This is a sermon that was preached at The Bridge Church on the 27th of October 2019 as the final message in our series on practical Christian ethics. It seemed timely to repost it here to remind us in this current political climate about what our role and responsibility is, and also as a primer for something I want to say in an upcoming message. Remember, this is a sermon written for an occasion different than a blog post. Some of the beats in the structure reflect that occasion. If it feels odd in that way, please consider the source.
How to be Christian… in the majority culture
Welcome to the pinnacle of discomfort in our series on Christian ethics this morning. In past weeks we’ve talked about who you are online, we’ve talked about how you steward your money, and last week we even talked about sexuality and purity culture. Each week testing your tolerance for taboo discussions and uncomfortable questions. Well this morning we are going nuclear and talking about something that might just cross the line for some of you—racism.
Now some of you might be wondering why this topic is even included in a series like this. We’re not racist. We’re Christians. And more than that we’re Canadian. Canadians aren’t racist (my sincere apologies to all the ethnic minorities out there who just got whiplash from extreme eye-rolling at that statement).
Those of us in the majority culture may have the luxury of thinking that way but millions and millions of others do not. For many people who identify as ethnic minorities in our society racism and Christianity go hand in hand. So how do we reconcile our self-perception and the perception that others have of us? How do we learn to see ourselves clearly, and in doing so accept responsibility for both our personal, and corporate sin in this area? How to we learn to better love God, and love our neighbours when we live in a position of often unquestioned power? That is what we are hoping to unpack today as we spend another week in the scriptures learning How to be Christian.
Now our text for today’s lesson comes out of the book of Revelation. It’s a book that tells us a little about how the return of Christ will happen (much less than a lot of people believe), but a lot about the way the world is supposed to function and how we are supposed to live in it. Specifically, we can say that it cats a vision in many of its scenes of reality working properly under the rule and reign of Christ. We get this back and forth in the book of Revelation between the reality on earth (which is usually bad) and the ultimate reality in heaven (which is always good). Today’s text comes from one of those heavenly episodes and it speaks directly to what human culture is moving toward under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
And I’ve selected this text for this message because often we get bogged down in the here and now and we fail to operate with a compelling vision for what the world could (and will) be one day, and as such we settle for a distorted ideal of reality rather than the ultimate vision of what we were made for, and the world we should be living for, and into today. Because at the root of what it means to be Christian, is to be a people who are living for tomorrow’s kingdom today. So, let’s unpack the scene as it relates to the question of how to be a Christian in the majority culture. And that task starts with acknowledging the makeup of the people in the scene.
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. (7:9)
1. The worship of heaven is multi-ethnic – there is no dominant or normative nationality, culture, language, or people-group.
The fact that Christianity for many has become synonymous with white, western European, North American culture is a travesty that says more about our lack of history and imagination than it says about the faith itself.
Christianity was started in the middle east by Jews, among an Arab populace, it took root in Africa first where it flourished and developed theologically long before Rome took it up as the state religion. It was the faith of the outcast, the disenfranchised, the excluded: Women and slaves made up a disproportionate number of early converts. It was doing just fine before the Romans appropriated it for themselves and spread it throughout the more northern parts of Europe.
Even today, as the church dwindles and loses influence in the developed western world, it is exploding in the global south. People with skin much darker than most of ours, people with worldviews much different than our western, capitalist, individualist worldviews have taken up the torch and are becoming the church for the emerging generations. There are more Christians in the world who don’t think like you or look like you than there are that do. The Church is diverse, and eclectic, and if you were to join a church community in one of these places you might feel really out of place and begin to wonder if you were even in the same religion.
Here’s a way to draw that out. Around your tables I want you to discuss the following question:
How did we get here as a country?
On Monday night we watched as Canadians elected a minority parliament. The party with the most seats did not get the most votes, no party received even 35% of the support of the electorate, and at the end of the night the electoral map revealed a nation more divided than ever. How did we get here?
Again, this is not a forum for airing partisan grievances, we are trying to do an objective exercise to understand the historical undercurrents that led us to this moment. Discuss.
Now I’m not really interested in the answers you gave as to why we are here, but what I’m interested in is how far back you went to describe the beginnings of this issue.
· How many of you reached back no farther than the 2015 election?
· How many of you looked back to the era of the Harper conservatives?
· How many of you went as far back as the policies of Pierre Trudeau in the 60s and 70s?
· How many of you went back to the FLQ crisis?
· Did anyone go back all the way to confederation to explain our current state of culture?
