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.