Always two messages

By Bo Sanders

In seminary last year  I had the opportunity to do a teaching apprenticeship as well to write a thesis paper. The most important thing that I learned through those experiences is that  we are always sending at least two messages.

When a teacher is standing in front of a classroom of students lecturing on their given expertise, there are at least two messages being sent. One message is found in the content of the lecture. The other (often unspoken) is found in the physical setup of the room, the posture of the participants, and  the protocols that are observed (or the ‘created culture’ of the class).

What the teacher is saying is the first message. When one person stands in front of room and everyone else is A) sitting B) quietly C) facing that person… a clear second message is being sent.

This often happens with preachers. It is not just the content of the sermon which is the message, there is another message that is often at work. It communicates how things work and how value is distributed or measured.  This phenomenon has been described as “the medium becomes the message”.

This was all in the back of my mind when I attended a huge conference last weekend. I decided to attend primarily because I love the topic and secondarily because  one of the two presenters was a famous author that I had read several books by.

The content of the conference was wonderful. It was about social justice in the shadow of empire. I loved the content … but the whole time I was aware that there was something else going on.

Of the several hundred people there, over 95% were white. In fact, not only were the two official presenters (both authors) white males but all four other people who welcomed, made announcements, or introduced speakers were white males.

I might not have noticed it as quickly as I did but there were two other elements that made this stand out. The first element was that the topic of the conference was social justice. That in itself would have been intriguing. The second element was the surrounding community that the conference was hosted in. It is one of the most racially and culturally diverse areas in North America.

Before the first session I was out to dinner at a restaurant in the community and then I walked a couple of blocks to the church building. I saw people of every stripe and color. By my estimation less than 10% were clearly white. That is why it was so noticeable when I arrive at the conference and it was the exact racial inverse of the restaurant that I had just eaten in and the city blocks that I had just walked to get there.

Something was wrong.

No matter the quality of the content, as I was sitting there I was receiving a second set of messages about what we were doing there.

Now, if this racial makeup inside the conference had happened in say Portland, Oregon or Regina, Saskatchewan it would have possibly been more understandable. The demographics inside the church building would roughly match the mix outside of it.  But this was the exact inverse proportion!  I don’t think that you could do this without some great amount of effort.  I am not sure that the $50 registration alone is enough to pull this off. There is a different dynamic that had to be behind this.

So my question is this: is anything that would come out of a conference of this type going to contribute anything meaningful, substantial, or ultimately impactful ?

My suspicion is this: in spite of talking about social justice in the shadow of empire, the way that we went about it was very imperial and ultimately would only reinforce the very problem that we said we were trying to combat.

I read Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity.  It is one of those books that once you have read it, you can’t act like you haven’t read it.

The content of the conference was wonderful, but there are always (at least) two messages being sent. I am afraid that the second message in this case was ultimately far more telling that any words that came through the microphone.

This was at a very public church that has been loudly “not conservative” and openly accepting of those of alternative lifestyles. I had gone with a romantic assumption that such an open group, meeting in such a diverse city, would be appropriately made up. That is why it hit me so hard.

In the end, I am afraid that anytime we plan to do something for somebody but without talking about what we want to do with them… we will end up doing it to them.  What is needed is relationship and no matter how noble the goal, if it is not based in relationship it is in danger of doing more harm than good.

Whether you call it paternalism or you attribute it to a “confusing people for projects” or you talk about inequalities in power… you come back to the same thing : relationships.

It is my estimation that the Gospel is relational from beginning to end. From the nature of the Trinity (at the start) to the culmination of ecclesiology (at the end) and, centrally, to God loving the world so much that God sent his only son… it is all about relationship.

I’m afraid that when the church in the modern world continues to do anything outside of relationship it is going to taint anything we want to do for somebody and corrupt it into something that we end up doing to them.     – Bo Sanders

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One Response to Always two messages

  1. Daniel Fan says:

    “So my question is this: is anything that would come out of a conference of this type going to contribute anything meaningful, substantial, or ultimately impactful ?”

    Maybe. Unfortunately, we probably can’t answer this question simply by checking out the headshots printed in the conference program.

    “In the end, I am afraid that anytime we plan to do something for somebody but without talking about what we want to do with them… we will end up doing it to them. What is needed is relationship and no matter how noble the goal, if it is not based in relationship it is in danger of doing more harm than good.”

    I’d agree with the direction of this statement.

    What I’d be careful of is judging folks on their outer appearances–“race” or ethnicity if you’d like. You mentioned that all the significant stage presences were white. That can certainly indicate a potential problem, but I don’t think we can convict their product based on that evidence. We should take care not to confuse someone’s physical appearance with their primary culture/ethnicity.

    If those white men really understood the culture and places where they’re talking about ministering to, we could learn a lot from them. I’m acquainted with an old-timer, ethnically German, missionary who moved to the Philippines in ’64 and basically “went native” to the point where he now speaks English with an upland indigenous accent. He is quite the learned authority on Ikalahan tribal customs and Northern Luzon forestry practices, but looks just as white and blue-eyed as the next “missionary.” His mannerisms, perceptions, and information would be quite authentically Ikalahan—his appearance would not.

    The existence of such people like this missionary from Luzon is complicating because it means we can’t simply rule out people based on our perceptions of their ethnicity. They might be able to present exotic information despite their common appearances. But it also raises the specter of interchangeable equivalency, which is also something I’m not willing to concede: that a well-trained/ traveled white is equivalent to an indigenous person because they “know” and can teach the same thing (which is a really white way of summing people up). The two are not equivalent precisely because we do make judgments based only on appearance and the message sent by a wall-of-white is different from that sent by a rainbow.

    So it sounds like you’re saying this conference has to be judged on two fronts with the subsequent judgments of those fronts possibly conflicting. 1) What the speakers said with their mouths; 2) What the speakers said with their homogenous appearance, regardless of, and perhaps contrary to, the message they intended to present.

    I don’t know if you can still fill out an evaluation card, but I’d mention this to the conference planners and see what they say. Their speakers might be “appropriate” based solely on the information they could present, but why weren’t non-whites/women present on-stage? When confronted by these dueling messages, the conference planners’ admissions, excuses, or even completely ignorance of the matter, can be just as telling as the actual speakers’ roster.

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