· What about colonization?
· Did anyone go back further than colonization?
And was anyone trying to be a smart alec and earn Sunday School brownie points by tracing this back to Genesis 3?
What this exercise should reveal is that our collective memories as white, settler culture, North Americans are relatively short. According to cultural anthropologist David Livermore, that is because our North American culture has an ahistorical bias, with a preference toward pragmatically solving issues rather than understanding them. We don’t generally care about what happened in the past as much as we care about fixing the problems of the present. We are oriented toward problem-solving rather than story-keeping. And so, we have a cultural bias against dealing issues rooted long ago in history. Many of us have thought (or even spoken) words like “Why should I be accountable for things done in my grandparents’ or great grandparents’ generation?” or “Can’t we just move past things and look toward the future together?” This sort of talk reveals what is a highly individualistic worldview and concept of how society works. We don’t see ourselves as linked to our histories, our ethnicities, or our legacies. And we have little concept of history as a result.
My wife likes to remind me from time to time when I get wrapped up in the problems of my country of origin that she attended a high school that is more than three times the age of my country, and that I perhaps need to get a little perspective. And she’s right (and I can say that because she’s not in the room right now to hear that admission). Her reminder forces me to remember that the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily think about things the way I do, or my culture does. And that thinking differently isn’t wrong.
The truth is that the vast majority of cultures in this world tend to NOT think like us, and the church is present and thriving in many (if not most) of them as well. So when someone else, tells me that I must think long and hard about racial reconciliation and treaty obligations, I need to be very careful not to assume that my position on the matter is the Christian position, or that God in any way stands with me in whatever I believe. Good people of faith hold to a range of viewpoints here and they should not be disqualified simply because they don’t think like me. My culture, and my way of thinking are not the dominant norm—and failure acknowledge that and assume otherwise is frankly racist. And we Christians, broadly speaking, have been really guilty of that.
So we learn first that there is no dominant culture or ethnicity that is better than any other to which other cultures must yield, but this short passage from Revelation reveals another fallacy that we like to run to when we are pushed out of the first one as well. The fallacy of faith without culture.
2. The worship of heaven is not a-cultural, or non-ethnic—as if such a thing can exist. It is deliberately and intentionally multi-faceted and polyphonic.
Non-ethnic, a-cultural religion is a fallacy. There is no such thing. And yet many Christians throughout the ages have believed that there is and have justified this claim through a misreading of Genesis 11, and its corollary text in Acts 2.
Quick excursus to Babel
The common white, western reading of Genesis 11 is that humankind had everything in common, common culture, common language, common values, but that they lacked righteousness and a sense of humility before the almighty. So, God frustrated their language and scattered the peoples of the earth. And then, thousands of years later at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came down and reversed the curse of Babel, creating a new pneumacentric ethnicity where the people could understand one another again and that from that miracle the nations of the world were to be evangelized and enfolded back into the master ethnos of the church.
There were initially some tensions between the Jews and everyone else, but by the Jerusalem council of Acts 15 we had mostly worked that stuff out and before long, the culture of Christendom was born which has dominated western thought and culture for over 1000 years.
The implication of this worldview is that we who self-identify as the church, see our expression of faith and culture as normative and the rule by which all other cultural expressions are measured. Sure—we are quick to embrace people of other cultures, of other expressions, or other Christian traditions, we like that they make us feel diverse, or that they bring exotic and novel ideas to the fore—but let’s not deceive ourselves—we expect them to eventually bring their diversity and their distinctiveness under the banner and rule of our cultural expression. We love the idea of a multi-ethnic faith, and a multi-cultural faith, but we begin to chafe when someone else’s understanding of Jesus and the church and the right way to be Christian starts to rub against our unquestioned (and unquestionable) fundamentals.
And yet when we look more closely at Babel and Pentecost, we see a different picture emerging from the text.
The problem of Babel was not monoculture, but wickedness with cooperation. In chapter 10 we read about the many nations that descended from Noah’s sons, diversification of the peoples of the world was well under-way before the ground was even broken on that famous tower. The challenge of the story was not a single culture or even a single language (although they did) but that they had leveraged those things toward wicked ends. Humanity was once again trying to be like God (which of course is a repeat of the tragic events of the garden of Eden) and God had to thus step-in and scatter them.
