‘Around the Way’ Ethics: Have you felt the clash of dominant cultural sensibilities?

The Church is filled with divisions. For the most part people have simply accepted this as a given and an inevitable reality. Hardly do people find themselves with enough Christian instincts to be deeply troubled with what’s going on. Even more rare than that, it is almost impossible to find followers of Jesus committed to doing the hard work of having honest and hard conversations in hopes of discerning a more truthful way.

I’ve been glad to find some communities and networks that are trying to do just that. These Christians are not doing the liberal ecumenism which ignores differences for the sake of unity, or conservative ecumenism, which sees its only faithful role as conquering ‘the other’ in debate. Instead, I have witnessed genuine attempts at true dialogue; speaking honestly and listening attentively in a manner that often (though not always) results in clarified disagreement and demonstrable growth in common understanding and renewed solidarity. This only happens through perseverance and ‘stick-with-it-ness’ because our one faith, one Spirit, and one baptism that we belong to under the One Lord, Jesus Christ. Many of these conversations are not for those that desire to avoid conflict (fake peace) at every turn, but instead demands vulnerability and a desire to pursue truth while guided by the Spirit. I can personally say that I have learned and grown much from many of them.

What is particularly interesting is that this group is able to discuss politics, atonement theory, racism, sexuality, gender, and a whole range of social concerns, always with people present coming from different perspectives and experiences on all of these concerns. That conservative, moderate, liberal, progressive, and marginalized perspectives can come together in pursuit of mutuality despite at times having varying theological commitments and diverse experiences is a great testament to the possibilities latent in the Church that are scarcely attempted.

However, things aren’t all roses. Certainly any number of concerns could be brought up, however, I believe that one important factor that often does not get taken into consideration is the “around the way” factor. While race is spoken of often, it does not always expose the power-dynamics of cultural logics at work that often set the rules and norms of engagement. Because of this, there is constantly an unfair burden for folks from “around the way” to utilize their “code-switching” skills while operating in these 2nd cultures that they have been forced to learn, but never seeing reciprocity. The result is that dominant cultural logics (which are predisposed to accept civility only by its own definition and terms) hegemonically shape and limit the nature of the conversation, and hence forth its outcome. This is not because it limits the topics being discussed, but because it dismisses the validity of “around the way” ethics, considering it as inferior to the dominant culture’s sensibilities.

More clarity is most likely needed here. Many middle class and suburban (in formation, not necessarily current geographical residence) Christians that engage in dialogue on race or class, for example, tend to only engage “bi-cultural” code switchers. That is people that have been formed “around the way” (aka the hood), yet also by necessity have learned how to embody dominant cultural norms in speech and behavior when necessary as a strategy and tool for gaining access. These folks move back and forth into various cultural communities engaging fluently on the terms of both their original communities that formed them culturally as well as the dominant cultural space they had to learn. They are, in a manner, bi-lingual. The middle class and suburban Christian engaged in “reconciliation” work, often in reality, only engages with people on their own suburban and middle class terms. What seems to be lacking is any effort from those brought up in dominant culture to become fluent and formed by “around the way” ethics and norms. When will “Peter and Jane” so to speak, who claim to want “reconciliation”, begin to immerse themselves (not just physically but in cultural logics) in the poor urban centers, which would demand that they also code-switch and embody a different set of norms? It is one thing to converse with someone like me, whom has been conditioned to play by the behavior rules and speech norms of dominant culture when I occupy those spaces, and it is something else for Peter to do “life together” with ‘Jamal, Puddin’ & dem’ on the block. If someone is intimidated dialoging and listening to me (who is committed to doing it in truth and love because of my faith and code-switches culturally), how will you engage my neighbor who doesn’t want to have anything to do with white people because of the way this country has treated him?

The truth is that both the ethics on the corner as well as majority and mainstream sensibilities are culturally and contextually biased norms. Neither are better examples of civility than the other. The only reason so many unconsciously assume otherwise is because they have bought into a dominant cultural framework rooted in American Civil Religion. From there, dominant culture is universalized and moralized as right. No longer recognized as a cultural expression it is deemed sacred and holy culture. (Western European civilization has always been erroneously conflated with being Christian culture, which explains western colonization practices historically).

