It’s Lent. It’s a time we in the church make time and space for God to uproot things in our lives, so he can plant something good.
We start out by admitting our frailness, and our propensity to be bent along the lines of a broken and sinful world around us, instead of walking in the straight and life-giving path of life in the Spirit.
We receive ashes, slashed grey on our foreheads, and we’re told “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” You are fleeting. You are frail. You will fail.
One of the most difficult and most obvious truths I learned the first time I went to counseling back in college was: “It takes work to be healthy.”
It seems obvious, but it’s not. I want to think that if I was just 100% natural, I don’t know, like an ecosystem in the middle of a nature preserve, I would come to some kind of equilibrium where I love people, and I love myself, and I eat healthy food, and I’m fit. (Who knows, maybe that would happen if I went out and lived in the middle of a nature preserve). But the fact is, eating nutritious, healthy food takes work. Getting your body fit and healthy takes work. Getting your mind to think in a life-giving way takes work. Left alone, we spiral towards selfishness, indifference, sickness, and death. But it seems so normal to us, we don’t even notice we’re sick. We have to acknowledge we have a problem, or it can’t be fixed. We’re not left to flounder all alone–the central message of the gospel is one of grace, that God is here to do in us what we can’t do ourselves–but we can’t receive that grace if we don’t think we need it. For reconciliation and restoration to occur, we have to acknowledge there’s a problem.
During Lent, we start off by admitting we are dust, and to dust we will return. And then we make space for the Spirit. By making space in our lives, by turning away from the trivial things we use to numb ourselves and our brokenness (like chocolate, or twitter, or novels) we’re forced to confront ourselves. We invite the Spirit in, to uproot and turn over, to help us see our sickness, so we can receive grace.
And this Lent, in South Africa, we’ve seen there’s a problem.
There has always been problems, but right now the problems are showing their faces more fully. We can’t ignore them anymore. But the question is, will we invite the Spirit in, to do the work he wants to do, or will we block ourselves from receiving grace?
And my white South African friends, I’m talking to you, not to the “angry black protestors”. To receive grace, we have to admit we need it. And on the whole, we’re not good at that. Especially in a moment like this, where we feel that we are a victim (the whole f*** white people campaign on campuses, for example,), we can feel our backbone’s stiffening and our defenses rising. “Jesus says not to call people hateful names in anger” we say, pointing to the Sermon on the Mount. “They must apologize. This must not be tolerated. They are at fault.” But is that all Jesus says there?
“The line between victim and perpetrator is very blurry,” Miroslav Volf constantly points out in his writings. “Especially in places where violence between groups has been cyclical.” He argues that even in his own case, where he was abused and interrogated by the police in Yugoslavia, he had rather harsh and sadistic thoughts about his tormentor that were inexcusable. We cannot easily classify people into victims (who need justice to be done) and perpetrators (who must pay/apologize/say sorry). Partly because we are always going to see ourselves as the victim, whoever we are. Our own suffering always seems larger, because it’s more tangible. And so we spiral around and around, never moving any closer.
And our suffering has been real. We have had family emigrate so they could get better jobs, we have felt pressure and fear that we will not be able to provide for our families in this new economy, we have worried that our heritage and our language will be wiped out, we had concentration camps before Nazi Germany thanks to the the British. It’s okay to acknowledge that. And we right now we can feel like we are victims of black anger.
But Lent is not about pointing a finger to another person and telling them anything. The Sermon on the Mount, and the letters from John and James repeatedly tell us not to start applying lessons to other people.
The question is not, “What is Jesus telling black people in this moment?” The question is, “What is Jesus telling me in this moment? Me, a white person?”
That’s one reason why being #colourblind isn’t useful for the process of becoming more like Jesus. God might have something different to say to me, in this moment in time, as a white person, than the person next to me. (Great articles on this idea here and here.)
In the Sermon on the Mount, after giving the instruction not to call others names in anger, Jesus goes on to say, “So if your brother has something against YOU, leave your sacrifice at the altar and go settle it.” You could read this as, “Hey, if you’ve just cursed out your neighbour and made him mad, go talk to him about it.” That’s very plausible. But I also think Jesus isn’t making a new rule about not being angry at others, he is giving a model for breaking the cycle of anger. You’ve seen that cycle in yourself, and in young children: you get mad at me, so I get mad at you, so you get mad at me…
Jesus puts the onus on “the victim” of the anger to go sort it out. Go find out why your brother was so mad at you. When he says “F*** white people” , or #takedownrhodes, or #feesmustfall, rather than pointing fingers and running away, sit down and listen to her. Try to understand what she has against you. No one arbitrarily decides to destroy property and curse people (unless you are a sociopath, and I doubt that there are that many sociopaths in South Africa). That level of anger and frustration comes from a place of not being heard, of seeing lots of pandering language and promises, but no action, of witnessing extreme inequality, of being systematically discriminated against.
I think God is giving us a moment in the white church, and we’re quite frankly wasting it.
It’s Lent. We asked for God to uproot, to show us our sin so we could repent and be healed. You cannot receive grace until you acknowledge you need it. And we, white church, need grace. God has shown us loud and clear that things are not right, that there are some ways we need to repent (actually change the way we live and act) and some ways we need to ask for forgiveness. We need to leave our sacrifices on the altar and drop everything, until we are actually willing to listen to, and be reconciled with, our black brothers and sisters in Christ.
Please? This time, can we not simply justify our positions or appeal to the easy feel-good language of “we’re all just people” and singing hymns and the national anthem together and call it good? Can we please refrain from calling peace, peace where there is no peace, from treating deep wounds as if they are nothing? What will it take until we are willing to listen?
At the end of Lent comes Good Friday. And it’s a relief, because by the end of Lent, we’re stretched and tired and we’ve seen first hand that we’re ashes and dust, and there’s still a lot of rottenness in our souls that needs cutting out. Good Friday is the grace. Because when we see our rottenness for what it is, we’re more thankful for the undeserved mercy of God that is for us.
I need to receive God’s grace for my pride. I need to receive God’s grace for my negligence. I need to receive God’s grace for my fear. I need to receive God’s grace for my justifications of my selfishness, for the way I always want to be in charge, for the way I have built parallel systems that benefit my group and not all, for the way I have wanted to hurry over uncomfortable confrontations rather than work through them, for the way I have avoided, the way I have only heard what I wanted to hear, for the way I want to excuse myself from the category “racist white person” by having black friends, yet still am quite happy to benefit from systems that cater to white people… I need so much grace.
Can we make this Lent the start of a real conversation on race so that we are able to receive the grace that we so desperately need?
If you’re wondering what the other option to #colourblind is, it’s “colour brave”. Check out this TED talk on the subject, from a US perspective, but still has many take aways for our context.