The Complexity of the Human Story

February 27, 2018

I have never been drawn naturally to identity politics. Both as a person and as a historian, I have always identified first with the ‘human’ story, and seen ‘identities’ such as gender, class, and ethnicity as aspects that enrich the human story.  But early in my professional career, I learned that my approach was not the only one. I remember going to a conference of young women academics sponsored by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. I heard women testify that they had never seen themselves in the Scriptures – at least not in the key roles. They did not feel included in the generic language of the King James. When they read “man,” they heard “male” rather than “human.” When they saw the 12 disciples, they saw 12 men – not people like themselves. Of course, this is all complex and not something to be sorted out fully in a 600-word reflection.

Suffice it to say that, while I am still drawn primarily to the human drama – and seek to invite students into that drama, bringing with them all the rich perspectives from their various identities – I have come to appreciate more than ever why my approach may be an approach of luxury. I was never given reason in my home, or during college, to think that my being a woman made me less qualified to be a card-carrying member of the fully human community. That has not been the case for many women, and certainly not for many people from minority ethnicities in this country.

As I have sought to understand more fully the experiences of ethnic minorities on our predominantly white campus, I have become more aware than ever of the many ways we as a majority culture prevent other human beings from feeling fully enfranchised or fully empowered to bring their own experiences into the fabric of the human story. It happens in small ways in the residences, whose food is viewed as ‘normal,’ and in larger ways in worship, such as whose music is viewed as ‘ethnic.’

This is Black History Month. While this is part of the culture’s calendar, and not the church calendar, it seems an appropriate time to acquaint ourselves more fully with the experiences of the African-American community in this country, and the blindness of the majority white community to our own ethnicity. As white people we all too often equate our ethnic ‘whiteness’ with humanness, and quite unwittingly assume that others should do the same.

As part of this journey of seeking to understand our students of color, I have recently read two books that I would highly recommend: Charles Marsh, The Beloved Community:  How Faith Shapes Social Justice from the Civil Rights Movement to Today (2005) and Daniel Hill’s White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to be White (2017).

The first explores the Civil Rights movement and its deep roots in the Christian tradition (growing out of the even earlier abolitionist movement with which our own Wesleyan Methodist denomination is so closely associated). It traces the Biblical and theological foundation on which the movement stood, and then the gradual fragmentation of the movement until today, when many in our society associate Civil Rights with a secular ideology and the left wing of the political spectrum.  I found it helpful in understanding a part of our country’s history that I lived through (from the 1960s to the present) as well as the current culture’s assumptions about the Civil Rights movement.

The second, written by a white pastor who felt called to establish a multiethnic church, invites people from all ethnicities into the complex challenges of becoming the kind of rich Kingdom community to which our Lord Jesus is inviting us.

In this time of renewed ethnic tension in our country – and in this month that marks the beginning of Lent – I would invite you to share with me in this journey of more fully appreciating and valuing the richness and complexity of the human story, and the Kingdom that our Lord is seeking to bring about.

Grace and peace to you today.

Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976