Image by Jim Linwood.
Note: this is a part of my series on evangelism, which started here.
There are other reasons as well: a changing definition of salvation; a new view of nonbelievers as my equals and allies; and a new appreciation for genuine relationships and what actually changes a person’s heart. (I hope to get into some of these other issues in future posts as well.)
But the biggest change was in this: I went from seeing myself as a member of the oppressed minority – an underdog who needed to “defend the faith” which was under attack from the dominant society – to the realization that I am a part of the powerful majority.
As a white, educated, straight, English-speaking, Protestant Canadian, I enjoy the advantages of generations of white, educated, straight, English-speaking Protestants wielding the power of the Bible to oppress others.
It took me a long time to recognize my privilege. I don’t know how I didn’t see it sooner. I grew up being warned to watch out – The World was out to get me. And so I internalized this idea that as a Christian in North America I was a part of the underclass, the target, the prey.
Before, I saw myself as a part of the victim class. Gays, liberals, feminists, atheists, evolutionists, university professors, The Media – they were all scary adversaries, bullies out to denounce God and get their way. We, the weak and humble Christians, needed to stand our ground. We needed to invoke the name of the Lord to defend ourselves against brutal attacks. The World was out to get us.
And I understand now how we got this mentality. We read Jesus’ story, and we naturally identify with him and the early Christians. We too have committed our lives to following him. We read the stories of faithful followers being stoned or imprisoned, and we shiver.
Jesus and his followers suffered severe persecution. They were desperately poor folks, religious and ethnic minorities, during a period of time when the Romans held ferocious power. You could lose your life for being a follower of Jesus. Jesus warns us that the same can happen to us. We identify with these humble Jewish fishermen – we’re Christians, too! – and forget that in fact, if we were to translate that world into contemporary North America, we white evangelicals would be members of the Roman Empire. At our worst, we’re not even the Pharisees. We have way more power and wealth than that.
Sure, some of us are poor by North American standards. But we white evangelical Americans and Canadians still have power and privilege in our race, citizenship, education, and religious association (Christians make up the most dominant religious group in America, with evangelicals being the largest denomination. No other religion comes close. Not even atheism.)
And sure, some of us are really benevolent Romans. We donate and volunteer. Some even fight for justice and equality. But that will never erase our privilege as Roman citizens. We always still have more power and privilege than immigrants, people of colour, members of other religious groups, and GLBT folks (among others).
I have since discovered I don’t need to defend the gospel against powerful attacks from above nearly as much as I need to step down and apologize to all those who have been hurt by it. My job is to try to climb down from my advantaged position and make amends. My job is one of reconciliation.
If I want to be a missionary in this land, I need to come to terms with the fact that the first Christians to reach this land — my predecessors — did not bring good news. They brought tyranny, death, war and disease. (To this day, many evangelicals continue to bring bad news to women, immigrants, GLBT people, and other minorities.) I (and people like me) can never be done repenting of what my forebears did to the people who first lived here. Our job of reconciliation will not be done until Jesus returns.
This understanding of my place in society has changed the way I “evangelize.”
Image by butupa.
Knowing that I come from a position of privilege, I’m less afraid of “attacks” on my faith from non-believers.
I don’t live in fear that atheism and secularism are taking over society – we’re far from that here in North America. I fear that ignorant evangelicals (like myself) are a much greater threat.
I’m no longer scared of marriage equality for the LGBT community, or nervous about what they teach in science classes at public schools. I no longer worry about carrying an arsenal of arguments in my back pocket in defense of the faith. I am not a victim in this culture.
And while I used to view all non-Christians as potential projects – folks I needed to save, to introduce to Jesus — I now only see broken relationships that need to be healed. I need them to help me get to Jesus just as much as they need me. Perhaps more so, for Jesus blesses the poor and humble.
Recognizing what powerful white Christians have done in the past, I sometimes think our first and most important message ought to be something more along the lines of, “I am not a threat. I won’t hurt you. You have little reason to trust me, given our history; but I promise to serve you, respect you and love you.” (This, as opposed to the conventional evangelical message that goes something along the lines of, “You’re wrong and headed for trouble. But I have information that can save you. Once again, I have the upper hand.”)
I used to think it was important to make friends with people who were different from me so that I could teach them (about God and the Bible).
I now think it’s important to make friends with people who are different from me so that I can learn from them. What’s it like to be Muslim? To be black or Hispanic or Native American? To be gay? Because how can I serve them if I don’t know their experience?
As an evangelical, I used to see my role as a teacher and a savior. I now see my role as a student and a servant.
I still believe I have good news to share. But that good news is less about an abstract God in heaven who will save you after you die and more about a God who is lives upon the earth right now, desperate to serve and reconcile, through people like me.
My new ministry involves a lot less talking and a lot more listening, as well as acts of kindness and service. I’ve done a lot less talking about God since my eyes were opened to the reality of my privilege, and instead I’ve tried to make changes in my life to help bring heaven to earth.
It’s less about “Jesus loves you and can save you from your sins if you say this prayer!” and more about “I’m happy to serve you, just the way you are, because that’s what Jesus wants.”
The World is not my enemy. The World is not out to get me. The world is full of my brothers and sisters, waiting for reconciliation – with me, with each other, and with God.