Teaching Ministry of the ICOC

equipping the saints for works of ministry

Filtering by Category: Michael Burns

The Power of Story to Divide or Unite Us

by Michael Burns -- Roseville, Minnesota, USA

Conversations That Can Unite or Divide

Stories are incredibly important. Every person and group has a story. Stories help to shape and craft our identities even when we don’t realize it. The grand stories that shape our self-understanding and the way we view and interact with the world are often called meta-narratives. When it comes to groups and societies, these meta-narratives are passed down from generation to generation. The impact of embracing these meta-narratives can be felt by future generations even if they have lost all or part of the meta-narrative itself.

The Grand Story and Identity of God’s People

02_ex_14_07_rg.jpg

One example of an identity forming meta-narrative comes from the biblical text. Each generation of Israelite children heard and read the incredible story of the Passover. They thrilled as their parents and grandparents recounted the events that led their ancestors to the revelation that they were God’s special people. They marveled at all that God had done as he led them out from under the enslaving hand of Pharaoh.  And this set their self-identity in stone. They were God’s people and would never again be slaves to anyone, regardless of circumstances that might seem to temporarily point to a different conclusion.

In John 8:32 Jesus challenges the identity created by the Passover meta-narrative. He implies that the children of Abraham need to be set free which elicits a series of protests and emotional responses. That response was, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone” (John 8:33). Any other group of people would likely not have taken such offense at the implication of being enslaved, especially when Jesus explains that he is speaking of the universal slavery to sin (John 8:34). But meta-narratives and their ensuing identities are powerful. These identities become deeply held and we cherish them without typically fully realizing how important they are. The Passover meta-narrative had cemented in the nation of Israel’s mind that they were God’s children. No matter what tough temporary circumstances they might face, like the occupation of their homeland by the Roman Empire, they were still God’s family and would never be slaves. Jesus challenged both of those dearly held foundational identifiers.  The pushback and vitriol were palpable. 

Conflict is Unavoidable

Whenever two people are involved relationally to any significant degree, conflict is virtually inevitable. In this context, conflict is simply the incompatibility between two or more perspectives. Conflict itself is not necessarily sinful. You can have conflict without overt sin. Conflict will happen. The difference is in how we handle that conflict. The danger, of course, is that most human conflict does lead to sin.

In fact, it will happen often in a family of churches like ours.  The more diverse a group is socially, historically, and culturally, the more opportunities there will be for conflict. We will have different perspectives, experiences, cultural expectations, history, preferences, and so on. This will be a constant challenge to our unity, especially when difficult subjects such as race and culture are being discussed.

Yes, conflict will happen. But when that conflict involves pushing up against one or more meta-narratives, that conflict can get passionate, and negatively so, rather quickly. That’s when conversations and even relationships can start to break down.

checkmate-1511866_960_720.jpg

Healthy Families Talk

By way of example, let’s say that a Bible talk group sits down to discuss an incident that has been in the news involving a white police officer and a young man of color, resulting in the tragic death of the young man. As the group begins their conversation, conflict quickly erupts. Some in the group identify with the police officers and are prone to trust them and take their side without much in the way of questions. Others may or may not realize it, but somewhere deep down, they don’t trust police forces inherently. Even though we have a room full of disciples of Jesus Christ, tensions rise and before you know it there is a heated debate. Within twenty minutes, factions have formed, divisions have arisen, and hard feelings have developed.  What’s even more pronounced and problematic is that these divisions are often (though not always) along racial or ethnic lines.

In situations like this, what often happens is that an awkward fear develops in one or both groups and they determine that the best solution is simply never to talk about these matters again within the body. This is deeply problematic. Healthy families talk. In fact, healthy families can talk about virtually anything. The degree to which there are off-limits or taboo subjects is the degree to which a dysfunction is bound to develop in that family. 

Going Below the Surface

Here’s the real problem. In many situations, the different meta-narratives that we have lead to sharp disagreements. But we tend to not recognize that it is these underlying identity-forming stories that have led to our very different perspectives and resulted in severe conflict. Because of that, we stay at the level of the surface conflict and never get to the roots of it.

