Faithful Anti-Racism and the Christian Life
A conversation with Christina Edmondson and John D. Witvliet
John Witvliet: Greetings to all of you in Jesus’ name. My name is John Witvliet. I’m director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, coming to you from Grand Rapids, Michigan. And it is a great joy for me today to be in conversation with our colleague Christina Edmondson, coming to us from Nashville, Tennessee area. Welcome, Christina, to this morning’s conversation.
Christina Edmondson: Thank you so much. Good morning, John.
John Witvliet: And we welcome all of you who are joining us. Thank you for introducing yourself in the chat this morning. We’re having this conversation on January 12, 2021, a
momentous time—which we have been saying about pretty much every single week or month, it seems, for a long time. But it seems especially true today.
I’m very grateful to introduce Christina to you all. Christina—psychologist, public speaker, mental health therapist, higher education administrator, podcast cohost, and we are grateful to say, a program affiliate in our work at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Christina served for many years as administrator at Calvin College, dean for intercultural student development.
Many of you in today’s audience will know her from her work as cohost of the podcast Truth’s Table. And we’ve been able to read Christina’s work in Christianity Today recently. It can be found at essence.com, yourblackworld.com, Gospel Today magazine, and also a wonderful website that you have, Christina, that introduces your work also. Thank you, Christina, for your work, and it’s an honor to be in conversation with you.
Christina Edmondson: Thank you. My pleasure. And John, you’re so right to highlight—it seems like every week we’re talking about unprecedented times. And so we find ourselves in that place again today.
John Witvliet: To all of you who are joining us, we say welcome. We’re so aware that there are people joining us in places that make it not possible for you to introduce yourself to us—places that have restrictions on technology use. We say a word of welcome to you. May Christ’s peace be with you.
And we say welcome to guests in South America and Mexico City, Indonesia, Ukraine, as well as many places across the United States. Thanks so much for joining us, to each of you who are guests.
Before we begin our conversation, I’d like to lead us in prayer. I want to invite us all to join our hearts together. I’ll be using words that are only slightly adapted from the Heidelberg Catechism. A profound prayer of both praise and petition for God’s Spirit to be among us. Let us pray.
Almighty and loving God, send your Spirit to us today.
Help us to truly know you, to honor, glorify, and praise you for all your works and all that shines forth from them: your almighty power and wisdom and kindness and justice and mercy and truth.
Help us to direct all our living so that your name will never be blasphemed because of us, but always honored and praised. Rule us by your Word and Spirit in such a way that more and more we submit to you.
Preserve your church and make it grow, we pray. Destroy the devil’s work. Destroy every force which revolts against you and every conspiracy against your holy Word, until your kingdom fully comes, when you will be all in all.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.
So Christina, we hear these weighty words, we pray these weighty words in the context of current events that are truly treacherous. And again this morning, for the sixth consecutive day, see news reports of a Confederate flag being marched across the United States Capitol—which it never was during the Civil War.
And so, what an absolute tragedy, a display of white supremacy that needs to be denounced.
What is your perspective here on this terrible circumstance that we find ourselves in, which is of course both not surprising, terribly, and yet surprising?
Christina Edmondson: We talked about that, John, as we prepared to start this time together—about how there’s a sense in which it feels so surprising and shocking and at the same time it’s the clear should trajectory of our history, our story, our lack of repentance.
And so I actually think it’s good for us to still, in some ways, bear the feeling of shock, even if we recognize that this is the trajectory that we are on. I think you can hold those things in both hands. You can hold the emotive aspect of shock, of “This should not be”—because it should not be—and at the same time, say, “Yep. This is where we have been heading. This is what we have walked into for our lack of repentance.”
And so I’m grateful and I’m trying to hold both of those feelings at the same time as an expression of vulnerability and tenderness—to not harden, to not become bitter in the midst of such deep strife and pain.
But I do think that—one of the things I’ve been sharing with organizations that I’ve been attempting to serve during this difficult time is that when we are resistant to telling the truth, the longer we delay—and oftentimes, it is fear. It is fear that is preventing us from telling the truth, from denouncing that which should be easy and obvious to denounce. At first, the fear is that we’ll get an angry letter. The next fear is that we might lose a donor. The next fear is that a board member will object. The next fear is that, maybe, loss of income.
And now we are at a place today where we literally have public, visceral threats of harm to the bodies of sitting public servants and vice presidents of the United States. And this is one of the lessons that I think we have to embrace—those of us who long to be peacemakers, and not just peacekeepers—that we must speak up loudly and clearly because the stakes are getting higher and higher, and yet the calling still remains: to speak up for justice.
