The Common Good

Letting Reconciliation's Challenge Change Us

[see all posts in this conversation on New Monastics and race.]

Jason and Vonetta Storbakken have extended a gracious and hopeful invitation to public dialogue about reconciliation's challenge for New Monasticism. I'd like to say in public what I've already said to them privately: Thank you. I'm grateful not only that they have named an issue that we need to continue to grapple with, but that they have modeled the power of God to move us beyond race to a new identity in Jesus Christ.

It is no secret that many New Monastics come from places of so-called privilege in the white churches that have dominated American Christianity. Disappointed by the ways our whiteness kept us from Jesus, we relocated ourselves to black and Latino neighborhoods to learn from people who knew the power of God at the margins of society. We came to learn community from our neighbors and to know Christ more fully across the dividing walls of hostility that Ephesians says God has already destroyed.

The good news is that we have not been disappointed. Eliacin Rosario-Cruz is exactly right: New Monasticism needs the life and spirit that minorities bring because it is a more complete expression of what the kingdom is. The testimony I have to share with other white Christians is that we can be set free from a history of colonial control and condescending service. We can find new life by submitting ourselves to the traditions and wisdom of minority churches. In my experience, this is possible only because of the radical love of God that is extended by people whom white Christianity has historically ignored and abused.

But this only makes the Storbakkens' central question all the more pressing: "What are the reasons for the membership [of New Monastic communities] to remain so homogenous?" That we come from segregated churches is not surprising. The problem is that these radical communities seem to remain so homogenous.

Where, then, is the church that God is gathering beyond the color line? The last thing a white guy like me needs to offer is an answer to a question like that. But for the sake of this conversation (which I hope others will join), let me offer a few observations:

1) Reconciliation is happening in minority churches. In the historically black neighborhood where I live, our communal houses were started by white folks and continue to be dominated by them. Our local church, however, was started by black folks and continues to invite all of us into a journey of liberation from the power of race and transformation into new life. Our community feels a greater need to be part of the community at our local church than to sell our neighbors on New Monasticism.

2) Listening to neighbors means changing our ideas about community. While we came to our neighborhood with the best of intentions, we've seen that we get things wrong. The Storbakkens are right: We must affirm affirmative action in New Monastic community, welcoming whoever might come. In our experience, though, we've also had to re-evaluate what were inviting people into. Are our meals the sort of meals that neighbors would want to eat with us? Is our Bible study a place where neighbors can share their spiritual gifts? We haven't figured all of these things out, but I know that we've made some changes for every authentic relationship we've built across dividing lines.

3) We are caught between two conversations. Ninety-nine percent of my neighbors and fellow church members have never heard the term New Monasticism. I doubt they need the term. Yet I've written a book about New Monasticism. I talk to churches and denominational leaders about it all the time because I believe that mainstream Christianity needs to imagine a different future.

Any dialogue about reconciliation and New Monasticism needs to take both of these conversations into consideration. One way New Monasticism has failed is that guys like me have tried to communicate the gospel that we've learned from our neighbors without asking for our neighbors' help. An African-American mentor pointed out to me how white people enjoy listening to me talk about the experience of black people, but they don't actually listen to black folks. Indeed, we do need to hand the mic over to indigenous community leaders.

But I also notice that when black friends speak with me or in my place, white audiences often assume my friends are speaking primarily for other black Christians, and not to the church as a whole. So-called black theology and black preaching can be affirmed as good for them without being taken seriously as true for all of us. So maybe it's not enough to just hand the mic over. Maybe we have to stand together, joining our voices in witness to the truth that we confess we can only know together.

Thats why I'm so grateful for the Storbakkens. Not only are they pursuing community across the dividing lines that this world writes on us. They're joining their voices to speak to the whole church about what it means to receive God's gift of reconciliation and become its ministers in the world. Yes, we need dialogue. More than that, though, we need a way of life that is good news for all people and a gospel that we can proclaim together. I hope all our conversation leads us toward that.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is the author of Free to Be Bound: Church Beyond the Color Line.

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