Have I ever mentioned that I am a very black and white thinker? This can be very depressing, because it means I follow things all the way to the end of their logical conclusion (which is usually depressing). Which explains my current depression about the state of humanity and the entire world lately.
Basically, it’s the stuff I’m studying. The whole concept of whiteness studies (and really, much of sociology) is all about refusing to divorce present realities from their particular histories. You never just interact with a person, you interact with the whole history of social interactions, choices, sins, and triumphs that they and all their ancestors have participated in. We can’t divorce ourselves from our context. Our context gives meaning to who we are, it’s bound up in us.
This can be a beautiful thing—it gives me a sense of connection, a sense of self and purpose that’s much larger than my individual little self. But it’s also extremely depressing, because I’m living out not only my ancestors triumphs, but also I’m advantaged because of my ancestors sins. I’m advantaged because of a history of my race disadvantaging people.
But of course, this leads me to think about the connectedness of other things. I remember always loving the red brick town hall in our down-town Pietermaritzburg.
It’s an amazing feat of Victorian architecture, the largest all-brick building in the Southern Hemisphere. I always thought of it as part of our city—it was something to be proud of, it was ours. Then I went to Oxford and saw hundreds of buildings just like it, and suddenly our town hall didn’t seem South African, it seemed like an anachronistic import from a colonial power. It seemed like a statement glorifying the British Empire. It started to smell like oppression, and suffering, and the squelching of local culture and traditions. It looked like domination. And I realized that maybe for many people in South Africa, that beautiful red-brick building was not beautiful, it was ugly.
And then I visited Gothic cathedrals, beautiful buildings made for the glory of God—only to learn that it was only possible to build those buildings because people were exploited and worked, lived and died building it for almost no wages.
The song “It is well with my soul” is a beautiful Christian hymn reminding us that in the middle of life’s stormy, scary, lonely times, God is with us and all can be well with our souls.
But the guy who wrote it shortly afterwards started a cult, moved his family to Jerusalem where they waited for the imminent return of Christ, stopped working and just lived off of rich people they manipulated into their cult and ruined many people’s lives. It was NOT well with that guy’s soul.
And I guess I’m depressed because I want to go back to divorcing everything from it’s context, and just enjoy Augustine and forget that he was super-sexist and supported doctrines that oppressed women. I want to read old, dead white guys, and forget that I’m only reading them because women and people of other races in the USA and Europe weren’t given chances to develop their literary potential (sometimes not even allowed to learn to read).
And then, there’s the whole purchasing dilemma. I see a shirt that’s really cute and I want to buy it, but for all I know, it was made using slave labor somewhere. So if I buy it and I don’t know if it’s fair trade or not (and it turns out it’s not) then I’m part of the system of oppression. (If all the people in the British Empire had stopped eating sugar, the slave trade might have stopped much sooner). We’re keeping these oppressive systems going by our purchases.
And don’t even get me started on just wanting to buy food—but knowing that the beef I’m eating probably came from a really depressed cow that was treated super inhumanely, and that my corn-syrup infused food, and flour and EVERYTHING, is probably being grown in a way that is destroying our environment for future generations. So when I sit back to enjoy the brownie I just made, I’m actually a part of reeking havoc on God’s beautiful creation. It’s a BROWNIE OF DESTRUCTION!!
It makes me want to go live in a yurt and grown my own food and make my own clothes and never read anything except the Bible, and just pray or something.
David pointed out that if I did that—if I tried to purify myself from the evil system (which I never really could), I couldn’t be a part of trying to change the system. There’s no such thing as “opting out”. I’m stuck. I’m a sinner. This world is sinful.
Which brings me to…. PENTECOST! This is why I needed some Pentecost this week (which is what our sermon was about this Sunday, even though the majority of the Christian world is in mourning for Lent, our church takes things like the church calendar as irrelevant, unless it’s Easter or Christmas. But that was okay, because I needed me some Pentecost).
Pentecost was the Old Testemant celebration of God’s provision. It came at the end of the harvest, after Passover, and was basically a time when everyone feasted and celebrated God. Yay! God gave us food for another year again! It was joyful! It was a party!
And it was at Pentecost that God sent the Holy Spirit to live in Christ followers, giving them the power they needed to be a part of the transformation and redemption of the world. And God didn’t just give his Spirit to the important people—he fulfilled Joel’s prophecy. The Spirit was given to everyone: young, old, male, female, rich, poor, slave, free. There were no social distinctions. The Spirit was the great equalizer, the affirmation that every person, regardless of age or class or gender is equally a part of God’s church, and equally empowered to do the work of the church—of bringing more people into God’s family, of bringing the world under the rule and reign of God. One day we’ll all stand around the throne of God—people from every tribe and tongue and nation—but at the day of Pentecost, at the birth of the church, we see a taste of that moment. We see people from many tribes and nations coming to know God, and coming to praise God.
God has always been working. The whole story of the Bible is God working in the midst of fallennes and broken systems and broken people. But Pentecost is like the explosion of this new thing where we all get to be a part of it in a uniquely special way. We have the actual spirit of God living in us, God is not just working “out there” he’s working “in here” he’s fixing brokenness inside us, making us more like Jesus, and he’s using us to fix brokenness around us. We’re no longer just a part of the problem, we’re able to be a part of the solution. CRAZY?!?
The way God works is tricky and messy and very complicated. He doesn’t just wipe us all out to get rid of the evil in us and in the world. (Or go live in his own yurt to avoid contamination from us sinful people.) He works quietly, slowly, and with much difficulty to redeem what is broken. He doesn’t throw us in the trashcan, with all our sin and failings. He slowly picks out the sin, and the death, and the webs of evil systems, and breathes his life into us, awakening the goodness that is still in us, since we were made in his image. And it doesn’t happen instantly. And it is costly. It cost him his Son.
And so there is still goodness in a brownie (even if it’s part of destroying the world). Gothic cathedrals can still glorify God. I can still sing “It is Well” and enjoy our town hall. But I also can’t forget the bitter mixed in with the sweet. This isn’t the new heavens and new earth yet.
Hopefully that will keep me humble, help me to depend on the grace of God for the ways in which every step I take is part of crushing the fragile beauty that God originally intended for this world.
And hopefully it will create a deeper longing for that day when I can fully revel in the goodness of God—the goodness of art and food and poetry and architecture that’s completely untainted by human sin—when we are in his presence.
And hopefully it will help spur me on to be a part of the painstaking but joyful work of redeeming the brokenness in our world.