Just listening with John Stott | On revisiting Issues Facing Christians Today (1/4)
LICC’s founder John Stott called us to triple listening – to the Word, the world, and one another – in our particular time and place. As we do this, w...
LICC’s founder John Stott called us to triple listening – to the Word, the world, and one another – in our particular time and place. As we do this, we become wise peacemakers: followers of Jesus who embody his just way.
Right Revd Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy, Bishop of Willesden (formerly the Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic Mission and Ministry Enabler in the Diocese of Leicester), responds to John Stott’s thoughts on the complex issue of racism and ‘Celebrating Ethnic Diversity’ in Issues Facing Christians Today.[i] This article is written as an imaginative letter to the late Revd Dr John Stott from Lusa’s position as an Anglican minister today. As a faithful correspondent who prized personal communication, we’re sure John would have welcomed the conversation.
This four-part series accompanies Wisdom Lab: Just Listening, in which each of the authors delivers a TED-style talk on their topic. Wisdom Labs help churches and small groups explore issues facing Christians today.
‘A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.’ – Maya Angelou
It’s turning out to be a horrible Wednesday morning, here in Leicester. Not quite the day I had hoped for. And yet, I seem transfixed by the rain outside and wander back to these opening words of a poem by Paul Verlaine, learnt in my teenage years. They perfectly capture my mood.
Tears fall in my heart
As rain falls on the town;
What is this torpor
Pervading my heart?
Unable to peel my eyes away from the raindrops running like wild streams down the windows of my study, I ruminate on yet another parishioner’s account of a brutal encounter with the disfiguring expression of racism. ‘This one caught me unawares and cut deep to the core of my being’ were her exact words as she opened up to me, numbed and perplexed. This could have been any of my friends of global majority heritage. Today, it was her.
I rehearse her words time and again, always failing to exorcise them out of my mind. Instead, I sit there absent, drained, beyond exhausted. The legacy of the relentless and sustained assault of racial abuse is an inexpressible weathering of the minds and bodies of billions of daughters and sons of Adam – marked out for a surplus of melanin, forming a dreadful fellowship of the marginalised and minoritised.
As a Christian of black African ethnicity and heritage, living in a world predominantly centred on the normativity of whiteness, racism and racial injustice are questions I wrestle with daily. What am I to make of the existing fracture and alienation that I witness, especially within the church? How do I convince my white Christian sisters and brother of the fact that racial justice should not be treated as a concern solely for those who are racially oppressed and marginalised?
I was therefore particularly interested in your perspective on the question as a white Christian. I have pondered on your invitation to engage with issues of racial injustice and celebrate ethnic diversity not as a theological addendum – or as some would suggest nowadays, a pandering to woke ideology[ii] – but a biblical, missional, and existential imperative (Genesis 2:7; Exodus 23:9; Amos 5:24). This is a timely and relevant reminder for a church that is still too often hesitant to take decisive action to eradicate racism from its midst and across society.
I share your wisdom that Christian identity should offer a unifying and, better still, reconciling frame through which society can transcend its tendencies to fragmentation and alienation. The church’s call is to be an engine for change in the world, as Christians everywhere develop the kind of faith that translates a concern for personal holiness into a commitment to redress the brokenness of the world, as a sign of hope and reconciliation.
Like you, I subscribe to the call for Christians to humbly commit to stand in the world not just as a critical voice, but as a prophetic presence – fully immersed in the pain, and fully invested in its redemption. This chimes with your understanding of God as fully invested in human history, including through the church. Not to anoint humanity’s gluttony for imperial, colonialist aspirations – but to sanctify it as the essential space that affirms our vocation to work for unity and reconciliation.
You helpfully start your argument by offering an exposé on the genesis of racism as a socially-constructed and ideologically-engineered concept. You rightly explain that it is deeply rooted in the fabric of our society, history, policies, and practices. The examples you give of slavery and segregation in North America, the emergence of Nazi rule in Germany, or the apartheid regime in South Africa all illustrate well the corrosive and dehumanising effect of racism on any society.
You then wisely bring it closer to home, describing how racism should not simply be reduced to an aggregation of incidents, but discerned through systems and structures that oppress, marginalise, and exclude. Britain’s colonial and imperial legacy still shapes the outcomes for too many people of global majority heritage, particularly through a biased and prejudiced police and discriminatory criminal justice systems. Particular attitudes towards migrant communities and their descendants still foster a tiered system in identity, belonging, and participation in British life, with black and brown people typically at the bottom of the hierarchy.
Racism aims to sanctify a vision of personhood that enshrines categories and classifications that objectify and commodify the other. It assumes scarcity and peddles in fear. Based in the idea that ‘there isn’t enough to go round’, it robs us all of the opportunity of neighbourliness. It sets a false narrative of hierarchy and rivalry between and amongst people, suggesting that it is only in the subjugation and the domination of the ‘other’ that ‘I’ can flourish. It convinces us that the other is fundamentally flawed and fickle. The more we objectify and commodify them, the more we ensure our own survival.
This racist rhetoric derived from plantations and reservations, serving the interests of the dominant group, has frustrated the church’s ultimate vocation to become ‘the community of hope’, leading to further fragmentation and dislocation of identity.
