by Paul Nzacahayo.
I smiled to myself the other day when I heard the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby in conversation with Stephen King, referring to one of his predecessors, Michael Ramsey, who used to start his day by banging his head on his desk repeating ‘I hate the Church of England’. I couldn’t help it but ask: ‘What had the Church of England done to him? If he hated the church that much, why didn’t he resign and leave the church?’
Justin Welby was speaking about his predecessor in the context of a conversation about the church being a flawed institution. This coincided with something I had been grappling with since my colleague, Dr Carlton Turner, presented a paper in which he spoke about Christianity being toxic. This was in reference to its entanglement with abhorrent systems such as slavery, and colonialism which have left indelible and torturous mark on human history. My colleague referred to the colonial Christianity and its impact on both the colonizers and colonized; and argued that missionary Christianity served and continues to serve the interests of the colonizers with terrible consequences on the lives of the colonized, who were marginalized and dehumanized by the process.
It has been argued that Christianity spread through the world as part of the colonial agenda, and there is ample evidence to support this. At the same time, I would want to recognize the good that many Christian missionaries sought to do. The church is able to share God’s love with people across the globe: educational facilities from primary schools all the way up to university, and health care facilities from small local medical centres to big hospitals, are good examples of this. For some of us, without missionary education we wouldn’t be where we are. I attended church primary and secondary schools; the cost of my theological training for ministry was paid by the church; and when I came to Edinburgh University for my master’s and doctoral studies I was funded by a German Christian organisation. On the other hand, I also know that within church institutions harmful or toxic attitudes, traditions and beliefs have become entrenched. Over a long period of time, such beliefs and practices have become accepted as ‘common sense’ or ‘normal behaviour’ even though they might marginalize and demonize certain groups of people.
That is my dilemma; and I wonder whether Archbishop Michael Ramsey faced that dilemma every morning when he sat down at his desk. Perhaps he had in his office something that reminded him of where the church as an institution had fallen short. I am sure there was something there or within him that reminded him of the beauty of the gospel imperatives and the ideal of God’s kingdom that the church is called to live out. It is this capacity for the church to be a curse to some and a blessing to others; to be unjust to a group of people and to be fair and just to another, which calls for a dynamic theological discourse.
Micah asks the question: ‘what does God require?’; and he answers his own question saying: ‘to do justice, and love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God’. I like the image of ‘walking with God’ which assumes a constant movement in which new insights and understanding lead to deeper faith and growth. In the context of my colleague’s paper, walking with Micah might mean being aware of how much colonial thinking has impacted us as both colonized and colonizers, has shaped our behavior today, and will continue to shape our thinking in the years to come. This is what some scholars have called inherited coloniality in which the former colonized continues to unconsciously feel psychologically bound to the colonizer with behavioral signs to prove this.
Inherited Christianity or inherited church or even inherited theology is flawed and toxic with potential to damage as well as potential to be a blessing which can heal and bring new life. Therefore, Micah’s focus on doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly is a challenging call for the church. How do you walk humbly as an institution? Methodists have been criticized for being obsessed with committees; but I happen to think sometimes that is the only way an issue can be considered in its angles and facets. I am thinking of the Methodist Church’s Faith and Order committee for instance, which scrutinizes established practices and beliefs to make sure they still stand up to the principles of God’s kingdom. If new insights and understandings are translated into action and not left to gather dust in minutes and reports, or hidden in the cloud of online storage, then this is also doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly. For leaders, if doing justice and walking humbly means you daily face the failings of the church in way that makes you bang your head on your desk, that is a price worth paying for institutional injustices to be dealt with.
4 thoughts on “Walking with Micah along the road of institutional injustices!”
I have read the quote from Micah many times, especially as a supporter of the Fairtrade movement, but never previously thought through the implication that ‘walking’ means to be moving forward, possibly to somewhere different. I’m grateful for that insight.
It’s also good to see a recognition that committees can be a force for good instead of the usual knee-jerk assumption that committee implies pointless bureaucracy.
