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?