John Witvliet: As these events unfolded, I recall your powerful Facebook post when you said simply, “I can hear the silence.”
Could you say a little bit about the silence that you heard?
Christina Edmondson: I use the language of “we” when I talk about the church, and the church in America, and the church throughout history—even though I recognize sociologically what we are seeing today is an expression of a white-dominant Christian nationalism. And that’s not my own heritage or story, but yet I am a member of the church—church visible and, thanks be to God, church invisible.
And that means that there is some sense in which there is a “we,” theologically and spiritually speaking, although sociologically speaking I can talk about the specificity of the consequences of white Christian nationalism. And the silence that I was referring to is the silence amongst, particularly, believers within that majority racial group, who are in positions of leadership and influence. Who in some cases had a great deal to say about their alignment with Trump and with Trumpism. Who had a great deal to say about that being the clear and obvious Christian choice. Had much to say about gender roles—and there’s so many pieces that led to this particular moment, and yet silence now.
And that statement, I pray, was not rooted in a snarkiness and a callout just for the sake of calling out, but it was an attempt to call in. To say, “Continue to speak and now, now receive the grace that is extended to you because of the blood of Jesus Christ.” We are people who can confess. We can say, you know what? I said this and I was wrong, and I have been proven wrong, and I humbly apologize to my brothers and sisters in Christ who warned me. I apologize to my neighbors who bear the consequences of the statements that I said.
That’s the silence that I was speaking to, and here’s the thing: That at any moment, by the grace of God, that silence can be broken. Today could be the day. Today could be the day, if people reach out and grab the grace that is being extended, to say, “I repent. I repent.”
What a gift the Lord Jesus Christ has provided to us in blood-bought repentance. And that can happen today, and the beauty of repentance is so transformative. It can change—it can change a family, it can change a person, it can change a local congregation, it can change a denomination, and I believe it can change a country and the world if we would grab ahold of that.
So I’m hoping that the silence will break, and I am looking to dance with the angels at every, at every expression of repentance that comes forward, if it be God’s will.
John Witvliet: Amen to that. Thank you so much. Almost nine months ago when the pandemic began, I recall reading Francis Grimke’s trenchant address to his congregation—African American pastor, 1918, Sixteenth Street Presbyterian Church, about sixteen blocks north of the White House, who at the time said about the pandemic then, “During these terrible weeks, God has been trying in a very pronouncedly, conspicuously, and vigorous way to beat a little sense into the white man’s head, and trying to show him the folly of the empty conceit of his vaunted race superiority.”
Those words have been front and center of my own praying and thinking since I read them. And the thing is that repentance, as you describe it, just has to be one of the most crucial, central acts of Christian worship. I mean, it’s what the whole gospel’s an invitation to do. And I just feel the burden of what it is like to be able to theologize endlessly about this repentance without actually doing it. And, as you say, to bring to explicit expression this display of racism and everything underneath the surface that’s causing it is antithetical to the will and purposes of God.
And so, thank you so much. And may hundreds, beginning with me but including many others, join your dance, even if the Holy Spirit’s got to do a little extra scrubbing up on a few of us to get there. So, thank you.
We have this conversation, Christina, also in a global context, and each of us was a member, or a participant, in a consultation this fall with our colleagues in South Africa, who continue to minister—working against and out of the context of apartheid a generation ago, but of course whose effects linger. That was a very moving conversation, but I also think of international students that we have had, and guests at this conference. Colorism, racism, caste-structured societies—this is a global phenomenon. And I’m so mindful of the insight this year of Isabel Wilkerson’s profound book Caste, which really helps to invite us to take and see the North American context in a global context.
I wonder if you could reflect a little bit on what it’s been like for you to teach in the area of anti-racism as you think about this larger global context even, which is a key, of course, dimension of our conference.
Christina Edmondson: Thank you for that question. I would start by saying that Wilkerson’s book has been incredibly helpful. When I am in a Christian context, particularly one who—a context that may not embrace the doctrine of common grace in the same way, or use that type of language, I usually spend some time making a case for it and talking about the gifts that we have through various disciplines. And what Wilkerson has provided us through her discipline of journalism and investigative writing is this really thoughtful treatment of American history—situating it within this larger narrative of historical caste systems and offering a new language for us to embrace, new concepts to expand our imagination, for the sake of us doing justice.
The language of caste is one that I have used for a number of years when I talk about injustice. And I talk about the ways in which what the caste system requires of us—these implicit and explicit requirements of us. And I am a particularly grateful, as I mentioned, for her work.