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“Follow me!” The call that the first disciples responded to is still the call today. Jesus comes asking disciples to follow him — not merely “accept him,” not only “believe in him,” not just “worship him,” but “follow him.” And you can’t follow him by staying just where you are. Christianity is about changed lives. It’s about changes in thinking; it’s about changes in attitude; changes in life-style; changes in priorities; changes in relationships. It’s about being ready to walk with God in the direction he’s showing us – even if that means moving outside our comfort zone. It’s about joining in where God is already active in our community. It’s about being a catalyst for change, a promoter of social justice, as we help to further the kingdom of God.
Too often people do not get very far in their faith, because they stay on familiar ground which feels safe and comfortable. They stop at a spiritual oasis and either they think that they’ve arrived or they don’t have the courage to strike out again on the journey. They get stuck in a comfortable routine. They hear the same stories year after year as the church calendar goes round. They know the content by heart and some have stopped thinking seriously about the meaning of the stories for their own lives. They’ve forgotten that comfortable Christianity is a contradiction in terms. It’s about loving until it hurts and then loving some more. Faith isn’t two-dimensional; it’s three-dimensional; it’s our relationship with God worked out through our love for others. John Wesley said: “There’s no holiness but social holiness.’ A key factor in the growth of the Early Church, even under persecution, was the way those first Christians served their communities.
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Caring for others and campaigning for justice have been basic to Christianity from the beginning. Some of our predecessors were at the forefront in combating slavery and in promoting education, health care and international aid. These days, many Christians are involved in fighting poverty and there are thousands working alongside the desperate and the destitute in the worst slums and shanty towns, giving hope to the dying, offering a new start to addicts and alcoholics and prisoners.
Institutionally, it has been a different story. For centuries, in countries where Christianity has been a state religion or where Christianity has enjoyed a powerful voice, church leaders have been able to pronounce on which people and what behaviours are acceptable. They have been able to influence the enacting of laws that enforce their ideas, and impose penalties including imprisonment and even death. Too often, they’ve chosen an approach which has enhanced the power and wealth of the church, even where that has led to discrimination against minorities and against the powerless. That influence has been dramatically weakened in recent years. Some Christians have found this loss of influence difficult to accept, particularly when they are no longer allowed to decide who is acceptable, and they find themselves outpaced by the demands for social justice and equality across wider society. They feel that not being able to discriminate is a restriction on their rights. I recently came across the following post from an Australian Christian:
“As Christians, we have had our way for a long time. In fact, it could be argued that up until recently, the Church has been one of the most powerful influencers of societal norms in Australia. However, public opinion is now far less influenced by the Church. This is evidenced, amongst other things, by the overwhelming support for marriage equality, which probably didn’t exist in such a strong majority a decade ago. Unfortunately, the reaction from the Church has largely been to claim that they are now being ‘bullied’ and ‘persecuted’. I am truly sick of hearing Christians complain about being ‘persecuted’ for their beliefs. Historically, we have been the bullies. How dare we claim to now be the ‘bullied’ ones, simply because the majority of society has decided that they don’t like the way we treat others?”
Micah 6:8 seems to have become the flagship Bible verse for the progressive Christian, just as John 3:16 is for the traditionalist, but for many it seems they can’t see past the first requirement, to act justly. To do what is right and fair (in God’s eyes) is surely the duty of every church and of every individual within it. But what about the other two requirements? To love mercy and to walk humbly?
To love mercy is to have forgiveness and show compassion towards those who have sinned, ie every human being who ever lived, and every institution and organisation known to man. The Church undoubtedly has a shameful history because Christians are not exempt from the evil which dwells in the hearts of all people. We can and must learn valuable lessons from the past, especially about misusing Bible passages to gain power and control over others. At every Mass I attend we ask God to ‘look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church, and graciously grant her peace and unity in accordance with your will ….’
To walk humbly is to recognise our own helplessness before God, and to know that, physically and spiritually, we are totally dependent on his provision and grace. It does not mean forcing our opinions on others, criticising them for ‘wrong’ beliefs, or expecting them to conform to our politics or worldview because we think we are morally superior (and that applies to both ends of the Christian spectrum!)
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