When we get to the day of Pentecost, the reversal is not a repeal of culture or even a flattening of language, but it was the granting of God’s Spirit to a people who could now coordinate and cooperate toward a different goal. The language miracle of Pentecost was not that everyone spoke in one language, but that everyone understood the languages of others. The miracle is that communication is possible—not by a flattening or removal of culture, but by an embrace of the other and an understanding that goes beyond words. You see languages are not one-for-one analogues of each other. This is why you sometimes find words or phrases in one language that are patently untranslatable into English (and vice-versa) because language and the way we see the world are inextricably linked. You’ve likely all heard the aphorism that the Inuit peoples have many words for snow. Why so many? Because their relationship to the land and the climate are different than ours, and as such they see and notice things—tiny differences—that we just don’t notice. This is a function of the communicative value of language and cultural knowledge that cannot be translated. But imagine what the world would be like if we could understand? That, as I read the scriptures, is the miracle of Pentecost!
This has huge implications, for example, in the way we approach scripture translation. The Southern Baptist Conference has mandated that cultural theory and intersectionality are useful tools in understanding scripture, and that they made a policy “That there should never be another translation committee without a Latino, an African American and a woman on it.” Which has unsurprisingly enraged some theological conservatives who maintain that translation is an acultural task, and that they have mastered the art of separating their understanding of scripture from the culture of which they are a part. The critics believe that they can (and do) exist without a cultural bias and can be the arbiters of an unfiltered translation of the Scriptures. That, my friends, is the height of hubris, and another foundational source of racism in the church. The notion that the English language is the zenith of communication, and the usage of the English language by a bunch of old white guys with similar educational backgrounds, similar theological hobby-horses and similar political perspectives, is the normative and unfiltered medium through which God’s word must be communicated is more than just short-sighted and wrong. I will call it evil. If you want to know the church becomes racist? Look no further than this sort of thinking. You have a culture, and it is deeply consequential for how you read scripture, how you perceive God, and how you understand Jesus. Have you ever noticed that Jesus as you understand him looks a lot like you, and nothing like the people you consider your political or philosophical opponents? Yeah, this is why.
So, we have to bust the myth of an acultural expression of the faith. Culture is beautiful, and we all have it. But we need to be aware of the power it has. Lastly, (at least for today) we need to also see that:
3. The worship of heaven is comprised of those who give up their status and privilege for God and others; who have come out of the ordeal and washed their robes white in the blood of the lamb.
There is no room in the heavenly chorus for those who think themselves superior to others; who intrinsically or extrinsically see those who are different as less-than by comparison to those like themselves. But when we set ourselves over and against those who see the world differently because they do not conform to our narrow (and limited) expectations we are doing just that.
With all due respect to the small number of you who come from ethnic or cultural minorities and call this church home—it has to be acknowledged that we are overwhelmingly monocultural—overwhelmingly white, middle class, and evangelical. And as such, our culture is one that is correspondingly overwhelmingly (and often uncritically) white, middle class, and evangelical. Now there is nothing inherently wrong with being any of those things. I am all of those things and I don’t feel any shame from being what I am. But when I wear my ethnic and cultural identity blindly, as though it doesn’t affect me or those I relate to—when I am uncritical of what my culture does and has done, and when I refuse to acknowledge the privilege that I have enjoyed as a result of who I was born as I run the real risk of turning that identity into a weapon that I use against others for selfish purposes.
By contrast, the model of How to Be Christian that we get in the Scriptures is dynamically different. It is humble, it is open-minded, it is other-centric. When Paul talks about Christ leaving behind his privilege and authority in Philippians 2, it’s not just a nice picture of Jesus, it’s prefaced with the command that we are supposed to be like him!
“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2:1-5)
This goes well beyond helping people who are like you, and thus easy to understand, easy to sympathize with, easy to identify with—it goes to the heart of seeing Christ in the other; the person that you do not have much in common with, the person who you do not share a common worldview and are united by nothing other than Jesus Christ through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. To be Christian in the majority culture—to be a Christian with cultural power is to actively seek ways to give that power away to others who do not have it.
This is called checking your privilege and knowing how it affects the way you see the world. And checking your privilege is costly. Power is, contrary to utopian idealism, a zero-sum game. You cannot lift up a person who has been disempowered without it costing you or someone else some of the power you hold. And that’s where a lot of our resistance comes in. That’s where a lot of our anger comes, and where our suspicion is rooted. It has been famously said that to someone with privilege, equality often feels like oppression – and it’s true. Because equality means that those with more sacrifice so that those with less can have the same.
Have you ever felt threatened by a push for equality? I get the fear. I have zero personally to gain from any push toward equalization. I may not be a member of the global elite, but I realize how much privilege has shaped my life.
