you who have reached out after last week’s post to share some of your ideas of what constitutes “White Christianity,” as opposed to Christianity itself. I will share some of those observations, but first please allow me to make a critical clarification. When it comes to the cultural dimensions of any expression of Christianity, I find myself convinced by Paul Tillich’s argument that “religion is the substance of culture; culture is the form of religion.” That is to say, I don’t think any presentation of Christianity is possible without some kind of cultural shape in which it is presented – starting with something as basically cultural as language itself, but extending far beyond that. Two of the early struggles of the early church were over the cultural form of the faith of those who follow Christ. The promise that the risen Christ gave to his disciples, according to Acts 1:8, was “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” As the church moved out of Jerusalem and then out of territory that was predominantly populated with Jews, one struggle was over how Jewish the Christian faith was supposed to be. The question often arose, “Do Gentile followers of Jesus have to be circumcised, or follow the laws of the Old Testament as they had been incorporated into Jewish life?” As one more recent scholar person put it, “Do you have to become Jewish before you can become Christian?” That’s a complicated question, with lots of different layers of answers, but my point for now is that this hotly debated topic among the early church was essentially a question of the substance and form of Christianity – what is the best cultural form to carry the message of the gospel? 

Another question of Christianity and culture, or the substance and form of the early church, was with regard to the Roman Empire. Many of the espoused values of the Christian message are radically different than the values of the Roman Empire – such as the paradoxical teaching of Jesus that to be the greatest one must become the least. Most of the Greek and Roman imperial thinkers would have thought Jesus foolish for choosing to endure the cross as a way of salvation. So, when the early church began to organize itself, it faced some questions – do we follow the hierarchical structure of the empire? Do we follow the structure of the temple? Or, is there a way of living into the egalitarian vision of Joel that Peter proclaimed on the Day of Pentecost, when the spirit would be poured out on every layer of society, empowering sons and daughters, young and old, enslaved and freed to speak with power and authority? My point, again, is that there is no “culture-free” expression of the Christian faith. But, there are times when the cultural expression of the faith can actually be contrary to the meaning and content of the faith. So, the reason for trying to identify the difference between “White Christianity” and Christianity itself is not to aspire to a Christianity that is free of particularity, but to challenge those parts of the faith that we have inherited that are actually contrary to the content of the gospel. 

Over the next few weeks I’ll be responding to some of the responses that I have received from readers about what constitutes “White Christianity.” And please feel free to send more. Here is a sample of some observations I received as well as my own questions that were provoked by them. 

- Is the almost mechanical understanding of “substitutionary atonement” a product of the rise of science and manufactory in 18-19thcentury Western thinking?
- Is the emphasis on “individualism” – in phrases like “personal salvation,” “personal evangelism,” and the idea of a “personal God” – a reflection of Western culture? 
- So many of the stories of Jesus have him speaking outside, yet almost every gathering of Christian community today is indoors, often in ornate structures that are solely for that purpose. 
- Many elements of worship seem very constricted and controlled, from sitting and standing at certain times to only speaking or singing when instructed. 
- Why are we expected to be “apolitical” when the Christian community is gathered? 
- We are very word-centered, still, quiet, and compliant when worshiping together. 
- One reader also wants to explore how some parts of the church today have internalized their oppression – such as the Native American man that Dick Piper mentioned in last week’s post, who only found four-part harmonic hymnody to be appropriate music for worship. 

Ah, there’s a lot to see, a lot to celebrate, a lot to mourn, and a lot to learn here. Let’s keep walking together.

Mark of St. Mark

Friday, April 5, 2019

What's Next, pt.IV

I’m continuing my reflections on Miguel De La Torre’s book, Burying White Privilege: Resurrecting a Badass Christianity. You may recall that last week I talked about how difficult it is for those of us who have been raised in what De La Torre calls “White Christianity” to see the “whiteness” that we have received and which we perpetuate. Our friend Dick Piper wrote to me this week, saying kind words about that observation and confirming it from his experience as an American Baptist missionary among some Hopi and Navajo communities. Dick was once asked to lead a program on church musicianship. After some research, he found that Hopi and Navajo folk music used a pentatonic scale, with which he was familiar. So, in Dick’s words, “I decided to teach the course on church musicianship in their own idiom.” Imagine his surprise when one of the participants refused to continue with him, because he associated their folk music with the worship of kachina dolls. Again, in Dick’s words, “Only one form of music could be ‘Christian’ for him. That was the good old SATB white hymn tunes based on the diatonic major and minor scales.” 

What Dick says next is really key: “I’m sure the missionaries didn't specifically teach him that.  But that's what he ‘picked up.’ Cultural domination happens subtly but effectively.” 

Indeed, cultural domination happens subtly but effectively. That’s why we’re exploring this whole topic. It is all about bringing that which is subtle to the surface, so that when God begins doing a new thing among us, we will know what is the wine and what is the wineskin. I think we often hold onto something that is incidental, cultural, or simply familiar, while presenting it as if we are holding onto something essential. 

There is another reason for this work as well. Unless we are aware of the particularities of “White Christianity,” we will continue to promote cultural domination when we engage in evangelism, mission work, interfaith relationships, or community outreach – all in the name of the gospel. Without self-awareness, we would be denying the real work of the Holy Spirit among persons who are not like us and would miss how the Spirit uses others to help transform us. In other words, this inquiry is not about addressing “white guilt” and it is certainly not about trying to be “politically correct.” It is about trying to be in tune with what “new thing” God is doing. 

