Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Ostrich Nation, Ostrich Church

Majorities have it easier.  We usually have access to the mechanisms and  the means to make things the way we think they should be.  Our fears and dislikes are the ones that determine the boundaries in our societies.  Our political and social and religious agendas are the status quo.

Most of us never come into meaningful contact with the minorities among us.  We relate to them – those Blacks, those Mexicans and Hispanics, those Asians – as if they were a caricature, a pastiche of the crude impressions we have accumulated willy-nilly through the numerous media we access.  But one thing is certain – they are not us, and thus can be safely pushed to the periphery.  Sometimes this is a literal pushing out of our affluent neighborhoods and into blighted city centers.  Sometimes this is an exclusion from circles of friends, memberships in clubs, admissions to schools, positions in companies.  Oh, I almost forgot, our enlightened society has laws against these sorts of discriminations.  But we too easily forget that these laws exist for a reason.

Most of us in the majority are far removed from the repeated spasms of documented police violence against minorities.  Most of us are far removed from the millions of law-breakers we now have incarcerated in our prison systems.  Most of us are far removed from the cycles of broken homes, substance abuse, unemployment, welfare subsistence, gang identification, turf warfare over control of drugs or other illicit means of generating riches.  Most of us are far removed from the sex-on-demand culture and the unsurprising result of the need for abortion-on-demand.  If one is the wrong color or the wrong income bracket, the so-called ‘American dream’ is a joke; instead, life is lived on the margins, where violence could intrude at any moment, where alcohol and drugs create zombies whose lives can find nothing better to live for than the next fix or the next drink.

The majority has its problems, to be sure.  But we have access to our Dr. Phils, to our self-help books, to our yoga classes.  We can go to the local mega church and hear an uplifting message about how God really does love ME and how God really does want to bless ME, and that this life is all about tapping into this wonderful source of blessing for ME.  Non-megachurches have their own issues.  They are usually controlled by people of the majority who have always been there and who have created a church in their own image.  Such places define ‘comfort zone’, except when petty civil war breaks out because someone else would rather be in control or when the status quo feels threatened.

Whether it’s the wider majority, or the Christian majorities, we have succeeded in creating a context in which we hear what we want to hear.  And we studiously ignore (if we can) or react against (if we’re pushed) what doesn’t fit our majority world, what we don’t want to hear.

This is the only way I can explain the racial issues of 2013-2015 America, the years I’ve found myself back in the USA.  There have been a horrific succession of events involving police and young black men, each one ending in the black man dead and the police either saying or wanting to say, ‘It was his fault, not mine.’   One time, ok maybe.  Twice, it gives one pause.  But repeatedly?  Something fundamentally wrong is going on.  Even so, though some social media denizens from the majority have registered their ‘outrage’ (whatever that has come to mean) on the appropriate app, everybody else carries on as if nothing untoward is going on.

That’s why the killing of nine Black Bible study attenders in Charleston by a young white supremacist who seems to have known exactly what he was doing and who actually sat in the meeting for an hour listening to the earnest discussion about the Scriptures and how to apply them to our lives before he stood up and one-by-one blew these men and women away – that’s why this massacre is so significant in my opinion.  We can’t dismiss those people as drug addicts, gang members, welfare siphons, or other miscreants who are somehow to blame for their misfortune and whom we can ignore as not meriting our concern.  These are men and women who were killed because they were not white, killed by a young man who is the creation of our majority culture, slaughtered by a guy whose family members are church-going Lutherans.  That in 2015 our country (of all the countries in the world) is still treating our minorities in this way beggars belief.

That being said, the disconnect may just be too great.  I am sitting in a Starbucks in northern Virginia.  The wealth and affluence that surrounds me seem normal (from the perspective of someone with a privileged background like me).  But nearby DC is a different universe.  And Baltimore is not far away.  And Philly, and Trenton, not to mention the wrong-side-of-the-tracks in my home state of SC which includes both Charleston where this past week’s massacre occurred and Lexington and the middle class white community where the racist murderer received his education in racism.  As long as I am content with the status quo, as long as my place at the trough is unthreatened, then the pressure to ignore the plight of my neighbor who has been segregated out of my life (by virtue of economics or opportunity or zip code of birth) will be too great to overcome.

Christianity taken straight will thrust us out of our comfort zone and straight into the lives and contexts of the other.  Christianity diluted will redirect our energies into our building programs, our petty theological disputes and our power politics.  That African American people are still suffering in our country suggest that its Christianity of the latter sort that inhabits all those thousands of church buildings scattered across our land.

I am on the verge of leaving this country again and returning to Kenya.  And the needs I am feel compelled to address so far away from here are not insignificant.  But I am very aware that I am leaving an American Christianity in crisis, and for a number of reasons.  But this one – how we deal with the minority - strikes at the core of our very existence as God’s people.   Because if we can’t get this love thing right, it doesn’t matter how right we are theologically, or how successful we are in terms of attendance.  If we don’t get this love thing right, we simply are no longer the Church.

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