Category Archives: Christian community

Lovers or Liars?

I recently completed my final report for the Louisville Institute.  These generous partners in ministry awarded me a grant to study the sociopolitical construct of race, Clarence Jordan’s Koinonia Farm and why persons fear Christian community.  I visited Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia.  It was Clarence’s “demonstration plot.”  He would create his own world, challenging segregationist laws in the 1940s.  The community was intentional, sharing in a fair wage and a common purse.

The farm was bombed.  The business was boycotted.  The members of Koinonia Farm were ex-communicated from their church.  Because they loved their neighbor, their African American neighbor at a time when it was not socially or politically advantageous to do so. Clarence is my kind of Christian.

So, I set out to learn as much as I could in the year and a half I had allotted.  I registered for conferences, signed up for workshops, ate fellowship meals, had tough conversations.  I asked hard questions of myself and those around me.  I dug deep and nearly scraped the bottom of my soul.

I conducted interviews and read a small library of books about the sociopolitical construct of race, intentional community, the life, work and witness of Clarence Jordan on Koinonia Farm, multi- cultural/ cross- cultural ministry, forgiveness and reconciliation.  I took copious notes, wrote extensively, preached the message of community faithfully.  I even redecorated my office in D.C. to reflect the work that had reshaped my life.  It was all about community- building.

I was being transformed, emphasis on the I.

In the end, the results were not what I expected.  No statistic or story could have prepared me for the narrative that would emerge.  Long story short– Christians are afraid of Christian community.  While there are those who would point to those who are doing it right (“See, we’re not all bad.”), there is a long and troubling history of Christians in North America who do not follow Jesus in the way of love, who refuse to integrate socially with persons of other cultures, who refuse to integrate their faith and life.  As it was during American slavery so it is now.  Bible in one hand and a whip in the other, European Americans are shamelessly able to oppress others while claiming to espouse the liberating words of Jesus Christ.

Call them what you will.  It makes no difference because at least they are white.  And in America, whiteness pays.  It pays to play.

It must be said that those who agree to the conditions of whiteness (that is, the oppression of other cultural groups so that they might have privileged access to wealth, the land and its resources) are a serious impediment to the healing work required for reconciliation in the Church.  You simply cannot build an authentic Christian community where whiteness and its interests are at the center, if socially colored white people do all the leading and none of the following, if they control the resources and determine the ministry emphases, if they influence the votes to ensure that it always goes their way in business meetings.  Because the identity of whiteness is protected at all costs.  Put above the cross of Christ, who persons are as white people and as the model citizens for the world in appearance, behavior and conduct is to be defended.

But it takes the place of Christ’s body and his work.  Or, is it that there are those who think that their body is his?  The work of race is complete in these cases, swapping out Christ’s body for their own, deifying their flesh and nullifying the work of his.

To be sure, this is not a matter of identifying with Christ’s body or doing what he would.  This is proof that America’s created identity of whiteness is wedged in between the cross and the crown for many European Americans.  The kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God are at odds but there are those who believe that they are one and the same, that if you have seen a socially colored white person, then you have seen God.  Skin “color” long associated with good and evil and used to determine the heathen/ barbarian/ uncivilized versus the civilized/ cultured, the same is true for the Church in North America.  The social coloring of skin separates the righteous from the unrighteous.  It is not a matter of separating goats and sheep but “white” people and all the other “people of color.”  The Church has a color line.

Christians, who claim to be made in the image of God, live in and through racialized identities. They create segregated sacred spaces, somehow walking in the footsteps of Jesus while avoiding marginalized and oppressed people who are victims of race and its progeny.  The theological disconnect could not be more obvious.

Persons will close ranks and churches will close up shop in a community that is experiencing cultural change before it will integrate.  They will take their Bibles and believe somewhere else.  Christians need for power, all while worshipping an all- powerful God, cannot be underestimated. The impact of colonialism, American slavery and its other versions of domination continue to determine and influence the ways in which we relate to each other.  And even for persons of faith, they cannot get the colonizer out of their head.