As a result, often the only way we envisage meeting the world is by conquering it and expecting everyone to fit in, rather than relating to it. This has percolated through to the very essence of our missional engagement – framed as it is in the expansionist ideals and idolatrous tendencies of a church that’s as much in need of repentance and conversion as those it purports to evangelise. This has given way to expressions of Christian mission that seem more preoccupied with cultural imperialism, treating the people and cultures we encounter as hostile and fundamentally inferior, needing to be changed in order to fit with our particular version of what’s proper.
This is not to suggest that we should refrain from sharing the good news of the gospel with others – but it is a reminder that the outcome of evangelism is not recruitment, but relationship. In other words, the conversion that happens as a result of evangelism should be both for the evangelist and the evangelised.
The missiologist Andrew Walls puts it rather elegantly when he suggests that there are two essential gospel impulses: the indigenising principle, and the pilgrim principle. The first simply recognises that our encounter of God happens in a given context, and that context neither qualifies nor disqualifies us from God’s grace in Christ. However, where the encounter with God happens is not where the story ends. Indeed, Christ invites us as pilgrims on a process of transformation that leads to reconciliation with God, self, and the other.[iii] In Paul’s words: ‘if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come’ (2 Corinthians 5:17)
John, I wonder whether this is part of what you are hinting at as you suggest that any authentically Christian engagement with societal issues can only happen when orthodoxy and orthopraxy are held together. In other words, what we believe informs how we live, and how we live is deeply rooted in the truth we encounter in the person of Christ. Faith is also about behaving – behaving in such a way that Christ in us becomes evident to the world around us to such an extent that the consciousness of society will be awakened to see and understand and right the wrongs of racial injustice. This may amount to saying that faith is mutuality in belonging. The litmus test is not just doctrinal faithfulness, but practical expressions of neighbourly love. Cornel West, the black American academic and activist beautifully puts it when he invites us to ‘never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.’
‘Love in action’ is exactly the kind of Christian-inspired advocacy and militancy that the confessing church in Nazi Germany, many of the civil rights leaders in USA, and other liberation theologians and activists demonstrated as they stood against systems and politics that enshrined racism as a normative way of life. They all did this in a context where their voice was clearly part of a minority report. Their struggle and work continues to inspire Christians the world over to denounce and challenge racial injustice wherever they are, and affirm the intrinsic worth of human life before God.
More prosaic love in action is found in the reconciliation circles of Christian communities who come together to lament and repent of the racism of their society and their church. It is about those Christian individuals who open their homes to each other. It is about the Christian teacher who will challenge practices and policies that problematise their black students. It is about the Christian police officer affording the presumption of innocence to the black and brown people they are dealing with. It is about learning to know the name of those we treat as other, and moving from anonymity to intimacy and mutuality.
I am convinced that to engage fully with another is to become ‘other’, to be transformed and restored to the core of our humanity. I saw that most powerfully exemplified in a recent conversation with an ethnically-diverse group of Christians exploring questions of racial justice from a scriptural perspective. A white Christian woman who could be described as mature both in age and in faith confessed that for the first time in her long Christian journey, she realised that the idea of humanity created in God’s image and likeness did also apply to those who are not white. For her, this insight required a space of truth, generosity, and openness, where she was able to encounter herself in a radically new way and be afforded the opportunity of a transformed relationship with herself, the other, and God.
Identity is therefore a projection onto the stranger, the other. It is an invitation to extend self in, with, by, and for the other. It is in the solidarity of creative love that we discover the capacity to heal the wound of a segregated world. This wound that is about power and supremacy is festering. Until it is cleaned, we won’t experience true healing and reconciliation.
This is something that we in Leicester Diocese have been actively committed to through the development of what we call Intercultural Worshipping Communities (IWCs). These are church communities where people from different cultural, national, and ethnic heritage deliberately come together, to interact with one another in order to deepen their understanding and experience of God and of each other. They learn and grow together to build communities which are transformed, shaped, and moulded from each other’s experiences and centred on Christ.
These IWCs are places where Christians take an active interest in the lived reality that people come to church from, and return to from church. They are attentive to representation and participation in all aspects of church life, leadership, and governance – not as a token gesture towards minoritised groups, only interested in counting numbers, but as a commitment to making numbers count. These are also places where difficult and painful experiences of fragmentation and alienation are held in lament, and repentance.
Like you, dear John, I am an Anglican minister. My decision to seek ordination was partly informed by the appeal of Anglicanism’s self-definition as a sacramental community, dedicated to become an expression of God’s grace in creation. I recognise that this is not the preserve of Anglicans, but for me, it underscores both the aspiration and commitment to foster a community whose identity fully embodies the essence of the beloved community, bridging and reconciling fractured lives as we gather around Christ as chief host around the table of communion. In part, this reminds us that around the table of the prince of peace, we find a place where we can belong together, fallen, and yet redeemed. There we receive the gift of neighbourliness, and the opportunity to tell anew the redemptive and reconciling story of God in Jesus.
