I’m taking a class at my church called Education for Ministry. It’s basically a four-year study of the Bible and church history. Each year, the program has a theme, and participants read something related to that theme. This year, our theme is multiculturalism, and our related reading The Bush Was Blazing But Not Consumed by Episcopal priest Eric H. F. Law discusses what it means to build multicultural community and offers guidance for churches and other groups to begin conversations about making their community more multicultural.
This book was published in 1996, and I was startled and saddened at how relevant much of its content remains. Law begins with a discussion of the 1992 Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King verdict and other riots in U.S. history. As I read, I could see so many echoes of what’s happening in the U.S. today in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the lack of indictments for the police officers involved. Law does well at putting these kinds of events and their aftermath in context of our troubled history, but I was troubled that he appears to treat those on both sides of these events as moral equivalents, seeming to chastise those facing oppression for rebelling against the system that oppresses them. I think his intention was to show that people on both sides have made mistakes, but some mistakes are bigger than others, and more acknowledgement of that would have been good. But perhaps this is an area where the book shows its age.
Despite this misgiving, I appreciated Law’s analysis of how interracial conflict has become a fire that sometimes flares up but never goes out. It’s a glowing ember, always present, making it impossible to talk about issues of race without resorting to a win/lose mindset that feeds into a cycle of destruction. That cycle looks something like this:
If I am on the side of the minority, I feel that I am always losing when I come up against the system. I allow my anger and rage to build up. When I cannot contain my anger and rage, I strike back through explosive destruction. When I do, I feel like I have won and the system seems to be a little more open to listening to my needs. But then the system clamps up again later, even tighter than before, and I feel like a loser again.
If I am on the side of the majority, I win by taking control of the system that protects my privileges and rights. I lose when I let the minorities threaten me with their anger, rage, and destruction. When I lose, I strike back with more force to contain the destruction. In my fear of the destruction’s reoccurring in the future, I create more control in the system that will favor and protect me. I will not lose again. Each time there is a winner and a loser, this cycle of destruction is energized some more, with the losing side becoming even more determined to win this time.
Law’s hope is that we can learn to turn this fire into something like the burning bush in Exodus. The bush was aflame, but it wasn’t consumed. We need to look at this fire, to acknowledge its existence and recognize that God is in it so that we can stop being afraid of it. It’s fear that feeds the cycle.
But doing that work will re quire us to set aside some of our assumptions about the right way of doing things. We have to recognize that differences do exist and that they matter. In doing so, we might even come to see God in new ways, not bound by our culture. What Law says about the value of listening and taking differences seriously was valuable, and although not all of it was new to me, I appreciated his way of expressing his ideas. He frequently uses biblical metaphors and tells stories from his own experiences facilitating discussions about multicultural issues, and his insights are useful. Some of his metaphors went on longer than I would have liked, and a few of his stories seemed a little too shiny and happy, but his arguments are generally effective and offer a good starting place.
The last few chapters offer guidance for having conversations about these issues. This section was the least useful to me, partly because I don’t see myself organizing something like that. And I felt that if I wanted to, I’d need more guidance than what Law offers here. A few people in my EfM group noted that this book was trying to do too much in both introducing the issues and getting people started working through them. The result is that it ended up being shallower than it could be on both scores. I would have like more concrete stories of churches working toward multiculturalism, perhaps even stories of efforts that didn’t go well or that took years to resolve. The how-to material seemed more suited to a separate manual.
One of the group members, however, noted that she found the book extremely hopeful because, even if the problems it addresses are still present, Law offers a way forward. By having courageous conversations maybe we can break this cycle, at least in our own communities.