As I reflect on the white evangelical community I grew up in, I think about how eerily similar our understanding and articulation of the gospel was to European colonialism.
We marketed salvation as "free," by which we meant "no strings attached." The prize was eternal salvation in heaven, an everlasting (if immaterial) home that had been purchased by Jesus' blood. All we had to do was accept this gift – to receive the salvation promised to us.
The receipt of this gift was formalized through a single ritual in which we each individually asked God's forgiveness. Our sin, we understood, had disqualified us from receiving this gift of heaven, but once we begged forgiveness, the deed of heaven had been signed over to us. There was nothing we could do (besides that initial Sinner's Prayer) to gain or lose this salvation. We simply grasped the salvation that had been offered by God.
Parts of this message were, in theory, not as problematic as European colonialism. Heaven, after all, wasn't already populated with people who would be annihilated, displaced, or assimilated as we flocked to inhabit the New Jerusalem. We conceived of heaven more like an empty city or house with no inhabitants apart from God, the angels, and the saints who had gone before us.
At the same time, the "no strings attached" philosophy we espoused is deeply troubling to me now because it's evidence of a deeper problem: our resistance to the innate dynamism of the world and our subsequent reticence to engage it (or take responsibility for the detrimental ways we've engaged it). Instead of embracing our bodied, relational existence, we've fought tooth and nail to be abstract, absolute, and decontextual. If that doesn't reek of Western imperialism, I don't know what does.
By believing salvation was either ours or it wasn't – and that there was nothing we could do to qualify or disqualify ourselves from it – we gave up responsibility for how our actions affected the world. What we did didn't really matter because our end was sealed.
Everyone wanted to be good, of course – and there were plenty of exhortations from the pulpit to flee sin and not to use our salvation status and God's grace as an excuse to sin. But like the Europeans who "discovered" America and took it as their own even though it was already inhabited by native peoples, we felt that we did not have to worry about history. Columbus and the other colonists could conceive of America as a New World not simply because it was new to them, but because they thought it was theirs – their world, their land, new for them to take, inhabit, and shape.
In a similar way, when we prayed the Sinner's Prayer, we had entered New Life, but not just because it was new to us, but because it seemed to us a clean slate, no strings attached. The past was the past, and the present was ours. The colonists were able to believe themselves justified in erasing the history of the native peoples (which ultimately entailed trying to completely wipe out the natives). And we as newly-saved Christians were able to believe our own histories did not matter. Who were were, where we had been, what we had done – the Old Man, so to speak – was inconsequential. Jesus had wiped the slate clean.
On the outset, a clean slate (for individuals – I don't mean the colonialists) sounds good. No regrets, no harboring guilt for years and years. Freedom from the past.
But along with this presumed erasure of the past came an unrealistic and destructive sense of timelessness. We focused at first on the fact that we were new people with a new status – no longer sinners, but saints. But as time wore on, we began to realize that our new status – our new label – didn't mean the things we'd done or the people we'd been had entirely gone away. We are not blank slates after all, but dynamic bodies that change and interact with the world around us. We affect our world and are affected by it – we have power.
But we did not want that kind of power – the kind that comes with responsibility. We did not want timed power, but timeless power. We did not want to be changeable and moving, dynamic and growing. We did not want the responsibility, the complexity, of sharing a world with the Other, of collaboration. A world of matter colliding with matter to catalyze change.
We wished for a world we could control – a solid, monochromatic world without so many moving parts – instead of a world of shared power where everyone had to work with others rather than for or against others. We didn't want a world of color. We wanted a world that was black and white. Well, really, just white.
Don't get me wrong: I don't think anyone I knew harbored any hatred or dislike of people of color. But that's why systemic racism is so tricky and hard to see if you're not the ones directly suffering because of it. You don't have to hate people or wish them ill to harbor beliefs and stories that reinforce and advance the systems that oppress them. You don't have to be a white supremacist to internalize and propagate the myths of white supremacy.
Our reticence to recognize our location, our bodies in historical and social context, was part of our European Enlightenment legacy. Our truth was God's truth. God's truth was universal, not contextual, and hence our truth was universal. We became functional gnostics, scorning the locality of the body and longing for the universality of the spiritual.
We did not like bodies, so we pretended we did not have them. We could be "colorblind" because we were body-blind. We did not like the idea of bodies, and so we acted like we lived a disembodied existence, that our white bodies in the context of Western imperialism didn't have implications for our interactions with bodies of color.
But a disembodied existence wasn't our lot. The world is a complex web of interrelationships. We are spatial, we are bodies. We are living.
This dynamism of the world didn't sit well with our sinner/saint polarities. We were either good or evil, guilty or innocent, dirty or clean, redeemed or damned. And as time wore on, we sensed that the myth of our own sainthood couldn't be sustained. We felt more and more inwardly guilty and all the while tried to look more and more outwardly pure. Our dynamism haunted us. Instead of coming to grips with our contexts – our relationships, our social and political locations, our bodied existence – we felt guilty for not being timeless, for not being bearers of absolute truth, for being contextual.
