Two books I've read this week have changed me, permanently. Emily Dickinson said of poetry,
"If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?"
Much the same can be said of theology. So imagine me with the top of my head off right now.
I've always known that are our denomination was too white, and too middle class. There's something about Christian faith in the United States that seems to reinforce race categories rather than reduce them. This is a tragedy of immense proportions precisely because central to the gospel is the reconciliation of races and ethnicities.
Sports, businesses, schools, you name it, all of them are more racially integrated than the churches, especially mainline Protestant churches, of which general class our denomination is a member.
So I read with fear and trembling James Cone's new book, The Cross the Lynching Tree. Really if you read only one piece of theologically informed non-fiction this year, make it this one. Among other things, Cone draws our attention to the fact that no one, not one single theologian of note in the last century, has ever drawn a sustained comparison between the innocent suffering of those lynched in the United States, and the cross/lynching of Jesus Christ.
Even at the height of the lynching era, when liberal Protestant theologians could have and should have made it at least one part of their theologies of the cross, they did not. It was and remains a glaring oversight, and example of how wide the racial divisions are and continue to be.
I do not intend to point any fingers here. I live in a predominately white and middle class neighborhood, have served churches that include the same constituency, and went to schools that were also predominately filled with this race and class. I have failed on so many levels, the best I can do is simply note this issue and pray that the Spirit will change me, and change us as a church.
As a church, we keep lamenting that we are a shrinking denomination, and we think this is because we've lost our identity and missional impulse. But what if in fact we are shrinking because we are in captivity to white middle-classness?
Stephanie Spellers, in a short essay in another new book recently out (The Hyphenateds: How Emerging Christianity Is Re-Traditioning Mainline Practices) asks the very hard question, "Is the emerging church movement a white church movement?" She herself leads an Angli-mergent community in Boston, and is a black woman priest.
Here's the paragraph that took the top of my head off:
"Looking back, mainline churches can boast a historic commitment to social justice, reconciliation, and even antiracism, at times standing in the vanguard of cultural and social change. Those days of leading change have passed, and now we are scrambling to catch up. The irony is that, as I have interviewed and consulted with church leaders about the systemic decline of the mainline churches, many say we are suffering because we forgot who we are, chasing trends and watering down our traditions so much that there was nothing left for anyone to believe in or connect with. Research shows we've shrunk because we make up a mostly white, upper-middle-class church [Episcopalian, but Lutherans are close to this, if a little more solidly middle class], and that particular slice of America stopped growing at the very same time that other racial and cultural groups blossomed. The problem isn't that we let go of our identity. It's that we clung to it too tightly. As our neighborhoods changed, and hybridity became the rule, we came to look like cultural dinosaurs; suspicious of change, judgmental of emerging cultures, and incapable of venturing out to build relationships in the transformed cultures around us" (13).
Read that again three times and memorize it. It's one of the truest things I've ever read about us as mainline Protestants.
And the only way to bust out of captivity is to break the chains that bind us and leave our prison cells. Which means openness to change, loving engagement with emerging cultures, and venturing out to build relationships with people of other ethnic, racial, economic, and religious status.
Where is the top of your head now?