John said, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (First John 4.20).  In my estimation, there are only two choices, only two kinds of people.  Love is the deciding factor.  Because you cannot love God and not love everyone that God has created.  It is a package deal.  Take it or leave it.

So, Christians, if there is hatred in your heart for your brother or sister, the one you won’t speak to, who you dodge at the grocery store, whose food you don’t like though you’ve never tasted it, whose clothes you wouldn’t be caught dead in, then you are not a lover but a big, old liar.  John is pretty clear that there are no little white ones.  There is no question about it.

Sunday morning segregation

It’s almost 11 a.m., that holy hour that is concentrated with our hubris, when the worship services are but a reflection of our preferences, when the pews are filled with the people we are most comfortable with.  It’s almost 11 a.m. on this fine Sunday morning where people dress up or down and then sit down and get up unchanged and unchallenged to go out and subvert the kingdom of this world.  Instead, we fall in line and when told, we will skip to the front of the line.  I know that Jesus has an order, “The last will be first,” but this is the way they do things down here.  We act as if Jesus didn’t come down here and show us the way.

Called to turn the world upside down, we don’t feel comfortable touching anything (Acts 17.6).  Just leave it the way that it is.  Just go to work and come home.  Just live according to society’s schedule and its election cycles.  America will change in its own time.  We’ve got plenty of time.  Now is never the right time.

What time is it now?  Oh, we’ve got to hurry up and get to church now.  But, the Church is so late, so behind the times when it comes to race and its progeny.  Jesus came and stood side by side with us.  The miracle of divinity became human just to be close to us.  And yet, we human beings are still not close enough. Not wanting to live on earth together, we divide up dirt.

Human beings have convinced themselves that we come in colors and daily attempt to create distance between each other.  And Sunday morning doesn’t bring us any closer.  The Church in North America offers segregated services. “If you don’t want to worship with those people, you don’t have to.  Hallelujah and Amen.”

Instead, I suggest that the Church in North America close its doors until Christian leaders work up the courage and the nerve to point persons to the narrow way, to preach the life of Christ that is a tight squeeze, that would not allow our racialized, hyper- politicized, capitalized prejudices in.  If not, it makes no difference as a generation has closed its ears to what the Church would have to say.  The Church isn’t getting any younger as the members are all turning gray.  They were turned off by pastors turned entrepreneurs and worship spaces that became little kingdoms unto themselves.  Or, they took note of the Church when it did not chime in or hold her hand when she told stories of sexual predation, harassment, abuse and rape.  Or, they circled their absence when the bodies of unarmed African American children, women and men were being outlined with chalk.  Despite testimonies and video surveillance, they managed to preach a manacled gospel that suggested God was with some of us.

Let’s hurry along now.  Get in the car and pray that no one is parked in your spot or sitting in your seat when you arrive at church.  Pray that the choir sings songs that you like and that the pastor’s sermon is one you like, that it is one that is sweet and polite, that she not say anything to upset you or cause you to sweat.  Pray that the service doesn’t go more than an hour because that would be ridiculous and you might have to change your plans.

It’s 11 a.m. and time for a nap, time to stretch out in our pew- cribs, time for songs that sing our soul’s passions to sleep, time for sermons that redirect our callings to the marketplace.  Don’t start any trouble.  Don’t say anything that might trouble our conscious or renew our conviction that we are sisters and brothers.  Just leave well enough alone as if this society has ever been well, like all of us have ever had enough.  Let’s just say our prayers but then sit on our hands and in effect hold back the answer to them.

It’s that time again, that special time when Christian believers go into our color- coded corners for worship and come out swinging.  We all have an understanding, a memorandum of understanding regarding race though most Christians don’t have an informed understanding of race.  Our meanings for the social construct vary and are more than a little shaky.

But, we don’t need to know what it means.  We know what it means for us.  We have experienced racism, prejudice and privilege.  No need to question the impetus behind the biased or preferential treatment as if our skin explains this treatment.

