Running Heads

From the editors of Cascade Books and Pickwick Publications at Wipf and Stock Publishers

Christian Decline as Return to (Marginal) Strength

Three stories/posts making the rounds yesterday came together for me, oddly enough as you’ll see, as a picture of hope for the future of Christianity in America.


The first was not a single story but rather a whole series of news articles and blog posts about the new Pew survey on “American’s Changing Religious Landscape.” One of the key findings of the study is that the percentage of Christians is declining in America. Released but three days ago, there’s no shortage of commentary on what the survey results mean. Though the survey results are fresh, the decline is nothing new, nor is the tendency to respond to the trend line as bad news. Back in November, Michael Lipka of the Pew Research Center reported that approximately two thirds of American Protestants and Catholics view “religion’s waning influence” as “a bad thing.” Even 30% of the “unaffiliated” considered the development “a bad thing.”


Jason Byassee, a good friend from graduate school, lured me into reading a lovely post at the Ekklesia Project lectionary blog by declaring on Facebook about its author: “I nominate Kyle Childress for best preacher and storyteller on the planet.” Childress, pastor of Austin Heights Baptist Church in Nacogdoches, Texas, reflects in “Two Christianities” about the difficulty of interpreting the high priestly prayer of John 17:6–19—the centerpiece of which reads, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one”—in the midst of his local context in which some well-meaning Christian folk arm themselves for a zombie apocalypse, and others think their Governor wise for summoning the Texas State Guard to keep an eye on the “Jade Helm” military training exercises out of fear that Obama really might be planning to invade the state and intern folk in empty Wal Marts. Childress hardly feels at one with these Christians, nor with the Christians who recently gathered for the National Day of Prayer in a local park to sing “God Bless America” and denounce various trends that they see at the root of a declining America. Childress pointed out that the National Day of Prayer gatherings are typically all-white audiences entirely distinct from the folk who turned out for the Martin Luther King Day celebration just a few months prior.


I hope readers will follow the link to Childress’ post to see where he goes from there, but it was the racialization of Christian disunity noticed by Childress that I was reminded of later when reading a post at the Duke Divinity School blog by one of my teachers, Willie James Jennings. In “Overcoming Racial Faith,” Jennings summons us to go beyond the false platitudes about racial conflict as an occasional flare up against a more serene and racially reconciled backdrop, to embrace a more painful truth about American life: “racial animus is a constituting reality of our social body.” Importantly, Jennings wants us to understand how the racial animus that is a constituting reality of our American social body is linked to the distinctive history of Christian faith—specifically, to what he calls “gentile forgetfulness.” His account is elegant and powerful and worth quoting at some length:

Christian faith grew from spoiled soil, from a way of reading Scripture and understanding ourselves as followers of Jesus that was distorted almost from the beginning. This first aspect of racial faith emerged from forgetting that we were Gentiles. Christian belief in God begins with the astounding claim that we have met God in a Jewish man, Jesus of Nazareth, a vagabond rabbi who came not to us but to his own people, Israel. The “us” in that sentence is Gentiles, those not of Israel, those not Jewish. And by Jewish I mean (generally speaking) all those inside the history of Israel, who would identify themselves, theologically or ethnically, inside that history.

We Gentiles were outsiders to Israel. We were at the margins. So our engagement with Jesus was engagement from the margins, not from the center of power or privilege. In fact, anyone in Israel who connected themselves to Jesus moved to the margins. They became what theologian Shawn Copeland calls “a thinking margin.” Thinking from the margin is thinking from the site where one can see the operations of power and oppression and spy out the possibilities of freedom. To be a thinking margin means that one always claims the identity of one who others didn’t imagine would be included and one who never forgets the feeling of being the outsider who was included by grace.

Somewhere, probably in many places and many times, Gentile Christians got tired of remembering that they were a thinking margin that had been included in Israel’s promise. They decided—we decided—that those who followed Jesus were the only people of God and that Jewish people, Israel in the flesh, were no longer the people of God. We also decided that we should look at the world as though we were at the center of it and not at the margins with a Jew named Jesus. We forgot we were Gentiles, the real heathens. A Christian world was turned upside down and remade in our image.

Jennings goes on to discuss “The Principality of Whiteness” as another key ingredient to the racial animus that plagues us, and I encourage readers to work through the entire piece. But I’ve quoted enough to suggest why I think it’s not just a parlor trick to claim that Christian decline might actually be good news for Christians in America. It might be just the healing balm needed by power-hungry heathen who have forgotten that the very source of their salvation comes from a marginal Jewish rabbi whose power was made perfect in weakness. As Kyle Childress is experiencing in Nacogdoches, Texas, and I suspect a good many Christians are experiencing elsewhere in America, many efforts by Christian churches “to reclaim the center” of American life and culture are being revealed more and more to be bizarre and paranoid and, I fear, violent betrayals of the gospel that doesn’t belong there—at “the center of power or privilege.” Dare we hope that by rediscovering and embracing our proper location on the margins, Christians in America might at long last confront and overcome the stubborn, constituting reality of racial animus that Jennings helps us to name?


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