STAYING UNDER THE UMBRELLA
“Can two walk together unless they be agreed?” Amos 3.3
If you have ever tried walking in the rain under an umbrella with another person then you know that it takes a bit of care and intentionality to actually share it. One has to work at keeping both of you under the umbrella otherwise someone is hanging out a little too much. The “guest” who is being included may not realize that the “host” who is holding the umbrella may be actually sacrificing themselves while trying to keep the guest under cover. The closer the two people get to the handle, and to each other, the more protected each will be.
There can be a bit of awkwardness to sharing an umbrella. You might not be sure about how close you want to get to the other person. Will you be forced to put your arm around them, touch hands, shoulders, or hips? People are not always the same height, they don’t always walk at the same pace. How does this get worked out? Someone usually takes the initiative and does whatever they can to keep the other person covered even at the cost of their own exposure. Mutual cooperation and adjustment seem to be the secret of making it from the car to the store without getting too wet. I’m short and I may have to give up the right to hold the umbrella to a taller person, otherwise he is out in the rain.
Umbrellas and tents have been used as metaphor to help us visualize bringing people together under one idea, one purpose, or sense of purpose. These metaphors lack punch unless one realizes that there is indeed an environment to which we are exposed. It is always raining something, whether water or sunshine, and both can reach a point where we realize we need some cover. My point in this writing is that not only do we need cover, but that to actually get the covering we have to share it. I suppose you could say I want a theology of golf umbrellas versus that of the collapsible one person kind.
I understand that no one wants to share an umbrella, or probably anything else, with someone that they believe to be an enemy or someone they feel will bring them harm. That is exactly what I wish to examine, i.e., the standards people use to make the choice of exclusion and the refusal to share a close space.
There are two areas that are my present concern, both have to do with the context and history of my ministry and involvement. First is the Christian social justice movement and the second is the area of race and reconciliation ministry. The umbrella metaphor is helpful when we realize that as Christians we are trying to get to some place together, at least we ought to be mindful of what Jesus demands of us in terms of love, unity, and reconciliation. I can preach love but if I don’t want you under my umbrella it might be hard for others to believe that I actually practice what I preach. I might advocate social justice, but if I am not very social in my crusade for justice just what am I about?
Unity is often difficult to achieve. Meaningful and continuing relationships of cooperation in ministry are hard to sustain, especially when disparate individuals, groups, ministries, churches actually try to accomplish something. I am speaking here of folks who do have some things in common. They confess the same Lord Jesus Christ, they are both aware of a certain hostile environment opposed to the things they wish to achieve (consider this the rain or the heat from which we need some shelter), and they essentially agree in the broader vision of what they want to see brought about; things such as justice, peace, and love.
There are “reasonable” difficulties in maintaining unity. The common elements of human life such as work, daily and weekly schedules, geographical distance, and normal family complications make almost all partnerships challenging. When and where will we meet, how will we communicate, how often, who will be the energy for us to continue in our common effort, etc. Then there are the hidden obstacles that can suddenly and surprisingly become all too apparent and even vicious; envy, jealousy, competition, power grabbing, resentment and bitterness about real or suspected motives. Even when we agree to what or who should be included under the same umbrella we can still be competitive as to who holds the handle. We can actually hate the one standing next to us. Agreements don’t eliminate our innate sinfulness. May the Lord have mercy on us!
There are problems of theology, ideology, and strategy that are significant and not to be dismissed easily. Add to these the problems mentioned above such as ego, personality, and sin, and one is amazed we get to experience unity at all. How many churches and denominations agree on just about everything within themselves so that the differences about what they believe are so small as to be invisible to the outside world, yet, still manage to fight like cats and dogs about just those differences. Sometimes differences are invented just so obnoxiousness can have its day, and these people can be as homogeneous as anybody from the School of Church Growth could desire.
In reference to Christian social justice I am concerned with the Christian Community Development Association especially, although the issue is broader than just this one organization. CCDA has been a blessed and wonderful experience for my wife and me. We have many friends in the Association, and have learned and been blessed by the worship and teaching at the conferences. As it has grown and developed it is obvious to me that the umbrella is getting harder to share, both because some want to push people like myself out, and because I am not sure others should have ever been asked to share the shelter.