We do not challenge our belief in the differences associated with our skin’s pigmentation.  No, we will confess that God is the Creator of all, that Jesus is our kinsmen redeemer, that the Holy Spirit blows upon all flesh and then hate the person standing right next to us for no reason at all.  All buttoned up, clothes, lips and all, we think that we can worship God and hate our siblings.  But, this is not love at all (First John 4.20).  It’s a lie and all who would live it are liars.  It should be illegal, this Sunday morning segregation.

Questioning our multiple supremacies

Katharine Gerbner writes in Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World that before there was the ideology of white supremacy, there existed what she calls “Protestant Supremacy.”  Gerbner writes about Anglicanism in Barbados what was also true in America, “The Anglican Church in Barbados was exclusive, the domain of slave owners and government officials. … The planter elite believed that their status as Protestants was inseparable from their identity as free Englishmen.  Like their counterparts in England, they purchased pews, memorialized themselves within church walls, and used the church as a place for both punishment and politics. … Unlike the parish churches in England, however, the Anglican Church in Barbados was restricted.  It separated masters from their enslaved ‘heathen’ laborers and marked Anglo- Barbarians as both English and free.  The association between Protestantism and freedom was so strong that most slave owners came to dismiss the idea that their slaves were eligible for conversion.”

How this kind of Christian identity functions and furthers the social oppression and cultural dislocation of people around the world can be considered if you want.  It is not a choice that one simply comes to.  There are no formal directions; it is not something that one simply arrives at.  Instead, you either see it or you don’t.

It is a question for the conscious Christian, those who are aware of the ghastly and grim differences between the Jesus of the New Testament and the practice of Christianity in America in its racialized, hyper-politicized and militarized form.   It is the quest for the dissatisfied with what has been and those who are simply not interested in the cultural projections of what will be.  It’s not trendy or fashion- forward.  It won’t be captured in polls or represented by a politician.  Because it is other- worldly.

It is the work of those who are interested in a faith tested to ensure that it is not self- centered or self- serving.  Because Christianity does not really work for us but it works against us and our tendencies.  If it is easy and causes no complications, no consternation, produces no ramifications that go against social norms, if it does not make obvious the competitions of our flesh, then we are doing it wrong– or not at all.  Faith in Christ leads to crucifixion: “Take up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 16.24-26).

Clearly, I am having my doubts about the expressions of Christianity on Sunday mornings at 11 a.m. and those I view at their multi- sight locations at various times.  Because if Christianity is serving our purpose or that of society, if there is any word in front of it that aims to define it, describe it, validate it– as if Christ’s life, ministry, death and resurrection are insufficient– if Christ is primarily used to doing something for you other than the work of salvation, if there is a narrative that seeks to explain God’s plan for the world other than that of Christ, if is not the means and the end, then this is not faith in Christ.

Instead, we are merely Christianizing our belief system, divinizing our top of the pile, king and queen of the hill position in the world,  making pseudo- sovereign decisions about bodies temporary and created before and outside of any system.  This is not apart of one’s identity in Christ.  Instead, it is human, carnal and ungodly.  Because there is no supremacy but God’s in this world or any other– created or imagined.  And if there is some other, color- coded, black, white or otherwise, well then, I have questions.

Because there cannot exist multiple supremacies.

Books for lovers of community

“Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.”

| First Corinthians 10.24, ESV

Put down your phone and pick up a book. Yes, I am a purist who still believes in turning actual pages.  I’m showing my age in this digital world.

I know that they are bulky but evangelism, outreach, hospitality, neighboring (Yes, it’s word.), community- building is even heavier lifting. If we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, then we must, of course, begin with ourselves.  The journey of love starts with us.  If we are to reach out, we must first reach within ourselves.

I am on a mission to build beloved community, to cultivate and inspire those who want to build this kind of fellowship and practice this far- reaching faith.  Together, we seek to inspire those who don’t just want to have community days but live in beloved community all the days of their life.  But every change comes with not only a to- do list but a reading list.  Here are a few that should help us along the way.

Douglas Avilesbernal, Welcoming Community: Diversity That Works, (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2016).

Ruth Haley Barton, Life Together in Christ: Experiencing Transformation in Community, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014).

Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, Everyone Belongs to Christ: Discovering the Hidden Christ, (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2015).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, (New York, NY: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1954).

