Today I begin with an observation from Dr. Willie James Jennings I found to be remarkably insightful. Jennings advises, “We should take plagiarism seriously, not first because it is theft, but because it is a painful absence of voice alongside other voices” (Jennings, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, 45–6). Jennings makes the case for the inherent tragedy of people whose voices have been silenced, censored, or repressed. He refers to individuals who have been invited to use words or behaviors that are forged, foreign, unfamiliar, or alien, to qualify for what is widely purported as normal. Within every culture, within every people group, within every congregation, there is an unspoken archetype governing the communal expectation for normality. Certain behavioral dispositions, cultural nuances, and idiomatic expressions become emblematic, universal representations of “the way we do things here”—a powerful anthem resonating within the hearts of traditionalists everywhere. Pointedly, Milfred Minatrea contends that the mission of God is “sacrificed at the altar of ‘the way we do things here’” (Minatrea, Shaped by God’s Heart, the Passion and Practices of Missional Churches, xviii).
Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, in Leadership on the Line, suggest that many of our values and attitudes come from people who have been instrumental in shaping our worldview. They say, “to abandon them means to be disloyal to their origins” (Heifetz and Linsky, Leadership on the Line, 28). People, then, generally hold on to their traditions as a way of holding on to the individuals who gave them the traditions. Thus, a sentimentality attached to many of our behaviours is a foundational component of how we view ourselves in the world. The unfortunate consequence of this axiomatic devotion to one’s cultural reality is the unrelenting pursuit of self-preservation. We deeply desire to preserve our way of being in the world. Some of this preservation, undoubtedly, stems from an intrinsic desire to express one’s loves, that “our way is good,” while others are motivated by a distorted claim towards superiority, that is, “our way is better.”
The lamentable ramifications of declared cultural superiority is our perfunctory proclivities towards forced assimilation. We become so fearful that expanding ourselves toward the other will result in self-extermination that we demand others to appear on our terms, even confirming our cultural biases.
Instead of cultivating spaces where people can truly be themselves and use their God given voice, we have created spaces that hold much veneration for homogeneity and see diversity as a threat to “the way we do things here.”
I’m not speaking facetiously;
I’m not being frolicsome or frivolous;
I am speaking from experience.
I, all too well, know the paralyzing pain of trying to be someone I am not. I am well acquainted with the agonizing grip of internalized oppression formed inwardly against the ubiquitous presentation of normality. Sue Pickering says it this way: “Beginning at infancy each of us, in response to our perceived threats to our well-being, develops a false-self, a set of protective behaviours driven at the root by a sense of need and lack” (Pickering, Spiritual Direction: A Practical Introduction, 114).
Our menial attempts at self-preservation have led to a soteriological and anthropological vision of inadequacy. Those who do not see themselves in the representation of normalcy often pursue centrality, acceptance and mutuality at the expense of their own voice. They plagiarize. Those who sit at the center of our societal norms have standardized our evaluative ecology. Those that do not meet these requirements often begin evaluating themselves from the standards of another. They, far too often, see their own cultural norms as inferior or subordinate or beyond the limits which define the range of typicality. Unfortunately, this happens most consistently, in my experience, within congregational ministry. Our places of worship are devastatingly plagued by uniformity. In fact, our uniformity subvert God’s vision of unity neglecting, as stated last week, the diversity of the Godhead and our invitation to enter a similar life that embraces those distinctions. We have lost the art of honouring the otherness of the other.
Assimilation, however, is not the problem. Assimilation, in many cases, is a respectable presentation of love. When I watch an enjoyable movie, I want my wife to experience it with me. When I eat a delicious treat, I invite my kids to experience it with me. When I am graced with a memory of the chills that rolled up my back while my grandmother earnestly prayed at the altar on Sunday morning, my initial longing is for my community to experience that with me. Assimilation, to some degree, is not the problem.
The problem is the lack of exchange in assimilation. We want to assimilate, to make others participate in our loves, but we ourselves are unwilling to be assimilated. I have witnessed no greater example of this one-sided assimilation (which leads to colonialism) then among a group of aboriginal grandmothers I once interviewed in Yellowknife. They wept as they recalled the terror given to them through residential schools. Beaten for speaking their native language, they were forced to assimilate to a culture about which they knew little; they were given, as mentioned, a soteriological vision of inadequacy. The only way for them to feel accepted was to learn to loath earnestly the heritage their ancestors had given them.
Dr. Jennings take on Acts 2, a passage that has captured my imagination. Jennings maintains, “The speaking of another’s language signifies a life lived in submersion and in submission to another’s cultural realities” (Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, 266). That’s the miracle of Pentecost, “life lived in submersion and in submission to another’s cultural realities.” This posture, this way of being, is desperately missing from our congregations.
I was enamored, recently, by the eschatological vision given to John in Revelation 7:9, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.” This is a picture of the end, the beauty that will ensue at the consummation of time. God doesn’t eradicate diversity. John saw, “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” We must fight for celebrated diversity. Incessantly, we must establish spaces where we insist upon individuals using their inside voice. Interminably, we must listen others into free speech, to use the words of Dr. Mark Love. We must recommit ourselves to the art of listening as our first priority. Why? We must do this for the church to become a foretaste of God’s plan for the world. God, as understood in Revelation 7, does not desire to abolish diversity, a segregationist modality we should never accept. It’s not who we are, and it’s not who we are becoming.
My prayer, for this generation, is that we would be able to live with deep appreciation for that which we don’t understand. My prayer, for congregations everywhere, is to be able to assess critically the inadequacy cultivated within our predilection towards a one-sided cultural assimilation. That we would stop superimposing our preferences on others. That we participate in the end by inviting others into shared habitation, not spaces controlled by cultural dominance and hierarchy, but spaces that honor the beauty of diversity. Such a vision is accompanied by a radical hospitality. For that to happen, we must viscously and lovingly expunge the altars of “the way we do things here.” That’s the subject I’ll tackle next, by God’s grace.