Sunday, April 13, 2014

Anti-Slavery Campaign Interview Series. David Evans (Part 2)

David Evans

Yago: As a child you had a broken family. You say that at home you didn’t talk much about faith. The environment could be identified as non-Christian. Could you share with us how did this influenced your spiritual journey in the beginnings of your life?

David: I think there was a “religion” of sorts in my home. I was taught to pray from a young age and I was taught to love everyone. But did not regularly participate in institutional religion until early adolescence. When I did embrace the Christian religion as my faith tradition, I did so as a person thirst for instruction and order. I think this was to fill in the disorder that I felt so often in my younger years.

Yago: In your childhood and adolescence you could experienced different faith communities such as Baptist, Evangelical, main-line Protestant Lutheran and Roman Catholic. That was the spiritual milieu you grew up in. Could you share with us how this background has shaped you ecumenically? Could you experience any common racial component in all these denominations?

David: One of my undergraduate professors called me a speckled fish because of my vast experiences in multiple denominations. I gained a passion for Christian unity and ecumenism because I grew up attending Catholic church with my grandparents, Baptist with my father, and Lutheran with my mother. I could function in each environment, but did not understand some of those denominations were opposed to one another when it seemed that each was trying to express it’s worship and understanding of God in a particular way. Denominations are just that, particular expressions of Christian faith, different in kind, but all part of the same currency.  What I found intriguing in my experience and study of history is that with all of the theological and aesthetic diversity most Christian denominations share one thing in common: they are divided by race.

Yago: You talk about being indoctrinated and a fundamentalist at that time. You defined your Christian identity by what you were against. This became your spiritual heritage. Could you share with us what do you mean by this?

David: Fundamentalism is reactionary. Christian fundamentalism emerged in response to the epistemological challenges of American Modernism. Some Christians felt threatened by Marx, Freud, and Darwin, especially Darwin. These Christians formed a Christian faith fashioned around their fears and essentialized the Christian faith into a set of propositional truth claims. The fundamentalists defined themselves over and against the liberals/modernists and attempted to become everything that the liberal/modernists were not. Of course both were modernists, but they reflected different sides of modern epistemology; one represented the scientific method and the other represented deductive reasoning. I was taught to despise liberals and scientific epistemologies. My Christian quest was to find heresy and argue against it. This was my spiritual formation.

Yago: What you discovered over time is that this was one kind of Christianity, it was “white” Christianity, which does not see self as relevant. What do you mean by that?

David: I was first introduced to the Christian religion in formal Catholic and Lutheran settings. Here the God of the Bible was a transcendent God. Jesus was one to be worshipped, not necessarily followed. Never did the message of the gospel touch my heart, soul, or emotions. Rather, this God was an object to be studied, to agree with, to sing about, and even to proclaim. Never did I experience the Emmanuel, God-with-us, that we sang about during Advent. I experienced a disconnected spirituality that was most salient on Sunday, but never challenged me to follow, to change, to live on any day of the week. The symbols and messages of this Christian story supported and, at times, promoted white systems of domination and taught me that assimilating to its norms was the only hope that I had for full inclusion in the community as it was structured. Though Summer camp presented a God that touched my heart, this God never touched my circumstances. In fact, this presentation of the Christian God did more to justify my everyday experiences than did the Christian God of Sunday. Nevertheless, both the Sunday God and the Heart God were white Christian Gods. And each taught me to reject myself. 

The Sunday God taught me to reject darkness and cultural forms that did not fit traditional Anglo-Saxon norms. The Heart God taught me to reject my literal “self” in service to God. I was encouraged to pray John the Baptist’s prayer, “I must decrease so that He will increase.” I recall one occasion when I was 14 years old, the camp director stood in front of the chapel holding large cards that named sins that we should all avoid. I nodded as he held up “LYING,” “STEALING,” “LUST”… but when he flashed a card that read “PRIDE,” I shuddered.  My informal African American education had taught me that pride was essential to my future. I needed to love myself and believe in myself if I was ever to overcome that obstacles that stood before me in my skin in US society. I asked my counselors about pride and they confirmed that it was evil, that self can be an idol. I needed to take the focus off of myself. I was told that my emotions were enemies. The message, do not trust yourself, do not trust your heart because it is wicked. This was damaging to my psyche. 

In a world that constantly told me that I was not beautiful, not intelligent, that I was destined to failure, to laziness, to thriftlessness I was culturally inclined to hate myself already. What had attracted me to the heart gospel that this camp preached was the message that “Jesus loves me.” God loved my self, but I was not supposed to? For powerful and privileged people riddled with guilt from hypocritical living, it might make sense to have distrust for one’s motives, but should a person who has been told to hate themselves for their entire life be taught that God wants them to be suspicious of themselves too?

