Jesus– Changing the World One Heart, One Structure at a Time

In Chapter 2 of Consuming Jesus, Metzger explores the reality that evangelicals are often blind to social structures that reinforce racialization (race’s impact on everything–from healthcare to education to occupation, etc). Evangelicals emphasize personal conversion and individual responsibility, and many believe that identifying social structures only serves as an obstacle to preaching the gospel and getting individuals saved. While Metzger highlights the vital need for personal conversion, he also claims that such emphasis on personal conversion must be coupled with thoughtful consideration of the societal structures that shape us. Personal conversion is necessary, but is not in and of itself sufficient to solve the world’s ills. They reach far beyond the individual.  Jesus changes the world one person at a time, but in cooperation with this, he also changes the world one structure at a time. It is my desire that Christ’s concern for both the individual conversion and the structural conversion be integrated more thoughtfully into the American evangelical ethos.

 

Emerson and Smith (referenced in Consuming Jesus) address this tendency of emphasizing the individual transformation over/against the structural transformation. They refer to it in part as the “miracle motif”: Get people converted and social-structural problems (i.e., racialization) will then disappear. These same authors claim that, “This antistructural orientation reveals a lack of proper awareness–the absence of a key tool or tools for remedying racialization in America, especially within the Christian church” (Emerson-Smith, Divided By Faith, pp. 76, 78; quoted in Consuming Jesus, p. 58). This is why I appreciated David Swanson’s concrete suggestions (presented as a follow-up comment to his latest entry on this blog titled “Reflections on the Inauguration”) on how to work with intentionality toward building diverse ethnic and class unity in the context of our churches.  Intentional engagement of church structures is essential; the church is Christ’s witness to the world. It is our opportunity and responsibility to transform the church to be the powerful voice of a liberating and transforming Christ. 

 

I’ve been reading Chris Rice’s “Grace Matters”, and it has been rocking my world. It is his story about working and living in a multi-ethnic community in Jackson, Mississippi, and his audacity, strength, and suffering in being put through the fires of racial reconciliation. It has been striking me to the core to realize that speaking about these things in theory is one thing, but to intentionally do something about them, to throw oneself in there and be willing to die to self, suffer and be humiliated in order to learn deep truths and gain deep, healing relationships is what makes being a Christian so meaningful. It is how we experience the profundity of Christ’s love. As I read Chris’s story, I see how it contextualizes Metzger’s challenge to us as believers to consider the bigger picture. Rice’s story gives a perfect example of how gospel work does not stop, and is not limited to individual conversion. Structural engagement is a necessary component of healing longstanding racial wounds and changing existing structures. 

 

Jesus challenged and overturned the structures of his time, as in the event of overturning the tables in the temple (where people groups were being divided). If people are dying in their spirits and hearts because of racial oppression, injustice and division, who are we to say that addressing these ills is getting in the way of the gospel? That is the gospel incarnated. When I hear: “We don’t want that to stand in the way of the gospel”, I hear the voice of a passive (or aggressive) oppressor. Jesus is about freedom, liberation and empowerment (in Him). Passively perpetuating a church body that segregates and a faith that oppresses is not perpetuating the heart and call of Jesus Christ. I am convinced that the more we live in diverse, sacrificial community and serve the marginalized and oppressed as Chris Rice and others have done, we are then able to identify and value our own inter-connectedness and integral responsibility of social structures. As the saying goes, if we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem. 

 

I’d love to hear your responses to these questions:

 

Do you see as problematic the belief that race problems automatically disappear once people get converted?

 

How important is conversion to the healing of race problems?

 

How important to race reconciliation is the addressing of structural problems?

 

Have you witnessed people in communities who are balancing rightful concern for personal conversion with conversion of social structures in addressing race problems?

 

Do you see things in your own life that are at odds with promoting reconciliation and sacrificial love of “the other”? 

 

In the power of Christ’s transforming love, what steps can you take both inside and outside the church, to overturn structures that reinforce race and class divisions? 

4 Responses to “Jesus– Changing the World One Heart, One Structure at a Time”

  1. Chelsea Pang Says:

    Great post! Im Rachel’s sister. When I think of those who don’t want to mix structural issues with spiritural, I think of the excuses mounted by many in our country to resist the civil rights movement. If our Christian African American citizens did not demand justice, demand policies that reflect love and Christian ideals, then we might still have Jim Crow and rampant racial injustices. Now, we are not cured from our societal evils, we will always struggle and so we must always advocate for, as you say so well, both structural and personal spiritual accountablility. My other degree is in sociology and I tend to look at the world that way, that people are motivated by social variables. For centuries societies have ‘used’ Christianity to authorize many injustices. As Christians we sin and are influenced negatively by our surroundings and are misguided, to hate gays, to not help the poor because they deserve it, to go to war against another religion or for oil (whatever), to want people to be Christians but not serve them, to excuse ourselves from supporting the policies that help the poor, sick and hungry because ‘the government isn’t our help’, to focus on the behavior of non-Christians instead of saving their heart on issues like abortion, drug use, extramarital sex and to ‘believe’ in capitalism as if it is a Christain ideal.