I’m also grateful that we are able to learn from each other what we know from the legacy of the church, working out these issues. I had mentioned to some church members just recently that it is not lost on me, as we are lifting up all of these prayers—and there are many people who are praying about unity and all kinds of things they’re praying about right now—that the Lord Jesus Christ, as he listens to our prayers, that we are invited to also to listen to his prayers. And one of Jesus’ prayers was for us to have unity. And that is not unity around lies and foolishness and self-righteousness, but that is unity around what is true.
And it is as if Christ knew we would have this problem, and I think he did. That we would struggle, and we continue to struggle, just as we saw in the New Testament church, just as we’ve seen throughout the history of the world and we see today in 2021. We continue to struggle with this disunity largely based on our commitment to caste systems that afford us privileges in the world, that we drag right into the heart of the church itself.
And we see this everywhere. We see this all over the place, and I think we have so many lessons to learn. I believe that as a covenant people, we have to learn from the stories and experiences of other believers who we may never get to meet face to face, but we have all been baptized into Christ together. And there is much for us to learn from our South African brothers and sisters on this. There’s much for us to learn from our brothers and sisters in Rwanda. There’s much for us to learn from the underground church all around the world about, how do we dismantle these caste systems?
And there’s much for us to repent about when we think about the influence of significant segments of the American church, producing the theology that misshaped so many people, producing the theologies and sociology and endorsement of apartheid in South Africa, the theologies and sociologies that helped to inform Hitler’s thinking.
We have to say these things out loud because there is enough grace to tell the truth. And yet at the same time, as we apologize and make right, we also can lean on each other and rely on each other for the resources through the Holy Spirit, given to help us all to be able to walk this life and do the justice that we’re called to do.
John Witvliet: I wonder if we could talk a bit now about public worship practices as both a site, sadly, of racism but also as an essential antidote to racism and caste structures of every kind. It often occurs to me that in the New Testament, we have relatively few explicit commands about worship. We have a lot of wisdom and a lot of guidance, but in terms of explicit commands, there’s not a lot. And yet, some of the most specific ones—in 1 Corinthians 11 and in James—are about refusing to let socioeconomic class, for example—you know, the caste systems of the world—to be reflected in worship. I can’t think of any more explicit command about our worship practices.
So the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship had better become, even more than it ever has been, the Calvin Institute of Christian Anti-racism. And I would challenge every single writer and teacher and worship conference all over the world to say, “This is of central biblical concern to us.”
But how do you approach this question of public worship as a site of the problem, but also potentially the solution?
Christina Edmondson: There are so many, John, and you know this and you’re included in that number, who have written and shared for many years about the dynamics of what exactly, what is the story that is being told in our public worship? And there is a story that is being told in our public worship. Certainly it points to the gospel itself, which is this amazing story of this sinless life given on behalf of God’s people, to bring us into communion, koinonia with God and with each other.
And it’s a public story. It’s a public expression. What happens on the cross is public business, and the resurrection is public. So the Lord has given us this deeply dramatized and compelling story and has called us to believe it—to believe on the most impactful and, I would add, traumatic, story ever told. For us to believe it and to embrace it. And we dramatize that story when we gather for public worship.
Our public worship in and of itself—who is speaking—is an expression of who has been called into the family of God. They may not be called into a place, a position, of prominence or respect in the world, but in the church they have deep, deep value and deep regard. So we’re showing that, we’re dramatizing that. And for me, the Lord’s table is one of the clearest examples. The Lord’s table, when first instituted, was instituted within a cultural context where there was so much hierarchy and caste-system ideology demonstrated through who gets to come into your home to have a meal and who doesn’t get to come into your home to have a meal.
And the Lord’s table—and that invitation to come to the table together to partake in the body of our Lord Jesus Christ, as we care for each other’s bodies, as we make a commitment to each other—points to what is to come: that great table which we will have for all of eternity to eat with the Lord, to commune with the Lord face to face.
And the tables of the world certainly deny people. The tables of the world are certainly segregated. But the table of the Lord’s house is not to be segregated. So, it’s a clear dramatization of what is to come and a correction to the sin of exclusion and the sin of caste system that we see so clear in our culture and our world.
And also, obviously, we can look to baptism and just the controversy, the controversy of baptism. Baptism is so controversial. It’s a holy controversy that’s taking place when we think about what it means to be baptized into the body of Christ, and that we are now a part of this community together and we have covenanted to have particular commitments—obviously vertically, because God has covenanted a relationship with us. But also it represents the relationship that we now have with each other.
