I bought my first house as a bachelor in St. Catharines, Ontario. Jack and Bella Green were my delightful neighbours—a friendly Jewish couple in their eighties with much to share. Bella shared her well-seasoned pickles and Jack shared his well-seasoned opinions. I’d amble across the lawn and stop in to chat once and a while. They were very kind to me, a single young man in his late 20s, working in campus ministry at Brock University at the time.
One thing Jack intimated to me on numerous occasions was his personal aspiration to start a new religion. As a Jewish man who owned a jewellery store for most of his working life, he had experienced his share of anti-Semitic harassment, and so he was very clear on the central doctrine of his new faith.
“It’s a ‘no-hate’ religion,” he would explain, leaning back in his favourite chair. “Yep. It would be a ‘no-hate’ religion. I’ll tell you, Peter, if you cut open a man’s stomach you can’t tell his race or religion. Nope. All our stomachs are the same. We bleed the same colour blood, too.”
I loved it when he said that. Maybe it was the irony of a Jew and a Christian, both inheritors of the divine “love command” but with a bad history of violence (perpetrated overwhelmingly by Christians after the first century) now having a conversation about starting a “no-hate religion.” Maybe it just was that he was giving me that wonderful shalom feeling of the solidarity of all humanity, and invoking it so humbly from his modest suburban home.
It is Pentecost this Sunday, and after what has happened in the last year, we need this holy day more than ever.
A Multi-Coloured Gospel
As the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA reminds us, and recent prejudice against Asians in our country, it is always necessary to keep re-forming our hearts towards that vision and task: worldwide shalom. Too often we slip into the bogus “become like us” command, where we expect others to assimilate to our ways. I’ve heard the phrase “If you ain’t Dutch you ain’t much” too many times, and it gives me the opposite of the shalom feeling. In fact, I didn’t even want to include it here, it is so shameful. But I offer it as a confession of sin—an admission of my own complicity in this social crisis.
Global Scholars Canada, the organization I work for, has connections to universities around the world—in Muslim, communist, and multi-cultural settings. On our Western secular “multiversity” campuses, diversity discussions are pro-actively and aggressively present, as they ought to be in such hives of difference and disagreement. Public education is training the next generation to be highly sensitive towards all diversity issues. Unfortunately, practises like political correctness, the tribalism of identity politics, cancel culture, and over-zealous “diversity officers” can ironically create another form of discriminating intolerance—often against conservative traditions. My colleague in the USA has written a number of blogs critiquing what has been called “critical race theory.” But many modern academic institutions are conscientiously working towards the bureaucratic form of hospitality that a human rights culture makes possible without any shared metanarrative to ground it. Our public universities are pursuing a form of justice in deeply fragmented territory, and without a common metaphysics to gather around, even basic general agreement about language become impossible. We are speaking in different tongues. In some ways, university officials are doing the best they can with secular resources.
The church of Jesus Christ has, over the last 2000 years, struggled with diversity issues not unlike its surrounding culture. Racism, schism, colonialism, and brutal bloody wars have pockmarked the history of our community. It was not always easy to see that salvation history begins with the Abrahamic promise to be a blessing to all nations. The death and resurrection of Christ, as the treasured one-time sacrifice for all, fulfills this ancient promise with an added calling to followers. The multi-ethnic promise is significantly re-invigorated at Pentecost, the birthday of the church, which begins with an “all nations” linguistic festival, where disciples speak “in tongues” not their own. Finally, the new earth, according to John’s vision, will be a place “with a great multitude that no one [can] count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” (7:9). Ethnic, racial, international diversity is a divine kingdom value and this should translate into a community of welcome for everyone who follows Jesus. That’s the narrative trajectory of the Bible, at least.
The many tongues of Pentecost (image from Holger Schue)
Man Wants to be Higher
Jack had another saying, based on the fact that his house was the first to be built in the neighbourhood, and all subsequent homes brought in fill to raise up their properties. The water run off now naturally got directed onto Jack and Bella’s property, and had caused some flooding before they fixed the slope of the land.
“Man always wants to be higher,” he concluded. “Yep. Everyone wants to be one up on his neighbour.”
So God created this wonderful diversity, but we have this tendency to want to raise ourselves up and put our neighbour down. Racism, prejudice, anti-Semitism, bullying—it is personal, it is tribal, it is systemic, and it can be transnational—but it is exhibit A in terms of evidence for sin as the chronic human problem. It is a word to name our propensity to ego, pride, and even more subtle systemic evil. Many people don’t like to talk about sin, as it implies a spiritual layer intersecting with a social justice issue. But it helps us on multiple levels.
When we call it sin, we are not surprised when we see it in our church or in ourselves. It is not just a systemic issue that can be purged and forgotten. We can’t tear this culture down and raise up a sin-free system. We need constant vigilance. Secondly, calling it sin allows the possibility of forgiveness and transformation. Systems can then be overhauled and re-envisioned if reconciliation is a genuine option. Take the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, for instance. Reforming systems for the better participates in a redemptive vision for the planet. Calling it sin, and seeing it as deeply rooted in the very fabric of the human heart sets us up for a realistic but hopeful course as anti-racists. And sin infects everyone—it is humanity’s first universal pandemic and the vaccine is more than a shot in the arm.
Confession as Collective Guilt
My denomination, the Christian Reformed Church in North America was debating on whether or not to add the Belhar Confession as a fourth confession of the denomination—in addition to the staples of the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt. Confessions are understood to be statements that act as standards for membership—like a list of essential teachings. The Belhar arose as a Reformed Christian response to apartheid in South Africa and it champions the gospel of Jesus Christ as a gospel that seeks reconciliation where there is enmity, and seeks justice where there is poverty and oppression.
It is prefaced with this humble recognition: “We are only too well aware that this confession calls for the dismantling of structures of thought, of church, and of society which have developed over many years.” If 11 o’clock Sunday morning is still the most racially segregated hour of the week, this is no easy task. It brings whole new meaning to the idea of a “confession” of the church—as less a statement of doctrine and more an admission of guilt.
The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works.St. Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John; tractate XII on John 3:6-21
Consider this: after 2000 years of the Bible and 500 years of our three confessions, Christians are not finished confessing and adapting. As it stands, current Reformed confessions do not address the issues of poverty and racism. As catechetical tools of the 16th century, their aim was to explain the doctrinal disagreements between Reformed, Roman Catholic, and Anabaptist teachings. This more recent Belhar confession puts an emphasis on God’s mission to the world, and (in my opinion) could apply not only to diversity issues but also to issues like abortion, war, and even conflicts in the church.
The Reformed Church in America has already embraced this confession (2009). The Christian Reformed Church Synod adopted the Belhar Confession not as a confession but as a contemporary testimony in 2017, a status less binding than a confession. Regardless, it breathes of a fresh, living, international Christian tradition. My late Jewish friend Jack Green would like it. It proclaims a “no-hate” religion, in which no one is higher than their neighbour. Does it go far enough and solve all our problems with racism? Certainly not. But it is a step in a righteous direction, to use another good Jewish word.