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Theology Slam winner: From exclusion to embrace

by
03 July 2020

In the winning entry of the Theology Slam competition, K. Augustine Tanner-Ihm calls for the Church to be a place in which all voices are heard

geoff crawford/churchtimes

The Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, speaks during a General Synod debate on a private member’s motion on the Windrush legacy, in February

The Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, speaks during a General Synod debate on a private member’s motion on the Windrush legacy, in Febr...

SOCIAL or physical distancing has affected billions of people around the world. The Government has told us to stay at least two metres away from each other, “to stop the spread” of the coronavirus.

While walking down the street now, you might see someone look you in the eye, half decide in their mind which way to go, and then avoid you. While this might be motivated by a noble desire not to pass on the virus, when it happens enough times you may begin to think it’s just you.

This can be painful. It makes you feel less human. It can make you feel “othered”. But it is only for a time like this, which will surely pass. There will come a time when your neighbour breezes past you or embraces you with a smile or hug; life will be back to normal. For many people, however, being distanced by others has been their lifelong normal (Comment, 15 May).

The rise in hate crimes, the England v. Bulgaria football match, the views about foreigners and people of colour during and after Brexit, and the disproportionate number of people of colour dying of Covid-19 — all contribute to a feeling of exclusion and isolation.

If you are like most people in the UK, you get stomach cramps just thinking about the idea of talking about race. It’s not like talking about the weather or how England failed to get to the FIFA World Cup Final, tournament after tournament after tournament, although that’s painful. And, if you’re honest with yourself, you may be one of those people who say, “Oh, no, here comes a black man coming to tell us that we are bad for being white.”

All too often, statements are interpreted as a personal accusation, and, rather than reach out to understand the content, we respond in a defensive and protective posture. In many cases, even statements of racial facts and statistics — such as definitions of racism, disparities in income and education, segregation of neighbourhoods, hate-crime figures, and so forth — are met with defensiveness from a white demographic.

Defensiveness and dismissiveness are the words that I would use to describe the usual reactions to conversations about race which I’ve experienced. I hope that we might be challenged by the Spirit of God to reflect on our uncomfortable postures, on our lack of interest, and on our tuning out.

 

IN JOHN 3, Nicodemus asked Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

And Jesus said: “No one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born again”. Then good ol’ Nicodemus said: “How can someone be born again when they are this old?”

We don’t just discover Jesus’s soteriology, but a reality of humanity. The exegetic idea is seeing. There is a blind spot. He was of high status, and people admired him. He was faithful and religious. But he was completely and utterly blind. He was blind to the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom of God is not a world that submits to an ordered reality, and not one that uses natural eyes. The Kingdom has Kingdom People who seek first God and its justice. The Church is blind to see our siblings in pain because we are using natural eyes.

Reni Eddo-Lodge, in Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, says: “White Privilege is an absence of the consequences of racism. An absence of structural discrimination, an absence of your race being viewed as a problem first and foremost.”

Within a theological lens, Bishop Tom Wright says: “The ‘gospel’ is the announcement that everything has changed in the coming of Jesus, and it leads us to a new kind of living. It is a Kingdom of God’s lifestyle, with allegiance to a King as the ultimate restorer.” Kingdom People recognise our own bias and embrace people anyway.

 

EARLIER this year, the Church of England apologised for “deeply institutional racism” (News, 14 February). The Church said that it was ashamed of its racist history. That same week, after rejoicing for progress, I received a letter that caught me off guard (News, 26 June): “Dear Augustine, Thank you for your application.

“I am afraid that despite some of your obvious gifts, we don’t think it worth pursuing a conversation about a curacy. We are not confident that there is a sufficient “match” between you and the requirements of the post. Firstly, the demographic of the parish is a monochrome white working class, where you might feel uncomfortable. I wish you well as you seek the future God has planned for you. DDO.”

The Princeton theologian Geerhardus Vos said: “We live in the ‘Already Not Yet’.” Therefore, there will still be racism and we are called to do better, to live like the Kingdom is near.

The Archbishop of Canterbury said that the Church’s hostile environment must become hospitable and welcoming. He called for radical and decisive progress to end racism in the Church of England. We must work toward a “radical new Christian inclusion”.

Accessibility is being able to get into the building. Diversity is getting invited to the table. Inclusion is having a voice at the table. But belonging is having a voice heard at the table. Is this a radical new Inclusion? Are the wonderful and beautiful brown and black bodies being heard at your table, or have they not even been invited to the table? Can they even get into the building? Does your table look more like a table of bank executives, or like the Kingdom of God?

We are Kingdom people. Kingdom looks like the prophetic vision in the Revelation, “After I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples, and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes.”

 

WE must move from exclusion to embrace. The Revd Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, said: “Any Church that stands against integration and that has a segregated body is standing against the spirit of Jesus Christ and fails to be a true witness.”

It is not about cheap diversity, but belonging. The Church can invest in multicultural education that has a strong anti-racist orientation, which is of utmost importance in helping children and adults to develop non-racist identities.

Individuals who have come to recognise and own their biased beliefs and prejudices, and even their roles in perpetuating racism, and the pain their obliviousness has inflicted on people of colour, and their privilege that has advantaged position in societies, may feel overwhelmed by the multitude of problems.

But God is not colour-blind, and neither should we be. This is authentic Kingdom living. This is radical inclusive discipleship. We wait for future glory, and, until that time, we will sing the old Negro spiritual, sung over and over by my grandparents and great grandparents: “We shall overcome. . . We shall overcome. . .”

 

K. Augustine Tanner-Ihm has recently completed ordination training at Cranmer Hall, Durham, during which he completed an MA in Theology.

Features: All white is not all right

Watch the Theology Slam 2020 final here

 

Listen to the finalists’ talks on the Church Times Podcast.

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