Committed to Decolonizing my Preaching

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“Biblical scholar and theologian Kwok Pui-Lan defined “postcolonial imagination” as “a desire, a determination, and a process of disengagement with the whole colonial syndrome which takes many forms and guises.”  Preachers, listeners, sermons, the homiletic academy – all are vulnerable to both the lure of empire and colonizing discourse.  Preaching postcolonial imagination involves a desire to disengage from empire, to disrupt and reorient colonizing discourse toward a more life-giving discourse.  It recognizes that the world is not as it should be, and begins to construct a new way of interpreting both the past and present.  To decolonize preaching is to imagine a human community shaped by discourses of love and freedom, rather than dominance and captivity.  Such preaching aims at the transformation of an unjust and oppressive world.  In the words of homiletician Christine Smith, preaching is “nothing less than the bold, fearful, interpretation of our present world, and an eschatological invitation to a profoundly different, new world.”

Sarah Travis, “Decolonizing Preaching: The Pulpit as Postcolonial Space.”  89,90.

The reality for a pastor who preaches regularly in a church, the words and phrases that she/he speaks become formative language for the church, and the implications are far reaching and subtle.

My youth group took a trip to the Mennonite World Conference in Harrisburg Pennsylvania this past summer.  One of the highlights for me was the opportunity to sit with my friends Jon, Reg and Darnell over supper one evening.  Jon and Reg, both from the Philippines, and Darnell a peacebuilding missionary sent by our conference to the Philippines with his family.  They are part of the PeaceChurch Philippines movement.

We talked about many things.  Life in the Philippines, peacemaking, poverty and human rights all of which my youth and I were completely engrossed.  Part of our conversation took us to their experience in connecting with the small, rural villages stricken by poverty and oppression.

There is a group who work with people in poverty stricken areas of the Philippines to communicate what basic human rights are.

I was struck.  Overjoyed that this kind of work would take place.  I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was along the lines of asking what it was like “empowering people.”

Jon offered a way to change my phrasing that had some significant implications.  The empowerment doesn’t come from the people sharing what human rights are.  Very simply, people in a position of a perceived power (i.e. education, socioeconomic backgrounds etc…) do not hold the keys to saying who is or isn’t human.

This is important because my youth group was sitting with me and participating in this conversation.  What I say, and how I say it is formative to this young group of people.

While I take steps to decolonizing my rhetoric, preaching, public speaking and ultimately my theology I have come to realize that I need to be ok with critique, correction fully understanding that I don’t completely “get it.”  Secondly, I can’t simply trust my instincts, for those very instincts have been shaped and formed by colonial principles and ideals.  For my idea of empowerment during the time of this conversation came from a position of privilege.  Recognizing people as human is one thing, but thinking people from a perceived position of power can “empower humanity” could be giving and dictating an agenda.  It takes time and work to understand how to use language and how it is formative.  All the more reason to continuously work at this.  Thus, my commitment continues.

 

Interview with Dr Katelin Hansen: MennoNerds on #BlackLivesMatter

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Dr. Katelin Hansen is someone I deeply respect.  Her work with the racial realities in the United States on her blog bytheirstrangefruit is a go to resource for me, even being from Canada.  It is of particular interest to me as she is white, like me, and is very well grounded in what it means to be an advocate as a white person.  It is complex,  as she said in our preamble before the questions started flying “colonialism/racism was created by white people.”  As I try to understand the #blacklivesmatter movement more in depth, and consequentially learn about racial realities in my country to have this conversation with someone as grounded and grassroots as Katelin is a complete pleasure. Her answers to my wonderings are gentle, challenging and inspiring.  Please read, learn and act.

Chris: Thanks Katelin for your willingness to dialogue about the Black Lives Matter movement.  It is deeply appreciated.  For some of us Canadians, we don’t have a deep sense about what the Black Lives Matter movement is.  We hear the occasional news story from “Big” media and some of us know the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, but that is often the limit of our engagement. Being from a different country with different racial realities might be contributing to that I think.  Can you share a little bit about the emergence of the movement and how it has impacted current social realities?

Katelin: I suspect a lot of people in the USA (especially white people here) also don’t have a great understanding of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which often leads to undue suspicion, fear, or anger. There is indeed a reticence to immerse ourselves in full engagement with what it being said, so much of the message is misunderstood, or missed entirely.

The phrase itself was coined in 2013 by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, who after Trayvon Martin was killed, used it to respond to the anti-Black racism that was being made so apparent. The phrase began to pick up momentum even more after Michael Brown was killed, because as he lay in the street for over four hours, it demonstrated again that some lives simply mattered less than others in our society. As the month unfolded, it felt like we were hit with more and more evidence, often videoed live in the act, that Black lives don’t matter.