    K, so to answer your questions:
    Do you see as problematic the belief that race problems automatically disappear once people get converted?

    Yes! Because it is not true…we have to work very hard just to not continue to sin on the basic areas of our life. We will not realize the racism in our hearts unless it is revealed to us. Church-talk usually isn’t in the business of asking their congregations to self-reflect on their biases. Additionally, modern style of Christianity is becoming very individualistic, so sermons are focused on how to improve our lives instead of how to improve our impact on other’s lives.

    How important is conversion to the healing of race problems?

    We will always have sin and will always have non-believers. But we do not need to always have institutional and structural racism. For the salvation of individual souls, yes conversion is imperative to start the work of healing a racist heart. But we can also make that racist heart not do racist things with policies, until they are converted:)

    How important to race reconciliation is the addressing of structural problems?

    If I understand the question correctly, race reconciliation requires Christians who know the love of Christ and his standards for how we treat each other, to lead the work of addressing the structural problems

    Have you witnessed people in communities who are balancing rightful concern for personal conversion with conversion of social structures in addressing race problems?

    I don’t think so…

    Do you see things in your own life that are at odds with promoting reconciliation and sacrificial love of “the other”?

    Yes, the way I spend my money and use resources, meaning I could donate more and not buy products from systems that perpetual poverty and injustice.

    In the power of Christ’s transforming love, what steps can you take both inside and outside the church, to overturn structures that reinforce race and class divisions?

    Talk about it, pray, vote, engage my representatives. There should be more but I ran out of thoughts. Looking forward to hearing what other’s say…

    Chelsea Pang

  2. Kelsi Says:

    Thank you Chelsea for your feedback. I agree with your sentiments, it is necessary to carefully consider the implications that we predominantly hear “individual” oriented sermons in churches, and we focus on the outward, behavioral over the inward and heart issues (which manifest themselves in and through relationships). These two things definitely feed into the challenge that we have as believers to transform the way we engage social and structural ills. As you said, “for centuries societies have ‘used’ Christianity to authorize many injustices”. It may take years, centuries, but I am committed to see that change–to see the voice of Christianity be recognized as one of a liberating and justice-loving faith of a redeeming Lord. Imagine the possibility.

  3. Rachel O'Brien Says:

    Thank you ladies. Chelsea; I am inspired to know that those outside seminary and other institutions also account for systemic evil. I agree that as much as we may desire a single soul saved, we cannot reduce our efforts to those who subscribe to our “system”, because we do so often turn our faith into a system, our churches into factories and our brothers and sisters into stepping stones to spiritual ascension. While we know hypothetically that racism exists I am still unconvinced as Chelsea said that our churches are in the business of self reflection of biases. While we overtly encourage memorization of scripture and attending Sunday service we subvert and ignore questions of reconciliation and unity. Why do we do this? Why do I need to know the four spiritual laws but do not need to know how to live Galatians 3:28?

  4. Bryan Dormaier Says:

    In response to your first question Kelsi, I see not just the assumption that race problems disappear when one becomes a Christian, but the assumption that any problem of sin automatically disappears as us not understanding the lifelong process of sanctification.

    That is, much of the problem is that we as evangelicals see becoming a Christ follower as a one time decision – you say the prayer and you are in. Taking the ideas of discipleship and sanctification seriously brings us to something much different.

    In one regard, it is tough to use race relations, personal piety, or any other thing as a sure mark of authentic experience of Christ. Yet it is my role as pastor to sneakily push and prod, to know when to challenge and when to allow something to lay there latent. And this is all a part of those things of discipleship and sanctification.

    As a church I see the issue of addressing structural evil (a term I do not plan on using as a pastor) as a sticky business. On the one hand, we are to be advocates of God’s Kingdom way. In that way I am optimistic that we are to readily address these issues. On the other hand is the pessimistic side of me, which wonders to what level the church really can influence its surrounding culture. This isn’t even a discussion if we aren’t in America, where the church is established and in a place of power. When I balance my optimism and pessimism, I come to a place of saying we definitely should be at work in these issues, but what place do I have to speak to culture, if our church isn’t even getting it.

    That’s a long way of saying, I am all for addressing structural issues, but I wonder if we might be better suited to start by addressing those issues in our churches.

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