Henry G. Brinton, The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2012).

Jini Kilgore Cockroft, From Classism to Community: A Challenge for the Church, (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2016).

Marva J. Dawn, Truly the Community: Romans 12 and How to Be the Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992).

Curtis Paul DeYoung, Coming Together: The Bible’s Message in an Age of Diversity, (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1995).

Mike Graves, Table Talk: Rethinking Communion and Community, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017.

Wayne Gordon & John M. Perkins, Making Neighborhoods Whole: A Handbook for Christian Community Development, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013).

Craig C. Hill, Servant of All: Status, Ambition, and the Way of Jesus, (Grand Rapids, Mi: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016).

David Anderson Hooker, The Little Book of Transformative Community Conferencing, (New York, NY: Good Books, 2016).

David Janzen, The Intentional Christian Community Handbook: For Idealists, Hypocrites and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus, (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013).

Emmanuel Katongole & Chris Rice, Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008).

Grace Ji- Sun Kim & Jann Aldredge- Clanton, Editors, Intercultural Ministry: Hope for a Changing World, (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2017).

Martin Luther King, Jr., Where do we go from here? Chaos or Community, (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1968,1986).

Gary L. McIntosh & Alan McMahan, Being the Church in a Multi- Ethnic Community: why it matters and how it works, (Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2012).

Brenda Salter McNeil, A Credible Witness: Reflections on Power, Evangelism and Race, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2008).

Charles E. Moore, Editor, Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People, (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2016).

Toni Morrison, The Origin of Others, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).

Richard P. Olson, Side by Side: Being Christian in a Multifaith World, (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2018).

John Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2017).

Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999).

Christine D. Pohl, Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain us, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012).

Jay Pathak & Dave Runyon, The Art of Neighboring: Building Relationships Right Outside Your Door, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012).

Rick Rusaw & Brian Mavis, The Neighboring Church: getting better at what Jesus said matters most, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2016).

James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful Community: Following the Spirit, Extending Grace, Demonstrating Love, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010).

Kenneth L. Smith & Ira G. Zepp Jr., Search for the Beloved Community: The Thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr., (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1998

Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, (New York, NY: An Image Book, 1999).

Howard Zehr, The Little Book of Restorative Justice, (New York, NY: Good Books, 2015).

We can’t leave the ministry of reconciliation

reconciliation

It is so tempting to close ourselves off after deep wounding, after failed attempts to come together as people of faith.  We might ask ourselves, “Why isn’t this working out?”  Still, we must believe that God is at work, that while we want to throw our hands up in despair, God’s hands are still in.  All in.

God has not pulled away.  God still believes that we can be reconciled, that we can pull off this fellowship.  Two feet in.  When we walk by faith, we don’t take any steps back.

Because our faith is not in us but in Christ and his bloody hands are still extended.  We don’t have the option of withdrawing as his cross is an open invitation and an ongoing reception.  It’s not over until Jesus gets a hold of the one that left all ninety- nine of us (Matthew 18.12).  Jesus is the gate so we must remain open… like the Lord’s Table (John 10.7, 9).

This is why the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion is so important.  Every month or each week, we are called to come back to the table– but not back to the drawing board.  All is not lost.  Still, “It is written…”

No matter what the newspapers print and despite all of our reporting on separations, splits, divisions and disagreements, there is still a report from the Lord.  Lean forward and listen out for it.  It won’t get as much attention.  God’s voice is still and small.  Still, we are called to “be still and know that God is God” (Psalm 46.10).

So we must keep our ears open, our eyes open, our hands open, our hearts open and our mouths open.  We must be ready to give and receive the blessing of belonging, to be reminded that we belong to and with each other, that we were all made for each other.  In the end, it will all, we will all come together.   Being reconciled to God through Christ Jesus, we are right where we need to be (Second Corinthians 5.18).

God’s still pulling it all together, still pulling us all together one heart string at a time.  Give it time because it is all in God’s time anyway.  God’s will be done.  All called and hearing the same command to love and hope and trust, we can’t leave the ministry of reconciliation.