Christianity's potential to bring about real, radical belonging

by Mariam Williams

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Last week, I heard the Rev. Dr. Willie James Jennings deliver the 2015 Grawemeyer Lecture in Religion at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The seminary in Louisville, Ky., presents the annual Grawemeyer Award in Religion jointly with the University of Louisville, which also gives a Grawemeyer Award each year in political science, music composition, psychology and education. Jennings, associate professor of theology and black church studies at Duke Divinity School, received $100,000 for his 2010 book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race.

The title of Jennings' talk posed a question: "How should we see race?" He told a large audience that "race has infected Christianity," a religion that imagines "radical joining." Racial belonging -- the idea that identifying as one race or another gives you kinship with those of the same race -- somehow has become stronger than the idea that Christians are all brothers and sisters through Christ.

"Christians in the West have inherited a diseased social imagination. The way we imagine belonging [and] connection, has been deeply distorted," Jennings said in explaining the thesis of his book.

The distortion occurred through processes of displacement, translation and intimacy. I'll let you read Jennings' book to understand displacement and intimacy and use my space this week to share more about the process that resonated most with me: translation.

Jennings argues that the legacy of the Bible's translation into many languages has effectively ended missionaries' need to immerse themselves in another culture and get to know its people in order to learn a foreign language. To illustrate this idea, Jennings said that to become fluent in a foreign language, one must learn to love the language, the people who speak it and the land they came from.

As Jennings told the audience that "learning must encompass loving" before fluency can occur, I remembered traveling to Cuernavaca, Mexico, for my first (and thus far, only) experience living in a non-English-speaking country. I had been studying Spanish in college for about two years at the time, and I wanted the immersion experience many of my friends were getting in study abroad programs.

I recalled a petite, gray-haired woman emerging from the crowd of host families in the lobby of our school in Cuernavaca when one of the faculty members called the name of the family I would be staying with. She smiled broadly, approached my roommate and me, said to us, "Soy Mamá," then extended her arms and gave each of us a hug and a kiss on each cheek before we followed her out the door, to her car and into her home. She saw two young African-American women before her who looked not only different from most Mexicans, but drastically different from each other -- most Mexicans called me "mulata" and my roommate "Indionesa" -- and introduced herself as "Mom." We were family for the next six weeks, and we never called her, or her husband, who was referred to as "Papá," anything else. I don't even remember their real first names.

My roommate and I ate with la familia Hernández López, watched telenovelas with our new brother and sisters, met and went to the homes of their extended family, and played with babies during an intergenerational Father's Day gathering. I went to Mass with Mamá and to something like Sea World with one of her nieces. Outside of the family and the language instructors, I talked to -- and, perhaps more importantly, I listened to -- anyone who would talk to me. I embraced immediately or learned to love the music, dances, art, history, architecture and most of the food presented to me. (Papaya gave me hives, and neither my roommate nor I would eat a certain soup filled with tiny fish that still had their heads attached.) I played card games with the people of Mexico, took buses with them, hung out with them for no reason. I dreamed in español. I cried when I left for the U.S.

Jennings said, "Translation should show the way of the Christian. It involves listening, connecting with people." I did what Jennings said translation should do.

And yet, my translation experience didn't eradicate my biases. I found myself walking to school alone in Cuernavaca but also doing things like running down a sidewalk in Mexico City -- as best I could in sandals and a dress -- because my companions and I were the only women outside of our hotel for breakfast on a quiet Sunday morning, and every man looked suspicious to three Americans inundated with crime statistics about Mexico in the pre-cartel era. When I got back to my host family in Cuernavaca, I felt intense guilt because the father and son of that family had embraced me like a daughter and a sister, and as I told them Mexico City was wonderful, I had to admit to myself that I would have run from these men had I seen them randomly on the street.

Can you really love people you don't trust? People the media have helped you think the worst of? What about people your own religion has demonized, encouraged you to fear and allegedly supported the enslavement of?

Christianity does have the potential to bring about real, radical belonging that transcends all other categories we create. As we teach ourselves how to learn through and with love, we simultaneously must rebuke the fear that a distorted Christian imagination has helped us to build and take on the spirit of power, sound mind and love.

[Mariam Williams is a writer born and raised in Louisville, Ky., where she's received numerous arts awards. When not working in the field of social justice research and taking graduate courses in women and gender and Pan-African studies, she blogs at Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]

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