And it makes perfect sense to me that there were many slaveholders in the United States and in the Western world who really struggled with the idea of evangelizing enslaved Africans, because they knew something about this baptism and that this baptism required certain responsibilities, that there are covenant rights that are afforded to believers. Now, there’s human obligation that’s afforded to everyone made in the image of God, but there are specific covenant rights and obligations that we owe to each other, and baptism dramatizes that.
And if I’m baptized into Christ, with someone at the border who is trying to come into the States, who is running from violence—and violence that has been provoked and mitigated by a drug market that the United States directly benefits from—how dare I sit in silence, when those who I had been baptized into Christ with are in cages at the border right now? How dare I? I have a covenant to obligation, minimally, to call wrong “wrong.” And so, when I think about the power of our baptism, how it knits us together, how it is necessarily political, it’s necessarily a political statement—not partisan but definitely political—when I think about the power of worship to change us from the inside out and to remind us of these God-given commitments that we now have to each other, I just see worship as such a powerful, transformative place.
John Witvliet: Absolutely. I think public intercessory prayer is such a huge thing. I’m so grateful for the Christian traditions that commit to praying every single week for whomever is president and governor, by name, as a matter of discipline. That won’t change as we move from Donald Trump to Joe Biden as the President of the United States. They have been praying for President Donald Trump every week, and they will be praying for President Joe Biden every week. And they prayed for President Barack Obama every week. And how essential those kinds of disciplines are, but also the disciplines—and now I will speak here to and about primarily white congregations. It so troubles me that it has become a problem to pray about racism in some circumstances. It’s just unfathomable to me that this could be the case. And yet, it clearly is as if the word justice itself—such a central biblical concern—would be in any way controversial. What a mess we’re in. And what a terrible, terrible set of circumstances this creates.
I’m also mindful that there will be people right this moment, getting ready to engage in the courageous act that you call for—this coming Sunday, for the very first time, to pray about and against racism and for justice. And this is a spot of a bit of tender vulnerability. And I’m aware that some will be called courageous because of this, when in fact it’s really a baby step of what we should have been doing for decades. But here we are.
Say a little bit about public prayers that you experience or reflect on. And I know that you’re involved right now also in teaching and leading classes, including classes of students who lead in prayer publicly.
Christina Edmondson: Thank you for that question, John. You know, over the last several months, I along with a dear friend, Leah Toussaint, have led an early morning prayer Monday through Friday. I tell people that it has helped me to maintain the small amount of sanity that I currently have—or I think that I have—and how this particular discipline of praying together has become so important to my life. It has become, it has been so foundational to my day. And God has called us into this, to pray without ceasing. But I began to lay hold to this instruction in very intentional ways.
I was raised in a church in Baltimore, where I grew up, that had early morning prayer, and I think there are probably many people who are who are listening to us right now who can identify with that. And there’s a story of a gentleman at our church, a deacon who passed away several years ago—but we reflect on him with so much joy, of him walking the streets of Baltimore, walking to the church early in the morning. So this is like 5 a.m. or so—singing the praises of the Lord as he walked down the street to join early morning prayer. So there’s just this beautiful narrative of that.
And prayer, that particular discipline that we are invited into, also is one of those things that can be quite controversial. And one of the things I encourage people to do is to let Scripture guide your prayers. To look at the prayers of the prophets. For that matter, to look at the prayers of the Lord Jesus Christ. To look at the prayers that are outlined in the text and to pray through Scripture. If you want to have a sense of the range, the depth, the degree, the intensity of what we can bring before our God, go to Scripture. And it will shock you, it will amaze you, that we can cry out, “How long, Lord?” That we can cry out, “How could you let this happen on your watch?”
We can cry these things out before a thrice-holy God who is powerful and sovereign. And the Lord invites us to this type of transparency so that we don’t have to despair. We don’t have to wear a mask in prayer. And by the way, prayer is powerful. It powerfully changes us. It is connected to God’s sovereign work in some ways that are beyond my understanding, but it appears to be tied to it, and we are invited to do this.
The other freedom that we have in praying, in this invitation, is to know that the Lord Jesus Christ, the head of the church, our great high priest who sacrificed himself, the sacrifice and the priest, all in one, is praying for us now. Christ is praying over our prayers. And this also gives us a type of boldness and freedom. Because I know my prayers are laced with sin and they’re inadequate and they have problems. But Jesus is praying over my prayers and that makes me pray more. That makes me pray more. And so I invite people to the discipline of prayer, to grab ahold of it anew, especially as it relates to these issues of injustice.
