Something about the centre and the periphery
There’s an article I’ve been going back to since I first read it in August. By Ezekiel Kweku and Jane Coaston, it’s called, ‘White Conspiracy, Black History.’ Their thesis is this: ‘Whether by coincidence or not, many of the political conspiracies that white people fear in America today have already happened – and continue to happen – to black people, and to people from other minorities’.
Republican voters concerned about widespread vote rigging? Already happened, in the form of voter intimidation, Kafka-esque voter registration requirements, and poll taxes – but those measures were directed at black people.
Fringe groups worried about secret government health interventions, vaccinations, chemtrails and fluoride? Already happened to black people in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, where treatments were deliberately withheld from infected men in order that their symptoms – and deaths – could be studied.
It’s an arresting article. It shifted the tectonic plates of my brain, and I can’t – won’t – go back to the way I thought about some of these things before. Sometimes other people can do that for us, yes? They bring to bear a different perspective, and it illuminates something we might not have otherwise seen.
It’s not that I think truth is malleable to the demands of identity politics – as if biography determines theology. But I do think our personal experiences prime us to see certain truths more quickly, or to track through the application of a truth more completely. And I do think our biographies can position us to speak particular truths more authoritatively. We see these things so often – a person becomes a father, and there’s an unfolding of insight into God’s Father-heart. Or someone might get pregnant and give birth, and find they read the Christmas narrative with very different eyes (that would be me). This is good, God-given diversity, and one of the reasons the eye can’t say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you.’ God puts us in community so we can do this perspective-shifting work with each other. It’s one of the glories of the Church.
That article I mentioned? I think there’s a parallel in the Australian church
We fear a coming time when the culture around us will ignore or denigrate our potential contribution to the flourishing of this community. But there are people with disabilities, or mental illness, who have a lifetime of experience with others underestimating what they’re capable of doing or being. Some of them are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Some of them have had that experience in the Church.
We fear that it’s going to get financially harder – that tax codes and laws will be changed and funding tied up with strings that compromise our ability to act in ways consistent with the Gospel. But there are people among us who already know what it is to give from their lack, and to practice faithful contentment in all seasons – even the ones that present difficult choices.
We fear what our kids will be taught – that they’ll be swept from us into the dominant paradigm, and be taught to despise us and the things we believe are valuable. But this has already happened – to a Stolen Generation. Children were taken away, forbidden to speak their heart-language, some falsely told that their parents didn’t want them, or that they had died. Some of these things were done by the Church.
As far as I can tell, there’s validity to a lot of our fears. We’re likely entering a season when the church is less central to the culture, less central to the story we tell ourselves about who and what Australia is. If that turns out to be so, I don’t think it tells us anything much about the value or health of the church – history tells us that Christian communities have thrived on the periphery, and also that we’ve seen explosive growth when we’ve been essential to a community. Probably more often the former, but as best I can tell, God is situation-agnostic when it comes to growing His Kingdom; He can do it anywhere.
But doesn’t it seem like we might be in for one of those elegant Kingdom reversals that Jesus so often talked about? If the church is being moved to the periphery, might we not find that we already have just the leaders we need – on the periphery? People with disabilities who know about continuing to make a contribution, even when they’re being underestimated? People who are resource-poor, but rich in faith? People of colour who know about pressing on with grace and truth, even in the face of ignorance and bigotry? And particularly, our Indigenous brothers and sisters, who so regularly demonstrate depths of resilience and forgiveness, even to the rest of the Church?
I don’t know about where you are. But there’s no avoiding the reality that in the churches I’ve been part of, the people in leadership have been mostly white, mostly able-bodied, and not many of them have had to choose between paying their rent or buying groceries in the last week. And they are faithful servants of God, and I love them.
It’s not that I think our current leaders are necessarily going to be displaced from ministry. I think – I believe – that we’re going to plant many more churches. It’s not that I think they will stop bearing witness to God’s grace: I think we’re going to write more songs – and books, and poems and sermons and blog posts. And my brothers and sisters from the periphery will write true things and encouraging things. They’ll say wise things and hard things, and things I and my from-the-centre brothers would never have thought to write or say.
And in those days to come, we will stand together and praise God for revealing yet more facets of His great glory, uncontainable in any single human life – except One.
One who looks at us – His Church, His Bride – broken and failing, healed and reigning with Him. And when He looks at us, He says, ‘You are beautiful.’
And because He says it, we are made so.
Thanks for those thoughts Karyn. I agree that the centre of culture has shifted in Australia and Christians are more on the outside than perhaps in times before. There is a lot to be gained from the humility of living on the periphery and, yes, those who are used to dwelling in the margins have a lot to teach us. PS. The cultural centre of Margaret River is white-surfer-male.