In relation to the specificity of the Incarnation of God found in the birth, life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, the universal claims of civility in American dominant culture are exposed as false, and instead we are forced to re-situate it beside every other cultural context including all its societal norms and ethical claims. By fixing our eyes on Jesus (of scripture and present among us) we can keep sight of all false claims of universality that our society tries to disciple us into rather than after the particularity of Jesus’ life, which is the only full revelation of God. EVERYTHING that we assume and take for granted, especially our “common sense” values, outside of the revelation of Jesus is speculative. Jesus is the Truth that entered in our finite historical moment so that we could see the Universal God. And yet, this type of discipleship that subversively follows Jesus, is never done in a social and cultural vacuum. Just like Jesus participated in custom and engaged concrete Jewish practices, so too must we embody our ‘followership’ in varying geographical & cultural spaces that are always accompanied with power dynamics that are not being named. One unique practice of Jesus, that I believe helped forge true Kingdom solidarity was his habit of entering into people’s own spaces and then speaking to them on their terms. Whether living water for the woman at the well, a word of liberation to an oppressed people, or utilizing shepherd language to communities that understood about grazing sheep, Jesus’ engagement was ‘fluent’ and adaptable because of his willingness to occupy marginal spaces and their modes of being.

I have briefly named “around the way” ethics and dominant cultural sensibilities in still very broad terms. Hopefully, at the very minimum, I have helped to begin to name and unveil an existing problem that is rarely addressed. True Christian solidarity and ‘togetherness’ in Christ is fragile and cannot be controlled. And yet as followers of Jesus it always remains “at hand” when we yield to the Spirit and reorient our lives through constant immersion into the only honest story, the good news of Jesus as Lord and Messiah, and as we open our eyes to the truth about our societies violent and oppressive history and current state. In response, when we collectively repent and join the Messianic struggle for liberation and shalom, committed to truth and love, Christian solidarity is not only “at hand”, but it can be experienced “among you” as well.

John Howard Yoder: On Withdrawing to the Artificial Suburbs

While discussing the various Jewish sects during the time of Jesus, John Howard Yoder, zones in on the communities that produced the Dead Sea scrolls, most often referred to by Biblical scholars as the Essenes. However, he turns its application to what he sees as artificial and synthetic suburban life. He says the following:

The days of real rural withdrawal are fast passing, but the synthetic countryside we call the suburb, with its artificial old swimming holes, artificial expanses of meadow, and artificial campfire sites, set up to maintain artificial distance from the city’s problems, still represents some people’s vision of what to life for… But Jesus, although his home was a village, found no hearing there, and left village life behind him. He forsook his own handicraft and called his disciples away from their nets and their plows. He set out quite openly and consciously for the city and the conflict which was sure to encounter him there.[i]

What do you think about this statement from Yoder?  Are the ‘burbs’ a synthetic and artificial attempt at escaping the ugly systemic realities of the city? What was the relationship between White Flight and Evangelical Church flight to the suburbs while the great migration of poor, suffering African Americans from the rural south and to cities was taking place?


[i] John Howard Yoder, For the Nations: Essays Evangelical and Public (Eugene  Or.: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2002), 173.

Wright Around The Way!

Jeremiah Wright speaking at the church across the street.

Looking forward to Jeremiah Wright coming to my block next week, when he will be speaking at the Baptist church on my block on Monday and Tuesday. I have really appreciated his perspective. I honestly was not very familiar with him before President Obama and him split ways. From that point forward, specifically after hearing his response, I decisively was on #TeamWright. I am not an Obama hater, however, I did and continue to support the prophetic voice over and above a political positioning. President Obama at the end of the day is a politician, a politician for an empire. At the same point, Wright speaks out of conviction from subversive sub-dominant society, and more importantly on behalf of the Kingdom of God. We should never confuse politics from the center with prophetic subversion from the margins.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Likewise it gives me an excuse to hang out with my baptist brothers and sisters, it’s been so long 😉

Funny Chic-Fil-A Video

Just got a new Chic-Fil-A restaurant in our neighborhood (really on the edge of the city, but momma always said beggars can’t be choosers!).  Stopped in for lunch, and it was banging as always.  Here is a funny chic-fil-a video a friend sent me in honor of  our new fast food joint!