So, what are the particular peculiarities of “whiteness” in “White Christianity”? 

I have a few in mind, but I’m really curious as to what you think. What are some of the things that we have come to accept as simply part of the way Christianity works, which – in fact – may be more of a cultural thing that we’ve inherited than something that is germane to the Christian message itself? Would you be willing to send me some of your suggestions? If you can send them to me by Wednesday, I’ll have time to reflect on them by next Friday. I’m on a mission to become more self-aware and I hope that we can be more self-aware(collectively. To do that, your participation would be valuable. 

Thanks for your input.

Mark of St. Mark 

Friday, March 29, 2019

What's Next, part III

I am continuing the thoughts that I started over the last two weeks, in response to the Next Church national gathering in Seattle. 

I recently reviewed the book, Burying White Privilege, which has the profound subtitle, “Resurrecting a Badass Christianity.” The author, Miguel De La Torre, is a professor of social ethics and LatinX Studies at Iliff School of Theology, where our own Jennifer McCullough is currently enrolled. While speaking of “white Christianity,” I am going to use the pronouns “we” “us” and “our” in this essay. I am doing that, not because every person who is a part of St. Mark is white, but because our congregational culture is largely shaped by what De La Torre means when he speaks of “whiteness,” or “white Christianity.” It is an identifier that is meant to raise consciousness, not an accusation meant to raise guilt. 

One argument that De La Torre makes is that white Christians are unaware of how culturally specific our way of doing Christianity is. Let me see if I can illustrate with a recent experience. After the horrific attack on worshippers at the mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 15, many New Zealanders performed – as an act of solidarity and healing – a traditional dance called the “Haka.” I was impressed with that tradition and looked it up on Wikipedia to read about it. Part of the essay said this: “From their arrival in the early 19th century, Christian missionaries strove unsuccessfully to eradicate the haka, along with other forms of Māori culture that they saw as conflicting with Christian beliefs and practice. Henry Williams, the leader of the Church Missionary Society mission in New Zealand, aimed to replace the haka and traditional Māori chants (waiata) with hymns. Missionaries also encouraged European harmonic singing as part of the process of conversion.” 

In other words, these missionaries saw harmonic singing – a specific cultural expression of music – as a Christian expression of music. Perhaps I should say, “as the Christian expression of music.” If I may use the distinction between ‘form’ and ‘content,’ hymnody was the cultural form in which the missionaries had experienced Christianity, so they proceeded as if this cultural form was necessarily bound to the content of the gospel itself. Given how heroically and sacrificially many missionaries went about their task, I can only guess that most of them genuinely saw no difference between the message of the gospel that they wanted to share and the specific form of expressing that gospel that they knew. De La Torre, by using the phrase “white Christianity,” enables us not to make that same mistake. 

The phrase “white Christianity” is a description, which can be neutral. The phrase “white privilege” is not neutral and points to the ways that white Christianity has used the Christian message to enrich and empower itself. Let’s see if we can get from one to the other. 

“White Christianity” can refer to a number of traditions that are harmless enough in themselves (and which fluctuate over time): Worship services that begin precisely at a certain time; one-hour time limits on worship; jello salads at potlucks; reading back and forth during worship; standing and sitting on cue; pipe organs; stained glass; wooden pews (which might explain the one-hour time limit); etc. Some of these traditions are deliberate and scripted; some are assumed and inherited. 

“White privilege” is a different matter. It happens when we privilege “our way” over other ways, such as assuming that chants are pagan and hymns are Christian. Privilege can also be radically inconsistent when legitimizing itself. Think of all of the arguments that white Christian missionaries made when demanding that native women from some cultures cover themselves. It’s interesting that many white Christians now reject those same arguments when we insist that women ought not to wear burkas or veils. In both cases, we are insisting that our cultural approach to attire gives us the warrant to critique a different cultural approach to attire. 

White Christianity can be a neutral matter when it comes to jello salads or wooden pews. It can be somewhere between repressive and oppressive when it comes to liturgical styles or “proper attire.” But, white Christianity also has a long history of outright evil masked as Christianity. When Europeans (and later Americans) were colonizing “new” lands, Christian missionaries were sailing on the ships alongside of traders and soldiers. When white Christians came to the Americas, the Christian message provided legitimation for “Manifest Destiny,” that encouraged them to eradicate natives and take their land. When the U.S. was building an economy based on slave labor, instead of liberating the captives, white Christians were trying to make them “Christian slaves.” We could see all of those actions as wrong-headed, but confined to the past. Or, we could see how those past traditions continue in the form of establishing “sweat shops” in other countries, scapegoating and underpaying farm workers in our own country, or snowplowing our children’s success by buying their way into elite universities. 

In the end, I need to continue studying Miguel De La Torre’s critique of “white privilege.” It is not about inflicting guilt. It is about liberating us – us! – from captivity to a cultural form that has arrogated itself as if it were the gospel itself. While part of that liberation is the awkward task of evaluating “white Christianity,” the hope is that the real power of the gospel can be found in us. I feel as if I am taking tentative baby steps on a long journey. Let’s do this together. 

Mark of St. Mark