Perhaps, this is the place where our imagination is populated with a compelling vision of what could be. Perhaps this is where the prophetic task of letting justice run like a river is realised. Perhaps this is where we move from sharing in the communion, to living in communion.
You opened your reflection quoting the Doctor of love and his dream of racial reconciliation.[iv] Nearly six decades on, the compelling power of his prose is still struggling to take on flesh in our societies and churches. Furthermore, racial justice seems still a distant and unbreachable frontier. We were painfully reminded of this truth in the wake of the recent pandemic, exposing historic and systemic injustices in so many aspects of our shared life. The rolling horizons of opportunity and transformation seem to be still obscured and obstructed by the tyranny of a status quo committed to preserving power and privilege, even at the expense of the gospel. The church remains segregated around ethnic and cultural lines. Many of us still live lives in racially homogenous spaces, only occasionally crossing the colour line.
From the comfort of my study, I can see that the rain clouds are slowly receding. Bird songs have resumed, and the air is filled with petrichor, that pleasant scent that accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather. This is perhaps an apt illustration of what is happening in the church in relation to our engagement with issues of racial justice. It seems that a portal has been opened, and a rumour of change can be perceived in the distant horizon. In recent months, Christians have actively engaged in conversations about racism, recognising that it is not merely a skin issue but a sin issue that calls us to repentance.[v] There is also a greater realisation that the way forward demands a deeper listening than ever to God’s truth about who we are and, more so, about who we are called to be.
We need a new view, not merely onto the world, but onto God. We will need to recover our faith and courage and belief in a God who is bigger than anything, including our own failure to love. We will need the commitment and humility to live in solidarity with those whose lives have been put on the line and whose stories have been systematically whitewashed and denied. We will need to attend to the task of repentance, reparation, and reconciliation with those very communities that have been historically marginalised and minoritised. This is a task not just for the church, but for every single one of us.
Though it seems unsurmountable, it could be as simple as taking the time to listen to each other’s life stories, share the pain, and celebrate the hope. It could be about a commitment to offer and accept hospitality, daring to cross the threshold of each other’s homes, something that hardly happens in most of our communities. It is about choosing not to be silent or join in the ‘banter’ when we witness racial abuse. It is about believing people’s experiences of racism, and not being defensive or explaining it away. It is about taking the time, making the effort to educate ourselves to have a better understanding of racism.
The struggle for racial justice is an appointment the church makes with her soul. I pray we will not be late. If we are to be an authentic expression of a church committed to the God of mission, issues of racial justice need to become front and centre of what we do, how we do it, and who we do it with. The vocation of the church is therefore a commitment to embody the life of Christ and labour at fostering a kingdom of grace and love.
This call culminates in the ultimate vision of humanity gathered in all its diversity in worship before God (Revelation 7:9). In the end, as in the beginning, difference is offered as an integral part of God’s purpose in creation. Humanity is invited to partner with God in tending to it, so that the whole of creation may flourish, and humanity may live reconciled with itself, its environment, and God.
Revd Canon Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy
Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic Mission and Ministry Enabler in the Diocese of Leicester
[i] John R. W. Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today [hereafter IFCT] 4th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan, 2006), 269–294; see also chapter 3, ‘Our Plural World: Is Christian Witness Influential’, 71–94. In chapter 10, Stott, begins with ‘the Doctor of love’, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, dream – as yet unfulfilled – for a multi-ethnic America. This draws upon Revelation 7:9, a vision orienting our present action and calling us forward to ‘a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne’. Stott then – somewhat strangely for a UK book – analyses slavery in America: the slave as property; as animal; and as child. He then critiques German anti-Semitism and South African apartheid, celebrating signs of hope in this kairos moment. The chapter then, thankfully, turns to analyse ‘British attitudes and tension’, particularly over our colonial heritage, immigration, and ongoing issues of race relations, often systematised in institutional racism through the police and criminal justice system, and inequality with employment practices. Stott’s response is to outline a broad ‘biblical foundation for ethnic diversity’, built upon God being the Lord of all creation and peoples, the God of history, of revelation, and of redemption. Having critiqued the culture, and theologised a better way, unfortunately this chapter is very light practically on how to actually change the status quo toward this vision, with meaningful first steps. Lusa’s response, as a personal letter from an Anglican minister who is still impacted by this status quo which has only marginally changed in the last fifteen years, offers points to fill that gap.
[ii] Ed. – Responding to this cheap dismissal of anything criticising racism as ‘woke ideology’, and framing a biblical theology of critical race theory, see John G. Stackhouse, Jr., ‘Postmodernity, Critical (Race) Theory, Cultural Marxism, and You: Part 4’, John Stackhouse blog, August 27, 2020. The whole five-part series is well worth a read.
[iii] Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in Transmission of Faith (Mary Knoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), pp. 7–9.
[iv] IFCT, 269. [Ed. – as per the summary above, Lusa is here referring to Martin Luther King, Jr.]
[v] Ed. – See, for instance, LICC’s ‘Reimagining Race?’ event (with slides), with the liturgy of lament, healing, and hope written and led by Denis Adide, and the powerful keynote address given by Chine McDonald.