There Are No “Better” People

Jason Byassee

A friend of mine works at an elite liberal arts college in the US. All employees were required to attend a mandatory training on inclusivity led by the school’s “diversity officer.” The lecture was about the cutting edge du jour in some quarters of academia: pronouns and how to address transgender people. She was up there teaching away (sorry, I mean they were up there teaching away) when my friend’s friend turned to him and said, “I guess I’m just a garden-variety homo now.” Gay people got to be cutting edge for all of five minutes. The culture has moved on, and now there is a new battlefront, and a new set of Orwellian demands from language police in high places.

I report that vignette not simply to make fun of it. I teach at an institution that is proud of its inclusion of all peoples, LGBTQ people included, and as a theologian I’m interested in talking to anyone who wants to talk about Jesus and the world he loves. I am suspicious of any label on any person other than “human,” in a Christian context “baptized,” and I think Jesus has a transformation in store for all of us that will be more painful and more beautiful than we can imagine (especially, to read the Gospels, for us religious leaders). But I do think the demands for immediate dismantling of all existing social structures, and derision for anyone who thinks otherwise, have come fast and furious in the last few years, and are unlikely to stop.

René Breuel, a Brazilian pastor in Rome, taught several plenary sessions at the most recent Urbana missionary conference. Reflecting on that experience, he said the following: “There is a lot of anger against injustices like sexism, racism, classism, privilege, and white supremacy. Young people pick that up and feel that very strongly, but don’t always have a Christian vision of how the world will be mended and restored.”

He is, of course, right. Christians who evangelize on campus, or who ponder the sorts of vocations to mission that Urbana exists to encourage, have to respond to challenges like these. When I was a student, the task of apologetics was to convince someone that Christianity is true, despite all the doubts about whether there is such a thing as “truth,” writ large. Now the task is responding to the charge that Christianity has been a force for ill on the planet, spawning ever-more wretched mutations of the -ism virus. This isn’t an argument so much as an act of shaming. How do we respond?

One response to this shaming is, of course, Trumpism. Americans grew up believing that America was the greatest force for good in the world, over against a godless communism. Now, in the name of the LGBTTIQQ2S community, American Christians are told they’re the origin of all evil in the world. The former claim was never right. Jesus Christ, not America, is the source of all goodness in the world. And the Christian church is a variegated phenomenon, full of sinners and saints, as we have always taught. We cannot claim to be as uniformly benevolent as we once did, nor are we as uniformly malevolent as is now often claimed. Trumpism seizes on the resentment engendered by the “source of all evil” contention by reasserting the same “we’re number 1!” boosterism of older Americans’ Cold War youth. But notice who drops out of that claim? A certain Jesus of Nazareth, a poor Jew with no known education from Palestine, who has always been ancillary to claims of American sinlessness. It is a dangerous thing to tell a people, any people, let alone a people as well-armed as red America, that they have nothing to be proud of. All it takes is a demagogue to reassure them, “Yes you do, and anyone who claims otherwise is the enemy.”

When I was a student in the 1990s, it was still sufficient for white liberals to insist that they were in favor of being radically inclusive. “Anyone can study here, worship here—our racist forebears were wrong, non-WASP people are a gift, enriching our community, blah blah blah” (notice the “our”). Such banal inclusivity is not enough anymore. It is outright rejected by those on the resentful right. On the left, the rhetoric of limp inclusivity does not push far enough anymore. It leaves white men in charge, deciding who gets to play with some of the toys of power. No, we must dismantle white privilege, and perhaps, the Christianity that funded its legitimacy. Some of the rhetoric sometime sounds like we should be rid of white people, not just the privilege of whiteness. Fox News has no problem spinning the left’s claims into things that frighten older white people, who just happen to vote in disproportionate numbers.

Of course, as Christians we have to respond differently. We know no political option in the US or elsewhere is going to capture our full allegiance—that belongs only to Christ and the kingdom he is bringing. Part of the ruin of the fall is that we destroy one another. Eve and Adam disobey God and a nanosecond later their younger son is killing their older (Gen 3–4). Genesis narrates the virus’s spread throughout the civic sphere until God can’t take it, and decides to wipe us all out and start over, with new, better people this time (Gen 6–9). After the flood and the rainbow, God repents of this repentance, and tries a new tack: He’ll choose one people to be his people in the world. Abram and Sarai and their descendants will be the family through which God will repair the ruin that the descendants of Adam and Eve have wrought. Through them, all the nations of the earth shall be blessed (Gen 12, 15, 17). God chooses one people, Israel, through whom to bless and redeem all the others, to undo our violence and make creation whole.

As Paul puzzles through the strange sequence of events that have taken place since the resurrection of Jesus Christ (not least his own transfiguration from murderous persecutor to apostle untimely born), he looks back at the Abraham story. God calls Abraham not for Abraham’s sake, but in order to bless all the families of the earth through his family. The prophets and psalms even hint at what was to come: At the end of all things, God’s redemption will be so spectacular even the gentiles will stream to Zion to worship Israel’s God (Isa 2:1–5). Wait, Paul thought, that explains the gentiles in the church—it’s the end of the world. They’re streaming to Zion to worship Israel’s God. This is not the repudiation of Abraham’s calling, far from it. It’s its fulfillment (Rom 9–11). God is making good on his promises to heal the whole world through Abraham’s family, and now even the gentiles are in saving relationship to Israel’s God. There is now no longer Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, but all are one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28). Baptism is the sign that God is making all things new through as frail and unpromising a people as Israel, as church, as you and me.

Reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Trumpism is ignorant of the heart of Christianity, even as it waves the flag to garner votes. The left is allergic to Christianity, as one would be if one were convinced it is not only poison, but the source of all other poisons. René Breuel is right. The problem is not just that our gospel is discredited by its association with all these isms. The gospel is God’s repair to our ruin of the world. We must respond with seriousness to the charge that the gospel is simply ruining it further. We are in a similar position then to Paul, who is convinced God is remaking the world into the creation God wants through the church. Only think of his churches! Little, bedraggled, occasionally persecuted communities scattered across the Mediterranean with few resources. Think of their misbehavior! Not just petty church peccadilloes like gossip and lust (though those are bad enough), but a man sleeping with his father’s wife, believers in the one true God playing footsie with idols, theft and lying and violence—God has wiped out whole civilizations for less. Are these the people through whom God is renewing the cosmos?

Um, yes. There are no “better” people available. The only good one is Jesus Christ, the poor Jew raised from the dead who is God’s own Son, and King, and self, all over again. God’s determination to have the creation God wants will not be thwarted by our pension for using even Christian faith as a cudgel against our enemies. God takes that cudgel from our hands and remakes it into a cross, on which God dies for us. And for our worst enemies.

One experience I have appreciated living on the west coast of Canada is watching that country wrestle with its colonialist past. By the time Europeans settled the northwest coast of North America in the late 19th and early 20th century, we’d funneled first nation tribes disproportionately into that region (in Canada, “Indian” is approaching the n-word for its level of offensiveness). In North America writ large, European settlers first saw indigenous people die in droves from diseases that no one understood. Then they took land, sometimes paying token amounts, and established frontiers, that inevitably pushed west. More humane Canadians in the late 19th century, largely church leaders, pushed the government to take indigenous children from their families and teach them European ways—cut their hair, cut them off from their mother tongue, their lands. The idea was to save the child by killing the Indian, to use language then used. The result, of course, was what we see now as “cultural genocide.” Residential schools were funded by the government but run by churches, which in recent years have paid serious sums in reparation (much of which has gone to lawyers rather than the people harmed). A colonializing story of taking land gives way to a shamed story of giving money back. But again to hear the rhetoric, what answer short of giving back Canada and moving back to Europe or wherever could suffice? None. Even if that were to happen, people, children even, cannot be un-murdered, un-abused.

At Vancouver School of Theology I teach with a Cree colleague from Treaty Eight Territory as he calls it, Northern Alberta as other Canadians call it. Ray Aldred has also spoken at Urbana. He had a radical conversion after hallucinating from drugs and alcohol, and almost passing out in a bathroom. He became a Jesus freak, and is now most sympathetic with smells-and-bells Anglicanism. He will be Dr. Aldred soon with his degree from the University of Toronto. Ray tells me of a meeting between Paul Martin, then Prime Minister of Canada, and several first nations luminaries, in which Martin, a serious Catholic, asked a genuinely open question: How can you all still be Christian after all that Christians have done to you?

Think of the layers of wisdom and gentleness that had to go into that question. Hanging in there with Christian faith on both sides, asking the hardest critical question, remaining open for a hard response. The answer came from one of the indigenous people there, with some pause for effect:

“Because … Jesus … is … God?”

I love the halting, yet confident, tone in the response, the interrogative at the end suggesting an ongoing conversation. But that’s the seed of all Christian confession, and therefore of all reconciliation: the one risen from the dead restores the cosmos, heals all our diseases, mends all we have torn, makes all things new.

I worry about the profound moralism in the shrill denunciation of anyone not woke to the latest injustice in a long line of injustices. I worry more about the people in power denouncing the whole thing as a charade while using it for partisan gain. The world is ever thus. Put not your trust in princes, the Scriptures insist over and over again. Those of us with trust in Jesus know he will heal all our ills. And then this is the difficult and scandalous part. If we are part of a community of privilege that has historically benefited from stepping on the faces of those over whom we had power, even if it was not we ourselves, but our forebears, we have to go to them. We must learn the story of what has happened. We must ask forgiveness.

This is as far as secularism in the west, funded by a Christian tradition it does not understand and usually publicly denounces, can go: “I’m sorry,” followed by payments to the lawyers, some of which trickles down to the descendants of people our ancestors hurt.

But here is the more interesting and radical thing. We might hear the words, “I forgive you.” Now those are weighty words. Heavy as a cross. More serious than “it’s all good.” Those words knit people together in community called church, where we worship together, know one another’s children’s names, make our lives together, share goods, tend to the weakest over the strongest—in short, where we are being made over into the kind of people God longs for all humanity to be.

I understand why some reject the accusations as so much do-gooder nonsense. The weight of our sins is too much to bear and no one can go back and fix the past. But one has risen from the dead with the power to make things new. I understand why some don’t trust white people ever to do the right thing with our privilege. The record is clear and nearly unequivocal on this score. Yet many of them also worship a Jesus who forgives them their sins, and writes into our most important prayer that such forgiveness is premised on their forgiveness of others. If we are willing to go to the place of pain with one another we might meet there a Jesus, risen from the dead, with scars not erased but transfigured into glory, sharing his glory with all of us, the least likely (by our lights) first.

And then maybe the world will notice our gospel is interesting enough to scandalize and transfigure all things.

Posted Oct 09, 2019