The Dis-Union of the Church

By Lisa Sharon Harper

One of the greatest sermons I ever heard on the subject of communion was offered by the head pastor of a Christian Missionary Alliance church in Princeton, N.J., back in the late 1980s. This pastor spent most of that sermon talking about the cross and how Jesus’ body was literally broken. I can still hear the crunch of the nails going into Jesus’ wrists that I heard in my mind’s ear that Sunday. And this wasn’t Easter week. It was just a communion Sunday.

Toward the end of his sermon, the pastor brought out a piece of saltine cracker that lay in the communion plate. He cracked it and then he said this: “Every time I take communion I hear the crack of the bread in my mouth and I bite and remember the crack of Jesus’ bones … and I remember that I did that.”

I wept as we took communion that day.

But isn’t that really about disunion — the disunion of Christ’s actual physical body? The cracking of his bones, the breaking of his legs, the piercing of his flesh; the cross seems to be more about a breaking apart than a bringing together of Christ’s body.

Right now when I see the lived reality of the church in our world, it seems we are more in a state of disunion than communion.

I see self-involved, siloed evangelical churches with their agendas and Sunday morning productions and no mention of Trayvon Martin’s #Hoodie Sunday or Michael Brown’s #HandsUp Sunday. And we go home and we’re confronted with another official autopsy of a black man who is not Ferguson’s Michael Brown.

Remember Darrien Hunt, the 22-year-old biracial man who was dressed like an anime character and carrying a decorative sword in Utah — the one who was shot by police six times and the police claimed he was charging them with the sword? Yeah. That one. The official autopsy shows that three of the six shots hit his back.

This is the pain that rocks back and forth deep beneath the surface of my black evangelical soul. The discussion I want to have is about the power of unconscious bias within our society (law enforcement, education, health-care … even stopping at a convenience store in Florida like Jordan Davis). But we don’t talk about that in most of our churches. We talk about suffering — the suffering of not getting the promotion you hoped for, or not being able to have the baby you wanted, or singleness. And these things really are suffering. I’ve felt them, too. I get it. But the barrel goes even deeper and we’re not anywhere near the bottom — not for the people of color in our congregations, not when death is a realistic fear for every single black man in our congregations and every single black mother with a son of any age every time they open their eyes in the morning.

And when we do talk about race and power, we often confuse the conversation, using race and culture interchangeably. The conversation becomes the philosophical equivalent of Olympic gymnastics. And the pastor sticks the landing in the eyes of the congregation who are comforted to know in the end all we have to do is realize different cultures simply must learn to agree to disagree about some things but still love each other. And I feel this inner balloon expanding in my soul and it is about to burst.

We are broken! The body of Christ is broken! And we are breaking it.

I’m coming to believe that the communion of the church is not best symbolized in the breaking of bread together, except that we can come together and find communion in the fact that we are broken. But the actual communion — the uniting of the body — may be best symbolized in the resurrection. It is then that Jesus’ broken body is brought together again. He still bears the scars of his brokenness, but death does not win.

We make a mistake every time we characterize today’s news flash about a new black man’s death as a “racial” issue. In a fundamental way, it is. Race itself is a political construct created in the 15th century to tip the balance of power in favor of whites in the New World. So when weeping mothers cry that their sons were killed because of their race, they are often right. The struggle taking place in the world is centuries old, and it is fundamentally about power — who has it and who needs to be kept in their place.

But on a deeper level, it is not about race. It is an issue of the disunion of the church. For if the church in the U.S. were a communion (a united community) in lived reality, then whole white churches would weep with us and march with us and push the powers toward justice with us. Or at least they would enter into conversation with us in order to understand. Then we would have a hope of the whole body rising together to stand against the powers and say, “No!”

And then maybe the killing would stop.

For more on how to engage the dis-union of the church, click here to join the Google Hangout with the authors of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith on THIS THURSDAY, Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. ET.


3 thoughts on “The Dis-Union of the Church

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  1. This is such a great word, Lisa. Struck by this: “For if the church in the U.S. were a communion (a united community) in lived reality, then whole white churches would weep with us and march with us and push the powers toward justice with us. Or at least they would enter into conversation with us in order to understand.”

    The problem is that the “with us” in this statement is such a lamentably small choir. It’s gonna take more than the whole white church to weep, march and push the powers and principalities. If we can’t even get our churches of “color” to join in the prophetic fire…well.

    As my husband stated last night in a forum on Race Relations after Ferguson: “Passivity is violence!”

  2. Jesus’ crucifixion can be seen as the ultimate unifier. John 19-31-36: “Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the Sabbath, especially because that Sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. …These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘None of his bones shall be broken.'”

    For this reason when I serve communion I say, “The Body of Christ, GIVEN for you” rather than the common “The Body of Christ, BROKEN for you.” Christ GIVES himself willingly. It is this giving that is needed between races. Nobody broke Christ. Christ gave himself and asks us to do the same. Only in this spirit of willingness will unity come about.

  3. Thank you for wise words. True unity is only found in understanding the sacrifice made on the behalf of all humankind. Agreement there brings unification.

    When did we begin gamble with one another’s lives at the foot of the cross, making judgements and preferences there when Christ clearly sacrificed His son for one and for all? When did we begin to discard people of differing color, intelligence level, class, financial well being, or attractiveness as if we were the ones making the sacrifice?

    I was often told that the ground is level at the foot of the cross. I fear humankind has made it much less so than it was intended to be.

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