We’re still quarantining magazines as they come into the house, and when I was going through them last night, a billboarded pull quote from British theologian N.T. Wright in a back issue of Christian Century jumped up off the page, snuggled up to me and wanted me to adopt it and give it a forever home.
(OK, OK, I’m getting carried away with the metaphor. But it’s a cool quote.)
Wright, according to Wikipedia, “is highly regarded in academic and theological circles” for his New Testament scholarship, most prominently a multi-volume study of “Christian Origins and the Question of God” (four volumes so far, and counting). He’s written 70 books. Seventy! And I see his articles in Christian Century and other quality publications from time to time.
What caught my eye this time was the quote about the church as a “multicultural project.” Intrigued, I tracked it down and discovered it comes from a letter to the editor in The Spectator, a British magazine I think of as kind of a high Tory journal of the arts, conservative politics (with and without an upper-case “C”) and nostalgia for a time when the sun never set on the British empire, the “lesser breeds without the Law” stayed in India and Pakistan, and the English lower classes knew their place. Not where I’d usually think to look for a better understanding of the early Christian church.
Turns out there was even more to it than I thought. Says Wright (who copied the letter in full to his personal blog):
The earliest Christian writings insist that in the Messiah ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek’. The book of Revelation envisages Jesus’s followers as an uncountable family from every nation, tribe, people and language. At the climax of his greatest letter, St Paul urges Christians to ‘welcome one another’ across all social and ethnic barriers, insisting that the church will thereby function as the advance sign of God’s coming renewal of all creation.
This is the three-dimensional meaning of ‘justification by faith’: all those who believe in Jesus, rescued by his cross and resurrection and enlivened by his Spirit, are part of the new family. This was and is central, not peripheral. The church was the original multicultural project, with Jesus as its only point of identity. It was known, and was for this reason seen as both attractive and dangerous, as a worship-based, spiritually renewed, multi-ethnic, polychrome, mutually supportive, outward-facing, culturally creative, chastity-celebrating, socially responsible fictive kinship group, gender-blind in leadership, generous to the poor and courageous in speaking up for the voiceless.
Justification by faith, he said? Hey, that’s catnip to Lutherans. I’ve been reading about things like forensic justification, Mannermaa’s theory of transformatory justification through the ‘real-ontic’ unity of Christ and Christian” … and don’t get me wrong, I think it’s all very interesting. But the theology tells me about heaven, and there’s something missing — what about the here and now?
Yeah, here and now. I think of the legendary labor organizer Joe Hill, who sang, “you will eat, bye and bye / In that glorious land above the sky” (to the tune of the old gospel song “In the Sweet Bye and Bye”). Joe Hill ended the song with this:
You will eat bye and bye
When you’ve learned how to cook and how to fry
Chop some wood, ’twill do you good
Then you’ll eat in the sweet bye and bye
So I’ll still have to think about the justification part. Wright seems to imply if we’re part of the church, this “new family” of believers, we’re justified. (Whatever that means. The online Oxford English Dictionary says justification is “[t]he action of declaring or making righteous in the sight of God.”) I may even get around to reading N.T. Wright someday.
In the meantime, what Wright says about the church is something to aspire to, with measurable benchmarks.
Are we worship-based? What about during a pandemic? Will we be worship-based after the pandemic? What have we learned about worship in the meantime? About community? Are we spiritually renewed? Multi-ethnic and polychrome? Mutually supportive? How does my parish measure up? How does ELCA? We have these gifts of the spirit — given to “all those who believe in Jesus, rescued by his cross and resurrection and enlivened by his Spirit,” as Wright says — so what do we do with them?
Anyway, I found Wright’s letter refreshing, and inspiring. Which makes sense, because it grew out of an effort by the Church of England to look into systemic racism in its past and formulate plans to address it in the present and future.
Wright’s letter was written in response to an elegantly peevish article by Douglas Murray, associate editor of The Spectator, blasting an “Anti-Racism Taskforce” commissioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury. A graduate of Eton and Magdalene College Oxford, Murray has written books on neo-conservatism — he approved of it — and Islam. He disapproves. Mightily. His video “The Suicide of Europe” for the right-wing Prager University website was a “dog whistle to the extreme right,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. But a lot of his stuff is more like a brass band than a dog whistle.
True to form, Murray didn’t think much of the task force, or of the archbishop’s acknowledgment of a pattern of institutional racism in England’s national church. If he were American, I might suspect a bit of white fragility in his article. But since he’s English and I may be missing some nuance, I’ll just quote him:
As [the task force] notes, much happened in the months after the Archbishop’s admission of racism. In May last year George Floyd was killed by a policeman in Minnesota. The C of E report describes Floyd as ‘a 46-year-old practising Christian, who worked to mentor young people and oppose gun violence’, which is certainly a generous interpretation of Floyd’s varied career. It is anyway the only generous interpretation in the report, which warns fantastically elsewhere of racism ‘whispered in our pews’, as though the Church of England was the KKK at prayer. When talking of the ‘institutional racism’ that is allegedly so rife in the church, the report insists: ‘The time for lament at such treatment is over… the time for action has now come.’
Not a whole lot of nuance there, on second thought.
But at least I can be grateful to Murray for triggering Wright’s letter to the editor. And to the Church of England for convening the task force on racism in the first place.
Citation: N.T. Wright, “Anti-Racism in the Church,” N.T. Wright Online (personal blog) https://ntwrightpage.com/2021/03/27/anti-racism-in-the-church/; originally published in The Spectator, vol 345 no 10,048 for 27 March 2021, p 31, in reply to Douglas Murray, “The New Religion of the Church of England,” The Spectator, March 20, 2021 https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/the-new-religion-of-the-church-of-england.
[Revised and published May 18, 2021]