Who Sets the Table? White-Christian Dominance of Interfaith Gatherings

My home church recently hosted a summer-long series of guest speakers under the theme “Expanding Our Faith.” Eager to gain insights from other religious traditions, we invited a rabbi, an imam, a Zen Buddhist monk, and an indigenous storyteller to preach on four consecutive Sundays.

As chair of the planning team, I was intentional about creating welcome by translating our usual Christian-centric vocabulary into more accessible terms. Our team chose songs, wrote prayers and selected images for the program’s Powerpoint that reflected the speaker’s faith tradition. Yet I could not help but notice the giant cross which hangs in the front of our church, above the platform where our guests spoke. While the cross doesn’t normally catch my eye, on these Sundays it seemed to dominate the room.

In her book, Radical Welcome: Embracing God, The Other, and the Spirit of Transformation, Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers provides strategies for ‘mainline’ (read: predominantly white, majority heterosexual) congregations who are seeking to welcome marginalized cultures and groups into their church. Spellers distinguishes between “inclusive” churches that practice incorporation and churches of “incarnation” who practice radical welcome. An inclusive faith community incorporates new marginalized members without modifying its core dominant cultural identity. As a result, marginalized people remain on the fringe and the congregation’s institutional structure remains unchanged. In a faith community that practices radical welcome, the community’s cultural identity(ies) shift to enable full expression of a range of voices and gifts to be present. The power structure of the community changes so that leadership reflects all voices within the community. Radical welcome transforms every aspect of the community’s life together.

Spellers cites Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook‘s study of multi-racial congregations. In her assessment of churches who struggled to become multiracial, Kujawa-Holbrook concludes that a core problem is that the church, while seeking to be “inclusive,” never addressed power. (Power is defined, in this context, as “the capacity of dominant (white) culture to have authority, control and influence over people of color.”) Spellers says “put bluntly, they didn’t sign on for that level of transformation. They didn’t open the door to share power” (68).

My church, the United Church of Christ, is passionate about racial justice. Our new General Minister and President John Dorhauer has prioritized anti-racism as one of the central tasks of his leadership. We are also one of the whitest and smallest Christian denominations in the United States, with a potent and problematic lineage back to pilgrims, those fervently God-fearing and genocidal invaders of the North American continent. Our denomination is majority white not on accident, but on purpose, from the earliest Congregational churches who defined religious conversion not only as changed belief and behavior but as adoption of European dress, speech, and culture, to the segregated African-American and white churches in our Southern conference that bear witness to slavery’s ongoing legacy.

When we talk about inviting more people of color into our congregation, we tend to focus on what we can do to be accessible and “welcoming,” what signs we can add to the building, what outreach events we might schedule. We rarely sign on for power sharing or a complete top-to-bottom transformation of congregational identity: after all, many of our churches have been around for hundreds of years. Congregational identity and a narrative of the local church’s place in a certain telling of American history is deeply ingrained.

In the same way, as we pursue engagements with other faiths, we strive to be welcoming and hospitable. We are courteous, work to pronounce unfamiliar names correctly, ask permission to take photographs. But we do not question how our way of being followers of Jesus, the ways we literally “do church,” inhibit our ability to communicate authentically with others. We defend ourselves: after all, we have the right to faithfully celebrate our own religious tradition. I shouldn’t feel uneasy about the cross hanging at the front of the building in a place where those who follow Jesus Christ gather.

But I wonder. I wonder because dominant white culture and dominant Christian culture are so interconnected as to be at times indistinguishable from one another. How hospitable can my church actually be to the indigenous leader whose grandfather was forced to attend a Christian missionary boarding school? How much respect can we offer to the imam whose people are targeted with hateful, anti-Muslim remarks in the grocery store next door (the one where we buy creamer for our coffee fellowship hour)?

What kind of justice work do Christians need to pursue in order to make authentic interfaith relationships possible?