Screen Shot 2018-09-01 at 18.18.08.png

Let’s go back to the Bible talk group and see how this plays out. Some probably grew up in a middle class, predominantly white environment like mine where the police force was always presented as a positive thing. Every year we would have “Officer Friendly” come to our school and spend time connecting with the students. We looked forward to seeing police officers in town because they would hand out baseball cards to the kids. We were always told that they were the good guys; they would save us and help us if we ever needed it. This is why so many defend and support police officers before they may even know the specifics of a case. They just trust them naturally. That was my meta-narrative and many of you may identify with that. It formed a specific aspect of my worldview and identity in relation to those that are given the responsibility “to protect and serve.”

policeman-30600_960_720.png

My wife is African-American and grew up with a very different community meta-narrative. The roots of many police forces, especially in the deep South where her family migrated North from, were as slave patrols. After slavery, those forces morphed into police forces, but they often had the objective of keeping black community members “in their place.” The lines of justice were frequently blurred and they often intimidated, brutalized, and terrorized the black communities. So, the meta-narrative formed that policemen were not a group that could be automatically trusted. They were to be rightly feared and meta-narratives like this are powerful and do not easily go away. They are passed down as wisdom from generation to generation. Even if a group is removed from the original context, the story and worldview often remain in place. And events that might seem like unfortunate, isolated incidents to those from one meta-narrative, serve as powerful reinforcements of the negative image for those from a different meta-narrative.

It can be incredibly destructive if we are unable to get down to that level of understanding one another in our church life. When we stay at the surface level of conflict, we simply argue. We waste our breath trying to convince one another but will very rarely be able to succeed. It is like two people staring at a white wall, one with rose-colored glasses on and the other with blue glasses on, who insist on arguing about what the color of the wall is. They will never get anywhere if they focus on the wall and fail to recognize that they have on different-colored glasses. 

That’s how it is with these meta-narratives. We must go beyond the conflicts and seek to understand each other. Ask deep questions. Try to comprehend not just what a person believes or what they perceive, but why. They may not even fully grasp their own meta-narrative at first. There are many members in my wife’s family that were raised with an inherent mistrust of authority figures like the police but have little idea of why or where that fear comes from. 

This is not taking sides on an issue or any specific incident involving police. If you’re focused on that, you’ve missed the point of this article. That was simply a relevant illustration to help us understand the powerful forces at work that can weave conflict into our relationships. The next time you find yourself in conflict with a brother or sister over a serious matter of this nature, don’t stay at the surface level of the conflict. Go deeper. Ask questions. Hear one another. Find out what some of their identity forming meta-narratives are (and we all have many).  We may not ever fully agree on everything, but we can at least start to understand the different perspectives that others may hold, and we may learn a lot more about ourselves.  When we understand one another’s meta-narratives, their perspectives start to make a lot more sense and we often feel empathy and a desire to reconcile rather than pull away or continue the conflict.

Practical Steps Forward

Here are some practical steps to help us begin to discover and navigate the waters of the meta-narratives of others.  First, I have a big warning though. Don’t attempt to do this with others until you have examined your own meta-narratives and presumptions. Only then can you have a reasonable chance of understanding and empathizing with others.

1.    When a conflict occurs, don’t focus on the “what,” become curious about the “why”.

2.    Ask as many questions as you can to respectfully pull out someone’s background and story, where they might be coming from and why they see the world the way they do. Some sample questions from the above example involving responses to the police might be:

a.    Do you think you tend to automatically give the benefit of the doubt to police or official government versions? Why do you think that is?

b.    Do you think you tend to automatically mistrust police and people in authority? Why do you think that is?

c.     What has been the past experience of yours or previous generations in your family with police officers in the past? 

d.    Do you think you have had any pre-conceived notions or beliefs about those in power or the underdogs in society that might influence your thinking?

3.    Everyone’s worldview makes sense to them given their meta-narratives, so seek to understand as much as you can about a person’s views from the perspective of their meta-narratives rather than your own.

4.    Listen to other’s story without comment, objection, or rebuttal. You are trying to learn and understand not teach and educate at this moment.

5.    Try to avoid the “whats” in a conflict until you have a really solid grasp of the other person’s “whys.”

6.    Together you can examine, not the meta-narratives themselves, but the identities and presumptions that have resulted from them. Are they in sync with a kingdom worldview, a godly perspective of others and a biblical response?

