taking the words of Jesus seriously

Last week I wrote about Undoing Houston’s Racism, including my own silence when violence was jokingly threatened against people of color. There I said that, “Racism, antipathy and alienation between different cultural groups stand in the way of Christ’s kingdom of love, justice and peace.”

But I also promised to move beyond undoing racism to advance a Jesus-centered response: Intercultural Transformation. I believe God’s mission in Houston includes pursuing racial justice, and that we’re invited to participate in creating a city of holistic shalom and peace in all ways.

So today I want you to meet a pioneer in racial competency: Saint Peter, whose story of intercultural conversion is told in Acts 10-11. Typical of Christians in his day, Peter misunderstood racism and his role in it, until he had a powerful vision from God. His story reveals 10 Skills Required for Intercultural Transformation:

  1. Develop a Vibrant Spirituality. In Acts 10:9 we find Peter at prayer, the place in which he receives a vision that flips his entire racial world upside-down. Likewise, in Acts 10:30 Cornelius, Peter’s new Gentile friend, discovers his call to intercultural transformation in the context of prayer. Paul’s powerful prayer in Ephesians 3 that we might have “power to comprehend” God’s broad love for all people reminds us this is essential, and difficult work. Indeed, we cannot undo racism or live like Christ without the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
  2. See God’s Vision Clearly. In Acts 10:11-13 Peter receives a shocking new vision of the beautiful new world God is creating, in stark contrast to the accepted norms of the day. Through Christ, who is our peace, “you who were far off have been brought near…he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall… creating one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace (Ephesians 2:13-15).” In seeing God’s vision Peter says “God shows no partiality” (10:34, 11:12) and “makes no distinction between them and us” (11:12, 15:9). Paul calls it “the mystery of the Gospel” (Ephesians 1:9, 3:3-6) that “Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body.” As a stream running in the Hebrew Scriptures, through Jesus life and ministry, and beginning in Acts, Peter finally sees this vision clearly.
  3. See and Diagnose Racism Clearly, understanding the roots of our own exclusion and resistance to God’s vision. Citing Levitical law in 10:14 Peter uses his faith and religion to openly challenge Jesus’ vision for intercultural transformation, “I have never eaten anything that is unclean or profane.” We must be open about our own sordid past, and acknowledge that racism is more than hate crimes. Though our reasons might be slightly different, we too must see racism in its full systemic and individual expressions.
  4. Align ourselves with God’s vision for Intercultural Transformation. We do this above tradition, culture, or “common sense” expressions of colorblindness and birds flocking together. Peter decides, despite his religion, culture, and upbringing, to follow God’s leading in Acts 10:20-23. Again in 10:28-29 & 10:34-36 he consciously chooses to align himself with God’s, rather than his own, vision.
  5. Insist on Equality of Relationship. When in Acts 10:25-28 Peter is offered a position of dominance over his Gentile friend, Peter acknowledges the privilege he holds but refuses it. He insists on a Non-paternalistic equal relationship. For us today this requires we engage in ministry with not to or for. And it requires we move past learning about racial/ethnic minorities (which does create empathy) and begin to learn from and with them, creating relationship.
  6. Commit to Spread God’s Vision. After puzzling over and thinking through (10:17, 19) his encounter with God’s vision, Peter re-imagines his theology and incorporates this inclusive vision into his Gospel proclamation (10:37-43). He intentionally chooses to become part of the solution, rather than neutrally being part of the problem.
  7. Be an anti-racism Ally. When traditionalists resist intercultural transformation Peter acts as an ally to his new brothers and sisters in Christ, standing in solidarity and advocating for their full inclusion. Several times we see Peter properly using his power and privilege to confront the individual and systemic racism he now sees: in Acts 10:46-47, 11:1-18, and again in 15:6-11.
  8. Nurture Reciprocal Cross-Cultural Relationship. Entering into a reciprocal, equal relationship, Peter accepts their invitation in 10:48 to remain with them for several days. Breaking all number of laws and undoubtedly eating some of that tasty unclean food he saw in his sheet-vision! Healthy intercultural relationships include understanding differences, valuing them as an asset rather than a defect.
  9. Gracefully Diffuse Racism. When racism manifests itself in Peter’s presence (11:3-4, 15:1-11) he chooses a non-anxious approach by simply sharing his story and values, rather than attacking in protest. He takes the middle road between fleeing the situation and fighting; which turns out to be very effective. This is the skill I most obviously neglected when I sinned by remaining silent in the midst of racist chatter. Two possibilities my friend Katelin Hansen suggested to me are:
  1. Play dumb and ask, “Why was that funny?” or “I don’t know what you mean by that word.” Sometimes making someone articulate what is behind a joke/statement is enough for them to hear how hurtful it actually is
  2. Love the sinner, hate the sin. Say something like, “I know you are a good person, and I would hate for anyone to think otherwise, so you should know what you said might be interpreted as prejudiced” or ” your such a loving/sensitive person…it surprised me to hear you say that.” Check out this great 3 minute video: How to tell people they sound racist, that helpfully differentiates the “what they did” conversation from the “what they are” conversation (Warning: 1 PG-13 swear word. Sorry.).

10. Accountability for our language, structures, rituals and actions. No matter how much we come to master these skills of intercultural competency, we’re likely going to get it wrong sometimes like Peter. In Galatians 2:11-14 Paul tells of a time he held Peter accountable for an intercultural misstep. Two excellent practices of accountability for institutions such as churches are The Voice of Color Thesis and Veto Power for people of color. The Voice of Color Thesis suggests we set aside Dominant Culture definitions of racism, sexism, etc… and allow the voice of color to define racism. In other words, if people of color say something is racist, we listen to them. Veto Power is exactly what it sounds like, the power to halt or postpone decisions and direction based on race. This becomes increasingly necessary in the presence of [needed] token representation on boards and leadership teams.

I proved last week I’m no expert on this topic, so I’m deeply grateful I can learn from people like Peter who are farther along the journey. I hope seeing a Skill Set such as this empowers you on your own journey of Intercultural Transformation!

What’s been your success rate with these skills? Who taught you these skills and where was it? What other skills have you found to be essential in creating multicultural spaces and relationships?

Marty Troyer is pastor of Houston Mennonite Church: The Church of the Sermon on the Mount. You can follow his work on his blog or via Twitter at @thepeacepastor.

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