I have been reading and leading a Bible Study on the new book “This Here Flesh” by Cole Arthur Riley. I have found the author’s writing to be profound, poetic, and it is one of those books that causes me to think in a way that changes my perspective on life and faith. I am teasing out new ways of thinking from her story-led dialogue. And here is one concept I am toying with today:
Historically, the white church has worshipped a Christ that saves us from our suffering, while the black church worships a Christ that meets us there, in our suffering and pain.
I think this is a profound difference in approaching a relationship with Christ. It has deep, deep roots. It has multiple implications.
And one of the implications of this, is thinking about how worshipping a God that saves us from suffering produces Christians who believe it is their mission to “save” others — the heathen, the native, the stranger, the lost.
This mentality is what I believe is at the very root of a colonialist Christian tradition. Once I am saved, I am called to go save others. And what a downfall that has been for us, the white church, historically. What a contrast this thinking is, in comparison to the idea that once I have witnessed the suffering of Christ, I am called to bear witness to the suffering of others. Not to save, not to fix. I think the Black church lives from a place where suffering is not always relieved here on Earth. And so being saved is not the answer. The goal is not to fix, but rather to meet people there, in their suffering.
As a white Chistian raised in traditionally white churches, I may have encountered this suffering Christ in moments along the way — at times when I have sat with women and known deeply as I listened to their stories that there was nothing I could do to “help” them. But these moments are fleeting and are certainly not the predominant message that gets taught, preached, and prayed about from a majority of white churches. And we are the lesser for it. At least for now, because the more we read, the more we will understand.
When I was in my first semester of seminary, I had to wrestle for a time with the word “Witness.” I had a disdain for this word — based in the way white, mostly evangelical, churches used it. To witness was to go out and proclaim my story, in the hopes of saving others. But as I struggled, I realized that my understanding of witness was much more aligned with the idea that we are to bear witness to the suffering of the world. Not tell our own stories in hopes of motivating others, but to listen to others in hopes of being present to their sufferings. And I learned this meaning not from my own white church upbringing, but from the black churches, the Latino churches, and the non-American churches that I have visited along my journey.
And I am learning still, from this beautiful author Cole Arthur Riley, who challenges and stretches me still, to understand a God who might NOT save us, but who will surely suffer among us in every moment we allow.
(And seriously folks, go by the book and read it over and over again.)