So ‘Black Lives Matter’ is powerful for the very reason that such a statement is needed at all. Because so often Black lives are treated as though the don’t matter, we are compelled to reaffirm that yes, yes, they do!! It does not mean “Black Lives Matter instead” or Black Live Matter only” but it is an affirmation that gives special cover to those who have not felt that truth from the society around them.

And what an indictment on the Church! This, the very institution charged with conveying and acting on the message that our lives matter to God, especially those treated as ‘the least of these.’ (The white church being by far the most culpable).

Thus, Black Lives Matter is a statement of commitment that we will work to ensure that our Black sisters and brothers are protected, respected, and empowered in our society, in a way that has never been the case to this point in USA history. I am not immersed in Canadian culture myself, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were similar issues of injustice there as well, While I know the USA has a very particular and sordid history with race, power combined with prejudice is a mighty force that knows no borders.

Chris:  Canada most certainly has a sordid history with race, power and prejudice.  The Canadian history, and currently realities with Indigenous people is, well, terrible.  I think this is why it is important for us to talk, because of the different contexts, yet similar racial realities.  In common we both live in countries that are saturated with white privilege, and power.  

For some of us in Canada, we have been embarking on a process which is called the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”  The purpose is to reconcile Canadians with the injustice that occurred to Indigenous people through the Residential schools, which were more or less intended to assimilate Indigenous people into white, colonial, European culture which was masked and informed by a particular, power hungry Christianity.  It was a process where survivors of Residential Schools would share their experience and add it to official record.  It was a multiple city commission.  I attended one session in Vancouver and was drastically changed.  One thing I notice about the rhetoric here is that it is about truth telling, listening and reconciliation while moving toward a hopeful future.  It is often framed int he context of a journey.  This is certainly more complicated, but I am wondering how the engagement between the white people and power structures and BLM is being framed.  What does it look like to move forward together?  

Katelin: Canada does seem to be better engaged with the injustices surrounding its indigenous peoples than does the USA. One of the consequences of the USA’s particularly shameful history with its Black residents is that the injustices against other communities of color often go overlooked and underaddressed. A similar effect happens in other countries, with other populations. Even as Canada begins to address its sins against indigenous peoples, it often parallels the USA with regard to other racial groups as well. The focus is often on indigenous peoples (and much focus is needed!), but as this Rabble article notes, “collapsing Black struggles in the U.S. into Indigenous struggles in Canada actively erases Black/Afrikan struggles in Canada. It would be more appropriate to suggest that the Canadian corollary to Black struggles in the U.S. are specific Black-led struggles in our own country.”

As you mention, much listening is needed. Unfortunately, oppressed groups have been speaking up for years without much response from those in power. It seems it is only when things get rough that the media turns its attention–so what lesson does that teach? After centuries of being unheard, it reinforces the message that no one cares.

Chris: What does a hopeful future look like as the church engages BlackLivesMatter? Can you give an example or two of predominately white congregations working in a hopeful way?  What advice would you give us as individuals who are look to support and work toward justice and hope in the midst of diversity?

Katelin: The acts of struggle and protest are themselves deep acts of faith and hope. If we did not have hope in a better future there would be no reason to press on and to continue engaging these issues. Because ours is a religion grounded in hope, being in the midst of these ast of hope is exactly where the church should be. Of all people, Christians believe that it will all turn out alright in the end and that God chooses to do the work of hope on the earth through the Church. As Dr. Christena Cleveland points out, hopelessness is a state of privilege. Too often, those in the dominant culture throw up their hands at a situation that the oppressed have been dealing with courageously for generations. Let us act on hope by engaging, by showing up, and by offering our support.

I confess it is difficult to point with confidence to predominantly white churches doing the work well. Not to say they don’t exist. There are certainly examples of churches opening their doors to marginalized communities and of pastors leading predominantly white churches that are leaning into the issues. But more often than not, once a white church fumbles through the early stages, and begins pushing down this path in earnest, they often find that they cannot truly do it well without fundamentally changing their composition (indeed I suspect this reality is what scares off so many churches from truly engaging!). A predominantly white church committed to the work or racial justice will soon find that the work can’t really be done if it is done in isolation from communities of color or without submitting to the leadership of those most affected. And then shortly thereafter it will find that it is no longer predominantly white. It’s better for their spiritual and institutional health that way anyway.

For those looking to support and engage in the work, I would suggest looking around and plugging into the work already happening in their area, particularly the work led by the marginalized and oppressed communities in question. It’s there, I promise. It’s just a matter of showing up, asking how you can be of service, and listening well to the answer. And educating oneself. It’s not the job of people of color to get earnest white people caught up on centuries of sociological thought and experience.