The final piece I’ll say, John, when we think about, What does it mean to pray for our leaders? What does it mean to love them well? And this can really trip people up. As a matter of fact, I remember—you know, 2020 felt like seven years in one, but it wasn’t that long ago when the news reports broke out that Donald Trump had tested positive for COVID-19. And I remember there being lots of very thoughtful pieces written about: We should pray for him. We shouldn’t pray for him. Or how should we pray for him?
And I thought, you know, this is fascinating as we’re trying to work through this. And it made me think, well, there’s a long history of suffering people praying—praying for the very people bringing about their suffering. This is throughout the world. This is happening right now amongst our brothers and sisters who represent the underground church. They are certainly praying for those who are responsible for them being underground. And certainly we can look at the enslaved narratives within the United States to get a sense of that as well.
And so I actually think it’s an expression of our God-given agency to pray for the powerful, or who those believe they are powerful. To pray for them, to take them in our mind’s eye and place them in our hand and raise them up to the God whose throne is both justice and righteousness. It is an expression of agency to be able to say, “Oh, I’m bringing Donald Trump before the Lord today. And I trust that the Lord will do everything that the Lord would want to do, in God’s divine goodness and will, to get his heart, to get his mind, to get his body where the Lord wants it to be.”
This may be the only thing that I can do. This may be the only thing that I have freedom and liberty and agency to do. So we must certainly pray for our leaders, we must pray for their good, recognizing that godly good is incredibly complex and beyond our understanding. So good for this particular leader is at the discretion and wisdom of God Almighty.
And so me giving over these leaders to God, saying, “Do good to them and bring about justice,” and of course, taking a page from the prophets and taking a page from the psalmist, who were not shy in saying, “Lord, disrupt the evil plans … break the arm of the powerful. Stop the things that are happening.” We have every right and invitation to pray those types of bold prayers, privately and publicly, as we cry out for God’s intervention.
John Witvliet: Amen. Thank you. We’ll continue to reflect on this theme of public prayer in our work. Those who’ve been longtime symposium attendees know that this theme of what we pray about in public has been of central concern for a long time. I’ll say, for those of us who shape this conference every year, one of the things we notice is that over the last ten, certainly last twenty, in too many contexts public intercessory prayer has gotten shorter and shorter. It’s less and less central to the practices of worship, and this is of great concern. So we’ll keep at it.
One of the ways that we’re grateful to be keeping at it, Christina, is through your leadership this year of two specific programs that we’ve been experimenting with: One, a course called Faithful Anti-Racism. But then second, a leadership cohort around that theme. And we are grateful to have been learning about this and to have this work continuing, going forward, with new cohort groups that will be forming for the months of February and March.
I’m wondering if you could say a bit about your teaching and leading of these two deeply connected programs. And perhaps the big question here is what we are learning together about learning about anti-racism—because it’s not just learning about anti-racism, but it’s so clear we need to be learning about how we learn if we’re going to get anywhere in this terribly polarized cultural moment.
Christina Edmondson: Yes, thank you for that question. When I was first invited to, along with many colleagues at Calvin University, to shape a series of courses that were responsive to our particular moment around this pandemic, I was asked if I would teach something around racism, racialization in America, and how it is in conversation with our present medical and economic crisis, the pandemic. And I began to shape that course even before we saw the footage of George Floyd’s death, that public lynching. I began to shape the criteria and the content for that course even before the results came back related to the Breonna Taylor case or the footage of Ahmaud Arbery’s death. These are just heinous and painful public, gripping experiences.
And so there’s been a weightiness, I think, for me in shaping the content, knowing that I would be working with people who didn’t just want to learn but also were experiencing the consequences of these cultural traumas, these secondary traumas. And so the course has attempted to be attentive to what we need to intellectually know and understand—looking at history, looking at social science, certainly looking at theology, looking at psychology—but also mindful of both the intellectual and affective, the emotive experience of the learning process.
Knowing that what we’re talking about is not theoretical and kind of existential and out there, that it is within us. We’re talking about our very own DNA, our very own legacies and stories. In some cases, we’re talking about our very own grandmothers, and so we—there’s a personalness to this topic of racism.
I tried to bear that in mind in shaping the course, and I’ve been incredibly blessed by the students who have continued to sign up to learn together, to learn with me, to share their stories, and to demonstrate a lot of commitment and vulnerability along the way.
