To the Victors Go Narrative Control
One of my pastors and friends, Ben White, keeps reminding me of something I’ve been saying recently. It has to do with the fact that especially in my case as a cisgender heterosexual male of European descent living in the U.S., I usually find myself centered in most of the power structures in society. The history books that have been adopted and used for generations in schools across America, for example, were largely written by people that look like me, for people that look like me, centering us as the heroes in the story of America and thereby justifying our privileged status in society. The furor over critical race theory currently is a desperate attempt to maintain this control over the narrative about our country, because if the full truth were told, the story gets a lot more complicated and the privilege and power that people like myself enjoy must be seen for what it is- unearned, unjust, and unjustifiable.
Some of us are waking up to this reality, and I’m glad. But that old truth just gets even more true here, that “the more you learn, (the more you realize that) the less you know.” As my consciousness has been awakened to the terrible reality of systemic racism and the ongoing oppression I continue to benefit from, I’ve been glad to have opportunity to dedicate myself to the work of anti-racism, and even better, the creation of beloved community and, for Jesus-followers, a more full expression of the new humanity that Jesus calls us to. However, I’m learning more and more every day that anti-racism is just the tip of the iceberg. The powers that be have solidified their hold on society not only through the violence of racism, but through many intersecting forms of violence including LGBTQIA2S+ hate, patriarchy and sexism, colonialism and imperialism, and through extractive and exploitative capitalism that commodifies the bounty of God’s good earth, changing the climate in ways that only intensify the harm of the other oppressions just named.
I Can’t See Where I Don’t Look
There’s something missing from that laundry list of systems of oppression I just named, however, and it’s telling. Of course the list wasn’t meant to be exhaustive, but a story comes to mind here. My church, Circle of Hope, has been working hard to meet the moment we’re all in during this ongoing pandemic. We believe that we’re called to move with what the Spirit is doing next. We say that “Like any healthy organism, we grow. So we are always preparing to birth a new cell, plant the next congregation and generate the next venture of compassionate service.” As we re-plant the whole church (our “content”) in the new soil of a world changed and still changing due to COVID-19 (our next “container”), we’re reimagining our network of cell groups and congregations across the greater Philadelphia region. Like so many churches, businesses, and civic institutions as the pandemic started, we pivoted to offer as much as we could online. I’ve talked about this before. This pivot enabled our life together to go on when in-person meetings were no longer safe. As we keep saying, our church, with Jesus at the heart of us and cell groups serving as the primary expression of that heart, was really made for such a time as this. We have buildings and use them well to serve our body and the communities around us, but we don’t need them. The church is a people, not a place after all. So as cells met through Zoom and other means and as our At-Home Sunday Meeting became our public face for a while, our church remained remarkably stable over the past year-and-a-half and even grew in unexpected ways.
People like myself and my family, for example, who no longer live in Philly, were suddenly able to be once again included in the life of our body. We also made new friends from all over the country who were able to be included in cells meeting online and in our At-Home Sunday Meeting, and some of them have also become integral parts of our body. What we also discovered was that we had simply been missing an unseen part of our body and members of our community, some of whom had been part of our church for a long time. This was not a malicious omission, but its effect was devastating nonetheless. We simply didn’t have “eyes to see” this before, but I’m so grateful that now we do, or at least we’re starting to. This unseen part of our body is directly tied to the system of oppression I failed to name in my laundry list of them above. That oppressive system is, of course, ableism, and the missing members of our community that we didn’t “see” in the way we needed to before is the disabled community. Our friend Dani is disabled, and a member of my cell is too. Truth be told, the mental health diagnoses I carry as a result of childhood trauma might technically qualify me as disabled too if I wanted to purse that route. I disclose this as an acknowledgment that the disabled community is very diverse and because I don’t want to “other” anyone who is part of this community.