Chris:  What is the consequence of churches being silent on matters of racism?

Katelin:  I suspect you mean the white church’s silence (churches of color are rarely silent on racism, although perhaps underheard)? The consequences a dire and cut to very root of the Church’s existence on this earth. If we fail to speak up, we fail on so many axises: as a societal moral compass, as the hands and feet of Christ, as witnesses to God’s character, as spreaders of Good News. Both physical and spiritual lives are at stake. We destroy our witness and fail in our charge to love God’s people. As Spencer Perkins notes “white Christians’ decisions to choose comfort of their own race over the Christian ideals of brotherhood and oneness that our gospel so boldly preaches have undoubtedly weakened their witness to the African-American community.” James Cone concurs: “What is at stake is the credibility and promise of the Christian gospel.” He observes that ” “like most blacks of her time [Ida B.] Wells dismissed white Christianity as hypocrisy.” In her view, “our American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hellfire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians.” This effect continues today.When the white church is silent it is not only passively complicit in the deaths of millions, but actively contributes to the growing death toll going forward. In short, when the church is silent we fail to be the Church at all. We become known by the ‘strange fruit’ we bear.

Chris:  Thanks so much Katelin.  Please check out her blog: By Their 2014-08-03 15.56.14Strange Fruit

What are your questions about the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States? What do you find yourself thinking about after reading this interview?  

Guest Post: Jeremiah for the Western Church

It is good to be firing up the ol’ blog again.  This is a guest post from someone who wishes to remain anonymous.  I enjoy these artistic, prophetic ventures into the depth of scripture.  It paves the way for us as community to journey into the places wherein scripture can speak to us today.  This is particularly an intriguing engagement given the current, I would say violent, division that seems to be digging it’s heels within the Anabaptist community in North America.  Take this as an opportunity for deeper thought and biblical interpretation.  It could be a valuable discussion piece for small groups.



One Sunday morning, in the last couple of years of Barack Obama’s term as president of the United States, a strange man entered into the town.  He was dressed just as any other man but his clothes were dusty and dirty from long travel.  His shoes were old and worn, the victims of many lonely miles on the road.

He entered the center of town where two churches faced each other across the road. Two more different churches could not be found.  One was conservative in theology and practice, one progressed forward in thinking and outlook.  But what was disturbing was the people entering.  As they entered their own edifice, the looks they cast at the church across the street belied the animosity, distrust, and sense of superiority the one group felt towards the other.  It was like daggers flying back and forth.

Into the middle of this, the grungy, grim figure stepped.  He placed himself in the middle of the road, directly between the two churches, right in the line of sight of the vitriolic gazes.  He looked towards one and then towards the other.  The parishioners slowed down and some of them stopped to look at this man out of place.  As they observed, they noticed the glittering tracks on his cheeks of the tracks of tears winding their way through the grime.  

Glancing at the ground briefly, the man took a deep, shuddering breath, raised his head and spoke in a loud, firm, and commanding voice.

“Hear the word of the Christ, the Son of the Living God, the very source from which you sprang. ‘You expect the voice of the prophet to aim outward, to speak against the evils of the world and pronounce judgment against the world.  You include your own sisters and brothers, however, into this expectation.  Those who should be your compatriots, your partners, you helpers in overcoming the challenges of the world and fulfilling my mission, you instead pray and hope that they will be shown to be wrong and you will be vindicated.

“‘You are like turtles. You retreat into your armored shell, building up your defenses of arguments, Scripture texts, biting commentary, and stunning logic preparing for just the right moment.  When it comes, you snap out, biting into those who come close.  You are like fortified hills, waging a war of ideas against your fellow citizens. You toss out volleys of rhetoric and condemnation, lobbing damaging artillery of words onto your neighboring hillside, destroying hearts and minds.  And the shrapnel of your combat falls into the lands around you, bringing ruin and destruction wherever it lands.  You are comfortable.  You say to yourselves and to your opponents, “We are right. We know we are right. And we will do everything and anything to prove you wrong.”‘”

The man took another shuddering breath as the tears ran freely and fresh down his face. He turned to one of the two churches and says, “‘You come here and you talk about justice and love for others, and yet you hate your own brethren. You teach about how we are to love the stranger, the person who is different, the person who is ‘outside’, and yet you show no justice towards your own siblings of the faith, the ones that I called, the ones I revealed myself to.  You demand they follow your way. You berate and belittle them when they don’t measure up to the standard you have set.  The very ones who are supposed to be easy to love, the ones who love me, you silence with words of force and scorn.'”

