Is the Church Just Following Culture?

Try as we might, we cannot separate ourselves from the influences that have shaped us personally and the greater forces that have shaped our context. Our ongoing, and longstanding dialogue about antiracism in Circle of Hope has been dialed up in recent months in the wake of police killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. When we wrote a map that was decidedly antiracist some folks wondered if we weren’t just following the tide of the culture.  Is it just popular to be antiracist now and that is why we are doing this? Are we caving to philosophy that is not from Jesus?

No! We were here first. Circle of Hope has had antiracism written into our DNA since we began. How would we do our original goal to “bring hope to 20th century urban life” without addressing the evil powers of racism in the Philadelphia region? Our antiracist map does not make Circle of Hope cool, or ahead of our time. it doesn’t give us points for being into the right thing before everyone else was. No, this is not about our own righteousness, individually or communally. This is about chipping away for decades and often feeling like we are making no progress at all. But we refuse to give up, and I am grateful that the cultural tide is giving us a boost for once.  I do wish we had galvanized a mass movement without so many black people being killed. That’s for sure. Lord, have mercy.

Times Are Tough and So Is Time

But let’s face it, it’s hard to stay in touch with reality. It’s hard to keep our fingers and hearts together enough to catch the slippery sands of time. Western culture dishes up an individualism that might divorce you from any connection to anything, especially not those backward ancestors that didn’t know everything like we do. Dislocation, disorientation, disassociation, these are all the underside of our culture catered diet of self-awareness, self-definition, self-help.  We all woke up fully formed this morning with no dependence on anything or anyone. Only our choices today matter. It sounds terrible but you kinda want it, right?

It’s fun to see my kid learn to relate to time. By fun I mean it’s also terrible sometimes, but you have to laugh. Not too long ago he asked me how long he would have to wait for something. I said “Twenty minutes.” He responded, shrieking in horror, “Twenty minutes?! That’s like 100 hours!!!” No bud, in fact that is finally one thing I can say is undeniably false. He only recently stopped saying “A long time ago,” or “When I was a baby” as blanket descriptors of anything that happened in the past, including something that happened last week.

The Past is Not Just in the Past

Every honest adult, however, understands my six year old’s dilemma.  Time may not be  relative (except in some cosmic equation I don’t totally understand), but our experience of time is very relative. My favorite elucidator of this is the “return trip effect.” Scientists have studied the phenomenon of perceived duration of time when coming back on the same route from an unfamiliar destination. You know this, going there always feels like it takes longer than coming back. Yes, our experience of time is very relative, so much so that it might seem like time is subject to our perception only and thus eligible for exclusion in our analyses, but let us not pretend that our lives began only when we were born. The past is not in just in the past. The past is right here with us in the present.

But Jesus and His People Are the Past Too

Good or bad, the past makes us who we are in many ways. I want to highlight one good thing I see coming out of this that helps us when we’re wondering about the tide of culture and our push for antiracism in Circle of Hope. The culture might try to erase God from it’s narrative but the Western/European thoughtscape was and is highly influenced by Jesus. There is no escaping the moral influence of the Church on all of our thinking. But especially when it comes to racial justice. The Church planted the seeds of transformation that grew into a vine. It was Jesus’ teaching about the poor and the least of these that empowered so many to stand up and demand justice. The list is too long to even begin. Even if some of their activist descendents are not so interested in the Holy Spirit’s empowerment, that doesn’t mean they don’t have it. If only in the path they walk which is so clearly paved by the legacy of those faithful women and men who stood up for freedom in Jesus’ name. They might try to pretend that the project is distinct from Jesus, but they can’t escape the past. The tide of culture is not so distinct from Jesus because the Church has been shaping the Western project from its beginnings.

But It’s a Mess Back There… Sounds Familiar

One final note: a big reason an activist today might want to separate themselves from the Christian legacy of their ancestors, or the whole Jesus soaked Western project is that accepting the influence of the past is not just a hero story. With the past comes many legitimate reasons to be disgusted with Jesus followers and their thinking. It’s a big mess, but it’s part of our mess now. I’m not surprised by the mess. I don’t think we need a hero other than Jesus, but we have many to choose from if we are willing to accept their human frailty as another measure of their heroism. We will not, however, find a whole group of people who were unimpeachable, or completely above reproach, or even right, let alone righteous. We will find reasons to hope, practical examples of bravery and perseverance, and creative expressions of Jesus’ love in public, but we will also find  reasons for despair right next to them.

Pray with me?

Jesus, you will have to give us eyes to see. Thank you for the good of the past, help us to receive it and sort it. This is not an easy task. But you are with us in it.
You are the Lord of History. You are reliable. Your promises can be trusted. Bring history to its rightful ends.
Shape it now through your church and otherwise, help us to see you at work, even in unexpected places.
May your glory be made known through miracles large and small, and may your light be found where the darkness seems to make that impossible.
We pray for all those who are suffering. We know you are with them. Help us see how we can be with y’all. And help us to stay.