At what point does such an organization have to define what it means by “Christian?” As “progressives” (which is such a problematic word as a lack of fidelity to Scripture means one is no longer progressing but regressing), want to make sure women are treated equitably both as preachers and leaders, that homosexual practice is no longer seen as sin, or that traditional religions are seen as equal to God’s revelation in Christ, what happens to those they consider conservative Evangelicals (even if many of us didn’t vote for Trump)? There are still those of us who don’t ordain women due to biblical conviction. Is this the dividing line in terms of ministry involvement or cooperation? Will we divide over issue advocacy versus evangelism and church planting among the poor? Will we divide over an Ana-Baptist view of justice versus those who believe in the just war theory?
The umbrella seems to be getting smaller and smaller for those who insist on a humble obedience to the Bible and believe it to be God’s word and authoritative in all things. Many of my fellow urban workers are no longer comfortable in CCDA gatherings as they have no sense of safety there in holding to the biblical foundations that led them to the pursuit of justice and racial reconciliation in the first place. At one time if somebody said something crazy in the evening meeting it would be called out by John Perkins the next morning. Where will that authoritative biblical voice come from in the future?
In the racial reconciliation movement there is a divide that is, not surprisingly, based on race. Several issues are involved in keeping people under the same umbrella or pushing them out of a partnership in the pursuit of racial reconciliation. Sometimes it comes down to who will hold the umbrella, a person of color or not? Is that always the aim or goal of a racially reconciled church or organization, and can it be assumed that this is the proof positive of reconciliation? Can we actually walk under the same umbrella if someone from the majority culture is the pastor or the leader of an organization?
In terms of leadership in reconciliation churches or ministries, does every person of color have an innate understanding of what it takes to pursue reconciliation and are white people automatically disqualified or suspect until they stop being white? Does anyone, whatever our color or ethnicity, have the right to choose not to pursue reconciliation? If we are Christians the answer must be that no one has the right to step out of God’s commission of the ministry and message of reconciliation. All of our discussion is of course in the historical context of racism and so it must be asked, how are we taking on the humility of Christ and attempting to make ourselves less in our service to others if as white men we fight to hold onto dominance? How are we becoming “least of all” if as black men we insist on leadership for ourselves and are never able to serve under white leadership or even cooperate with it? Is this movement just a temporary or cosmetic movement while in our ethnicity we are actually striving for supremacy?
One realizes that not all talk of reconciliation and justice is actually that, but more an expression of hurt, bitterness, anger, and a desire to maintain a wall of separation. There is a difference between heart felt lamentation and emotional venting and accusation. There is a difference between biblically prophetic calls for repentance versus that of simple antagonistic name calling. In short realized reconciliation has to be the goal of a righteous agenda, no matter how much necessary truth telling, repenting, forgiving, patience and seeking to understand each other we have to go through to get there. There is no legitimate reconciliation without seeking to lovingly become a slave to others in their cultural context. (I Corinthians 19.9ff)
There are those who struggle with incipient racism, prejudice and bias. Some also can fall into the trap of being a “racialist;” seeing everything through the lens of race and justifying all decisions about involvement, cooperation, and association based on it. How do we maintain cultural integrity, righteous gratitude and pride for our ethnicity and legacy while not damning or rejecting other people? How do we appreciate who and what others are without giving up who we are by cultural assimilation?
A legitimate reconciliation movement has to honestly look at history and cannot bury its head in the sand about racial injustice. There is no real reconciliation without a constant effort at repentance for bias and prejudice, and a rejection of any systematic oppression of people. There must always be the acceptance of responsibility for an active breaking of the yoke of past wickedness. In the movement for reconciliation there will always be a hurting grief over racial injustice. We cannot be honest or healthy via a burial within ourselves through a suppression of emotional deep hurt. It cannot be papered over with a joint worship service. However, though anger must be acknowledged, understood, and even sympathized with, it must not be allowed to define any of us as believers.
If reconciliation and unity are the will of God, if mutual love and submission are mandates of Christ, and if these must be exhibited no matter what ethnic history has been or how it has injured us, then we must attempt to walk together. Evil is raining on us, and we all need shelter both from the hatred of racism and its bitterness. Christ is our shelter, and to be linked to others as we walk toward His kingdom is a blessed thing. It models the kingdom while we seek it. It is what love and peace have always done.