By Rev. Corey L. Brown
Where does the Christian G-d live? Although the faithful call the Creator omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, many believers are shortsighted enough to think that G-d only exists within their faith context. As a United States citizen, I have been witness to the Western Church staking claim to the LORD of lords, the King of kings, the Almighty as their own personal G-d. North American Christianity has perpetuated this false thinking from the first days of the colonization of this country. I believe the biggest challenge the North American Church faces today is understanding that in the post-colonial period, it is going to have to grapple with the issue of “otherness” and rapidly learn to embrace difference as a key part of the Christian faith.
Colonialism has long been coupled with the spread of religion, especially Christianity. Because of the mindset of world conquest operating together with Christian mission, many indigenous peoples rightfully have seen and continue to see Christianity as a faith of domination, sometimes violent domination. Christians take the charge from G-d to have dominion over the world literally. Western Christians are better at hosting than being a guest as it relates to others within the faith. The influx of Christians from outside the American context is disconcerting for many of the conservative followers. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks highlights much of this in his book, The Dignity of Difference, focusing on otherness. Becoming a guest in “your own house” is unthinkable for many in the Western Church. Not only is the world arriving in America already Christianized, but they bring many of their own ways of worship that look considerably different from what the “norm” in America is for Christian worship.
Just prior to today’s examination, Dr. Rob Nash talks about a recurring theme in American Christian churches. He spoke of having lunch with a pastor of an immigrant church using space in a white Christian Lutheran church, with a host congregation of only fifteen members. As the immigrant congregation has many more members and a one million dollar operating budget, the host congregation refuses to sell the church property, but will continue to allow them to rent and occupy the space. This is a prime example of the issue of not wanting to relinquish control, even though you are not capable of maintaining that control. This is only one of many examples of the changing face of North American Christianity and the resistance to that change. The post-colonial environment is one in which those who have held control are slowly losing that control and did not plan for being able to cope with the transition of going from host to guest. Another example of resistance to the resistance to the “other” is when Dr. Nash talks of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s (CBF) Mission arm’s resistance to assisting in the planting of an immigrant church. The CBF Mission department invests very heavily in mission work outside the United States, but fails to see the missional benefit in investing in the planting of immigrant churches. There is a sense of arrogance from the early founders of American Christian missions that white Christians are the most qualified, as it relates to being able to evangelize to the world.
Currently the implication is that the North American church must begin to do what has not been a part of its modus operandi, embracing difference. We need to understand that this is not purely an ecumenical issue but it becomes an interfaith issue. Frankly, we need to accept the that we are a member of a much larger religious order, the Abrahamic faiths, comprised of Jews and Muslims, as well as Christians. We are all deemed to be a part of the covenant of Abraham, the promise by G-d to make Abraham’s descendants great nations, nations to bless the world. I am also a firm believer that many of the other faiths, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Baha’i, Sikh, etc., contain critical components to our relationship with the Transcendent One. Traditional Christians even discount the mystical component of our own faith and what it may mean in our relationship with the inconceivable and unexplainable.
As mentioned earlier, there are many immigrants and refugees who have sought refuge in America and are more than willing to be participants in the spreading of the Gospel or the Good News. It is now possible for the Western Church to seize this opportunity to partner with Christians of other nationalities and ethnicities and work to enhance their ability to do mission work within their local communities and abroad. By doing this, we could start to focus our efforts on working to change what we are beginning to see as a faith wrought with failure due to resistance to change or difference. It would also serve us greatly to be able to determine how to not only share physical space but to truly share worship space. A church with multicultural leadership and congregation worshipping together could share such a rich experience every week. A church that looks like the diverse country we live in would probably be much more ready to cope with the changes in the world and be a much better moral compass for society. During Yeshua’s time here on earth, He did more than perform miracles but He showed us the true point of humanity. When challenged by the Pharisees, Yeshua told them that greatest commandments were to love the LORD G-d with all our heart, mind, and soul and to love our neighbors as ourselves. In my opinion, I believe we mistakenly see this as only two commandments, but if you look at the one about loving our neighbor, one key component is to love ourselves. We are to understand this as loving others as we love ourselves. If we do not see the humanity of others as equivalent to ourselves, we are not fulfilling the intent of the commandment. So, as I see it, Yeshua gave us three commandments. I also believe that the three commandments are inseparable. You dishonor one without dishonoring the other. Because I believe we are a part of G-d because we are a part of G-d’s creation, I believe strongly as it is written in the Bible that it is impossible to claim to love G-d whom we have never seen and continue to hate our brothers or sisters we see all the time. Once we move away from the assumption that unless someone “finds the LORD” in our church, in our country, then we will be able to have a richer relationship with each other and with G-d.
Yeshua’s actions towards non-Jews is the basis for the missional component of the faith. Yeshua first actions were to ask His disciples to follow Him, long before he asked them who they thought He was. In today’s Western Church, we have wrongfully reversed this process and ask people about their belief before we ask them to follow in true discipleship. It would greatly enhance the church experience, as it relates to embracing difference, if we learned how to walk in discipleship first before we blindly commit our lives to the Christian faith. Many immigrants are much better at this because they have left places in which religious persecution is real and life-threatening. As a guest in the faith, we could stand to learn a lot about walking in true discipleship if we are more open to the teachings of our immigrant or refugee brothers and sisters. Western Christianity has found great contentment and complacency in our service and our worship and have become resistant to seeing beyond or even challenge the teachings of the faith. A faith untested is not truly a faith at all; I believe it is nothing more than a cult following until challenged or tested. I believe the North American church would begin to see a revival, a transformation that surpass the preceding reformations of the faith. We can serve in local communities like Clarkston and begin to see what difference looks like, without even having to use our passport. Clarkston is a drastic representation, but as I observe in many communities throughout America, the face of Christianity is becoming much more brown. The influx and growth of Latin American Christian families is responsible for this change and is not going to slow down anytime soon. We have spent too much time with our heads buried in the sand and have only been concerned with the white/black conflict, while North American has seen a change no one would have predicted at the founding of this country or even as recent as the Civil Rights Era. I just recently read a book by Bishop John Shelby Spong, titled Why Christianity Much Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile, and I feel that the Bishop had many great points about the fate of Western Christianity if Christians failed to adapt to truly loving others, critical thought, and living in the faith over religious practices. The doors of many churches are closing based on their resistance to change or failing to accept their role as guests in Christianity. Although his title is more for controversy, I do not believe that Bishop Spong believes Western Christianity will die out, but Christianity as we currently know it is in jeopardy of forcing change upon us. Accepting and embracing others and their faith practices will do so much more to enhance our faith experience. We must trust that G-d’s messengers may not always look like we do and that does not cheapen or invalidate the message. We would live a much richer and fuller spiritual life, when we serve and worship alongside all of G-d’s children, even if we may not understand what they are saying all the time.
In closing, I leave you with a joke I once read in David Livermore’s book, Cultural Intelligence. “Question: what do you call a person that speaks more than one language? Answer: multilingual. Question: what do you call a person that speaks only one language? Answer: an American.”