7.    Together, do either of you see that perhaps some of your identities formed by your meta-narratives need to change in light of the gospel?  How do you go about that?

8.    You may have to agree to disagree at times, but at least you now hopefully can better understand the perspective of your brother or sister and respect and understand their views rather than thinking that they are just “out of their mind”.

Deep Waters

Proverbs 20:5 says that “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.”  Our meta-narratives are certainly deep waters and when we take the time to learn our own and draw out those of others, we move one step closer to the kind of unity in Christ that God desires for his people.  A willingness to examine your own meta-narratives and identities and those of others, won’t solve every problem but it is a very healthy step in the right direction.

 

An Introduction to "Crossing the Line" by Michael Burns

by Michael Burns -- Roseville, Minnesota, USA

Screen Shot 2018-04-16 at 20.25.28.png

In 2007, my wife and I moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, with our twelve- and four-year-old sons to lead the Fox Valley Church of Christ. Despite the idyllic scenery, small town charm, and loving church family, it was not all roses; especially not for our older son. I am what society has labelled “white” and my wife is what society calls “black.”  One day our older son was confronted by another student who informed him, in “joke” form,  that the difference between a bench and a black man is that a bench can support a family. 

Not long after that, he went to sit by a friend at lunch in the cafeteria and was told by another boy that he had entered the “whites only” part of the lunchroom and needed to take his “nigger” self somewhere else. He was in a school of nearly 1,500 with fewer than ten black students and didn’t have many positive options available to him and talking to the school officials yielded little to nothing. 

In the end, nothing much happened, and our older son struggled in that environment until 2012 when we finally moved to the Twin Cities and I began to serve as the Teacher in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Church of Christ. 

What he, and to a lesser but still significant extent, my wife and younger son experienced in the community at large, was a sharp contrast to our experience in our family of churches, the International Churches of Christ. In fact, the racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity was the first thing that drew us into the Milwaukee Church of Christ where we were converted.

We have continued to love the ethnic and cultural diversity in our family of churches but along the way, we learned that this beautiful diversity has its challenges. The more varied and diverse a people are, the more difficult it will be to create and maintain unity. That’s a fact. And while we heard of and experienced little dustups or complaints over the years, for the most part what we saw and felt was this amazing and manifold kingdom of God that consisted of people of every tribe, language, and nation, so to speak.  

But division is Satan’s specialty; and, like anything, cracks in our unity and diversity have started to appear over time. Not on the surface, of course. You can come any Sunday morning and see the same amazing mix of cultures. But in the day-to-day life of the community, tensions seemed to be rising. 

As my wife and I have travelled across our fellowships we have learned that most disciples love their church and they love the kingdom of God. They love the ideal of being God’s one family of all nations, and they love their brothers and sisters.

But we also found that many of our brothers and sisters of color were grieved, and a part inside of them was in mourning; not all, but a definite majority. What I heard primarily was fear. Fear that the prejudices and inequities of the world had crept into our beloved church. They were bothered by the pattern of silence in the face of incidents of racial injustice that were playing out in the media. They were concerned at the perception of a mounting lack of representation of people of color in all levels of church leadership.

As I continued to listen, I heard a growing pattern of dissatisfaction in many churches about the cultural environment. People of color, particularly African American brothers and sisters, often felt that there was a dominant white culture in the church and that their voice and culture were either allowed only token input or not heard at all (although there are a few cases where the opposite is true).  Many have expressed the feeling that they tend to feel welcome in the church as long as they “act white” and embraced expressions of white culture.  And many have confirmed that even in our beloved fellowship they have experienced cases of prejudice or bigotry. Not to the level or degree of the world, but still, it is there.

I don’t think that we can ever end ethnic and cultural divisions, and institutions like racism in the world, nor is it prudent to even try. What we can do, however, is to address these issues openly and honestly in the family of God and to stand out like a bright light in a world of division and sectarianism. 

Why talk about this? Imagine what would happen if my wife came to me today and requested that we have a heart-to-heart talk about some issues that she would like to address in our marriage.  Rather than listening to her, though, I tell her, “No, we’re not going to talk about this.” She looks a bit taken aback, but before she can respond, I continue. “We have a great marriage; things are good. Why are you trying to mess that up?”