Perhaps the example of inviting guest speakers into my Christian place of worship is disingenuous, for a neutral meeting place where many faiths gather would seem to offer more even ground. But…how many interfaith gathering places are neutral? In the city where I live, interfaith work is organized by an ecumenical council (a group of Christians) whose buildings, lands, etc. all play host to our multi-faith gatherings. When we gather, once a year, for Interfaith Advocacy Days, on the steps of our state capitol, I’m aware of the statues, memorials (even street names!) which pay tribute to ‘pioneer’ ancestors…those responsible for the plunder and desecration of indigenous holy places. There doesn’t seem to be any neutral territory outside the dominant white-christian-culture of our society.

Even when we gather in a more neutral place, consider the structure and order of our interfaith prayer services: we usually begin and end at an appointed time. We always have a printed program listing the speakers, which means that certain people must and do speak (and the audience does not generally interrupt). We use certain words, which are believed to be “common”: prayer, blessing, litany. This structure is not unique to Christianity, but it is definitely unlike the indigenous religious ceremonies that I have attended. When we gather to celebrate many faiths, we still structure our gathering using a dominant white-western-Euro-American cultural model that is especially conducive to Christianity.

In my work with Showing Up for Racial Justice (a group of white accomplices aligned with Black Lives Matter), we distinguish between multiculturalism and anti-racism. Multicultural efforts often manifest as a kind of smorgasbord of cultural diversity, while anti-racism seeks to embody active resistance to the hierarchy of cultures. Anti-racism seeks to dismantle the system that sets up one dominant culture to be host for the buffet of cultures whose dishes provide “flavor and spice,” the “exotic other” to the dominant “normal.”

How can our interfaith relationships be anti-racist rather than multicultural? While we pride ourselves on hearing and understanding one another, do we also notice whose vocabulary provides the scaffolding for the conversation? Who picks the terms, who decides what the words mean? Who determines who qualifies as a religion and gets a seat at the table? Perhaps authentic relationship only begins when we’re actively working to dismantle the systems of oppression that place Christianity as host at the table of faiths.

Image courtesy of mountpleasantgranary.net.

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7 thoughts on “Who Sets the Table? White-Christian Dominance of Interfaith Gatherings

  1. Who sets the table? What a great tag line. It reminds me of the conflict described in the Acts of the Apostles over preaching the word and waiting at tables. (It is really there, a conflict between Hellenists and Hebrews). Such conflict is pervasive. I have attended meetings where the table is set by others and I have felt the pressure of proselytizing. And I doubt that I was being oversensitive.

    No vehicle can travel in neutral.

    When I travel, I live and move and have my being in the faithfulness of Jesus who gave his life for me and through whom by the Spirit, the Scriptures are opened to me – all of them. I find my depth in the Old Testament though my grounding is in the New. There is a full openness and transparency but it is not easily seen. I love because God has heard my voice (Psalm 116, cited perhaps by John in his first letter, though he may have come to those words on his own).

    This faith informs my every action and word and draws me back into the history of Israel as the grounding of the experience of Jesus for himself and thus afterwards for me. I live through his death. I died in his death, a painless death for me. If I deny that, then I deny every thing I know and the God by whom I am known.

    I have also talked to people of many other traditions. In talking to them, I do not deny my understanding, but I listen to what they have learned and I am not surprised to hear that the same grace has entered their lives even more than it seems to have entered the lives of those who call themselves by my tradition that is ‘Christian’. I am all too aware of what I disagree with in Christianity so called. So I must also disagree with some of what comes from other traditions than mine.

    But I myself cannot proceed without the grounding that is in Jesus and his death for me. I cannot travel in neutral. And I would not expect others to do this either.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Bob. I agree with you that traveling in neutral isn’t possible. Living and moving and having our being in Jesus is political, because WE are political creatures, and not only political but also cultural (thinking of differences between Black Church and white (“mainstream”) church worship, preaching, etc.). In my experience, our political-cultural world view (bias?) influences our faith in ways we might not even notice. What I’m curious about is how we can create gathering space for listening in a way that enables each participant to authentically speak and be heard. I think maybe I fell for that old ideal of neutrality/objectivity, forgetting that it doesn’t exist. 🙂 What I’m after instead, I think, is a kind of intentionality, awareness, and action that acknowledges issues of power and addresses them. Thank you for helping me to clarify my thoughts!