Yago: It was only when you began to read African-American authors saying “love your neck, love that black skin, love that black hair, because nobody else is going to love it”, that you began to believe more in yourself. Who African-American authors influenced you the most? How were they related to Christianity?

David: Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison taught me that it was not only permissible to love myself, but that it was imperative. I could name others, but I am self-consciously allowing myself to be shaped by their insights. It was Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved that was the source of the quote you mentioned. She was not claiming a Christian ethic in particular, but she was claiming something more akin to a human ethic. Christianity should include a human ethic, but it has been used in the west for extremely inhumane ends. That said, Black Christianity influenced me because it taught me to love myself, to see Jesus as a marginalized oppressed person. This Jesus, rather than the white one, would love my skin, neck, and hair.

Yago: You had to shake off the encrusted Christ of Western Christianity in order to find the black Jesus, the Jesus of the suffering of this land. How would you describe the black Jesus in comparison with the distorted Jesus presented by the Empire?

Warner Sallman
David: Warner Sallman’s is the most frequently seen representation of white Jesus. Of course, The incarnation authorizes the in flesh representation of God on Earth. People have created icons in the form of statues and images in honor of the incarnation. In this vain, people have used the incarnation to represent Jesus incarnate in their ethnic or racial identity. But the apologists for white Jesus make no such claim about ethnic or racial identity. They suggest that Jesus is should not be limited to a particular race or ethnic heritage. They espouse a universal Christ. Their Jesus isn’t particularly white, they seem to suggest. Instead this Jesus is the universal Jesus. The truth is Jesus was a Jew. If Jesus was universal in anyway, then he was universal because he was particular.

Yago: You had to wrestled with the question if it is God in anyway racist. What was the evolution of your answer?

David: God as articulated by much of western culture is a white racist. But just as my true self is not the encrustation of cultural and social identities, neither should God be understood as simply the sum of all our metaphors about God. White colonialism and imperialism has committed many crimes in the name of God, which then makes the God of colonialism and imperialism a white racist.

I’ve come to the conclusion that this is not God, but rather a projection of white domination given cosmic power by religious myth. In this sense, Christians are not all worshiping the same God. I’ve since rejected the God who hates darkness, authorizes the killing of children, drowns the planet and exchanged that God for a God who suffers with, dies for, and creates space for loving all things and makes all things new.

Yago: David, you are currently teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. You say that a “Missio Dei” course is an identity course. It is about what does it mean be a Christian. Why do we often escape talking about identity issues? Why is so threating to talk about identity and our Christian identity?

David: Mission is a mirror. The theological perspectives, programs, and strategies for mission say very little about the objects of the missionary enterprise, but they speak loudly of the missionary’s identity. The results of mission are products of the missionary imagination.  If we take this seriously, then it should mean that when things go “wrong” we would turn our attention to ourselves rather than outwardly to the “other.” Such a look may again threaten the missionary industrial complex. It may mean discovering truths about ourselves, others, and God that would require deep changes that could effect capital, employment, and our egos.

Yago: You talk about cultural intelligence. What does it mean to be culturally intelligent if we want to be really faithful to God’s Mission?

David: God’s mission is to make all things new by putting together that which has been broken by our collective and individual actions, words, symbols, structures and systems.

Jesus put it this way, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This new world is one in which the interrelated structure of reality, what Martin Luther King Jr called the “single garment of destiny,” will be evident in the peace and justice— theological words for unity and wholeness—that human beings will experience across racial, gendered, and nationalist lines and all creation will experience with one another. This does not mean that racial, sexual, and tribal identities will be obliterated or bleached out as the white supremacist vision suggests, but that the full diversity of God’s creation in all of its beauty will experience a Beloved Community bound together by love and grace. Such a vision begs of Christians to begin to bridge divides today which will require Cultural Intelligence. Cultural intelligence, the capability to effectively engage in cross-cultural settings, is based on four principles: 1) self-understanding that recognizes our motivations for cross-cultural engagement and our attitudes about difference, 2) other-understanding that explores and celebrates differences between people groups, 3) strategies for engaging in cross-cultural experiences, and 4) developing skills to grow more effective in our cross-cultural experiences. The danger of attempting to reconcile to others without having first taken the time to engage in these four principles can be seen in the histories of cultural genocide, colonial exploitation, and imperial domination. Therefore, we must be deliberate about knowing ourselves and learning about others, valuing both experiences, before we attempt to engage one another.

