Last summer, the president of my seminary asked me to lead a team of staff, faculty, and board members tasked with the lofty goal of developing a plan for institutional growth in diversity and cultural competence. The request came with the potency of the Spirit’s call and a reorientation of my own priorities. For the past six months, this diversity and cultural competence team has become a learning community, committed to living into the very values we hope to see ensconced in the policies, practices, and relationships in our school. A vision of the kingdom of God and an awareness that we are called to be reformed and ever reforming according to the Word and Spirit of God have spurred us on.
No small part of our task has been simply becoming clear about what cultural competence actually means:
- A commitment to identifying, naming, and undoing the racism and sexism that we perpetuate (usually unwittingly) individually and communally;
- Valuing diversity in our decision-making processes, educational goals, classroom activities, and so forth;
- An awareness of the relational dynamics at work when people from different cultures interact, so that we can contribute to greater mutuality, inclusion, and justice;
- An understanding of how culture and power get expressed institutionally, so that, among other things, marginalized voices (and the wisdom and discernment they bring, which we desperately need) can move toward the center.
This is no small task, of course. Like all dimensions of sanctification it is lifelong; there’s no end point in the here-and-now. And like sanctification, we are dependent upon God’s Spirit. It is precisely at this point, as soon as we begin talking about God’s Spirit in relation to cultural competence, that we must say more.
Our efforts at cultural competence will fall short without a concomitant change in our identity and in our desire. (And here I am speaking much more broadly than my own institutional context.) How we, as Christians, understand ourselves and who we long for in community: these must be transformed by the Spirit of God.
Willie James Jennings, Associate Professor of Theology and Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School, makes this argument eloquently. His book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, recently won the esteemed Grawemeyer Award in Religion. The book is complex, insightful, and disorients as much as it inspires (in fact, those two go hand-in-hand). Jennings was the annual Stoutemire lecturer at Western Theological Seminary this past fall. The topic of his lecture was “A Faith that Teaches: Outlining a Christian Architecture of Belonging.”
Jennings reminds us that as Christians we are Gentiles. We have been grafted into Israel, the covenant community. We have been elected from the margins. Tragically, we Christians in the west, have largely forgotten this reality and thus lost our ability to be a “thinking margin:” a people able to identify and articulate oppression and injustice; and, a people buoyed up by surprising hope for the freedom and inclusion for all. It is critical, therefore, that white western Christians remember that we are not at the center and that we belong to God’s people by grace. Discipleship means being moved to the margins by the Spirit, even praying for this to happen.
Along these same lines, Jennings points out that Gentiles joined another people, the Jews. Gentiles learned of God by learning with and through a different people, a people from whom they had been alienated. Discipleship meant (and still means) joining, belonging to a people who are not my people, so to speak. This fundamental aspect of Christian identity, as Jennings traces historically and theologically, was eclipsed by Christian imperialism. We Christians need to experience ourselves again as joiners, not joiners of a church that is little more than an affinity group but joiners of communities unlike us.
Such joining, as Jennings beautifully articulates, cannot come from demand, from guilt, from threat, that is, from the law (for this depletes life and alienates us from God and one another). Rather such joining must come from desire, from a passionate longing for the other. The Spirit births this longing in us, the same Spirit who birthed in Peter the desire to go to the Gentiles in the first place (Acts 13). God changed Peter’s desire, so that he longed for those people whom he had once found repugnant. Jennings point is this: we must desire to belong to one another, if we are going to become a truly multi-racial community that looks something like the kingdom of God.
Growth in diversity and cultural competence is certainly essential work and it depends upon and, when properly oriented, springs from a desire that impels us to join those from whom have been separated. This actually is the essence of love. As Karl Barth argues, this dynamic is at the heart of God’s loving. The full expression of God’s loving is God’s seeking and creating of fellowship with those who are not God (that is, human beings).
At the end of Black History Month, this is my prayer: that God births in us a desire to join those who are not like us; that God moves us to the margins so that we can see and know what can only be seen and known from that vantage point; and that we might gladly participate in this work of God’s love.