Institutions need to be Born Again (a theology of institutional inclusion)

I suppose it’s easier to focus on the “goodness” and “preservation” of institutions when they have historically been built for people who look a lot like you. For various reasons, my questions about institutions have mostly revolved around issues of inclusion and incorporation. How do I inhabit institutions that were never constructed with people like me in mind? What does it mean to honor a tradition and simultaneously work to extend it beyond itself? There are times when I’m surprised by what I find inside of a theology book. Such was the case with Brian Bantum’s Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity. Bantum’s work is a creative, interdisciplinary take on Christianity and questions of identity, drawing on literature, history, sociology, church history, and systematic theology. Ultimately, this book is about Christology and identity. Yet, tucked within the book’s chapter on baptism are claims that—in my opinion—have very direct and practical implications for Christian institutions.

Bantum writes:

“…in this baptismal moment there also lies the profound transformation of the community, for with every new member comes the possibility of transformation, change, and adaptation in its inclusion not only for the one welcomed, but for those who welcome. The body of Christ shifts and moves and learns new languages as it adds new members. Its body becomes new as the person becomes new. This transformation is not without shape or purpose. It is a body that recognizes it exists within that in which all difference is found. The church is that transgression of God’s mercy against humanity’s refusal and disobedience. It is God’s presence in the midst of humanity’s unfaithfulness. The church thus witnesses to the possibility of creation’s transformation in its own transformation and its own incorporation of difference within itself.” (159)

Discussing baptism as a social performance, he continues:

“This communal performance, this harmonic of Christian discipleship, is integral to the baptismal moment as the baptized becomes a song added to the hymn of faith…However, the nature, the timbre of the song carries with it a particularity that is not incorporated into the harmony without necessitating an improvisation in the communal song. The reception of the individual is the reception of their particularity and requires the reimagining of communal identity. It is here that the Christological claims regarding Christ’s mulattic character and the necessity of transformation become exhibited through the baptismal moment…The community itself must adapt its timbre, its instrumentation, and its arrangement in its incorporation of the newly born.” (161)

Bantum, one last time:

“Baptism is the entrance into a life of transformation. It is entrance into a life pregnant with the possibility of speaking in new tongues and receiving those people and those practices that once seemed alien…The reception of a person requires the possibility of a reception of their particularity and their hopes, the fullness of their despair and their triumphs…The ecclesial community similarly takes on the life of its newly born and turns itself to them as itself becomes something new in the process. We cannot enter into this body and deny the difference among us. To be in Christ is to enter those strange bodies in our midst, we must be baptized into Christ and bound to one another.” (163)

For me, Bantum’s words about baptism apply broadly to conversations about diversity, multiculturalism, and institutional inclusion. I find that many institutions want the kind of diversity that they can manage, control, and keep at the periphery, not the kind of diversity that fundamentally transforms what they are. Yet, this sketch of baptism shows that genuine incorporation is a two way-street that requires transformation for everyone involved. Without the openness of improvisation, institutional attempts at incorporation are more likely to function as forms of assimilation—the absorption of difference in the reproduction of itself. The breaking forth of the Spirit in the joining of peoples is different than the maintenance and reproduction of institutions conceived as naturally good organisms. In other words, institutions too need to be born again.

As I think about these issues, I must admit that I continue to be haunted by this open letter that Prof. Denise Isom wrote to a Christian college in 2007. The letter reveals Isom’s efforts to negotiate her identity—as an African American woman—with the environment and requirements of the Christian school employing her. There is a certain affect to reading her words, already knowing the subsequent result of her appeal (it was rejected). Beyond being just a matter of tradition, requirements, and compliance, Isom’s words are of profound theological significance, displaying a deep theological struggle that resonates with Bantum’s concerns about communal identity and the “strange bodies” in our midst.

The problem of diversity and institutional inclusion is of utmost theological and philosophical importance. To belittle these kinds of questions as nothing more than “liberal political correctness” is to throw smokescreens. To reduce all of this to tolerance/intolerance, sensitivity, and feelings is to continue headstrong in anti-intellectualisms concerning the flesh. That’s because the joining and coming together of peoples has to do with the Spirit, with Gentile existence; how we receive the bodies in our midst is directly related to how we perceive and receive the very body of Christ.