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“Thank you for a reasoned, unemotional, and thoughtful essay on immigration.” I received this response to an essay that I wrote for The Reformed Journal in 2019.
I was reminded of this comment again when the Christian Reformed Church’s Synod 2022 gathering began discussing human sexuality. The chair asked that delegates “minimize your story-telling and use an economy of words.” Throughout Synod, this request was wielded to raise ‘points of order’ against those who began sharing stories.
Reasoned. Unemotional. Economy of words. These are often the paths to truth most cherished by many of the Christian communities in which I pastor.
And yet, needed reform movements in the North American church’s past have not come through brevity, unemotional data sets, or even refined theology, but rather through stories that shake us awake and invite us to look deeper at God’s will for our lives.
“Scripture is Clear On This”
Throughout the 1900s, “scripture is clear on this” was a common refrain used by white Christians to quell any opposition to anti-segregationists. The fruits of those doctrines manifested in the brutal lynching of Emmett Till, an innocent Black 14-year-old whose murderers were unanimously exonerated.
This would have become just another one of the 6,500 unanswered lynchings between 1877 and 1955 had Emmett Till’s mother not released the photos of her tortured son’s corpse in Jet Magazine. In telling her son’s story, she required that “the whole nation had to bear witness.”
Stories—especially stories of hurt and pain—compel us toward truth, truths we often do not want to hear. Stories open our hearts—as unwilling as they often are—to God’s grace, justice, and mercy. That is perhaps why we try so hard to separate them from our neat and tidy doctrines.
Scripture does no such thing. The Bible is full of story in all its forms: letters and speeches and poems and dreams and parables and apocalyptic allusions. How marvelous are these stories that brought us into the faith? How incredible that the apostle Paul doesn’t write universal guidelines in one universal letter to one universal church, but painstakingly greets people by name, asks two specific women to resolve their differences, pleads for a freed slave to be received warmly. Jesus responds to lawyers with parables. Even the book of Romans—that systematic heavyweight—was written to just one single city at one specific time, and we get to listen in.
Why would God entrust such important news to such rambling narratives, to authors who took precious space in the inspired scriptures to say something as trite as, “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.” (1 Timothy 5:23, KJV)
Scripture is full of story because story is how we meet Jesus, and story is how we encounter truth. Jesus himself reminds us that truth is not a set of doctrines, not a comprehensive and air-tight belief system. Truth is the person who entered our world of stories to declare: “I am the way, the life, and the truth.” And if truth is a person, then emotion and story and passion—all the things that connect us with the person of Christ—are means to that truth.
My own love for God, my own love for the LGBTQ people who were silenced on the floor of synod, and my own love for those with whom I disagree, have all grown as I have learned to love scripture as a story-filled book.
And yet, we reduce this gifted book—so relational and poetic and persuasive—to sterile doctrines that determine who stays and who goes.
We’ve Inherited a Mess
Our modern faith has been built on separating our emotions from our arguments, our doctrines from their practical implications, and our hearts from our hands. We have created a hierarchy of understanding entirely absent from the scripture.
From the moment the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, our Christian faith heritage has been wedded to empire, and empire—or rather, power—seeks clear boundaries, explosive growth, and simple answers that are easily enforceable.
Theology valued for its clear, bullet-pointed doctrinal statements and held at arms length from our daily stories has a terrifying heritage. Our body of Christian Reformed churches has three confessional Forms of Unity, drafted in the 1500s and early 1600s, often amid persecution. I learned about their histories concurrent with the barbarities of the Dutch Slave Trade, which stretched from 1660 to 1734, forcibly removing 600,000 Africans for slavery across the Americas. How could a nation so influenced by these confessions begin a slave trade that wrecked the God-given humanity of African and Indigenous families in service of wealth and power?
I sensed an answer when my “Promise of Zion” course at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary left no room for discussion on the modern day oppression of Palestinians living in what is now Israel. When we asked about this, our professor responded, “That would be best reserved for an ethics or a political science course.” Even—perhaps especially—our pastors are trained to ignore the voices crying desperately to be heard until after we’ve completed our Bible exegesis and historical analysis. Only then do we address those cries from our positions of immovable certainty.
South African anti-Apartheid activist Allan Boesak wrote, “The anxieties of the slaves of white Christians, the fears of indigenous peoples decimated by whites. . . the despair of those who were kept in economic and political servitude by systems imposed by white Christians—the plight of these unfortunates was not even considered in Christian theology.”
Our failure to hear stories alongside and within our scripture marks our failure to see truth, to see Christ. Our theologies emerge devoid of emotion, our gatherings lofty, and our faith absent of love.
We know where this leads. So what will we do? Now that—as Mamie Till wrote—“We have borne witness.”