I grew up in a middle-class family in a safe, white suburban suburb (the city I grew up in is no longer safe or white, but that’s not the point). My family may have been middle class, but my extended family was decidedly upper-class (at least economically). I never really wanted for anything and so I had the chance to go to the best schools and get into the best programs. I got singled out for attention from teachers and youth leaders early and was invested in by them in ways that I know many of my peers were not. I had the opportunity to go to school and have my education largely paid for. I graduated with no student debt and got to start out my adult life on sure footing that many others did not. I checked all the boxes of the prototypical young pastor and so I had no trouble finding work after graduation. In fact, I’ve never had trouble finding work.
In my entire life I’ve never applied for a specific job that I haven’t gotten.
Even my career trajectory has been heavily shaped by my privilege—I got to know the right people, travel in the right circles, and many of those people in my circles rose to power themselves and I have been swept into positions of authority and notoriety in our denomination at least in part because of who I know. I’m not ignorant of this. I know that if any of these factors were different that I might not be where I am today.
So, equality has nothing to offer me. And yet, the call of Jesus persists. You see if I am serious about learning How to be Christian as a member of the majority culture—with all its benefits—then I need to be willing to give up some of that power. It’s not about my rights. It’s about the opportunities I’ve been given to lift up others.
Because as soon as you start talking about rights you’ve already lost the plot. Go back to Philippians 2. We are called to be the ones who give up our privilege. And frankly, an attitude of defensiveness doesn’t demonstrate a tremendous pride in our culture, or a celebration of our heritage, it shows instead tremendous insecurity about who we are and what we believe.
So, what can we do?
Well one way the world has sought to address these problems is through the modern practice of virtue signalling. Virtue signalling—for those of you who may be unfamiliar with the term—is saying the right, “woke,” and politically correct things without critically evaluating whether they are right or helpful, or integrating their applications into my own actions. Virtue signalling is popular with politicians, celebrities, and people who live their lives on social media for the world to see. It is a performative art meant to make people feel less guilty about their lack of real action.
But here is the problem with virtue signalling, it’s vacuous. It’s paying lip-service to all the right things, but not actually doing anything about it to change. It’s being woke, sending thoughts and prayers, identifying as an ally, and yet leaving the march, the protest, the boycott, the campaign, or the work of reconciliation when it gets too difficult, too uncomfortable, too costly, or is no longer cool.
Virtue signalling is sending “thoughts and prayers,” without “commitments and action.” Virtue signalling is the cultural currency of the newly woke generation, but virtue signalling is not the same as actually demonstrating virtue. And if we’ve learned nothing else about how to be Christian in our series so far, it’s that everything comes down to virtue.
Virtue is working for reconciliation when no one is watching, not because it elevates your status, but because Jesus has called us to be agents of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18).
Virtue is working through the question of what MY privilege is, and how it blinds me to the plight of others who don’t share in it.
Virtue is deciding lay aside my right to be offended because I am implicated in something that I have never thought about.
Virtue is realizing that the fact that I can honestly say that I’ve never thought about it is a sign of privilege in itself.
And this whole sermon, and our whole discussion this morning will be nothing more than another session of collective virtue signalling if it doesn’t translate into real action. If it never goes beyond saying the right things to actually doing the right things. So, here is the problem: When we talk about these issues, and we do not change, we are doubly condemned.
We are condemned by our arrogant ignorance first – that we would have the audacity to hide behind our wealth, our social status, our cultural power, and our majority influence—even if, especially if—we have the benefit of never having to notice that we’re doing it. Ignorance of the moral thing is never an excuse for sin. (Romans 1)
But we are now doubly condemned because we ought to know better. People have been crying out and sounding the alarm for generations. Our actions may not have the power to change a culture, but they can change us. And if we allow ourselves to be changed by our newfound self-awareness, then we might be able to change the circumstances of others. None of us here have the power (as privileged as we are) to reshape society on our own, but we can reshape our relationships, one person at a time. We can speak out against racism in all its forms and denounce the attitudes of uncritical cultural superiority that so many of us operate from at an unconscious level. We can learn to act more like Jesus, to give up our power and privilege so that others can share in it. We can capture a more inspiring vision of what the world could be, of what our church could be, and of what we could be. All it will take is for us to allow Jesus to open our eyes and work on our hard hearts. All it will take is a return to virtue. All it will take is for people like us, living as members of the majority culture, to learn how to be Christian.