The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that humanity and nature are inextricably interdependent and interconnected. The apostle Paul’s metaphor of the human body in 1 Corinthians 12 offers brilliant imagery that illustrates this reality:
We are parts of a whole (verse 12). Everyone has been called upon to engage in physical distancing and quarantine measures in order to flatten the curve.
If one member suffers we all suffer (verse 26). The impact of COVID-19 on the long-term care industry has revealed that the suffering of our community’s elders means the suffering of our healthcare professionals, families, etc.
A member’s assertion around not being a part of the body does not nullify their belonging to the whole (verse 15). Canadian protestors who demanded a right to return to work amidst a shelter-in-place order were reminded of this reality.
This pandemic has also revealed what many activists, advocates, and prophetic voices have been saying for decades: this country continues to deny the level of inequities that exist for people who are racialized as other than white. Characteristic of Canada, there was a reticence to collect race-based pandemic data. Recent data indicates a high prevalence of COVID-19 in predominantly racialized minority neighbourhoods in the Greater Toronto Area. This means that Canada’s inability to accept systemic racism has once again resulted in racialized minority community members experiencing increased vulnerabilities.
In the midst of all these realizations, many churches are grappling with questions around identity and relevancy. They are asking themselves: Who are we outside of our physical weekly gatherings? How do we practically develop and support disciples that act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God and others? (Micah 6:8).
The church may have difficulty in responding to these questions in healthy and authentic ways because it hasn’t yet interrogated it’s own role in upholding racist systems and practices.
Canada has a history of stealing Indigenous lands, controlling the migration patterns of people of colour mainly based on labour needs, and of creating direct and indirect policies of assimilation. The Canadian institutional church has been instrumental in helping to culturally and structurally maintain these racist practices sometimes through silence and oftentimes by creating programs and communities that uphold white supremacy culture and neo-colonial worldviews. This results in communities which unintentionally protect the interests of white supremacy and commodify and paternalize communities of colour. Most Canadian churches resemble colonial enterprises, even those that boast of multi-racial congregations. Our churches have largely refused to interrogate how they have participated and been complicit in discriminatory practices that marginalize and oppress racialized members of the body of Christ.
In “Decolonized Discipleship” public theologian Ekemini Uwan asks, “Do the minds and the lives of… urban disciples reflect a baptism of faith in the marginalized brown-skinned Palestinian God-man, Jesus Christ, who was bludgeoned and hung naked on that rugged cross at Calvary? Or does their baptism reflect faith in a capitalist white Jesus, clothed in a Polo blazer, khakis, and loafers?”
Uwan continues, “There are grave consequences for worshipping the latter, which is no more than an idol (Exodus 20: 3-4), and discipling people of color to do the same.”
Growing up as a first generation Canadian (born and raised a settler on Annishnabeg and Haudenosaunee territory), I spent my formative years attending predominantly Black Caribbean churches. In these churches I learned the art of public speaking, event planning, and about active community engagement. I was able to develop as an individual and contribute in a thriving community of people who looked like me. I didn’t realize how important this was until this last decade of living.
As an adult I have existed in predominantly white Christian spaces. I’ve experienced micro-aggressions, which largely come in the form of polite tolerance or paternalistic pride. In these communities, I realized that I wasn’t really part of the family and that my contributions would be scrutinized in ways that my white Christian siblings were not. Thanks to my foundations in the Black church, I didn’t feel the need to assimilate into white ways of being or knowing, but I did feel profoundly alone and like my identity was always being attacked in subtle ways.
In his book Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fannon writes: “The church in the colonies is the white people’s Church, the foreigner’s Church. She does not call the native to God’s ways but to the ways of the white man, of the master, or the oppressor. And as you know, in this matter many are called but few chosen.”
It is time for the Canadian church to break ties with the systems of this world (Romans 12:2) and do some critical examination about how they are participating in systems of racial oppression. It is only through this introspective work and subsequent repentance that the church will be able to meaningfully engage in racial justice and healing work. There is a collective cry for a culture shift that moves towards equity and justice for racialized minority communities. Will the Canadian church join in this movement or will she deny that she is a part in the whole? May the Holy Spirit use this pandemic to awaken the parts of the body that have been numb to life so that whether our physical doors are open or not, it can be undoubtedly said that the Canadian church stands for justice and righteousness.