“And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” –Matthew 28:1-20
I truly believe that every time a church mentions the “need for discipleship” an angel gets an ulcer. Like many Christians raised within the hallowed halls of faith, I grew up hearing about the incessant need to “win souls for Jesus” and how we all had a divine mandate to “train new believers up in the faith.” For years, I was a convinced that I was a “good Christian” because I invited my fellow teammates to church, shared my faith with ‘non-believers,’ and even handed out gift certificates to my favorite Christian bookstore for birthdays and holidays.
Though I still believe that we should invite our loved ones into our worship spaces and share our faith with our community boldly and unashamedly, I am now convinced that God was not as satisfied in my model of discipleship as I was.
You see, discipleship as I understood it meant teaching new Christians to be good moral agents within a proper theological paradigm that would ultimately lead to access into the pearly gates of Shekinah glory. At the time, I did not see discipleship as having anything to do with the socio-political-economic empowerment of the community. Little did I know that what I considered “good discipleship” was nothing more than neocolonialism dressed in Christface.
As I observe recent efforts of clergy to be the moral conscience of those who occupy the corridors of political power on behalf of marginalized communities, I cannot help but question whether our inability to dismantle the racially monolithic structures of our own religious institutions disqualify us from being a prophetic voice against any form of hegemony present within the public square. I find it very interesting that the same voices lamenting all white grand juries in the public square are incriminatingly silent when it comes to all white ordination councils in areas heavily populated with Black and Brown bodies.
Do we truly possess the moral jurisdiction to bring the grievances of brutalized communities to the doorstep of our local police departments when we refuse to bring the testimonies of Black and Brown seminarians who have experienced micro-agressions in sacred spaces of academic reflection to the doorsteps of our bishops, presbyters, superintendents, etc.?
Can pastors genuinely expect police chiefs to declare that black lives matter if their bishops and fellow clergy refuse to declare the sanctity of black lives without throwing a rhetorical bouquet of affirmation and appeasement to the dominant culture? How can we expect the Caesars of our day to stand for justice when our very own High Priests and council members refuse to repent and believe?
As a millennial Black seminarian, I see a direct correlation between our anemic response to Black and Brown suffering and our insipid models of discipleship. I have come to the regrettable conclusion that, in many ecclesial spaces, discipleship has become little more than a thinly veiled act of paternalism meant to maintain the current status quo and deodorize the racial oligarchies permeating religious spaces. While I do believe that certain spirits cause racially hegemonic religious institutions to flourish within diverse communities, I do not believe that such spirits are by any means Holy. To point to a Black leader over here or a Latina leader over there while not acknowledging that the structure itself is still rooted in white supremacy is not progress for communities who have drank from the bitter cup of paternalism but, rather, apologetic rebuttals espoused by those within the dominant culture who are hell-bent against the reallocation of power and the loss of status to believers living within the region of the shadow of death.
I am convinced that until the leadership of our denominations and seminaries destroy the idols of white supremacy and inaugurate the long and painful process of ensuring that the dominant class in society is not the dominant class within the Body of Christ, the church lacks the moral authority to assemble before the agents of the state and declare that their hegemonic practices are ungodly.
If the apostle Peter was correct and judgment does, indeed, begin at the house of God then our models of discipleship must lead to the socio-political empowerment of Black and Brown people both in religious as well as societal spaces. I truly believe with all my heart, contrary to what Hollywood has taught us, that an angel gets its wings, not when a bell rings, but, rather, whenever the poor are empowered to topple structures of power and dominance present within religious infrastructures.
Looking at many of our present leadership models and discipleship practices, it appears that, regrettably, there are a lot of angels still waiting for their chance to fly.
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