Truth Be Told

Signed copies of the book I co-authored with Soong-Chan Rah, "Unsettling Truths - The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery" are available from my website:

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Why I didn't take Communion at Urbana 2015

As I sat waiting for the Communion elements to be distributed at the Urbana 2015 Missions Conference I began to do what both Jesus and Paul exhort Christians to do: examine ourselves. In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, Paul warns the church in Corinth about their practice of taking communion. There are divisions among them. They are not waiting or showing concern for each other. Some are going hungry while others are getting drunk. They are forgetting the significance of the Lord's supper and, therefore, are eating and drinking judgement upon themselves.  Likewise, in the book of Matthew, Jesus warns his followers that if they are offering their gift at the alter and remember that their brother has something against them, they are to leave their gift, go first and be reconciled, and then return to make their offering.

Because of these teachings I deeply appreciate it when churches tell their congregations about upcoming communion services. Informing us ahead of time, so that the community can prepare itself.
And communion at Urbana is no different. It is scheduled. A tradition. Attendees know well in advance it is coming. In fact, sharing communion at midnight on New Year’s Eve with thousands of mission minded believers is one of the highlights of the entire conference. So I usually make sure that I'm were ready.

But this year it was different.

When booking my travel, I made my reservations to return home the afternoon of December 31st. I knew going into Urbana that I was going to miss communion, and was disappointed about that. But due to my increasingly hectic travel schedule I wanted to get home in time to spend New Year’s Eve with my family. I had not closely looked at the conference schedule, so when I walked into the plenary session on the fourth night of Urbana, I was surprised to learn that this year we were celebrating communion a night early, December 30th instead of New Year’s Eve.

I was excited that I didn't miss it. But nor did I feel ready to take it.

On the second night of Urbana, Michelle Higgins shared with the conference an amazing plenary talk on Black Lives Matter. It was powerful, honest, truthful, challenging and prophetic. As a nation, and a church, we have a problem with systemic racism.  I know this full well as I have been traveling the country speaking about the Doctrine of Discovery. The Doctrine of Discovery is a series of Papal Bulls written in the 1400's that dehumanize indigenous peoples throughout the world. It justifies our enslavement and genocide by Europeans and communicates a value for their stealing, exploitation and profiting from us and our lands.  This Doctrine has been embedded into the very foundations of the United States of America - affecting the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and the United States Supreme Court ("What is the Doctrine of Discovery?").

While she did not elaborate on the Doctrine of Discovery, Michelle's plenary on Black Lives Matter and systemic racism in the USA literally sent Urbana reeling. Some were convicted. Some were offended. Some were empowered. And some were incensed. But EVERYONE was talking. It was fantastic.

The next evening the plenary session was arranged completely different. All of the chairs were removed from the stadium floor and 8 pillars were setup. On each pillar was printed the name of a country where Christians are persecuted; Iraq/Syria, Iran, North Korea, Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria and Yemen.  Attendees were invited down to the floor to gather around the pillars to pray. We were asked to pray for 2 things. 1) For the people and Christians who are being persecuted in those countries. 2) For the people and leaders who are enacting the persecution in each of those countries.

But I couldn't join in.

Picture courtesy of Tim Chin - Urbana 2015 
I could not bring myself to walk down to the floor. Something was not settled within my spirit. Instead I walked around the stadium and eventually found my way up to the nose bleed seats at the very top. I sat there overlooking the conference and prayed, asking God what was going on. Wasn't it good that these countries were being prayed for? Wasn't it good to expose ourselves to global issues and to heed the call to pray, not only for those persecuted, but also for the persecutors?

Yes. But I still couldn't join in.

My spirit was stuck on the previous night. My mind was still pondering the statistics throughout the nation that clearly demonstrate that in the United States of America Black Lives do not Matter.  Natives lives do not matter.  The lives of people of color do not fully matter.

Urbana 2015 had opened a can of worms and started a very public conversation on race but that conversation was nowhere near finished.  Divisions had been identified, but they were not brought together. Brokenness had been exposed, but it was not healed.

We needed to pray. Not for the persecuted Christians living in other countries, but for the persecuted people of color living right here in the United States of America. We needed to pray for the communities that had endured genocide, stolen lands, broken treaties, enslavement, Jim Crow laws, boarding schools, internment camps, segregation, deportation, and mass incarceration. We needed to pray for a country that, in its very Declaration of Independence, declares Native peoples to be "savages." And in its Constitution literally defines "We the people" as white, land owning males. And to this very day, bases its legal precedent for land titles on the Doctrine of Discovery and the dehumanization of indigenous peoples. We needed to pray for the thousands of African American youth who had taken to the streets, like their parents and grandparents before them, proclaiming at the top of their lungs that their lives matter. We needed to pray for communities of color suffering from historical trauma due to the ethnic cleansing and slavery that expanded and built this nation. And we needed to pray for the trauma of our White American brothers and sister whose communities are living in complete denial of the horrific injustices and genocide that was enacted on their behalf.

We needed to erect a pillar in the middle of the stadium floor that was printed boldly with the words "United States of America," and then gather around it to pray.

But there was no pillar.