Not even the Westerners could be sufficiently Western.
We hoped more and more for our vision of a disembodied heaven where we could just lead a pure, unchanging existence. So getting to heaven – and getting others there – became the most important thing: "filling the bleachers of heaven." What we would do when we got there (apart from singing hymns) was anybody's guess.
So we peddled the horrible good news of a salvation that didn't care about this present world. We did not learn to cultivate or plant or create. We did not learn how to invest in or nourish our world. We thought ourselves spiritual refugees, displaced in this world and longing for our true home in the clouds. We did not take responsibility for the power our white bodies gave us over bodies of color.
I remember taking a course on Christian missions in high school that used a term called "felt needs." Felt needs were things like food, clothing, and shelter – the physical needs that missionaries might need to help address in their mission field. This was separated from spiritual needs, which of course meant salvation from sin and reconciliation to God.
Felt needs weren't to be neglected, but they were secondary. Meeting felt needs was a stepping stone to open people up to understanding their spiritual need. Meeting a felt need was never an end in itself. The goal was salvation, as if building someone a house was somehow less meaningful than promising them a blissful home in heaven for all time. As if God does not want to meet us in matter – in the particular, in the present, right now.
This was the Christianity I grew up with, and I am grateful for the people who somehow managed to resist being entirely swallowed up by visions of heaven. We couldn't ultimately escape our humanity (thank heaven!) and so we lived in a strange tension where our speech was heavily spiritualized and heaven-centered, but our fingers still longed to touch and create tangible things.
It was my science, drama, and literature teachers (strained and squashed as we were by trying to fit into some kind of pure mold or inflexible system of ideas) that first showed me the beauties of bodied life. There were borders we could not transgress – ideas we could not consider and things we could not do or experience – but we pressed against those borders as much as we possibly could. I spite of so many thorns and thistles, some of us still managed to sprout and grow.
Still, I feel increasingly troubled by this way of talking about Christianity that is so far away from, even antithetical to, the gospel as articulated in Jesus' incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
Think of what the incarnation means. God becomes flesh. God as matter. Not God in matter. Not God pretending to be matter or becoming matter for a little while.
God as matter.
And not just as matter, but redeemed matter, contingent matter, growing matter. After his resurrection, Jesus ate with his disciples to show them that he wasn't a ghost, but flesh and blood (Luke 24:39-43). Jesus' resurrected body wasn't released from the dependence, the mutability of human life. He ate. His body still bore its scars from his crucifixion, though healed. The past was not erased, but transformed.
What does this say for the present world of matter? For its future?
It screams that matter matters. Our bodies matter. The world and its intricate ecosystems, cultures and subcultures, webs – all this matters.
Your life is not a stepping stone to the next world. You matter now. Your body matters. This fragile, resilient body of cells is not a suit you will shed, but a dynamic living organism that will die and rise and experience transformation. Change. Contingency.
"Christ is contingency."
Poet Christian Wiman wrote those words in a rare work of prose, My Bright Abyss. Wiman has an incurable (and often unpredictable) cancer of the blood, and his meditations reflect a heightened sense of his own contingency. He writes:
Contingency. Meaning subject to chance, not absolute. Meaning uncertain, as reality, right down to the molecular level, is uncertain. All of human life is uncertain. I suppose that to think of God in these terms might seem for some people deeply troubling (not to mention heretical), but I find it a comfort. It is akin to the notion of God entering and understanding – or understanding that there could be no understand (My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?) – human suffering. If Christianity is going to mean anything at all for us now, then the humanity of God cannot be a half measure. He can't float over the chaos of pain and particles in which we're mired, and we can't think of him gliding among our ancestors like some shiny, sinless superhero...No, God is given over to matter, the ultimate Uncertainty Principle. There's no release from reality, no "outside" or "beyond" from which some transforming touch might come. But what a relief it can be to befriend contingency, to meet God right here in the havoc of chance, to feel enduring love like a stroke of pure luck. (pp. 16-17)
You matter. You-in-the-world matters. We matter. All of us together. Wherever we are, whatever bodies we exist as, whatever local part we play in the web of the world. We are not stamped as "saved" or "condemned" and left to twiddle our thumbs and think about our (possible) salvation with fear and trembling. We work. We build. We grow. We create. We transform.
We are born into a world of horrors and wonders, triumphs and tragedies. We are deep wells of pangs and longings, desires that can only be met in the confluence of matter with matter. We hunger and thirst for the rightness of bodies colliding with bodies, where we encounter the Other and are not threatened by its weight. A world where we take responsibility for the structures we create and inhabit, aware of the generative and destructive power we wield.
When you are tempted to think you do not matter, that your contingent existence is somehow an argument for its illegitimacy, remember: that's some weird fusion of gnostic heresy, Western imperialism, and white supremacy.
You are the light of the world.
You are not
a luminary hidden beneath a basket,
a glow dimming through membrane,
a radiance pressed back by cloud or veil.
You are fire
licking across the bark of the bush,