He turned to the other church and spoke. “‘You come here and talk about morality and being pure in God’s righteousness as you point hypocritical fingers at the others. You claim to be moral, at following the code, at living the best of lives free of reproach and yet, every day you forget the very example I gave you of how to treat with each other. Your clothing righteousness and morality are rags soiled by contempt, pride, and a legalism that dehumanizes and cuts to the quick. Just like your siblings across the way, you have no concept of what it means to love. If they were your enemies, if they were not my children, it may be understandable to show such contempt. But I have called them mine and you shut them out and push them away.”

The man turned back to the center and, inclining his head to the sky, raised his arms in two fists and cried out, “‘I don’t want to hear your worship songs any more.  I don’t want your fancy sermons.  I don’t want to see that offering plate passed any more.  I want you to turn back to me,’ says The Christ, ‘and I will accept you back.  But this will not happen.  You are too committed to your ‘holy war’, to forging your weapons of ideas against each other. You are blind to the death of the soul that you bring. Your minds and your hearts are calloused by the many, many scars of long and brutal battles of wit and will. And so your churches will die from the inside out.  Remember the majesty of the the ancient churches of Europe, where your very ideas had their start? Look at them now: crumbling buildings, many of them empty, many of them reclaimed by the world for purposes not my own. This is what happened to them. Do you think you are safe from this fate? What happened there, will happen to you. And the world will see your empty buildings and will say, “See?  We were right.  They were nothing special.  It’s better that they have died and faded away.”‘”

The man’s voice changed now.  Instead of grief and sadness, a ringing hope filled his voice. He shouted, “‘But I will raise up for me a better church, one built in adversity, one that needed to depend upon each other, not upon doctrinal rightness.  It will be a people who know what it means to be starving but have a brother or sister give you feed.  It will be a people who will accept each other no matter the disagreements and truly show the world what love is.  Because, that people will have faced death. They will know that having the right theology, the right positions, the right hermeneutics, the right systems of belief mean nothing when faced with the gun and the machete. Because they have felt the bite of the blade and the sting of the bullet.  They have seen their churches burn.  They have seen all their theological treatises go up in smoke and they will not grieve. They know on what their faith is built, on a solid rock, with a firm foundation of love, grace, mercy and forgiveness. And they will know, when the jack-boots thunder in the streets and in the halls of their homes, the only way to face death is knowing your brethren are facing it with you. And this is the true comfort.'”

“‘This will be the church of Paraguay, Namibia, India, Indonesia, Afghanistan, and Iran.  It will be people from all walks, all colors, all classes.  It will not care about being right because they know that the only source of Truth, of Righteousness, of Pure Doctrine is found in me.  And they know that the only way to find it in their own lives is to follow me into the darkness, into the pits of the world, to do my work to bring hope, peace, love, and joy to the world.  They know that I go with them, that they will meet me in the dark places where theology seems so far away.  They know that my Truth is the only light they need and they only find it by walking in the dust of my footsteps. This new church, these new people, will be following me, following my commandments of Love your Lord and Love Each other.  This is my true church.'”

‘”Heed these words.  It is not too late yet. There is still time to repent, to change, to remember what it means to love with no conditions.  There is time to regain the vision of the oneness, of the prayer I offered up when I asked my Father in Heaven to make you One as he and I are One.  But the time is short. The empty winds are beginning to blow and you can hear the echoes of desolation in your sanctuaries and fellowship halls. Again, remember the edifices of Europe and what happened there. Do not think you will be spared if you fail to repent.  The time is short.  Decide now what you will do.'”

With that, before the angry mobs could organize to seize him and toss him out of town, the man, the Prophet in the Middle, turned on his heels and walked wearily, but firmly out of town, aiming across the hills and fields for the next town to repeat the words again, hoping, perhaps, that some remnant remains.  But so far, he is alone… How long, oh Lord?

14 Therefore, what I did to Shiloh I will now do to the house that bears my Name, the temple you trust in, the place I gave to you and your ancestors. 15 I will thrust you from my presence, just as I did all your fellow Israelites, the people of Ephraim.’ – Jeremiah 7:14-15 NIV

Up-down theologies of domination have not served the world well.  Even the more liberal and entirely post-modern theologies of “stewardship” are still stuck in that up-down schema that inordinately privileges the human being in an anthropocentric hierarchy.  All this points to the need for a serious rethinking of the one, cosmic, male creator god who rules all things.  Talk of creation and the single creator it implies is not possible for those of us who take seriously the collateral-egalitarian balance and community-ist living.

Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry” Tink Tinker, 178,179.