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Centering Marginalized Voices: An Excerpt from Staying Awake

Centering Marginalized Voices: An Excerpt from Staying Awake

Excerpt from the chapter, Centering Marginalized Voices: Staying Awake to Empire from Staying Awake: The Gospel for Changemakers by Tyler Sit.


As I teach in my workshops, creating multiracial community isn’t just about white people feeling brave enough to invite in someone who looks different from them. It’s about the methodical and deeply personal work of undoing the hold that the powers and principalities have on your heart even as you continue to struggle for beloved community. That means that even well-intentioned people, people who feel sure that they are not racist, unknowingly act in racist ways that will result in harming people of color. The spiritual task of a Christian in America is to embody the Gospel in such a way that gets you moving against the pull of racism and recruiting other people along the way. It is useless—or even cruel—to try to create a diverse room without a plan to address powers and principalities and all the ways they harm us.


Jesus, the Empire-Breaker

In order to create such a diverse room and address the powers and principalities that harm us, we need to learn a lot more both about what the Empire is like and about what the Kingdom of God is like. Jesus spent an inordinate amount of his teaching focusing on this very subject, contrasting the Kingdom of God with the Empire.

We learn about this in the Gospels (which are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John at the beginning of the New Testament). The very genre of these books in itself shows the Empire/Kingdom tension of Jesus’ work. One way that Gospel (εὐαγγέλιον in Greek) gets translated implies welcome news, sometimes even news of political or military victory. Before the book of Mark was even written, the Greek term for “good news” could refer to political or military victories, as in “Good news! The king won the battle, and we’re not going to die!”

At the time, the Jewish people were particularly looking for some good news. The Roman Empire was in control of everything at that time, and things were scary. The Romans were putting financial pressure on the Jewish community, the Roman military was wantonly executing dissidents, and Caesar was proclaiming himself a god. Despite all that, the Jewish people clung to the promises of their Scripture that God would somehow deliver them. Some interpreted this as God sending a Messiah who would relieve them politically from their long plight. Many were looking for someone to announce some εὐαγγέλιον, or good news, that a new reign or world order was coming.

So when Mark 1 opens with, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ,” the good news isn’t some nifty tidbit to brighten your day. When Matthew 4 says Jesus “announced the good news of the kingdom,” that means that Jesus was coming in with a trumpet voice announcing, Things are about to change! Big time. The ways of the Roman Empire—and all of the empires that dominated them throughout generations—are done for. A new type of power is in town, and it’s a type of power that hangs out with the poor, heals the sick, and argues with the powers that oppress them. To quote the musical Hamilton, Jesus is announcing “a world turned upside down.”[1]

Plainly, Jesus came to recruit people for the Kingdom of God. But instead of enlisting the savviest masterminds for his movement, he went to the most oppressed people in society. He went for the sick and for the sex workers, the day laborers and the extremists, to show where God’s glory really lives. Then, instead of announcing some ten-point plan, he taught the Sermon on the Mount (printed at the beginning of this chapter and considered by some scholars to be the core motivation for Jesus’ ministry) and explained where God’s blessing really is: in the hopeless, the grieving, the humble, the harassed. That was the ten-point plan. Spend time with the hopeless and the harassed, and God’s new world will start popping up.

However, Jesus was clear that such a new city cannot be a side hobby. He didn’t come to say, “You can live however you want as long as you spend every other Thursday with someone who is oppressed.” As we read in one memorable conversation, it’s the opposite:
Someone else said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say goodbye to those in my house.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.” (Luke 9:61–62)


Jesus was so passionate about his cause that he demanded that people not only show up but also change their hearts, and not only welcome marginalized people but also repent for participating in the society that did the marginalizing. That’s why the book you’re holding started with a chapter about worship. For worship is where we train our heart to love God, and that results in a sea change in whom we ultimately trust (not the Empire, but God), whom we ultimately love (not the Empire, but God), and for whom we will go to bat (not the Empire, but God).

But mere worship, in the sense of getting together to sing and pray, is not enough. As Jesus shows, there is time to come together to worship, and there is time to go out, create justice, and heal the world. Worship and justice: the former feeds into the latter and vice versa.

Christians do this not because marginalized people are open hands just waiting for the benevolence of privileged people to help us. On the contrary, the marginalized are the best accomplices in overthrowing the Empire. The people to whom the Empire has given the least will have the most insight into how to overthrow it. Who would be better at imagining God’s inclusive society than a guy who was locked up in a graveyard (Mark 5)? Who better to teach about God’s mercy than a woman who was about to be executed (John 8)? Furthermore, who better to end homophobia than gay people, to heal from colonization than indigenous people, and to create a free society than the incarcerated? Christians spend time on the margins not because it’s where God is the least (which invites pity) but because it’s where God is the most (which invites respect and solidarity).

 

[1] Interestingly, Dr. Barreto points out that, in this song line, Hamilton may be referring to Acts 17:6: “When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These people [that is, followers of Jesus] who have been turning the world upside down have come here also” (NRSV translation).

 

About Tyler Ho-Yin Sit is the pastor and church planter of New City Church, a community in Minneapolis led mostly by queer people of color. Sit is a second-generation Chinese American, trained community organizer, and United Methodist pastor. 

Tyler earned a BS in Communication Studies from Boston University and a Masters of Divinity from Candler School of Theology, and he has lived in four continents. 

New City Church has been featured in the New York TimesThe Atlantic, Minnesota Public Radio, and more.

Author Website: TylerSit.com
Photo Credit: Raygen Samone
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