Yago: What do you mean when you say that the poor have an epistemological advantage in living and understanding God’s word. How do we have access to that epistemological locus?

David: Those who are economically poor have needs that they cannot provide for themselves. In reality, this fact is true for all people. Economically poor people, however, are very aware that this is the case. The economically wealthy are often fooled into believing that they alone are responsible for their success. In this way the economically poor have an epistemological advantage because they recognize that they need God and they need others to be their best version of themselves. As Martin Luther King Jr has said, “I cannot be what I need to be unless you are what you need to be.” People who believe that they are self-sufficient have not only no need for other people, they can convince themselves that they have no need for God either.  The poor have no choice but to recognize that they are dependent upon other people, the earth, God for sustenance. The ability to recognize that we are limited is a  special gift that comes along with poverty. The economically poor also know something about living with less that the wealthy do not know and in a world dominated by the new imperialism, also known as global capitalism, knowing how to live with less possessions is crucial.

Yago: Talking about knowledge, you say that one of your guiding ethical principles is that “knowledge makes you responsible.” When you know something you have an ethical responsibility. How does it apply to Missio Dei and the deconstruction of “white” Christianity?

David: Put quite simply, we know that white Christianity has been responsible for many great crimes. That is, we are aware that Christian missions have inaugurated genocides, cultural racism, and exploitation of people’s bodies. Because we know this, Christians are responsible for creating new practices and theologies that make it impossible for such things to ever happen again in the name of Jesus the Christ. 

Yago: During the week on race and diversity at Eastern Mennonite University you said that “One only grows in compassion and understanding by imagining life from another’s perspectives.” You are also inviting us to be into a reality that no one has been there yet. What is the role of Imagination in “Missio Dei”?

David: Imagination is the beginning and the end of Missio Dei, because the mission of God is taking us to God’s dream, the eschaton. In other words the mission of God is contained within the eschatological vision of God. Since none of us has ever seen this vision, we are left with only word pictures from scripture and our minds to imagine what this new reality may constitute.

Yago: Howard Snyder says that “salvation means creation healed”. Would you agree with him? What does he mean?

David: There is no future apart from Creation. Humans are part of that God’s creation, but we have set ourselves apart from it and in so doing permitted ourselves to exploit and dominate everything and everyone around us. Howard Snyder is not saying anything that has not already been communicated in scripture. What he has done by reminding us of the holistic nature of salvation is that he has proclaimed that the interrelated structure of reality extends beyond human beings. God has promised to make all things new.  Human beings cannot thrive apart from the air, the water, or the soil.  We need other living organisms to make our ecosystems thrive.

Yago: What do you mean by the term “missionary complex”?

David: Christian churches in the United States have created a multi-million dollar enterprise out of short-term mission trips. Denominations use monetary and human resources to support mission agencies. Other mission agencies operate apart from denominational structures. Mission in this context has become an industry. As many of us, especially those of us who come from historically subjugated and oppressed groups, study Christian mission we are becoming convinced that the roots of Christian mission in the West are diseased with colonialism, imperialism, racism, sexism, paternalism, and white superiority. Today we could name this hegemonic disease as global capitalism. Mission agencies can be captive to it because they are structures dependent upon a certain form of international ministry that supports their survival. Each year some 4-5 million people participate in short-term Christian mission trips spending somewhere around 2.5 billion dollars annually. To fundamentally change that structure would threaten the livelihood of people who have made careers out of ministry built on an imperialist model. The gospel is a threat to this complex, because Jesus calls each one of us to a mission to our neighbors, to literally love as Mother Theresa defined the term “those closest” to us.

Yago: What is the danger of a single story? How single stories are being told?

David: The danger of a single story is not that it is not true, it is likely true in part. The danger is that because it is believed to be universally true, it flattens other stories and allows for exploitation, misunderstanding, and unequal power dynamics in relationships.

Yago: Some Christians say that the only source of revelation is Scripture. Could this be understood as a single story? Do you believe it?

David: I think this is a different phenomenon than a single story. I would describe this as bibliolatry or making a god out of the Bible.

Yago: You say that Jesus did not come to write a book but to create a community. Why then we invest so much time in learning about the Book and not so much about learning how to relate and live in community and within organizations?

