For the past few months, I have been exploring the ways in which our spirituality and spiritual practices can be shaped and informed by a commitment to resist racism in all its forms: interpersonal, cultural and structural. As a framework for discussing this topic, I have been using Robert Mulholland’s definition of spiritual formation which is “a process of being formed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.” In previous postings I have examined our images of Christ and how often we seek to create Jesus in an image that is comfortable and unchallenging to us, rather than Jesus as he actually was and is: an oppressed person among other oppressed persons seeking to bring a message and example of empowerment and hope for people who are forgotten and marginalized by society-at-large.
In this entry I would like to step back and explore what this formation involves. Many persons who have grown up in the church believe that becoming a Christian involves a conversion experience where one makes a personal commitment in a particular time and place and/or goes through a ritual practice like baptism which initiates them into life as a Christian. Often such actions are expected to be accompanied by an inner experience that makes one feel renewed and free. Many, but not all, followers of Jesus say that they have had such an experience and should not be dismissed. The error comes in thinking that such an act is all there is to becoming a Christian, instead of recognizing such an experience as the start of a lifelong process and not the end goal. In fact formation involves a series of “conversions” throughout the course of a person’s life.
Formation as Ongoing Conversion
Reuben Job, coeditor of A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God, writes that instead of a one-time experience, “conversion is going on all the time within us and in the world.” He says, “Conversion is a lifelong process of turning more and more fully toward God in all that we are, possess and do.” Conversion involves a partnership with God in which we cooperate with God in transforming us into people who reflect the character and values of Jesus in our thoughts, beliefs and actions. Job says, ” [O]nce we invite God’s transforming presence into our lives, the necessary power to change comes with the transforming presence.”
Spiritual formation is a process in which we are guided and directed by God and has as its purpose the ongoing development of us as persons who reflect the nature and character of Jesus in all aspects of our lives. Furthermore, it is a process of development that runs counter to the influences of our culture, with its emphasis on individualism, competition, getting ahead and self-advancement. It also runs counter to those aspects of our culture that cause us to be blind to the needs of our fellow human beings, and numb to cultural forces that benefit the few at the expense of the many.
In essence the choice facing each of us is not whether our lives will be shaped by forces beyond control, but what forces will shape us. Mulholland describes the choice this way: “We become either agents of God’s healing and liberating grace or carriers of the sickness of the world. The direction of our spiritual growth infuses all we do with intimations of either life or death.” (28). He continues: “Spiritual formation is not an option…the only choice we have is whether that growth moves us toward wholeness in Christ or toward an increasingly dehumanized and destructive mode of being.” (29).
Choosing Another Way: Antiracism
Racism is one such dehumanizing and destructive force in our culture. As I stated in an earlier blog, racism not only refers to a person’s interactions with people of other races but also relates to the discriminatory values embedded in the laws, policies and practices propagated by the institutions and systems that shape and govern our society. For centuries systemic racism has been a guiding and shaping power within American culture. And as I will discuss in later blogs, those of us who call ourselves Christian have all too often been shaped and guided by racism’s power.
Antiracism as Spiritual Formation bids us to recognize racism’s grip on us both individually and as a community, and to consciously choose another way. It calls us to embody a way of life that breaks down the barriers of racial prejudice, fear and hate to a way of life that empowers and brings dignity to all persons and not just a few. Furthermore, antiracism as spiritual formation calls to work with people of all races, ethnicities, social positions, religions and backgrounds toward realizing Dr. Martina Luther King, Jr.’s vision of the beloved community, that vision where all people live in peace, prosperity and dignity.
Robert Mulholland (1993/2016). Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Norman Shawchuck & Reuben Job (Eds.) (2003). A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God. Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, pp. 249-250.
Notes: Images free from Shutterstock using the Biblical image of God as a potter and people are the clay God shapes (See Isaiah 64.8)