So, in the last 48 hours, I’ve had remarkably encouraging and remarkably disappointing experiences.
First, I attended a challenging and brilliant lecture given by Kirsteen Kim of Leeds Trinity University. Some background regarding the challenge and brilliance of the lecture.
For those unfamiliar, a significant amount of my ministry with InterVarsity involved international student ministry at Fresno State and Rice University. Of the many facets in this cross-cultural ministry, one involved the training and mentoring of American Christians. Often, these devout followers of Jesus were completely unaware of how much of their theological commitments represented the American dream. Yet, one could hardly fault them for their readiness to host and welcome low-English speakers into their homes week after week, befriending I-students, and including them in their lives in ways that demonstrate a generosity and sincerity that cannot be explained as other than a genuine commitment to Jesus.
Kim recognized that often we in the West perceive hospitality as mission. How easy it is to welcome the stranger into our home for a meal and care for them: such behavior and attitudes represent a significant practice throughout the Christian tradition. We care for and seek the welfare, best interests, and offer our love to the guest.
Similarly, migration receives a strong perception as mission. As Jehu Hanciles asserts the consensus perspective, “Every migrant a potential missionary.” And, there is much to support this viewpoint. The sheer volume of migrants from the southern hemisphere who hold the Christian faith deserves better attention from the western church. Moreover, such followers of Jesus merely assume that the proclamation of one’s faith still has validity wherever they may find themselves in the world. Kim did a great job of explaining this phenomenon.
But, she took this a step further. The tricky part involves a pair of pairs that give evidence of cultural commitments that inadvertently displace the gospel. Take the last perspective: The prevailing assumption of myself and my colleagues involves that our students know their culture best. Kim confronts this: How can we demonstrate this? Only by asking questions? Not a bad start, but we cannot confirm that any migrant intends to reproduce or “bring with them” all of their culture with themselves to their new home and relationships. Some may have a variation in how and what they disclose of their faith commitment. My critical realist heart swooned.
But, she took all of this into another pair: Often we perceive hospitality as a binary: the host and the guest. As you might guess, Kim exposed how peoples from the west can preserve unequal power differentials. I observed this all the time in my interactions with Americans with the best of intentions. They deftly kept the I-students from making their own theological conclusions in reading the Bible, settling for “teaching the truth of the Bible.”
Kim proposed a different way of identifying ourselves: what if the Christian also perceived themselves, theologically, as a sojourner? One could look to Abraham, or the early life of Israel, and the early church found in Acts. This proposal for identity allows for a mutuality of learning and serving together, each person, instead of host and guest, contributing to the flourishing of the other and the created order. Furthermore, such a response to grace positions one toward the Holy Spirit in ways that allow for empowerment, healing, and local movements of mission that occur through life in proximity to one’s neighbor.
Suffice it to say, I was deeply moved by this robust description of Christian identity and mission. Kim’s presentation deserves publication, and I hope that happens soon. One of the adjacent ideas that sprouted during her presentation regarded the development of self-awareness of one’s powers. More often than not, most of my white friends have no clue as to their privilege. Merely telling them that they can enter a room, an office, a grocery store: and no one will question their location or their intent, simply bounces off of them. It’s not as though they’ve ever had to consider the question—literally— in their lives.
This matter of self-awareness of one’s powers really benefits from the long game, as it’s rarely the case that anyone can flip the switch and know how much power they possess as a function of their ethnic identity, especially if they are white. Put another way: one of my colleagues in smaller group settings of students will ask aloud, “What’s it like to be white?” Without fail—I’ve observed this several times—the white students will begin a nervous laugh, and then fall into embarrassment. Why? Often, as I later hear, such white students discover the answer to the question involves a scandalous reply: It’s normal. It’s the way it’s always been. It’s my way. They may not utter the answer right away, but they instantly realize the power and privilege that inhere their social location as a function of their dominant ethnicity. Remarkably, when the silence to my colleague’s question has lingered long enough to become awkward, he turns to a Black or Latin/x or Asian student, and asks if they can answer the question. Boom. They already know the answer, and articulate the sense of privilege that white students possess with easily accessible narratives that happened: even the same day, right before the event.
Friends: That just begins to account for ethnicity, this need to develop our self-awareness of power. I haven’t touched gender, or socio-economic status. Or even political identity, i.e., citizenship.
Returning to my historical observation above, through Bible reading and an explicit attentiveness to how one moves through the West as a function of gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic status, I began to imagine the Holy Spirit might generate painful but fruitful ways to prune back our western privilege from life as “hosts.” Such identities have a unique way of sustaining privilege, but a relocated identity in Christ as a sojourning follower of Jesus allows for one to receive the power from the Holy Spirit to set aside that culturally and socially conferred advantage. Again, Kim’s lecture was excellent, and if I catch that it gets published, I’ll link to here.
However, following the lecture, I learned of power employed to suppress and to threaten: all coming from, unfortunately, from Christians. Following the Kim lecture, I observed some paternalistic comments made about women in the academy that made me pause. The comments occurred in the flow of a public meeting, and I wondered, “How do people get away with these statements?” Then, I received an earful from some of my female colleagues who also heard the comments, and I realized that those comments landed with so much more offensive power than I had realized. I imagine I have an upcoming conversation with at least one of the offenders in the near future about such egregious statements; it won’t be easy (see preceding conversation about power differentials and “hosts”) but I’m sure it needs to happen: because too much of Christian leadership these days really relies upon social location instead of pneumatology.
Also, even within InterVarsity, I observed some remarkable uses of power in the last 48 hours that made me wonder about the ongoing decay of western evangelicalism. One colleague has received…how shall I say this?…ominous prospects of termination. Others find that the absence of many of our colleagues at our triennial national staff conference is, of course, due to their disagreement with either the new theological statement on human sexuality and the roll-out of the employment policy related to the statement: and we miss their presence and ministry.
Adjacent to the statement and the new policy stand Black colleagues and friends on InterVarsity staff, for whom the presence of Michelle Higgins and her dynamic message at Urbana signaled a new day for InterVarsity: and this remains an unfulfilled symbol for them and their students. The palpable sense of anger and disappointment emerges from a displacement of the movement of the Holy Spirit at Urbana to attend to the roll-out of the new policy. The levels of trust continue to lower, and morale proceeds to descend among staff of color who wonder if the movement to preach Christ crucified for our sins and to call for justice will ever received the same kind of energies and funding that the statement and the new policy received.
The serendipitous lecture of Kim still rings in my ears and in my heart: the sojourner as Christian identity, and for mission.
So, 2017 has started, and much of it is the same as 2016: epic, in its peculiar inattentiveness to personal power and privilege. But it is not normal.