Lesslie Newbiggin
David: Those are Lesslie Newbiggin’s words, not mine. But to answer your question, theological institutions were largely built for the leisure class, people who had time to suspend life for 3-5 years so that they could read about, study and write about theology. Blue collar people cannot do this. One result is that the shape of theological education caters to a class of people who live in a world of abstract ideas, but who know little about the realities of the majority of people on the planet. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the academic study of the Bible, we can be tempted to believe that reading and assenting to the truths that we extract from the text is the desired outcome, when in reality the goal of the Christian life is to live like Christ, not quote Bible verses, however profound or true they might be. And to live like Christ is to “love your neighbor, as yourself.” We have all the wrong types of fundamentalists who take all the wrong words literally. Christian churches are in need of people who take the concept of neighbor literally, because strong communities are comprised of people who are close to one another in space and time. Our globalized capitalist world has made the concept of neighbor into an abstract idea, but Jesus touched and lived with his neighbors so much that he shaped them and his story was shaped by them. 

Yago: You say that in our Churches we talk a lot about poverty, but we don’t talk much about richness and wealth. We don’t talk much about the system that perpetuates poverty. Why is this? What is wrong?

David: I can’t speak for every Christian context, but in the United States, white Evangelicalism has had a strong influence over the development of American Christianity. One of the hallmarks of the white Evangelical gospel is personal relationship with Jesus, which has produced an anti-structural free-will individualist spirituality. Such a spirituality trains those who are captive to it to deny the power of structures and systems so that they can focus on proselytizing individuals. This kind of anti-structural perspective only strengthens the economic exploitative practices of multi-national corporations and the global capitalist machine, because these structures thrive on their invisibility. And by emphasizing free-will individualism evangelicals refuse to see such structures.

Yago: You know that finding your voice has been part of your mission. You understand “Missio Dei” as “lifting every voice,” constructing Christian Theologies from the underside. Mission starts by oneself. Would you agree on that?

David: Mission is a mirror. There are few other Christian activities that can so poignantly demonstrate how we perceive of God, what we think of others, and what we believe we bring to the world. Even though missionaries, by definition, cast their attention outward, the irony of mission is that your missionary beliefs and actions communicate far more about your own spirituality and psychology than they do about God or the objects of your missionary activity. 

Because of this, I am not seeking to construct a missiology or a theology from the underside, overside, margins, or center.  There can be no doubt that my experiences of Christianity from the underside of oppression inform me, they are my mirror reflecting back at me when I write and when I speak. Even more than that, I intentionally choose to learn about myself, others, and God by reflecting on my experiences and living in community with others so that I might be transformed by the renewing of my mind. As I see it this is only possible by becoming a disciple who follows Jesus example of extravagant love, voluntary weakness, intellectual humility, corporate responsibility, feminism, racial equality, economic justice, and neighborly peace. This type of deliberate discipleship is crucial because I construct my missiology and theology while keeping in mind Richard Rohr’s warning, “'We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live our way into new ways of thinking.”

Yago: You say that without liberating historical events, there would be no growth of the kingdom. From where do we start this process of transforming historical harms?

David: A simple truth is, “That which is denied cannot be healed.” Christians are a confessing people. We believe in the power of forgiveness and value reconciliation. Christian churches are in need of healing, which means that they are also in need of confession, forgiveness and reconciliation. I tend to think that the last words of a dying man are important, and one of the last things that Jesus said in the gospel of John was, “I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one--as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.” Unifying people across dividing walls of racial, gendered, national, and class hostilities is a public witness that God is present in our midst. This process begins by confessing Christianity’s complicity in the oppressive forces that have shaped world. Such confession can break Christian bondage to colonialism, imperialism, racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of oppression. It is not simply individuals or nations that need the liberating and healing power of Jesus, it is the very Body of Christ that needs liberation and by repenting from the hegemonic forces of global domination to a fundamentalist passion for neighborly love its members can begin the process of setting it free.

Yago: Finally, salvation is primarily in this moment! Right here! Right now! Where God is! Salvation is a very present thing. Would you agree with this?

David: Yes! I am a Methodist Christian who agrees with the words of John Wesley, “Salvation is a future and a present thing.” The future does not exist, now is all we have, it is all we have ever had, and it will be all that we will ever have. This truth is at the heart of Jesus statement, “Do not worry about tomorrow.” Thus salvation is not far, but “at hand.” “Today is the day of salvation, says the Lord.” The good news is that we can experience salvation today if we are willing to live into it by loving God and loving our neighbor, not the abstract neighbor we have yet to meet (we can only love that one if and when we meet her), but by loving the one nearest to us. When we can truly love our neighbor we experience salvation, we experience peace, wholeness, justice and the very presence of God. For Jesus has said, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.”

Yago: David, thanks a lot for your witness. The way you are processing and deconstructing your life is a great resource for all the readers of this blog.  Thanks for your authenticity and wisdom. 

David: Thanks to you Yago!

Link to Part 1 (In Search of a Black Identity) >>