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The Grace of Belonging

In this time of highly visible racial tension political leaders and media personalities have said noble and earnest things recently such as ‘we have to do better’. And our church denomination has posted a statement lamenting the deaths and calling for racial justice.  

Changes are necessary and urgent . We’ve said some earnest things last month, or maybe last year….. But what’s going to change?  I heard an African American colleague say the other day ‘here we go again.’  She doubts change and needs to see action.

Let’s be honest, the sin of racism runs deep. The former president of Calvin Seminary Neal Plantinga, says this of racism (and other corporate sins):

“We know that when we sin, we pollute, adulterate and destroy good things. We create matrices and atmospheres of moral evil and bequeath them to our descendants. By habitual practice we let loose a great rolling momentum of moral and spiritual evil across generations. By doing such things, we involve ourselves deeply in what theologians call corruption.” (Not the Way its Supposed to Be, p. 26)

Our hearts are corrupt, so it takes much more than our earnest regret to change.

Acts, which is considered the book about acting on the Great Commission, has a few stories about how belonging and racism were a challenge in the early church.  In Acts 6 we see Greek speaking widows neglected – and left on the outside, in Acts 10 we read of Peter being reluctant to go to the house of a Roman centurion – Cornelius, and in Acts 15 we read of Jewish Christians wanting to impose the Jewish custom of circumcision on the Christians in Antioch.

In these birth pangs of the church in Acts the Holy Spirit does the good news work of joining and belonging

In each of these cases in Acts there are new experiences of grace, fullness and good in the church when new voices are heard.  Steven, the deacon appointed to help address the grievances of Greek widows, became a great preacher.  Peter had to give up his ideas of cultural superiority about unclean Gentiles to go into Cornelius’ house and in this obedience, the Holy Spirit was released and ministered to Cornelius and his household, and to Peter and his Jewish companions.   And coming from that experience, Peter challenges the superiority assumptions of the Jewish Christians in the Jerusalem council.  In these birth pangs of the church in Acts the Holy Spirit does the good news work of joining and belonging by exploding ideas about the superiority of one person or race over another.    

Racism is built on conscious and subconscious beliefs in the superiority of one race over another.  This superiority idea justified slavery, made it okay for the government to remove Indigenous children from their homes to place them in residential schools – and today far too often means that the lives of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour are valued less than the lives of white people. And so the deaths of George Floyd and Chantal Moore are not anomalies, not surprises – they are precious lives lost in a long line of other precious lives with names like Michael Brown, Tina Fontaine or Colton Boushie.

I believe today, because I’ve met Christ in these friends who are precious children of God from Indigenous nations.

My African American colleague who said ‘here we go again’ is right to doubt our earnest statements and our commitments to change.  Could her just grievance be like the plea of the Greek widows in Acts 6?  I think it may be.  Holy Spirit break through to us – surprise us, disturb us, change us because we need each other.

In more than 18 years of doing justice work in the church I’ve seen some pretty dark and disturbing things that cause doubts about the church as a vessel of the good news.  But I’ve experienced the grace of relationships with Indigenous Christians – people who, by rights should be deeply cynical about a Christian religion that considered and considers them less than human.  These dear sisters and brothers have taught me so much more than a theology book or years of sermons - about what grace, justice and forgiveness are and who Jesus is.  I believe today, because I’ve met Christ in these friends who are precious children of God from Indigenous nations.  Indigenous friends are an answer to my prayer ‘I do believe, help my unbelief.’  Indigenous friends and mentors minister to me like Cornelius did to Peter in Acts 10.

Acts 6, 10 and 15 challenge our attitudes of superiority and demonstrate the gift of diversity and the wideness of God’s grace.  In these intense days, may we listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church to challenge our attitudes of superiority, may we hear the voices and know the names and stories of those who live with discrimination and injustice every day. As we listen and learn let us take up our responsibility to do justice and love kindness as we seek to walk humbly with our Creator.

Photo by kyler trautner on Unsplash


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