My 2020 Opening Convocation Address (Part III): From Cultural Echo Chamber to the Distinct Voice of the ChurchSeptember 16th, 2020
Read Part I of my convocation address here.
We come now to the second storm, that of racial unrest in our country. The tragic death of forty-six-year-old George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis on May 25th with his last words, “I can’t breathe” on his lips has highlighted a long-standing wound in our land, which should not be ignored. There is a deepening despair that has brought our black citizens in fifty-seven years from the hopeful phrase of MLK in 1963, “I have a dream” to the desperate plea “I can’t breathe.” Willie James Jennings, former professor from Duke Divinity School, now Yale, has called this wound a “diseased social imagination.” Its roots are in our hearts. But, while sin is personal, it is never satisfied to stay there. It longs to infect all our institutions and social arrangements. Sin is personal and systemic; it is private and public; it is internal and societal; it is individual and corporate.
There is nothing wrong with our participating in peaceful protests to demand attention to this deep wound in our society. We share many of the same frustrations and anger that have erupted in our streets. Our message is not one promoting the destruction of communities, but the rebuilding of communities on the foundation of reconciliation. This is why we must reclaim our Christian voice in the midst of this crisis of our day, which addresses this “diseased social imagination” in deeper and more transformative ways. My 2019 Convocation Address focused on the work of Alsdair MacIntyre, who rightly argues that our society has lost the moral foundation to produce true transformation and we are only left with what he calls “emotivism” where we just shout at one another. It is the loss of the Christian worldview which is the very gap between the stirring hopefulness of Martin Luther King Jr. “I have a dream” and the desperate plea of George Floyd, “I can’t breathe.” It is a loss that the culture cannot name.
However, we have a message that is the only hope for our nation, or any nation, which seeks to honestly face up to a diseased social imagination. Our distinctive voice should not be silent. Four examples will be noted.
First, we affirm that Scripture teaches us that every person is created in the image of God. This is the great creational foundation stone that gives dignity and infinite value to all people everywhere.
Second, the Bible also teaches us that all of humanity, apart from Christ, is under the bondage of sin and needs to receive the grace of forgiveness. Apart from Christ, we are all “in Adam.” This is a universally shared experience because of the fall.
The culture does not recognize sin as sin, but only the effects of the sin nature, and seems unable to have the capacity to offer, or receive, forgiveness. We, as the people of God, know that we are the joyful recipients of the grace of God. Our culture needs to see forgiveness, reconciliation, and grace manifested in the church and offered freely to the world.
Third, as Wesleyans we believe in the power of Jesus Christ and His indwelling Spirit to transform and redirect hearts toward perfect love. His victory over death was also His victory over all sin, including the sin of racism, since He has “torn down the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14) and has created a new redeemed people, made up of every race, tribe, and tongue (Rev. 5:9; 7:9). Our theology has enormous implications that are both private and public; internal and societal; individual and corporate.
Fourth, we believe that the new creation is coming when God will present us in complete unity as the spotless bride of Christ. The future to which we are headed is not one of division and hatred, but of shared unity around the glory of God and of His redemption that has made us all adoptive children. There is no greater diversity in unity than the vision of John in Revelation 7:9 of people from every tribe, people, and nation worshipping the Lord. The church has not always been faithful to this vision. Albert Tate, the African American lead pastor of the multi-racial Fellowship Church in Monrovia, California, made the insightful comment that the evangelical church was far better in envisioning a multi-racial multitude “standing before the throne” in the new creation (Rev. 7:9), than they were with the races of the world “sitting around the table” in the here and now. We clearly have important unfinished business as a Christian community. Some sectors of the church resisted the biblical vision during the years of racial segregation in our country. We have not always been prepared to accept the systemic ramifications of sin. We must be honest about this and ask forgiveness for this. A new window of opportunity is before us as a community, and God’s grace has provided the possibility of this new engagement framed by being true to the Christian message.
Please fill out the form below if you would like to provide feedback to Dr. Tennent concerning this blog entry.