The Cat and the Toaster

This is a great book I’m reading… this is the second book in a row that I have posted without finishing it.  Nonetheless it is a great read.  I do plan to finish, but I also have school stuff I’m working on now that class has started back that will “distract” me from the real important stuff 🙂   Definitely check it out and let me know what you think.  It is a christian writer talking about the complexity of living and social organisms, and how we can apply Christian principles to address solutions within our society.  Sounds dull when I describe it but he is a great writer and has great insight into Kingdom work.

PhD???

Been considering getting my PhD after I finish up my MDiv. I am still not sure if that is what I really want to do. I am looking at both the Urban Studies as well as the Religion programs at Temple University. My concern is that I do not want to get lost in the world of academia. I want everything that I do to have practical and real world implications. I want everything that I do to align with how I understand God is working and moving.

I still have some time to decide…  I’ve got some praying and reflection to do in the upcoming days.

Waiting for Superman

I just saw a free screening of the documentary “Waiting for Superman”. It tackles the tough subject of Education in America.  The film succesfully points out that it is time to reform the broken educational system, and does it in a powerful and moving manner. It is without a doubt a “MUST SEE” film, which should be out in October, 2010.

Until then, enjoy the trailer

Urban Retreat Center…

Why is it that when we go on retreats it is always to rural areas? We always go out into the country to meet and hear from God, but why don’t we ever retreat in urban contexts? Can’t we also take time to intentionally dwell in the city to hear God? Does God only speak to us when we go to less populated and less developed spaces? Or is it just a Christian bias that we all have bought into…

Maybe instead of retreating from the city we could actually retreat to the city. There might actually be some advantages to retreating in the urban context! What can God teach us in the midst of all the hustle and bustle of life? How might we see Jesus anew surrounded by poor and systemically oppressed people? How might God shape and transform His people in the urban setting? What could an individual or communities time look like as they seek God submerged in the hood? I would love to hear your thoughts and perspectives on this. Freestyle with me…

Unleashed…

Most churches seem to have their members on a short leash. Think about it, while most churches “teach” that the members need to go out and witness to others, they have everyone shackled and busy inside the church.  Who are considered the most faithful people in the church? Usually they are the ones who commit the most time serving and ministering inside the church.  Shoot, there is Sunday service, and of course if you are good you also attend communion and Sunday School. Most churches have a wednesday night bible study at their church.  Of course, if you are really serious you will give up your time and serve on some committee, comission, church board, or meeting once a week.  Don’t forget rehearsal for the choir, worship teams, band, drama, etc. Then we got our fellowships for the men, for the women, for the young adults, for the youth.  We also got singles stuff and stuff for married folks too.  If you are a “faithful” church member, then you are lucky to have even a few evenings home with the family.   At the end of each week, surprisingly we find no time to reach, serve, and love neighbors and strangers in our community. (I don’t blame the members, I blame us leaders for this problem).

This doesn’t seem to be what is going on in the New Testament.  And please, don’t get me wrong I am not saying that all those things are inherently wrong. However, I believe the primary role of the church is to equip and unleash the Church for mission locally, regionally, and globally. And when I say that I am not thinking primarily of evangelism events and missions programs. What I mean is that the Church ought to be released to go out and interact and engage the community naturally as God’s people.  Whether individually or collectively we are to be the voice, hands, and feet of Jesus in our community.

For the neighborhood I live in I imagine people spending time with neigbors on the block or on the corner.  I imagine Christians out at the basketball courts hanging out, or choppin it up about current events in the barbershop.  I see christians having their favorite local bar where everyone knows their name and where they are building relationships with people that most church members would never encounter regularly.  This can never happen if we are on a tight leash spending most of our time keeping church programs afloat.  More than ever I think it is time for the church to disciple and equip its people in sacrificially minded community (opposed to consumer minded communities) so that it may be unleashed to bear witness to Christ to a world that needs it.