Anvil journal of theology and mission
Christine Caine and Dr Anita Phillips, Body Language: A Conversation on Race and Restoration in the Body of Christ, https://youtu.be/W1P6AXjXnXc (1 June 2020)
by Emily Roux, CMS
This heart-provoking and honest conversation between two champions of our faith, Christine Caine and Dr Anita Phillips will move every listener to wake up and reconsider how we must lay down our individual cultural perspectives in order to tend to the whole body of Christ. Phillips (a leading African-American mental health and trauma therapist and preacher) explains to Caine (Australian-born Greek, preacher and founder of global anti-trafficking organisation A21) how our own ethnic heritage “shapes the way we do Christ”. This key part of the 90-minute YouTube talk was very impactful, as Phillips went on to detail how our implicit cultural memory informs our worldview, which we as Christians then assume is a Christian worldview. Caine encourages believers to look inward and to assess how our own culture and background may have shaped the beliefs we have in Christ differently, which is vital in understanding race and restoration as the body of Christ. Indeed the notion that we “each wear Christ differently” could be strange to many Christians.
The most eye-opening part of the conversation was when these different views were highlighted in the context of George Floyd’s death. Phillips suggests that to restore the church, it is no longer about calling out those who are explicitly racist. It is deeper than this, as the dehumanization of black people since the era of slavery in America has crept into the American subconscious, including the American Christian subconscious. I was impressed by Phillips’ boldness to speak on the concept of how our pre-existing worldviews mean we emphasise different elements of scripture when we read it through our own lens. She goes on to share that her white brothers and sisters address issues of race and racism with their worldview of individualism and deep respect for authority, so when they see an act such as the killing of George Floyd, they first ask for the facts to see the individual’s context and do not want to criticise the police until they see the ‘whole picture’. It was almost excruciating, and yet so important for me as a white woman to hear Phillips then add that this white ‘trait’, as it were, wouldn’t be so bad if white people were moved and crying while asking for the facts but, and she says, “I’ve never seen anyone say ‘wait for the facts’ who looked upset.”
Phillips addresses further how this dehumanization is at work in this context and goes on to detail fascinating psychological studies that have been conducted over many years revealing the subconscious attitudes towards black people from seemingly well-meaning and not explicitly racist Americans – all due to these inherited worldviews carried right into the country and right into our churches.
Beautifully, scripture helps us understand that this is about restoration not reconciliation, in the body of the Church. “You cannot reconcile something that was never ‘conciled’”, says Caine. Phillips suggests that reconciliation is a white, western construct as it works along the lines of the individual focus instead of the group or community level (which is more significant in African worldviews). When we look at 1 Corinthians, however, we see that God knew humanity struggles with unity, so much that he warns us through Paul’s words that, “if one part [of the body] suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Cor. 12:26 NIV).
This helps us to understand why we don’t just want black people to ‘get over it’. “There is a gaping wound that is constantly being opened,” says Phillips, and that is in the same body as our own as we all seek to be Christ’s church on Earth.
This is where Phillips’s professional mental health perspective is so informative in the talk. She advocates that the Church adopts the “trauma-informed approach” used to bring restoration and healing to victims of trauma, suggesting that the white, western church can use this too to bring healing to the wound caused by racism. She is currently developing the trauma-informed approach to be accessed on the group level and is training ministries to more effectively get to the deeper level of addressing group trauma and the wounds of racial injustice in the church.
I felt empowered by the suggestion to consider healing before reconciliation. Caine humbly related to this when she compared it to her own work with sex-trafficking victims, as her team would not first force victims to face their abusers and encourage them to forgive and seek reconciliation, but rather their first priority is to try to bring them healing for the wounds that have been caused.
We are left considering three key challenges when it comes to our own perspectives and actions: to trust and empower the voice of the wounded before asking the “why did this happen?” question; to create safe spaces and relationships – the ‘doing’ rather than simply the thinking (after all, as Phillips said, “actions is the African people’s love language!”); and to practise cultural humility and lay down my own cultural perspective. In the typical Caine style of preaching, she adds that, “Faith without works is dead and most people’s faith is not working because they don’t put their faith to work!” – something she passionately advocates for around the world, that is perhaps more true than ever in the context of how Christians should consider the Black Lives Matter movement.
I am so grateful to have been able to witness what one could say is a historic conversation between these two ‘greats’ of our generation in the church. Indeed, perhaps the ‘white’ church is finally waking up to speak out against racism and is willing to suffer alongside others in the body of Christ. I trust God that I will live to see the tide turn and witness the church leading the way for healing and acting with a new voice, a new type of ‘body language’ that perhaps the world hasn’t seen yet.