  2. Thank you for your insights. As a Muslim, I often feel that Muslims’ priority in America is better PR for Islam against Islamophobes, which is totally important because Islamophobes are getting Islam wrong! In my community, Chicago, I’ve noticed some mostly South Asian and Arab mosques take awareness to BlackLivesMatter and racism.

    But, it’s not enough. Public relations for Islam is a funny thing, isn’t it? But, we live in a world where doing PR for your religion seems mainstream now. Anyway, my point is that in these interfaith gatherings, we do just want to prove that, “yay, we’re different religions and we are showing diversity!”

    How that poor word, diversity, has been abused! You’re right: most interfaith gatherings with Abrahamic religions, for example, are not blacks, whites, Arabs, South Asians and other ethnicities, but mostly Arabs and South Asians from the Muslim community.

    Until all congregations make anti-racism not just a sermon to use every once in a while, it won’t be a priority and as you mentioned in one of your previous articles, white feelings > Black Lives.

    While I don’t use the word “pulpit” as a Muslim, we have to use the mosque. But, it’s public policy, legislation, education, socio-economics, and most importantly, changing hearts and minds.

    And, I think many people are just ignorant about systemic racism. Take a look at this article, for example: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-metta/i-racist_b_7770652.html

    1. Yes! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree about the importance of “PR for Islam against Islamophobes” and think of the hatred and violence against Muslims that I’ve witnessed in my community and how the same groups that target Muslims also seem to target African Americans. I don’t think it is an accident…in my graduate research about race and Christianity, what I found was that in Europe before race was invented (in about the 1800s), the dominant way people were afforded power and control was based on religious identity: Protestant Christian vs Catholic Christian vs Jewish vs Muslim. Then race was invented, white became conflated with Christian, and power lines focused on racial categories (though religion persisted…part of the reason, I think, many slave owners did not want enslaved Africans to worship Jesus).

      I absolutely agree with you about diversity feeling like a stamp of approval or badge of honor. And it feels like there’s “safe diversity” (or maybe “acceptable/non-threatening diversity”) in terms of who gets included/invited to events and who does not. (Thinking, for example, of the Nation of Islam and how great a separation there is between that group and other religious groups working for BlackLivesMatter). Thank you for your comments…appreciate hearing from you!

      1. You’re welcome Elizabeth. Race is an invented category, but do you know how other societies see each other? Also, we must remember that current geopolitics is based on colonial powers drawing country borders which may not have even been the best for that country! Ughhh…it’s an ugly mess.

        But, we need to talk about it, and you don’t seem shy to!

  3. I really appreciated the article. I think that in order to share power if you have to believe that power already resides in the other. It is not simply yours to share. In order authentically to exchange insights you have to believe that insight exists in the other that you do not possess. We come acknoweldgeing that we all, every human being, lives and moves and has being in God, that the light of God “enlightens everyone” (John 1). We come to the table, not simply altruistically wanting to be more welcoming and inclusive. We come fundamentally because we need to hear from those who follow other ways,, and because our journey as Christians, or as those of any faith tradition, can be be blessed and enhanced by the gifts others bring, their insights and practices. Christ is bigger than Chrisitanity! I believe Christ is the logos incarnate in every human being, the lure that continues creatively to call creation to greater value, wholeness and love.

  4. I think it’s important for interfaith work to be extremely self-aware of the power structures at play. What good is welcoming more voices to the table if the agenda has already been set. Yes, you have your voice, but it will only be heard if it is said in the language of my tradition. Interfaith work is inherently challenging to the social norms of ignorance and assumption making, so in the same spirit it should challenge the normal power structures that shape our religious gatherings. In my limited experience, It seems that most people who pursue interfaith work are people who are college educated, and many leaders in the field have higher degrees. To what point do you think interfaith work is privileged? I could be off the mark so I’d be curious as to someone else’s experiences.

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