Friday, February 6, 2009

Living as a Minority: Reach Out and Live, Pull In and Die

Health in all living things is a balance, where our immune system can push back with equal force against the creatures that would destroy or compromise our ability to function. The same is true in groups of people: health is a balance between the group's ability to reach beyond itself to the larger world, and its need to maintain its own cohesion. Groups grow when they can spend more time reaching out than on internal cohesion; they shrink and die when they spend more time on internal cohesion than they do in communication with the rest of the world.

The fact that these posts are incoherent to someone who does not know the struggles of the PC(USA) I think pretty clearly demonstrates where all our energy has gone these last 40 years. It is no accident that there are half as many of us as there were 40 years ago. We have so lost the ability to cohere that we have not even noticed that the world has changed. We are a 21 st century Rip Van Winkle, tripping over a beard that we're not used to being there, angry that the people whose names we are calling are gone, the customs of dress and conversation make us feel as if we are strangers in the land of our birth.

We conservative/evangelicals in and beyond the PC(USA) seem the most incensed and uncomprehending. We react in fear and anger to the world's bewildering ability to dismiss and belittle us, to walk its own path and ignore what we say. The temptation is to pull in behind strong walls, to rigidly enforce conformity within, and to expel and shoot those who look like/sound like they are from without. Groups, like individuals, have a survival instinct. Minority survival instinct is to pull in and defend the perimeter. Better to be safe than sorry.

But there is no future in safety. The walls built for safety harden into a shell that cannot be penetrated, and the Gospel meant for the whole world becomes the idiosyncratic cultural tic of a group of people whose oddity makes them incomprehensible to the vast majority of the world. Minorities walled off from the majority simply become new variations on the Amish theme.

To be African-American in America is to live with the tension implied in the hyphenated word. It is to be part of what easily can become two entirely separate worlds: a cultural world which, at 10-15% of the population, is and will always be a minority, while also being among those who by simple seniority (the average African-American family has been here almost 200 years longer than the average European-American family) have the deepest claims to the identity of the whole.

To reach out to the majority requires a confidence in common identity that enables the group to know what can be compromised, and what cannot. It requires a courage that masters the fears that never truly subside: fear of the group's death, its loss of identity-- that mixing will dilute it into oblivion.

The strength of these fears is the real reason why, as Martin Luther King, Jr. preached in his last regular Sunday sermon at the National Cathedral, that "11:00 on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America." It takes an intense courage and a deep faith to trust enough in the love of Christ to give up one's identity to culture and pick up one's identity in Christ.

I stand in awe of my heroes and heroines here at OCPC, who were willing to challenge us to meet them in the middle; I give thanks to my fellow Anglo faithful, who were willing to let go of what was the native cultural inheritance of this part of the Body of Christ to meet them in the middle. My hope and prayer is that somehow, we can do the same thing with the cultural/theological conflicts that beset us now. But both sides must be willing to reach out, recognizing that relationship requires both to lose in order to love.

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