Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church - Outreach - Blogs - TEEZing Out The Roots
Last week I had the joy of being in Blantyre, Malawi, alongside of my brother Josh, some sisters from other misters (Mandy, Andrea, and Deb), and some brothers from other mothers (Wanangwa, John, and Bob)—all from Indiana. Wanangwa Kamwendo arranged for his home church of Second Presbyterian Indianapolis to meet his other home church of Michiru CCAP Blantyre. I took a week to join this beautiful delegation, see the mountains of Malawi, do a tiny bit of manual labor, practice some Chichewa, and spend time with some of the people I love most in this world.
You can check out their blog here: https://bridgestomalawi.wordpress.com/
The Brothers Orem + Chikonde after hiking to a waterfall on Mt. Mulanje
One of the nights we were there the Michiru CCAP youth and young adults graced us with a welcoming ceremony which included some challenging back and forth about church and society in our various contexts as well as musical and dramatic performances. There was a skit that specifically stands out in my mind. It was written, directed, and even performed in by the one and only Foster Bulla, a member of the youth. Let me detail my experience of this skit and why it was so profoundly moving.
Bear in mind that this was the evening before Eid al-Fitr, the breaking of the fast of Ramadan.
As the skit began, actors portraying two Christian evangelists from Nigeria were walking around Blantyre, exhausted from journeying for a long time without food. We could also see an actor portraying a Muslim man praying at a mosque off to one side. (At this point I was already groaning in anticipation and anguish that this would be a skit about converting Muslims during this high holiday season). As the evangelists approached the mosque they were strategizing on how to get food from the place. One suggested that they change their names and started listing some names common to Islam. (Again, I groaned). The other evangelist, however, disagreed. When they came to the mosque they were greeted by an imam who asked their names. The former said something along the lines of Ishmael Muhammed. The latter said his real name, something like John Moses. The imam proceeded to invite John in for a feast. To “Ishmael,” though, he said, “Ah, my brother, this is still the month of Ramadan. We will be breaking our fast when the sun goes down.” The evangelist was horrified and began protesting, finally revealing that he was a Christian. The imam then rebuked the evangelist, telling him that if he is a Christian then he should stand firmly and boldly in his Christian identity, just as he himself would stand firmly and boldly in his Muslim identity.
I was stunned. Here I was expecting the worst in terms of Christians doing a skit that involved Muslims on the evening before Eid al-Fitr. Instead, I witnessed the best portrayal of authentic interreligious dialogue and life I had ever seen. The religious “other” was shown offering great hospitality even during a time of fasting. There was no encouragement of conversion. An evangelist was shamed for appropriating an aspect of Islam for his own personal gain. The religious “other” encouraged the Christians to stand firmly and boldly in their own beliefs and identity. I realize now that in expecting the worst from the CCAP youth I was projecting my own experience of white U.S. American Christianity. I was expecting my Malawian brothers and sisters to treat the religious “other” as I have seen so many white U.S. American Christians treat the religious “other.” In short, I was allowing a single, power-majoritarian strand of Christianity to control my perception of other Christian identities.
Wanangwa Kamwendo, Andrea Kamwendo, Bob Neary, and Foster Bulla (Photo by Wanangwa Kamwendo)
Then, as I was flying back to Zambia, I was seated next to a Muslim man originally from Malawi who was living in the UK. It was from him that I first learned of the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the latest massacre via assault rifle in Dallas. Having told him that I am a pastor, he asked me how it is that white U.S. American Christians can paint all of Islam as evil based on the actions of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah when it is white U.S. American Christians who most vocally support the proliferation of guns, the militarization of an institutionally racist police force, the mass incarceration of Black Americans and immigrant Americans, and the continued bombing of Muslim civilians via drones. In other words, how could we claim that Islam is the religion of violence when so much of the violence in this world is perpetrated by Christians. We proceeded to talk about many things, including the rise of Donald Trump, Brexit, and even the inadequacy of Christian and Muslim responses to the theodicy.
As with the skit, his first question has stuck with me. For, it points to the truth that the face of Western Christianity that permeates the world is that of violent oppression. It is the same face that I was projecting onto the Malawian youth with my negative expectations. With these two experiences in mind, then, I have had to deal with the truth that I have allowed this violent, white U.S. American Christianity to control my own perception of Christianity. It has caused me to be jaded and cynical. It has made it so that I use it as the starting point of understanding all modern expressions of Christianity, even in Malawi and Zambia. It has made it so I do not stand firmly and boldly in my own Christian identity because I fear that doing so just spreads more violence and hatred.
I believe that I have seen some of the best of U.S. American Christianity in certain congregations and gatherings of the PCUSA, at McCormick Theological Seminary, at ecumenical events, and while marching in protests. I have also had the privilege of being fully immersed in the vibrant Christianities of India and Zambia.
AND YET the power of dominant (in terms of power, not numbers), violent, white U.S. American Christianity still holds sway over my very understanding of Christian identity. With this truth, it is very difficult to follow the profound conclusion of the skit. It is difficult for me to stand firmly and boldly in my Christian identity when my understanding of it is that it is fundamentally violent and oppressive. It is so hard for me to get away from this because I benefit fully from this dominant (again, in terms of power and not numbers) version of our faith. I am a white U.S. American Christian male. My continued acceptance of the power and security inherent therein leads to the continuation of that very Christianity. By letting it be the default Christian identity, I give it more power.
I am learning everyday that this simply CANNOT STAND. I have to be an entirely new creation in Christ, as Paul exhorts in 2 Corinthians. All of us who occupy the space of this world with our privilege but are awake to the damage caused by that privilege must become new creations. Only then can we make white U.S. American Christianity a new creation. I and we must do the work of learning from the best of Christianities that are there in the U.S., in India, in Zambia, and across the world. I and we must use existing privilege and power to eliminate future privilege and power. I and we must live out a Christianity that embraces the following truths that are the basis of our faith:
-All humans are created in the image of God and thus continue to carry the sacredness of God.
-Jesus, the Son of God whom we worship as part of the Triune God, was a person of color who was executed by the State.
-Jesus sought radical community, meaning justice-based redistribution of wealth and power. He defied an empire to do so.
-The prophets Isaiah and Micah promote destroying weapons of murder and using the materials to create instruments of life.
-God exercises a preferential option for the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned, the orphaned, and the widowed. If we look at rates of incarceration, economic indices, access to political and social power, and orphanhood and widowhood forced by State violence, this means people of color in the United States. God is declaring, “Black Lives Matter!”
-Above all, GOD IS LOVE.
These must be the foundations of our faith. These must be the rallying cries we shout in the streets with Mother Wisdom. These must be our rebuttals to the voices we have allowed to take over our narrative of belief. These must drive us to flip the tables of the power brokers that control both the doors of our sanctuaries and the laws of our land. These must push us as white Christians to stand up as barriers between the guns that shoot and the black lives that are targeted. These must give us joy. These must give us hope.
It is these truths that I have witnessed being proclaimed by communities of color across the U.S. and across the world. It is these truths that have survived and persisted in spite of the false prophets and prophecies of imperial Christianity. It is these truths that we should see as our reason for evangelism. It is these truths that white U.S. American Christians need to rediscover, reclaim, and proclaim. It is in these truths that I can firmly and boldly proclaim my identity as a Christian.
In one of those full circle moments life has to offer, I had the joy of meeting up with Susan and Joel Rembert, whom I met at New Wilmington Mission Conference just before coming to Zambia.