Church As a Community of Enemies

san-andreas-fault

San Andreas Fault

Community is a word we throw around in church circles – a buzz word that conjures up images of people talking and laughing together over a meal.  In the 25 years I’ve been a follower of Jesus, however, I have found community to be fraught with disappointment and heartache.

Something my pastor said in his message yesterday helped me understand more clearly why that is.  He said, “Church is a community of enemies learning to love one another.”  He was preaching from Matthew 5:43-48.

Thinking of ourselves as natural enemies helped me frame the tumultuous post-election events of this past week better – the anger and grief, the offense taken at the anger and grief, the offense taken at the offense, the offense taken at lack of offense, public disavowals, and on and on.  It’s not that we became enemies last week; it’s that we are enemies by nature, divided along lines of gender, tribe, multi-generational history, personal experience, even Myers-Briggs personality types.  Enmity is where we begin, even though we’re really proficient at covering it up week after week by worshiping next to each other, serving together, teaching Sunday school to each other’s kids, and even partaking of the sacraments together.

It was actually a relief to realize that Jesus assumed we would not only have enemies, but that we would be each other’s enemies.

Most churchgoers in America attend homogenous churches that function more like affinity groups than as earthly reflections of what the new heaven and earth – filled with people of all tongues, tribes, and nations – will look like.  However, even among us who attend multiethnic churches, we have largely participated in superficial community, satisfied that our outward cordiality and joint spiritual exercises represent kingdom love and unity.  The election showed us that they don’t.

Like a violent earthquake, it opened up and exposed the deep fault lines beneath the surface.  As it did so, the edifices of cordiality and superficial community we had built on top of them crumbled into the abyss.

The things that fell into the abyss belong there.  Now, as we stare at one another across the naked chasm, this is where we begin to learn what it means to love our enemies.  It starts by seeing exactly who they are, and letting them see exactly who we are.  No more pretense.

My church is a small, multiethnic, and multicultural community.  It’s my dream church in a lot of ways as both a sensory-sensitive introvert and a bicultural person.  Yesterday, it became a space where nice, unruffled people who voted for Trump came together and sang praise songs in the vicinity of terrified and stressed out middle- and high-schoolers of undocumented immigrants with no voting rights.  Enemies.  Learning how to love one another in Jesus’ name.

When people like that face each other, when a relatively powerless child looks at a grown man and embodies the message, “You have power and I have none, but you used your power in a way that hurt me,” what does kingdom love look like?

Enemy lines have been drawn in debates about immigration, but when undocumented immigrants are part of your community, they cease being abstract concepts.  They have names, stories, personalities, and bodies.  And you encounter Jesus in them.  A few weeks ago, one of the boys in our youth group (I’ll call him Jaime) asked the congregation to pray for a recently immigrated East Indian classmate (I’ll call him Adil) who was being bullied at their middle school.  When Jaime found out Adil’s parents were withdrawing him, he – the son of working class undocumented immigrants – bought a card, gathered signatures and notes of encouragement on it, and presented it to Adil – the bullied child of documented immigrants.  Jaime told us that Adil cried.  Hell, I cried.

Community is not the peaceful thing we form after we have overcome our enmity.  It is the place where our enmity is painstakingly transformed under the lordship of Jesus Christ.  If we think of it the first way (as the peaceful thing we form after we have overcome our enmity), then any time our divisions flare up or are exposed, we’ll think someone is trying to break something that’s working fine.  We’ll be tempted to sanitize and homogenize the community through theological manipulation rather than look to God to sanctify it.  If we do that, then the things that create power struggles within our communities, like cultural, tribal, socioeconomic, and gender dominance or marginalization, will never be properly addressed.  Let’s not do that anymore.  Let’s learn how to love our enemies.

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Categories: Church, Culture/Social issues, Race/Ethnicity, Uncategorized

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7 replies

  1. I love the sentiment of this piece. As a black woman who has felt really unloved by the western church–not just now but for quite some time–it’s a beautiful call to love back as much, if not more, than I have been hurt.

    But what do we do with those who have legitimate reasons to feel not just unloved but categorically unsafe in the church? What do we do with the history of the western church leading the pack in the oppression of the most marginalized?

    I get really tired of asserting the fullness of my humanity and so bitter having to work so hard for the people of God to see me. Racially or politically homogenous churches are not the answer, but what place is healthy for me if we as a church disagree on whether not my value is linked to how much I can perform whiteness?

