Theology through the lens of the marginalised
Does our theology, as well as our missiology, alienate the working class? By Michael Shaw
As someone who has worked in the margins of cities for the last 15 years, I often get frustrated by what I see as a lack of any interest in some of the most deprived areas of our nation by the church. Church denominations across the board seem to be gravitating towards the suburbs and areas that are either more prosperous financially or more prosperous in terms of demographics (students, young adult and graduates). It seems that large amounts of church resources are being used to “grow” the church in those areas, but little or no effort is being made in areas of high deprivation. This is not just in cities; it is happening in rural communities and traditional seaside holiday destinations.
Over the last week I have reflected on the many theological debates I have had over certain “doctrinal” issues. Why do I get so passionate about them? I think one major fact is that poor theology drives the church into dangerous areas; seeing this played out with myopic party political stances in the American church is but one example.
But closer to home I've seen how some of our theology makes it harder to engage with people in poverty, and even alienates them. Based on my experience of working with people on the margins, here are three examples:
In my experience the most frequent understanding of what happened on the cross is a substitutionary style model: often the idea of Penal Substitution dominates most of the understanding of the people who fill our churches. The idea that God is angry at sin, and his anger (wrath) can only be appeased by blood, and Jesus dies willingly in our place. Now I don’t want to debate the model too much (I will say I prefer a Christus Victor Model, and acknowledge there are several other Biblical understandings of the cross), but I want to ask the question: what does it say to people of a working-class background?
They are not bosses; they are (if they are lucky) employees. They have met many bosses like this God we are talking about, people willing to sacrifice anyone to get the job done. They live in fear of people like the God I am talking about, and while Jesus comes out of it better - he is still the boss’s son, and if the boss is willing to let him die, what will he do to me.
This God is to be feared not loved.
It is no surprise that God looks this way because the theory is based in a feudal honour system when the lord of the manner demands justice and satisfaction. All too often the working class in this honour system are pawns in the landlord’s game.
Therefore, Christus Victor works so much better, because in this system Jesus faces up to the oppressive powers of this world, and through submission, he overthrows them. I have preached this so many times in my church, and they just seem to get it. But if I preached this is in the church down the road, I would be called a heretic (even though Christus Victor is a historic understanding of the cross).
Well, this is the social media hot topic if you are into debating theology online at the moment. But again, my issue is how it sits with working class people.
These are people born into powerlessness, they are told directly and indirectly to know their place. So, when they are told that they never stood a chance, that they were born evil, it feeds into their deep sense of both worthlessness and shame.
Brene Brown says the difference between guilt and shame is simply guilt says what I do is wrong, shame says who I am is wrong. Original sin feeds into the narrative of most working-class people that they are worthless, made bad. It is why working-class people joke that they will “burn if they enter a church”! It feeds into the idea that church is a holy club for the sorted, but they are not sorted, so they are not part of the club.
Which is why I err towards original goodness, because it says we are not evil by design, by default, we have just done bad things BUT Jesus can restore us (reboot us) to take us back to the factory settings and make us into the people he created us to be.
The biggest obstacle I see in working class communities is hopelessness, and it is a hopelessness fed by shame. Original sin feeds into that sense of shame.
We are about to reach Christmas. Christmas is the time of year when we can talk about incarnation. This is by far the most realistic idea for working class people, but sadly not in the way they are told it in churches, Sunday schools and nativity plays!
The idea that God is born to a young teenage girl, born not in Jerusalem but Bethlehem, born into the scandal of the empty “inn” (it wasn’t an inn - it would have been Joseph's family home) born to a servant girl not a princess, visited by outsiders and foreigners, not royal dignitaries. We skim over those bits, because they are gritty and difficult, but these are the bits working class people need to hear.
But incarnation doesn’t end at birth. Jesus lives a life completely different from what you expect, an unemployed travelling hobo, whose authority to teach is questioned at every opportunity (read John’s gospel with that in your mind). He eventually gets falsely accused, betrayed by a mate, denied by his other so-called mates, dies the death of a common thief and gets buried in a borrowed tomb. This is a very ordinary, down to earth story, yet we all too often play this stuff down, because this story doesn’t work in respectable middle class contexts.
Jesus came preaching Good News to the Poor (Luke 4). How often we skip that “to the poor” when we talk about the Gospel. But we have adapted to Good News, so it looks like Good News to the respectable and the sorted (this is a generalisation, of course); we have followed theological paths that make sense to academic and educated minds, but who have we lost in the process?
So yes, I preach Christ crucified, but I also preach him incarnated and raised. I preach that he took on the powerful and won (by slightly devious means), I preach that we can be restored, that he deals not just with our guilt but also our shame, that nobody is beyond the reach of God’s love and that no matter how hopeless we feel, God has a better plan for our lives.
I preach these things because theology matters. The message of Jesus is a challenging one, but sadly much of our theology alienates people from working class backgrounds. No wonder many do not feel welcome in our churches, even if we did plant one in their neighbourhood!
Image | Jonny Swales | Unsplash
Michael Shaw is the minister of Devonport Community Baptist Church, Plymouth
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