“Think of this biblically,” I go on. “The Bible makes it clear that we were once two separate people but when we came together in marriage, we became one flesh. That’s all there is to it,” I proudly state. “Why dredge up things from the past?”

She listens to me and then calmly says, “I want to talk about something from this morning.”

“Ahh,” I quickly blurt, “that’s the past!”

“Right now we are unified,” I continue, “because we are one. It’s great to be one. I love that we are one. That’s biblical truth. Nope, no argument there. No conversations needed. I think we’re good and we should just move along and enjoy our goodness.”

It probably will not take you a long time to figure out that if this was my actual response, the rest of the week is probably not going to be a pleasant one for me.  You don’t get married, become one, and now the work is over and all that’s left is to preserve the perfect unity and oneness that you have achieved.

In the same way, imagine if a black brother or sister wanted to talk to me about what they have experienced in their multi-ethnic church, why they feel culturally marginalized at times, or the hurt they feel from what is happening in our country. What if I responded in that conversation the way I described speaking to my wife? What if I said, “Brother, why are you trying to cause division? There is just one race, the human race. The Bible is very clear on that. The only answer to racism is not to complain or see it as a boogey- man behind every bush. We are all one in Christ, so you need to repent of this divisiveness. God has already joined us together and there is no black or white.”

And imagine that, when my friend asks if it’s a conversation that we could have as a church and maybe even do some teaching on it, I respond by telling him that such conversations are pointless because they’re just going to dig up conflicting feelings and perspectives and divide our fellowship.

Yes, we are one in Christ. There is no question that there is great truth behind this and similar ideas, but if we leave it there, such beloved truths of God’s kingdom can quickly become empty platitudes.

The truth contained in those statements is that we are all one in Christ. That’s an undeniable biblical reality for those that have been immersed into his life. There is only the one, human race, say the Scriptures. But as in a marriage, this is the starting point. When God’s people seek to obey the Scriptures by being comprised of all nations and people groups, a difficult process has begun. What comes next is a lot of hard work. These little slogans that we toss out, like “There is just one race, the human race,” and “We should all be colorblind” often serve as conversation enders, not starters. If I responded to my wife with the idea that she shouldn’t bring up issues or try to work on our marriage because we are one, that would be flippant. It would twist a truth into an agent of stagnation. The same is true if we toss out platitudes when it comes to the topics of racism, race, and culture.

Here’s the rub: statements like “We are one” are true, but they only remain true if a lot of effort, honest conversation, and difficult changes are constant. The minute that that environment fades away is the moment that those statements cease to be true. Bringing up concerns and wanting to talk about them in an open and real way is not disruptive; it is the foundation for true unity and continued growth.

The fact is that being a family of all nations is central to the Gospel (Matthew 28:28-20; Galatians 3:7-9), so the idea that we won’t constantly need to address issues of racial unity and cultural inclusion is naïve at best and dangerous at worst. 

There is no question that issues of racism, race, and culture have once again taken center stage in our society. These are issues that bring out deep passion and potential conflict in the world; and because disciples live in this world, they affect us, our mission, and our unity.

If we’re not careful and don’t address these topics biblically and with great love, patience, and grace, they could wind up ripping Christians apart. Every potential problem like this, though, can be a pitfall or a platform. It can be our undoing or an amazing opportunity to put the power and wisdom of the true gospel on display. It is encouraging that these conversations are now taking place in some locations. I am under no illusion that this book is the beginning of something. It is a continuation and it is a call for learning, understanding, and, most of all, open and honest discussion.


Michael Burns is a Teacher in the Minneapolis-St. Paul church of Christ. He is a graduate of Wesley Seminary of Indiana Wesleyan University (MA). He taught high school history in the central city of Milwaukee for nearly ten years. He is a national and international biblical teacher at churches and workshops. He is the founder and director of the Ministry Development and Training Academies centered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and serves as an instructor in Ministry Training Academies in Africa. He is the author of the twelve-volume C.O.R.E. Curriculum books.  He married his wife, MyCresha, in 1997. They have two sons and reside in Roseville, Minnesota. 

Michael Burns &wife.png