The Urban Grind

Identity Crisis: Have we become what we swore never to be?


Occasionally I have an identity crisis. By me, I mean myself and Bridge City Community. I am acutely aware of my whiteness and tend to err on the side of self-consciousness when it comes to our reconciliation efforts. I have had numerous honestly transparent conversations with black friends who have allowed me to say some ignorantly raw things on the road to understanding. Not only has their patience humbled me time and again but their willingness to engage in meaningful dialogue has strengthened our relationships and resolve to be reconciled. If I am being as honest with you as I am with them then I must confess that I am extremely self-critical and self-reflective of my own motivations to pursue racial reconciliation. As a result, when I come across commentary on the impetus for caucasians to finally discuss race, economics, education, and religion I am convicted. So, it’s your choice to believe me or not. You get to discern my motives. You get to asses whether or not our dialogue is rooted in a desire to see justice and mercy reign in our congregation and community.

I have a terrible time finishing a book in a reasonable amount of time. I like to blame it on a busy schedule. Who doesn’t, right? In a previous post I referenced the tremendous impact and profound, prophetic voice of Dr. Soong-Chan Rah’s Lamentations commentary, Prophetic Lament. Well, I finally finished it. I still recommend this to anyone unconvinced of the triumphalist nature of American Christianity and how the church needs to embrace individual and communal lament as an instrumental act of worship. {SPOILER ALERT} the last few chapters offered me the invitation to an identity crisis and yet another examination of the driving principles of Bridge City Community. Just a forewarning that this post will be longer than usual as to make room for some necessary excerpts from the book. It’s not too late to turn back and save yourself! Kidding. Kind of...

Has BCC become what we swore never to be?

As I flipped through the final parchment and closed the cover this was the question that weighed heavy on my chest like a loaded barbell with too many plates on it. Just so we’re on the same page as we begin this reflection here’s the definition of identity crisis I’m working from. Thank you Apple Dictionary.

identity crisis: a period of uncertainty and confusion in which a person's sense of identity becomes insecure, typically due to a change in their expected aims or role in society.

American Christians tend to define human sinfulness as the active commission of sinful acts… and we identify innocence as those who have not committed these specific acts. Yet defining human sinfulness as simply the commission of particular acts diminishes the central doctrine of the universality of human sinfulness. No one can claim innocence.

No one can claim innocence. There is no better proclamation of systemic injustice and assertion of universal guilt than this. We are all broken before God and need to be reconciled to him through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. In the same way we must be reconciled to one another. However, this can only begin to happen if we confess our guilt for generational sin and brokenness - white privilege, power, and control included. We must die to ourselves and be raised into true unity in the Body of Christ.

Admitting this is step one. Step two asking difficult questions of ourselves and our motives. It's a regular and ongoing practice for me; and has been since the birth of BCC in order to avoid naiveté and perpetuation of pseudo-systems of reconciliation. In the concluding chapters of Prophetic Lament a particular set of remarks forced me to once again confront these questions and assumptions. In the context of Lamentations @ProfRah highlights the fall from grace that a particular class of Israelites experienced during the Babylonian exile - the Nazirites. The Nazirites are a holy people group, and by holy I mean the Biblical definition of “set apart.” Typically, these holy men wore their hair long, didn’t consum alcohol, and abided by certain regulations (think Samson). Nazirite is a weird word and most likely unfamiliar to many people so let’s run with an alternative translation even if it is a little weak: princes.

A possible parallel [to Nazirites/princes] in the twenty-first century is our high regard for superstar Christians in American evangelicalism… In recent years, we honor younger evangelicals who are engaging in justice ministries or urban ministry. These types of ministries become a way for us to elevate ourselves to a whole new level of holiness. We can claim our righteousness by pointing out how much we have given up to serve others… Ministries of justice, racial reconciliation, and ministry in the urban context become methods of attaining Christian power and respect.

Often times [church planters] are white suburbanites who feel called to plant churches in urban, usually inner city neighborhoods. These relocates become the center of attention among evangelicals. High praise is heaped on the white evangelical church planter for what they have given up. They have eft their comfortable suburban existence for the urban context, so we shower them with honor for their self-sacrifice. This emphasis elevates the seemingly pious but often neglects those who have labored in the urban communities for many years. The sense of holiness is conferred on those that have given up so much to live among the poor. But there is no honoring of the poor. After all, the poor have so little to give up. So if the poor remain in their neighborhood to serve their community, then it is not so great a sacrifice - particularly in comparison to the great sacrifice of the affluent suburbanite.

We continue to offer up admiration to the [princes] of the world who plant urban churches using suburban ministry models. Urban neighborhoods of color are objectified and urban churches of color are diminished. Extant urban churches fail to measure up against the ideal of white suburban churches. Moving from a white suburban neighborhood to a black urban neighborhood is often characterized as a holy act, no matter how short-lived that act may actually be. This act of moving into the urban community fails tor recognize the church that have longed served in communities of color.

Instead of supporting the good work already being done in poorer neighborhoods, white evangelicals insist on starting their own ministries that supposedly have a proven formula for success because they have worked well in homogenous suburban churches. Indigenous leadership and ministry are considered inferior to the work of outsiders celebrating their stories of success in the midst of poverty and suffering. Urban ministry requires both the narrative of celebration and suffering. By prioritizing ministry methods that arise from the context of celebration, we lose an important aspect of the gospel story — redemption that arises out of suffering.

Respecting and honoring the [prince] confirms the false belief that if I reach a level of holiness, God will respect me… In American society, our perception of the consecrated ones gravitates toward the beautiful, the wealthy and the powerful… We value celebrity pastors because our cultural captivity would consider those who have the appearance of success in our culture (the bestselling authors, the masculine cultural warrior, or the urban hipster church planter) as the consecrated.

Am I a self-perceived prince? Without knowing it am I looking for achievement in a Christian landscape that affirms urban mission work? Is our urban ministry humbling pursuing acts of justice and works of mercy really a subliminal pursuit of power and respect without realizing it? Have we become what we swore we would never be? Do we lend a helping hand to fill the baggage associated with church planting in America? Are we staring at the digital scale observing that our checked missionary baggage is overweight and over the limit?

American Christians operate under the delusion that success and power provide the answer to the world’s problems.  As Christians we are commanded to empty ourselves of power and control for the sake of our neighbor, yet in doing so are we burdened by the guilt felt by those who support white, urban missionaries/church planters? How can we be faithful to the Great Commission without dragging broken luggage behind us? In spite of the affirmation from co-laborers in the neighborhood have I committed the sin of triumphalist celebration?

I don’t think our formulas are modeled after white, suburban strategies, but how do I know for sure? I’m convinced that our resistance to homogeneity and the intentionality of our multi-ethnicity was born from the development of honoring our local community and its leaders. But was it? I place higher value and inherent worth in true reconciliation which means that I attempt to avoid elevated judgment in every situation, but is that proving the opposite to be reality for Bridge City? I don’t see myself as one of these evangelical princes, but have I become what I swore never to be?

Lamentations 5 is a stark reminder that suffering is not a passing condition that provides a mere bump in the road toward celebration. We must plumb its depths. I would like to continue to plumb the depths of suffering. Only if I’ve avoided celebrating early. My deepest desire is to struggle with my neighbors because I believe my liberation is bound with theirs. I know suffering isn’t a passing condition but an unavoidable curse because of our original sin. I would rather suffer than be successful. I would rather be emptied that retain power. I see, like everyone around me, the world’s problems but make no claim to solve them. Faithful? I hope. Bullshit? Hopefully not.

Either way I’m having an identity crisis. And, I pray that I have not become what I swore never to be.

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