In addition to that, I was grateful for the opportunity to partner with Calvin Institute of Christian Worship to introduce the leadership development cohort around faithful anti-racism. In a lot of ways, I was hoping to push back on this idea that Christians should not engage in anti-racism. Because that is an idea that is definitely out there, right? And I wanted to push back on that and talk about how we are called to resist sin—the sin in our hearts and the sin at the heart of the societies in which we live, the systemic sins that plague us and plague our neighbors. And that is a part of our calling and our disposition towards sin.
And so I had the opportunity to work with, at this point, a couple of leadership development cohorts. These are individuals who have been studying this type of content for a number of years, even if only secretly, and some may run organizations that kind of wholeheartedly participate in this work. And what I have attempted to do is offer additional information and to create a space of community and camaraderie and support, so that we can apply this content through experiential learning to a project of concern for them, to put into place right now.
And that’s what I’m incredibly excited about. One of the things that happens when we think about something as large and looming and painful as racism—it indeed can be so looming and gripping and painful that it feels like, “Well, what can we do about it? Forget it.” And that is a trick of the enemy. Even though I cannot fix this on my own, and clearly—that does not mean I have to relinquish my agency to continue to push back. And even small steps and even baby steps done for the sake of doing justice, to lift up the name of Christ, is noble and good and lovely, and we need to live into that. So we should not despise or dismiss our small or large efforts. We need to continue to work together.
So I have been delighted by these projects that members of the leadership development cohort have been working on—everything from how to revamp homeschool curriculum to be able to audit it and to assess it for racist influences, how to dismantle that and to interject anti-racist content and to work with children in developmentally appropriate ways to introduce those things, to individuals who are thinking about the use of meditation in order to prepare us to engage anti-racism work.
So the projects have been varied and they have been as a part of local churches or denominations or parachurch ministries or just right at someone’s home at their kitchen table. And it’s been my pleasure in this season to learn with them because they’ve had a great deal to share with me.
John Witvliet: Thank you so much. I’ll mention to those listening to us today that there are cohorts now forming for the months of February and March. These are monthlong experiences, and we invite you to check out our website for more information about them.
I do know there have been some things published lately about how insufficient anti-racism training can be. OK, but one of the things that’s occurred to me that’s a really necessary mindset shift is to get out of the mindset that, “Well, if we only attend one anti-racism thing, we can check it off our list, we’ll be good”—we just have set that aside and say, “That’s ridiculous.” The question should be, “Which anti-racism thing will we do this year?”—so that this is baked into the DNA of our continued learning.
I’m so grateful for how you are helping us, but I think of so many other partners: Arrabon we’ve partnered with, a shoutout to the Antioch Podcast here in Grand Rapids, CORR anti-racism training, Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Justice locally here. But then, Christina, it seems to me God has raised up a remarkable group of people all over the United States but beyond, around the world, who really have deep concern for this and who are doing very good things on a local level. I mean, the list of organizations and individual leaders like yourself who are making a contribution—it’s long and robust.
Can you say a little bit about that ecology, the network out there of support? Every time I listen to Truth’s Table it feels like I’m introduced to yet another link or dimension. It’s pretty exciting, actually.
Christina Edmondson: Thank you, John. I’m so glad that you’re listening in and that you enjoy it. It is a large network, and I think it reminds us that we need all hands on deck and that there are people who are able to speak to unique nuances that we’re not all privy to. So I, as best I can, understand my vantage point, my particular theological narrative that has shaped me. But there are believers who are able to contribute as reflected from their own theological roots, and they’re able to tell a narrative within their community—because we need some in-group advocacy.
One of the things that’s so powerful about the Apostle Paul’s rebuke of Peter is that it’s an in-group rebuke. It’s like, “Hey, I know you. You know me. We know this. And I know what you’re doing, right, and we got to stop this.” And if anybody would be able to call it out, it would be Paul, because Paul knew a thing or two about cultural elitism and cultural superiority. And so we need people within different groups to be able to speak out in love, for the sake of love, to their particular group where God has providentially allowed them to be and to be shaped by.
So I’m so grateful for that large, large network of voices and their commitment. And again, we need whoever God is calling, and the truth is, there are some people—and particularly I’m talking about people of color—where their season is respite. The season that they’re in is a restoration, and they are not serving in the capacity of missionaries to, you know, white conservative nationalism. That is not their calling and praise be to God for that. And we should not drag people into that, to do work that they’re not called to do, that can certainly harm them.
And at the same time, we need to honor and pray for and lift up the hands of those who find themselves in difficult places for such a time as this, to serve and to continue to pray that they are served and motivated by love.
