This thing of darkness I
For the longest time, I’ve resisted the urge to write about, or think seriously about, the fact of my ethnicity. There’ve been all kinds of reasons for that: I’m unprepared to speak for others, and not sure I have the credentials to do so (who does? what qualifies someone to think that way?). For another, it’s not something that’s always on my mind: I can’t say I face heaping injustice and racial discrimination everywhere I turn. And, maybe more than any of those, I’ve always worried that to talk about my ethnicity would be seen as playing a ‘card’. As much as I’ve joked in that vein, it terrifies me to think that I’d get more of a hearing as a ‘minority’. I have always wanted my ideas and my achievements to stand on their own merit.
Without doubt, the most hurtful racial comments sent my way have been those insinuating that my accomplishments come down to me being a favoured ethnic minority. I remember being told once that I’d only gotten into university because I’d help fill out their quota. I reeled a little from the shock of hearing it put that way, and didn’t say anything back. Inwardly, I bristled and began narrating the various ways in which I had certainly earned my place. Even as I did so, a sinuous self-doubt wrapped itself around that narrative. Did I?
What do you do with that self-doubt? Work harder. Aim higher. Long to achieve more. And above all, never look like you’re playing the race card. Excel in a colour-blind way. I think that’s been my default setting towards this whole discussion. But recently, I’ve found myself questioning it, and rejecting it.
How to be me: receiving, not performing
Many different factors have prompted my rethinking this question. One of the things that’s made me consider it all has been my (lengthy!) journey towards ordained ministry in the Church of England. It’s been voices in that process that have made me even ask some of these questions. Going on a summer team each year with UCCF has also stirred my thinking about this. Thinking about the gospel’s cross-cultural claims and reach has made me evaluate my own cultural inheritance.
But whatever has prompted my rethinking, what stands out for me is that this is a question of identity. How I view my ethnic heritage is a question of how to be me. And because I belong to Him, the gospel of Jesus is—unsurprisingly—pivotal in the way I answer that question.
In thinking through these questions, I’ve found the contribution of the gospel liberating and clarifying: my identity is a thing I receive from God, not a thing I construct. Before being something I have to perform, who I am is something I receive.
Because I am made by God, there are certain ‘givens’ to who I am. I cannot escape them, and they range from things like the period of history which I inhabit, to facts of my existence like biological sex. They aren’t limits which hem me in, and the real me isn’t found in transgressing them. Why?
The gospel tells me that these things aren’t arbitrary, or the freak results of capricious fate. I’m not an accident, and neither are you. Rather, these things are part of the way God has created me. His design for me predates and enables my concept of me. As Paul commented in Acts 17:26-27, God Himself marked out my time in history, the place where I live. He has given me a particular location, and His object in doing so is that I might ‘reach out and find Him’. This is a curious and beautiful paradox: God’s ‘attention to detail’ goes right down to the unique facets of each human being, so that they will all find themselves in Him. In other words, God has made nobody the same (situating us all over the world, choreographing our way through life down to the where and when) so that each would find the same goal: union with Him, the God who is not far from any one of us.
For many years, I have fled from my ethnic identity. On arriving in the UK, I found a culture which made sense to me and—whether consciously or not—jumped in with both feet (exhibit A: my accent). A longing to belong here meant the culture which I had left and the culture of my parents grew distinctively less attractive. There’s vicious circularity to this: the more I resisted my ‘Indian’-ness, the less qualified and worthy I felt of it. Even now, the voices strike up a familiar internal chorus: you’ve never lived there, you speak none of its languages, whatever allegiance you have there is merely skin-deep. This is a push-pull dynamic I’m sure others have felt: obviously different in the culture to which I belong (just look at me!) and yet insufficiently yoked to the culture of my heritage and inauthentic to it when trying. Fleeing ethnic identity and pursuing a colour-blindness seemed the wisest course.
What was I doing, in this flight? I was buying into the notion that identity is something I have to construct, something I have to perform. Unable to do so in a way that made sense in my situation, or that rung true for me, I lived with or, more often, ignored that push-pull.
And the gospel is a tonic to people mid-flight. Knowing myself to be created this way by God, situated by Him in this family coming from this community—being found with this colour skin and this name—frees me from having to construct or perform. Such a construction project is beyond me—without the right blueprint, I’ll always feel like I don’t know what I’m trying to build. Such a performance would empty me entirely, like being thrust onto stage without lines, exhausted and at the mercy of what amuses or moves whoever’s in the audience.
What it means to be me is not something I have to invent, always subject to the approval of others. The antidote to being lost—to those moments of wondering what makes me me—isn’t finding myself; it’s being found. Specifically, being found by the God who made me, by Jesus who seeks and saves the lost.
In Him, I find the space to be who I am. I find an identity that is stable without being static. The pressure to be _______ (insert various pressures here: conformity to British culture, an authentic voice of ‘Indian’ experience, an outsider with prized insights…) is lifted off my shoulders. The real me isn’t something nebulous and far-off towards which I am always moving but never reaching. The real me is united to Jesus, crucified with Him, risen with Him, reigning with Him. My life is hidden with Christ in God. Secure in this knowledge—this self-knowledge—I can begin to receive my identity. I can reckon with the fact of my ethnicity. I can begin to understand the culture which surrounds me, as well as the culture from which my parents came—and I can celebrate that which is good in it, as well as recognise that which falls short.
