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Following a Brown Radical

Right off the bat, let me acknowledge that I am a white cis male. My parents are still together. I own a house (at least the part the bank doesn't own) and don't have to think about where my next meal is coming from. I could go on, but when you look at a definition of privilege, I am close to ticking all the boxes. I am not ashamed of who I am. But I am increasingly aware of the power that gives me. I don't even pretend to know what it is like to be anyone other than me. Yet as I awaken to my own privilege, I begin to see the world others exist in and my role in keeping it that way. And I realise that a key responsibility of my privilege is to do something to tip that balance of power in any way I can for those who don't have the privilege of doing that themselves. Standing with them. Fighting with them. Ensuring my voice is not louder than theirs in their spaces, but speaking up when it is my people who need to hear. These last few weeks power and privilege have been at the forefront of my mind as I have seen the worldwide rallying around the Black Lives Matter movement and others like it and the pushback from mostly those in positions of privilege, the continual belittling and demeaning of LQBTQIA+ people (or the American supreme court ruling in the other direction - the mere fact that a court ruling was needed to tell people to treat people as human is part of the issue here) by those who are part of the dominant narrative - especially the dominant western church narrative, and the ongoing injustices in our own country where being Māori or Pacifica still means often facing prejudice and discrimination on a daily basis - even in many of 'our' churches. As I weigh up all of these things I notice one disturbing truth. My faith - Christianity - is at the heart of many, if not all, of these injustices, either through direct action, inaction, or total ignorance. This breaks my heart, because the God we claim to serve would not condone any of it. Yet in the hands of the powerful, what should be good news for the powerless, the oppressed, the marginalised, is instead a weapon of prejudice, racism, and exclusion. So there are some things about my Christian faith that need saying. Not to those on the receiving end of these injustices, but to those of us who claim to follow Jesus, while living comfortably in the privilege awarded us simply by being a member of the dominant culture. These are things that often go unsaid. Things that, left unsaid, shape theology in unhealthy and unhelpful ways. Dangerous ways. Ways that spit in the face of Jesus.

Jesus was not white

That's right. No matter what all the renaissance paintings show us. No matter what children's bibles teach us through their images. Jesus was Jewish. He was brown. He was part of an indigenous people, living in a land that they belonged to (not the other way around), yet under the rule of the Roman Empire. He has far more in common with Māori, Aboriginal or First Nations people than he does with me. That not only includes his skin colour, but also his connection to land, his understanding of living as a suppressed minority, and his indigenous (very non-western) way of viewing and understanding the world. Until we really wrestle with that truth we will never hear the heart of the message he brought.

The Bible is not a tool for the powerful

When you begin to look into when parts of the Bible were written, or at least when they were edited and compiled into collections of texts, you start to notice something. The Bible was entirely written/edited/collated by an indigenous people in times where they were being oppressed by the world power of the day. Be that Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, or Rome. These texts helped the Jewish people to make sense of their current reality, and gave them hope for a future that was better, redemptive, even glorious. These texts brought hope to the oppressed and critique to the powerful. Jesus himself saved his harsh critiques entirely for those who held power. In Luke 6 he speaks blessings over the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated, the insulted and the rejected. He then turns his attention directly to the religious elite - those who held the power - saying “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort." Now he continues with a bunch more woes to the powerful, but it's this one that is stuck in my head. Okay. So I'm currently on what is considered a low-ish wage and am going through a redundancy process. So I could try to claim to be poor here. But I'm not. If I look at that first paragraph up there, I'm 'rich' in so many ways. If, as it did in Jesus critique, 'rich' is a synonym for holding power/privilege, then I am indeed 'rich'. And woe to me if I do not see that, or if I do but let it continue to prop me up while I do nothing for those less privileged that I. Jesus concern was for those who didn't fit the systems created by the 'rich'. Those who were different. Those who were rejected, shunned, ridiculed. And the writings in the years after Jesus continued this same heart, fighting for the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalised. Standing up to and critiquing the empire and others in positions of power (some poor interpretations of texts often end up offering the opposite, but that is for another time). Unfortunately, much of the western church is so 'rich' that we don't see the message that these sacred texts bring to us. We mistakenly see the Bible as a tool to support our agendas, and credit God for 'blessing' us, despite that 'blessing' often coming on the back of past and present atrocities and injustices. Yet misunderstanding who the Jesus we follow really is and not seeing the intense critique of privilege and power that courses through the veins of Scripture causes a complete undermining of the very faith we hold.

It is why we can have a wealthy, powerful white man holding a Bible in front of a church for a photo op so that his (largely white evangelical) voting base would know that God is on their side and that things will be okay. It is why we can have a white male pastor, in the city I live in and love, stand up with all the power that his privilege affords him, magnified by the power that holding a mic in a church gives (and let's be honest, that is a position of huge power and influence), belittling, ridiculing, and further marginalising people based on race or orientation. And in doing so he mocked the very types of people Jesus stood for and with. It is why Māori were stripped of their riches, denied entry to the tables of power, and subjected to British law after signing a treaty to form a partnership with the British Crown. And why we now, in Māori women, have the highest incarceration rate of the world's indigenous population. It is why missionaries could come with the early settlers and do so much good in Aotearoa, but also cause so much pain and suffering for Māori by not being able to disentangle the good news they carried from the empire on whose behalf they carried it.

It is why in many of 'our' churches there are very few LGBTQIA+ people because they don't feel welcome. Or why even those Māori who do attend have to fit into a western style service and check their māoritanga at the door. So to my people. Pākehā people of the Christian faith living in this land we now call New Zealand. Hear the heart of the good news. Let us humble ourselves. Listen more than we talk. Know that the Jesus we love and serve, and the good news he brought, is about the subverting of power for the sake of the powerless; the undermining of the systems of the rich for the sake of the poor. And that our faith is NEVER to be used as a weapon, but always as a tool of love, compassion, and reconciliation. As Aaron Hendry recently wrote, "The Jesus we serve was a brown, radical activist that fought and died for the liberation of the oppressed. He taught us that God is on the side of those who are marginalized, and that the Divine is on the side of Justice." Let it be so in word and deed. Or woe to us, for we have already received our comfort. ____

For more discussion on inclusion and embrace check out episode 7 of the podcast, with Jeremy Faumuinā.


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