  2. Thank you, sister, for raising those questions here. The burden of your experience resonates with me. I was assimilated to white evangelicalism for nearly 2 decades until my husband and I moved to a different region of the country where I finally accepted the reality that I could never become white enough to avoid having to deal with marginalization and invisibility on a regular basis. After that, we found a multiethnic church where we served faithfully and grew a lot for several years until I burned out and we found ourselves dealing with spiritual abuse. We wandered around after that, still finding a place to worship every Sunday, but too traumatized to invest deeply anywhere. And then God brought us to a small faith community less than 5 minutes from where we live. I’ve learned a lot about what I need in a church. Spiritual health and emotional maturity in the leaders has become a non-negotiable for me. A church can’t work through hard things like enemy group dynamics well if the leadership is defensive, controlling, or operates in a hierarchical way. Cross-cultural competency in the leaders is another essential factor. Pastors can’t just have different kinds of people in their congregations and think that they’ve achieved something significant. Their people need to be discipled/taught how to relate to one another and how to deal with their prejudices and blind spots. They need to be made to do the work. I think true multiculturalism, or the absence of hegemony (where one particular culture dominates), is also essential for creating a church that values the voices of the marginalized. There aren’t too many churches like this, though, so many marginalized people end up finding solace in ethnically specific churches (there is still a need for these) or give up altogether. It’s incredibly painful. I have no prescriptives for anyone, but I trust the Holy Spirit to provide guidance, empowerment, healing, and direction in each believer’s life through various seasons as they wrestle in prayer and in his Word over these matters.

  3. I appreciate this article and both comments thus far. How I’d love to unpack my spiritual journey here and explain why all of this matters to me, but that would take too long. However, as a black woman who has been immersed in traditional black churches, evangelical and most white churches, multi cultural denomination churches, I can tell you-they all hurt. All of them(the people in all the places) couldn’t manage to get outside of their own experience long enough to be willing to grow. Yes, seeds have been planted, I truly pray they grow.
    I had a sister(we’ve prayed for each other’s families and shared deep things) that I truly love explain to be why she voted for Trump. And although I didn’t agree, I could be willing to see her side. My heart truly understand that she was never willing to see mine. That the racism factor wasn’t enough to even question his ability to be president. It told me that I didn’t really matter to her, deep down. That surface wise, we seemed to be family. But where it counted, where it mattered, she couldn’t see why I had question and why it mattered.
    We are the divided states of America. We have been for a long time, possibly always have been. I pray we can overcome these divisions. I still have hope. I am willing to have the hard conversations with those who are willing to have them with me. To at least know that as a person I was considered, I was thought about. Someone cared about how my family, my community and others were truly going to be treated at the hands of a ruthless man making government decisions. This all has brought so many things to the surface. We’ve all got a lot of work to do.

    • You are so right about the different kinds of churches, Toya. They all hurt. Community hurts. I think the hardest part is that it hurts you when you least expect it and in ways that take you by surprise. But it’s also where I’ve encountered Jesus in unexpected ways. What I’ve observed through the myriad of interactions over the past 18 months and this past week is that relationship and even empathy don’t create solidarity. Relationship across races and classes is step 1, empathy for other races and classes (particularly the minority races who experience marginalization) is step 2, and solidarity with the marginalized is step 3. Many people don’t even get to step 1, and even if they do, they don’t make it to step 2. Among those who make it to step 2, fewer still get to step 3. Step 3 is Christlike incarnation. Jesus’ incarnation didn’t end with his physical birth. He lived a very specific way on earth – as a refugee, a homeless man, and a person who kept company primarily with the down and out. He didn’t give us a charity model, he wasn’t interested in either joining forces with the earthly empire OR overthrowing it, and he blew up the theological elites’ (Pharisees’) model of religious life. He came to save, but he did so much more than that. He came to be with them. Without solidarity, our ministry work remains an echo of colonial Christianity, in which the ministered are seen as subjects to an empire. That’s why I have friends who minister to refugees and seem to love them well on the surface – donate clothes, take them to appointments, etc – but did not hesitate to vote for Trump. They’re not feeling or exercising any racism at the micro level toward refugees, but they participated in racism (even if their intent was different) at the macro level by voting for a candidate who would create oppressive policies toward them and others like them. That’s the effect of service without solidarity, friendship without solidarity. And I really do think it’s part of a long hangover of colonial Christianity.

  4. I’m so grateful for these comments. I want to listen and learn. ❤

  5. I really appreciate this post (and the comment stream, too)! I’m a white evangelical who feels befuddled by my own church. I’ve spent a chunk of the past week so very, very angry and am now trying to find my way to forgiveness and pressing on against the tide–in my church and in my family. While I know there is a place for anger, I am realizing I can only truly press on in the name of Jesus if I do it in love.

  6. Thank you for sharing your heart. Mine is heavy with you. And I pray God will strengthen you to press on.

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