I’m dreaming of an anti-colonialist Christmas
As our content team takes a much-deserved break during this holiday season, we offer the following piece by Jenny Williams originally published Dec. 20, 2021
I’m a pastor. “Getting saved” has never been part of my life, nor part of my pastoral ministry.
I grew up in a church where following Jesus meant loving and serving other people. We provided direct aid, boycotted, wrote letters, developed relationships with marginalized people and sang a lot of camp songs with acoustic guitars. (It was California, after all.)
I never “got saved.”
And I’ve never tried to help anyone “get saved.”
For awhile in my North Carolina seminary days, when I was picking everything apart in my faith, I examined whether I might be wrong to resist this “getting saved” business. I was in the South, after all, so people were getting saved left and right…and asking you when you got saved.
My husband, a theologian, always answered that question with, “I got saved in 33 AD, along with everyone else.”
Resistance is futile
Many churches want to “save” others, an impulse often rooted in the fear of another person’s eternal damnation or their own fear of being prevented from “being with their loved ones in Heaven.”
Some churches are so intense about this mission to get people “saved” that there are quotas associated with this work. For real.
Lots of people are taught to think that this saving business is a holy endeavor, born of love.
But underneath the veil of supposed love for others lies an ugly reality.
The project of getting others “saved” objectifies our neighbor by making them a target of conquest. I must get them to do this thing that I think is obviously good for them.
For churches that focus on individualistic salvation and who also figure in discipleship as part of the life of faith, the conquest is followed by assimilation.
Great! Now you’re one of US. Being with us means you’re probably going to end up wanting to dress like us, talk like us, listen to K-LOVE, pray like us, and of course, represent us well. Because your heathen-to-convert story is really a witness for us…I mean God.
That’s colonialism. Pumpkin spiced up with capitalism.
Baptized in exploitation
I was recently told a story about a baptism service at such a church. A person who’d been present in the congregation described the baptism portion of the service as kind of a mill. People who’d previously expressed desire to be baptized were lined up on stage, each gave a few brief words, were dunked in a tub, and walked off stage.
One man came forward and gave a short testimony, just as the others did. As he started to walk toward the tub, the pastor pulled him back and explained to the congregation that he wanted to tell just a little more of the man’s story…and then he proceeded to lay bare the details of the man’s drug use and some horrific events in his life.
He trotted out the man’s story, without permission, to a room full of a thousand people from this man’s local community. It’s akin to taking picture of naked brown starving children in other countries to tout your good white Christian work and make sure everyone knows about the stars in your Conqueror’s Crown[i]. The man had been exploited and harmed, because of the arrogance of the lead conqueror.
This kind of colonio-capitalist Christianity is antithetical to the way of Jesus Christ.
How real is too real?
At Christmas we focus on the story of the Incarnation, when God, to invite us closer to Love, becomes like the finite and fragile ones.
Jesus’s is not a project of converting us to a religion named after him. He came to be among people as they were, loving them in the walks of life they were in, offering himself without coercion or assimilation.
This is what a holy endeavor, born of love, truly looks like.
In calling for people to prepare the way of the Lord, John the Baptist didn’t tell the tax collectors to stop being tax collectors (I know a church who told a woman to quit her medical profession in order to love God more).
Jesus didn’t tell a bleeding woman to not seek healing (I know a church who told a person to quit therapy because they weren’t trusting Jesus to solve their problems and—no joke—they were becoming “less happy and too real”).
Sure, Paul urges his readers to have the mind of Christ and even asked people to imitate him, but Paul knew that the people in Rome were going to do that differently than the people in Corinth Also, it’s worth noting, the Christ-followers in Corinth were from all walks of life and cultural strata of the time.
Jesus wasn’t looking for homogeneity; Paul wasn’t interested in coercion. Theirs was not a gospel of assimilation or conquest.
That’s what friends are for
So which “us” did God come as?
Was it those who control and use their privilege to convert and assimilate others?
No. God chose to become flesh in the world as a vulnerable baby in a dirty barn out back, born outside of a marriage relationship, whose first visitors were suspect teenagers working the night shift who bailed on work to see him.
Bishop Peter Storey, South African Methodist clergy, preached at the baccalaureate service for my seminary graduation. He said, “When someone asks Jesus to ‘come into their heart,’ Jesus responds with, ‘Can I bring my friends?’”
The Greek Biblical word “salvation” means “wholeness.” Storey knew that we cannot be whole without each other and that wholeness is not sameness. As a white man who worked alongside Bishop Desmond Tutu in the Church’s anti-apartheid struggle, Storey bore witness with his daily life and work to Jesus’ opposition of homogeneity and empirical marginalization.
Shiny happy people
Jesus challenged the status quo instead of creating or maintaining it. He did not do that by force or through coercion, but through humility and vulnerability.
The God who was delivered onto straw isn’t looking for shiny, put-together people whose lives are directed by pat answers, but rather ragtag people who question and doubt and leave room for wonder…showing up as their authentic selves and making space for others to be their authentic and messy selves as well.
Christmas is anti-colonialist by nature. My dream is that when we gather this season we all give ourselves and those around us space to be the hot messes that we are. Because I’m pretty sure in the midst of that is where Jesus shows up.
[i] High recommend on following @nowhitesaviors on social media.
Rev. Jenny Williams (she/her) is an ordained United Methodist pastor who believes the Church needs to reclaim her prophetic witness by speaking into issues of injustice and walking with people marginalized by Empire. She currently serves at the Faith Organizer for the ACLU of WV. Read more of Jenny’s work here.