I mention Dani because we’re part of Circle of Hope together and because she is a vocal advocate for disability rights and inclusion. You can hear a great interview with her in the recent Resist and Restore podcast episode, and I was privileged to also interview her for my employer as part of our anti-racism work during Disability Pride Month. In both conversations, Dani said something that was devastating for its poignancy and what it revealed. She said that she and other disabled individuals have been asking for years to be included by being able to work from home, to have widespread telehealth options, and to have opportunities to connect with a faith community through online means. She said they were always told that it’s too expensive or not technologically viable and were given other excuses. She then adds, “As soon as able-bodied people had to stay home for two weeks due to the pandemic, suddenly all those things that she and her friends have been pleading for were available.” She told another story during my interview with her that was revelatory for me. She mentioned that when she’s in her wheelchair in a public space like a grocery store, people seem to respond in two ways. A small number of people will see and approach her and begin asking invasive and unwelcome questions about her disability. More often, though, people will simply fail to notice her so badly that they sometimes bump into her and then are surprised that she’s there. I thought about this as we were talking and realized that it has to do with where we look. If I’m walking around a store, my gaze is usually held at my eye level. This is a decorating “rule” too, that we hang pictures at eye level so that we can “see” them.
Generous Eyes Have an Expanded Gaze
I think the lesson here is that we need to expand our gaze. My privilege enables me to look only where it’s most convenient for me to do so. The world is built for me not only as a middle-class, cishet male of European descent, but also as a relatively able-bodied individual too. If the world is my “house,” all the pictures are hung where I can most naturally see them, even if this places them out of sight for others. Likewise, those others who aren’t like me remain out of sight to me if I do not repent and change my ways by expanding my gaze. I’ve come over time to really appreciate the Sermon on the Mount, seeing it as a “canon within the canon,” the heart of Jesus’ teaching about how we can best follow him. I do it poorly myself, incidentally, but my posture is toward Jesus as I see him leading me in this teaching. So I come back again and again to this part of it in Matthew 6:
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy,[c] your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy,[d] your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
As I’ve noted before, those footnotes for “healthy” and “unhealthy” in verses 22 and 23 reveal that those words imply “generous” and “stingy.” So if your eyes are generous, your whole body will be full of light. If your eyes are stingy, your whole body will be full of darkness, and how great will that darkness be! I think part of having generous eyes must mean having a generous, expansive gaze, seeing people for who they really are, where they really are. We can’t just keep looking in all the places we’re used to. When we do, we miss beloved siblings in Christ and our humanity is diminished, remaining old and untransformed.
We Want to be Included in the New Humanity that Jesus is Creating, not Just Include Others in the Worldly and Fallen Systems That We Control.
This gets me back to what one of my pastors, Ben, keeps reminding me that I’ve said. It has to do with inclusion. When I choose to include others, I’m inviting them into a space that I am centered in and retain control of. How could it be otherwise? It’s like being neighborly in my home. I can be as intentional and inviting toward others that aren’t like me as could possibly be imagined, but they’re still coming into my space that is made for me, that caters to me, etc. This kind of thinking infects our theological imagination too. Our intentions may be good, but I think the logic often goes something like, “God is good and loving toward all. The church has historically been complicit in oppression of marginalized groups, and we do better when we seek to include them because we believe that God already does.” But if God already does, this thinking is revealed to be fairly backwards. God is creating a new humanity whether we choose to willingly participate in it or not. In this new humanity, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile…male nor female,” etc. We are one in Christ. This does not erase our other identities, it unites them. After all, if everything and everyone is the same, unity is unnecessary. If, on the other hand, we are all unique expressions of God’s boundless creativity and are woven together into the beautiful tapestry of the body of Christ, then we become a powerful witness to the love of Christ that we share.
So inclusion ought not be about me bringing others into a space that’s made for me and which I control. God has already included everyone in God’s family. We are all God’s children, all beloved, and are all being saved from the power of sin and death. When we really come to understand this, I think we learn that the only choice we have to make in terms of inclusion is whether or not we will include ourselves in this wonderful community that God is making. I cannot exclude anyone from their own belovedness, nor from their status as children of God. I can only keep myself out, really, and there are many ways no doubt in which I have been doing this very thing. So I must pray:
God, help me to repent. Help me to expand my gaze. Give me generous eyes to see all your children where they are, not where I prefer to look. You’re building beloved community and creating a new humanity, and you’ll do it with or without me. Thank you for always inviting me, though, and help me to lay down whatever power I think I have and step out of the spaces that I control so that I can join in the work of cultivating awareness of the belovedness of all. Amen.