The peril of a colour-blind church
It is theology hath brought me safe thus far, but much of this thinking I have had to do myself. In one sense, that’s the way it ought to be. Christians are called to work out the implications of the gospel for them, for themselves. But I do wonder if my experience of church has made this kind of reflection harder, not easier. And I think the principal peril here is the ‘colour-blind’ approach that many in churches to which I’ve belonged have taken.
Many good people in these churches, leaders and others, have been so wary of racial discrimination and of treating me as ‘other’ that they’ve been unfailingly colour-blind towards me. I want to say that while a few have gotten it wrong on occasion, most of my experiences in church as an ethnic minority have been free of the more overt racial prejudice. I have been taken seriously, loved and valued. I don’t take that for granted.
But at the same time, I’ve also felt like this colour-blindness has serious issues. In a colour-blind church, we just won’t notice when cultural diversity is lacking. Because we’re not looking at it, we won’t be looking for it.
When questions are raised about the lack of diversity in our churches, our fragility and insecurity emerges: it’s not ideal, but it would cost far too much to change. Why can’t people from those communities work harder at fitting in with what we’re doing? We get defensive; our particular practices and shibboleths are beyond question. We’re unwilling to subject them to serious cultural critique: “when the global church does it differently, that’s due to their cultural background, but when we do it like this, it’s because we’re following the Bible/being objective”. And so, the faces of diversity in our churches are likeliest to be pictures and posters on walls, celebrations of the global church in all its colour—just as long as we don’t have any of them here.
Churches with a focus on ministry to ‘internationals’ should do much better here. However, that’s not necessarily the case. One unfortunate danger I’ve spotted has been a too-easy division between internationals and ‘non-internationals’. Where does that leave someone like me? I’m not really in need of English language practice! We end up with sections of our churches hyper-aware of cultural differences, and many more utterly unaware of or un-reflective about their own cultural and ethnic inheritance.
I have often been mentored or met up with by older Christians. I really wish one of them had prompted me to think seriously about my ethnicity and what that means for my identity. It saddens me that it has been thinkers and voices outside of my tradition (if we’re seeking labels, ‘conservative evangelical’) who’ve got me thinking about this. We have to drop colour-blindness. We have to.
Why? Well, all pragmatic issues aside…because God isn’t colour-blind. Witness this oft-quoted and wonderful vision (Revelation 7:9):
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…
It gladdens God’s heart that ethnic variety surrounds His throne. It magnifies the glory of Jesus, for whom, as per Isaiah 49:6, it is ‘too light a thing’ to be only a regional Messiah. It attests to the astonishing Pentecost unity wrought by the Holy Spirit that lines of ethnicity, culture, tribe and language should be drawn together in harmony, rather than acting as divisions or barriers. He is not colour-blind: such a thought is alien to Scripture and runs counter to the saving work which culminates in this vision.
As I reckon with the fact of my ethnic identity, I have to see that God has reached out in love towards the people of the Indian subcontinent. Being an ethnic minority in a Christian worshipping community is a wonderful privilege, because I get to be a token of what God will one day achieve: a family made up of members of every ethnicity. Simply by being me, I get to refute the misconceptions of many when they consider what an average Christian looks like.
A little tangent: no wonder people hold these misconceptions when we whitewash Jesus the way we do! Many children’s Bibles, iconography and stained glass make Him look thoroughly white. I understand that the Incarnation is an act of radical identity with us, and that we would naturally imagine Jesus as being ‘one of us’, but the particularity of His ethnicity matters to the integrity of the gospel (Romans 1:3). I also remember a fellow university student once telling me that St Augustine was another ‘dead white male’: the cover of the copy of Confessions I held in my hand hardly conveyed his North African background.
What I need to repent of
I think there’s lots more thinking for me to do here. I want to finish with some thoughts about what I need to repent of, when I think through these issues.
First, cutting against the grain of how God made me. My colour-blind attitude was at best unthinking and at worst ungrateful: I am not a self-made man.
Second, taking myself too seriously. I often feel threatened when thinking about race. I hate being compared to various Asians in the media (brown? Beard? Glasses? “HE LOOKS JUST LIKE YOU!”), but I don’t have to punish the (admittedly lazy) people who do it. I can rest secure in an individuality which is treasured by no less a person than the Lord Jesus.
Third, using rather than receiving my ethnic identity. I’m sure I’ve done it, but racial identity can be played as a race card. I hate when that happens and others do it, but I’m sure I have as well. This can be done in all kinds of ways.
One way I’m mulling over is the way that conservative evangelical Anglicans like me often love and celebrate the spiritual life and vigour and faithfulness of Anglicans in Africa—but would hold at arm’s length those who are just like them in this country. (To put it crudely: being an egalitarian on gender and charismatic with regard to spiritual gifts is just fine when you’re a Nigerian Anglican, but woe betide you if you’re a white egalitarian charismatic from South London…)
I have much to repent of. But penitence, here as everywhere else, is the open door to a richer discovery of God’s grace, and to the reconciling achievement of Christ in the gospel.