Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Why is there classism and racism in the Church? And how I've changed my mind.

I used to think that within Christianity, middle class people in general had difficulty understanding the lower classes. I thought that as well as a lack of understanding, there was prejudice towards many lower class Christians. I still think these things are true to a point, but the issue is not one of class, its deeper and broader than that.

I had a conversation with a white middle class church leader where I tried to share some ways that myself and some others had felt mistreated by this brother. This is what Jesus taught us to do (Matt 18:15-19). But this leader defended himself and deflected. However, this wasn't too much a shock because I actually expect middle class church leaders to lack understanding and to mistreat me. But then I had a similar experience with a lower class leader. I tried to share how I felt mistreated, he defended himself and deflected. I went to one of his associates (another lower class leader) and he defended and deflected. I was shocked to be treated this way by brothers from the same culture as me, because I'd thought this was only how middle class people behaved.

To demonstrate that this wasn't just a shock to me, listen to one of my lower class pastor friend's response when I discretely told him what happened. Because I didn't mention names (to avoid gossip), my friend assumed I was talking about middle class people. So he responded, "You know that's how some of those [middle class] guys are...." and I interrupted him and said, "No bruv, these were our boys." "No bruv, you don't mean these were our boys do you?! No, I could see the middle class guys being like this, but not our boys!?" He was totally shocked, because like me, he assumed that its a middle class tendency to be self righteous, defensive, and deflective.

The sad truth had already dawned on me, and now it was dawning on my friend: Failing to listen to the wounded, not bothering to understand, defending one's own position, deflecting and blame shifting, are not reserved for the middle classes, they are part of the human condition.

Of course, there were ways that I had already understood this, Adam and Eve after the fall demonstrate the human condition of blame shifting. I'd taught extensively on how we do this, and how we have a lot of victim mentality in the lower classes. But, I'd thought that when middle class people fail to understand our sometimes painful predicament, and when they fail to recognise how they are somethings hurting us - that this was because of their class - as if this was a class issue.

I've now had to rethink things a bit, and here's some of my tentative conclusions:
  1. There are certain sinful traits that will be more prominent in a particular culture. My position hasn't changed on this. I'm not judging some cultures as more godly than others - they might be, but its hard for us to make that judgment call because of our blindspots. Each culture has its own set of blindspots, and so might easily judge another culture by some of the sins they see, whilst ignoring some of their own sins which the judged culture can easily see.
  2. Failing to recognise how we've hurt someone else is such a general sin that we should expect it from anyone, no matter what class they are from.
  3. Being defensive about our sin is such a general sin that we should expect it from anyone, no matter what class they're from.
  4. Blame shifting in response to someone trying to correct us is such a general sin that we should expect it from anyone, no matter what class they're from.
  5. The issue is all about how we respond to people speaking the truth to us.
  6. However, there are some cultural implications for how we end up responding to people speaking the truth to us:
  7. If our culture tells us certain lies (or skewed narratives) about the person who's trying to speak the truth to us, we will all the more easily defend and deflect and blame shift. 
    1. For example, if a middle class pastor was educated by his parents, schooling, and the media that he is superior to the lower classes who are stupid and lazy - when a lower class church member tries to point out an offence, it will be so much easier for the pastor to delude himself that the offence is not real, and that the problem lies with the church member. He may well defend and deflect.
    2. Similarly, if a lower class church member has been indoctrinated her whole life with the idea that authority is bad. When her pastor tries to correct her over an offence, even though he might be from the same social class, she will find it very easy to assume he is misusing his authority to harm her, rather than to help her. She may well defend and deflect.
  8. These cultural influences mean that a church group can very easily end up with systemic prejudice without even realising it.
  9. Even if we eliminate the cultural lies (narratives) we grow up believing, there are still plenty of other avenues of lies that will predispose us to defend and deflect:
    1. Indwelling sin will tell us that we have done nothing wrong, we're maybe even sinless, maybe almost perfect, certainly better than the person who is confronting us. This person in front of us is a sinner, a judgmental one at that, they are the problem not me.
    2. Gossip. In my situation, the problem was preceded by gossip about me. When gossip occurs without the person gossiped about being in the room, its incredibly difficult to get a true image of the person. Instead, the parties concerned end up with a composite image of the person, based on all their distortions and half truths. This results in believing a lie, a skewed narrative about the person. If this person then tries to confront us, why would we listen to them, we've already established that they are the problem.
  10. Power corrupts. Some cultures are very powerful, and assume power over others. This means that if someone comes to us who has less power than us, we may be tempted to use our power in a bad way, by not listening to them, and failing to protect them. This could happen with large cultures like the British middle class culture, and the American white culture. However, it can also happen with smaller cultures made up of a handful of individuals who have power. Sometimes, this power can simply be the power of offence. When we offend someone we hold a power over them. They are hurt, and will not receive healing and closure without us reconciling with them. When they come to us to show us our wrong, we might well be tempted to misuse our power, and fail to hear them, and instead use our power to defend and deflect. These smaller groups can vary from a social media clique to a group of friends gossiping.
What's the solution?
In the past, I would have thought part of the solution was that we needed to better inform people. To invite middle class church leaders to the hood, to show them and inform them of the struggles we face. To gently explain some of the examples of prejudice we face in the Church. But now I think the solution is different - its the gospel.

We need more of the gospel. We need to be more cross-centered. We need to apply the doctrine of justification by faith more. We need more identity in Christ, and as God's adopted children. The more I am living out of these truths, the more happy I am in the fact that whilst a sinner, I'm justified. I'm righteous in God's sight, and he looks at me as his son with whom he's well pleased. From this position, I'm more willing to hear a brother tell me he thinks I've wronged him. I know its possible because I know I'm a sinner. At the same time, I'm not going to be so defensive because I'm already secure in my identity in Christ. I'm not afraid of being caught out, because I know Jesus has paid for my sin, and confessing it won't mess up my standing with God. 

The problem isn't going to get better without us first being more gospel-centered. We can try to educate people about the plight of the lower classes in the UK, or of African-American's in the USA, but if the people we're talking too aren't saturated in the Gospel, they will defend and deflect.

If we're not more gospel centred, then I can't even come to you and say that you wronged me the other day when you gossiped about me. And if I can't come and do that, then how can I possibly come and say that your whole church group is prejudice or racist?

I'm not saying that we shouldn't try to inform and educate people. I think we should tackle some of the false narratives said about lower classes and certain ethnicities. BUT I'm saying that this truth telling needs to be preceded with the Church being more gospel centred, so that it can listen. Of course, that starts with me being more gospel-centred myself.

So what would repentance look like for us?
- Firstly, I think repenting of pride, the pride that we think we're above the people who try to correct us.
- Secondly, of unbelief - not really believing in justification by faith and so instead trying to justify ourselves, being self righteous.
- Thirdly, repenting of listening to the lies. Lies about how we're better than others. Lies about how others are in the wrong, and there's no way we've wronged them.
- Fourthly, repenting of not doing conflict resolution even though Jesus made it pretty simple for us (Matt 18:15-19).