So I sat there in lament. Eventually the prayers of the students turned to singing, the singing to worship and finally the worship to praise. (Watch: YouTube)

When you live in a country that believes in its own exceptionalism, it rarely lingers long on negative thoughts, feelings or experiences. Exceptionalism requires, even demands, celebration. And that is exactly what was happening. And I could not join in. I could not celebrate. My people are still suffering. My country is still in denial. And my brothers and sisters in Christ were closing the lid on the can of worms that is systemic racism in the United States and diverting their attention to persecution enacted by the “real” evil and “non-Christian” nations of the world.

My heart was bursting with lament.

Picture of Bosco Tung - Urbana 2015
And so the next day, when I entered the plenary session and learned we were going to take communion, I examined myself and quickly realized that I was not ready - neither spiritually, nor relationally.

Like the church in Corinth, the church in America has a problem. There are deep divisions that exist between us. Many of these conference attendees would return home to their middle class families living in the suburbs. While others would return to overcrowded apartments in the inner city and to trailers on Indian reservations. I heard some of the struggle that it was to get the Black Lives Matter message onto the plenary stage at Urbana. I know the buried history of the Doctrine of Discovery. And I see the Churches complicity within that history.

So I abstained from taking communion at Urbana 2015. Not out of anger or resentment. But out of obedience. Both Jesus and Paul exhorted us to examine ourselves. Are we ready? Are our communities ready? Is the bride of Christ ready? And if there are found to be divisions that exist amongst us, we should excuse ourselves from the table and tend first to our broken relationships.

In my seminar at Urbana 2015, I proposed the idea for a National Truth and Conciliation Commission to be held in 2021 (#TCC2021). In the 5 years leading up to this conversation, I am asking the Church to acknowledge its complicity in the Doctrine of Discovery and to prepare itself through the practice of lament. To receive updates regarding this work please signup for our Truth and Conciliation Email List

In December 2014 I published an in-depth article regarding the Doctrine of Discovery and my vision for a national Truth and Conciliation Commission. That article is titled "The Doctrine of Discovery- A Buried Apology and an Empty Chair."


Mark Charles said...

Urbana 2015 had opened a can of worms and started a very public conversation on race but that conversation was nowhere near finished. Divisions had been identified, but they were not brought together. Brokenness had been exposed, but it was not healed. We needed to pray...

Unknown said...

Wonderful piece, Mark. Continue to speak truth and advocating for the healing of the nations.

mike helbert said...

I'm a non-Native. I just signed up to your mailing list for truth and conciliation.
This has become important to me. My people came here and committed horrible
atrocities for which there has never been repentance. We live in this land and we
have no story that connects us with the land other than conquest and violence.
I am deeply grieved by this.
However, the journey toward conciliation and healing is arduous. I appreciate you
for striving toward this very noble goal.
I've been reading and listening to Steven Newcomb, (Shawnee, Lenape), and Robert Miller, (Eastern Shawnee), as they
speak about the Doctrine of Discovery, (or as Newcomb calls it, the "Doctrine of Christian Domination). It's sad that
those who have written history never touched on the injustices of the Papal Bulls. I guess it's true that the victors
write the history.
How has the response of the Native community been toward your initiative?
I look forward to hearing more about this as you move forward.
Know that you have my support.

Bruce said...

Mark, thank you for your heartfelt, honest sharing of this very difficult issue. I believe if people like you, myself and others continue to lift our voices in love change will happen.

Bruce said...

Mark, thank you for your heartfelt, honest sharing of this very difficult issue. I believe if people like you, myself and others continue to lift our voices in love change will happen.

Unknown said...

I doubt Mark take Communion again, unless the Holy Spirit has his way with Mark's heart and mind. I fear Mark will continue to reify dubious interpretations of documents and actions that are in the past and cannot be changed; I fear Mark will continue to perceive that there are divisions and that his brothers have something against him or (more likely) that he has something against his brothers. Pray that Mark is freed from this bondage, that he may join again in the sacrament of Communion, obedient to our Lord's command. And pray that Mark is protected from all Satan's devices in future!

The Blog bites better than the Bullet. said...

I just came across this, and I had some thoughts as someone raised overseas in a missionary family.

My experience and heritage are very different from yours, but I hear your comment about exceptionalism and celebration. See, in Europe where the Holocaust impacted many people, where colonialism has been exposed as abusive, there's a somewhat different perspective than in the American church. When we pray for our brothers and sisters in other countries, there is a little less of this superiority complex.

It's easy in America to pray for people overseas, to grieve for them vicariously, and then to live comfortably as if they don't even exist.

I hear your heart on the cruelties of some ancestors and for the victimization of others. And yet my experience in the US has also been of total ignorance of foreign lands. Americans I know are suspicious of people of other faiths or cultures despite not growing up blessed by their hospitality as I was.

It hurts me when they pray for people overseas, because their prayers are so often very ignorant of the humanity and beauty of other peoples. American culture is so enmeshed in their worldview they are more American than Christian, and it shows in an unwitting superiority complex. I think this is deeply rooted in our own American lack of self-awareness.

There's a sort of Revelation 3:17 quality about American imperialistic attempts at world missions and support for the persecuted church, and this flows out of a culture where they insist on "peace, peace, where there is no peace." I think there's little place for a lot of Christians in that.

It's definitely a heart issue, and I am glad you are raising the need for lament. Ultimately I think we can look both ways- we can elevate the foreigner and dignify the native. That's the kingdom of God. But it does start with us at home before it can flow outward. I hear that.