John Witvliet: Wonderful. Christina, I’d like to also ask you, and it really connects with what you were just saying, a question that came to us earlier in this symposium. It was in a really instructive Q&A session with David Bailey this past Friday, where we had several questions related to trauma and the traumatizing nature of racism, racist incidents.
And as that question was named, you and your own expertise as a psychologist came to mind, and how we can pay attention to the way our bodies viscerally hold the pain and the difficulty. But now even as I name the topic of trauma, I want to be a deeply attentive that there’s the trauma of those who have been victims for centuries. And then there’s a newly discovered trauma on some people who are now traumatized by their own guilt in some ways. And so I’m aware that a concept like this, if not handled with great care, can further perpetuate trauma.
So help us here, drawing on your expertise as a psychologist also, about how we’re to understand the deeply embodied nature of the pain that is all around and within?
Christina Edmondson: It’s been said, and I wish I could give credit to the person much wiser than me who said this, but in so many words, that “denial is the lifeblood of racism.” And I would make the case that denial is the lifeblood of many traumas. My background in trauma work was primarily focused on work with veterans and with survivors of sexual abuse, domestic violence, et cetera. And right at the heart of those types of abuses is this fierce, unholy commitment to denial.
And one of the things that makes racism so ugly and so painful is the denial, is the minimization. Which why you have to pray about it. You got a name thing, a thing. You got to deflate the power of it by calling it out by its name and reminding it that the name of the Lord Jesus Christ is a greater and higher name. When we’re too afraid to say the name, it reminds me of the 1980s movie Beetlejuice. Say “Beetlejuice” over and over again, and it appears, right? There is kind of this weird denial and avoidance of calling it what it is.
And when we don’t call this this painful occurrence and reality and this systemic injustice what it is, we don’t put it in the light, the light that can expose it, the light that can heal it. And so I would start by lifting that up to people, about how important it is to name things for what it actually is.
The other piece is that when we think about trauma—you know, it’s just not lost on me that the gospel itself is a traumatic story. It’s a traumatic story of Jesus Christ being laid bare, publicly humiliated in just about every variable of trauma, every variable of trauma on display, through his abused and naked body, before the world. And yet people deny his story even now. We deny his story when we choose our own self-righteousness over the grace that Christ has extended to us. His story is denied constantly. When we lack love towards neighbor, we deny that story. And so denial of pain is of great importance.
But yes, it is true. This is one of the things that continues to cement racism in our society, is pretending that it does not exist. Pretending that disparity is a consequence of one group’s intrinsic inferiority. These notions that are fundamentally racist, in and of themselves. And so we’ve got to call it out for what it is, and we have to take very good care of ourselves.
I had an opportunity to speak amongst a group of colleagues who do mental health work, trauma work around racial trauma. And one of the things I began to reflect on is in worship, the way in which our bodies are invited to participate and to grab hold of grace, and the way in which our minds are renewed by the Word of God and through these liturgical practices, like meditation and the mantras which we have in some traditions that are repeated over and over again. There’s a neurological benefit for us to embrace these practices. The rocking, the mourning bench, which is a piece that was a part of the tradition in which I was raised. The dancing that we see amongst believers of Jesus all around the world. That our bodies are now able to work out this pain that has been built up. And so, we certainly need a full-bodied worship experience because the pain, the suffering has a full-body impact.
And so we submit all of who we are to God in worship, and God is addressing all of our hurt and pain and traumas through the rocking, through the lifting of hands, through the shouting, the tears, the lament, through the moaning and groaning bench within the tradition I was raised in, that we would call that. And how important that is for our soul’s sake, but also for our biological and psychological health. We’ve got to grab ahold of that.
And certainly, when we recognize our complicity in unjust systems, the shock of that—we do need to know what to do with that, we do need to know what to do with how we’ve been misshaped by these lies. And this is where I invite people to look at the history of other believers, to tap on those who have come before us, who have walked the road that we are now finding ourselves in. To look for examples of what does this look like, what does repentance look like, particularly for white Christians in America, to speak specifically. What does it look like for us—for them—to begin to identify and evaluate theological heroes and find people who walk this path in order to glean wisdom from? They are in the story. Find them. Dust them off and maybe have them replace the segregationists and the slaveholders that people often look to for theological example and begin to start looking to some of those lesser-known and shamed names, who demonstrated public repentance around racism.
John Witvliet: Powerful, thank you. As we move here in the next five or so minutes to conclude our session, I do want to invite participants to go to the chat, click on “chat” where it says to “all panelists and attendees” so that you can share your comment with others, and simply list a single keyword that has blessed or encouraged you in our conversation so far, something that you are eager to pray about more and reflect on more. Just a single word along the way that will bless us but also others as you contribute as we move toward the end of our time.
I do have a question, Christina, that’s come in to me about social media that I would like to ask you, while we begin to see some of these words. It’s a question from someone who laments social media but that also says, you know, social media is the way they’ve actually learned empathy here in the last years. They’ve learned to see things. And I would like to just take this occasion to say thank you to you. Also to ask you to express gratitude to Mika Edmondson. The two of you have quite powerful social media teaching ministries, if only there are those of us out there to learn from it.
But say a little bit about sanctifying social media engagement. And I’m thinking every single keyword I’m now seeing on this screen might be a part of what that looks like.
Christina Edmondson: Yes, I’m looking at them pop up as well. Social media. Wow, it’s a reflection of who we are, that’s for sure. It’s a reflection of who we are. I made a decision several years back to intentionally engage social media. I say this to people who are thinking about this. I made a decision to try to engage it in a way—for good, for good. And I have social media accountability. I have people who help me in what I say. I have rules about when I speak and when I don’t speak. And when I’m speaking out of anger and rage and all the things.
All of that to say that it is one means that the Lord has allowed for us to confess, for us to connect, for us to gather, for us to conspire for holy good. So I have chosen to embrace it and to use it—currently. There are some days when I’m like, “Somebody come take my social media handles away from me.” But I’ve decided to try to use it for good. And one of the reasons why I attempted to become engaged with it is that I realized that traditional-age students—it’s their world. I am just outside of that generation. I’m Generation X, and it was my way of trying to understand and connect with my students. And I don’t know how much attention my traditional-age students actually paid attention to me. I think it ended up being that maybe their parents were more likely to pay attention to what I posted than what my students posted, but it is something that I’ve had to pursue with a lot of prayer, a lot of discipline, and really have a plan of action.
The other thing I would say, too, is that it helped me to see our echo chambers and … what are the forces that are discipling us outside of our churches. Because those are some of the strongest and most powerful and impactful forces. It allowed me to gain insight into the thinking and commitments and the perspectives, particularly when big social events would happen. You know, right now there are a number of people in the States who are grieved and dismayed, because they’re looking at social media silence or they’re looking at people endorsing or minimizing what happened at the national Capitol. Brothers and sisters in Christ.
And some people might say, I wish I just didn’t know. But I’m inclined to say that even if truth wrecks us, it is still good. It’s still good. Even if the good hasn’t manifested itself fully yet. And so I think it is good for us to know. I invite pastors and clergy, if you have congregants who are active on social media, oh, you should have a presence. You absolutely should have a presence in that space, to be aware and to be mindful.
One of the things I have noticed—I’ve seen people do this. I’m not calling everybody guilty, but I have seen people intentionally avoid spaces so they don’t have to deal with what is there. And social media is one of them. I’ve seen clergy say, “Well, I don’t know what’s happening on social media. I don’t know what that racist thing is that deacon said.” Because they have chosen not to know, and that in itself demonstrates a guilt. And so we’ve got to repent of that, and we’ve got to become aware of the ways in which we are missing these opportunities to disciple each other well.
John Witvliet: Christina Edmondson, profound thanks to you for this conversation, but also for your continuing teaching. We’re very grateful to anticipate learning on the part of many cohorts and groups of students in the months ahead. I invite everybody who has been listening to express your gratitude to Christina. You have emojis, you have chat options—all these ways to express gratitude that we’re learning here during this year of engagement online.
We’re deeply grateful. And I’d like to close today with the words of the prayer with which I began. And may it be the continuing prayer for all of us in this conversation.
We also will invite you to continue the learning. I’m thinking of Jemar Tisby’s presentation on January 18 through the January Series at Calvin University and the Stob Lecture conversation that Calvin Seminary will host with him following that, which is also a part of the Worship Symposium. Additional information will be available on our site.
If you go to the Worship Institute site both now and in the months to come and search for the term anti-racism, we will continue to provide materials, resources, and opportunities to learn and grow together. It’s a lifelong opportunity, and it’s a way for us to put ourselves right into this prayer with which I’ll close.
Let us pray.
Almighty, loving God. Rule us by your Word and Spirit in such a way that more and more we submit to you.
Preserve your church, we pray, and make it grow.
Destroy the devil’s work. Destroy every force which revolts against you and every conspiracy against your holy Word.
And we pray, do this until your kingdom fully comes, when you will be all in all.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
So to all of you, go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
Christina Edmondson: Thank you.
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