Sustained Discomfort: The Birthing Pains of a Truly Global Church

 Hannah Adair Bonner, Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference

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The first time that I heard a woman preach about the birth of Jesus, I realized what I had been missing my whole life growing up in a church that did not have women as pastors. Dr. Anathea Portier-Young, one of the youngest professors at Duke Divinity at the time, preached on Mary during Advent and brought a perspective on birthing pains that changed everything in my understanding of Jesus’ birth. Going home and hearing my parents’ pastor attempt to preach the same passage from the male perspective, I realized that it was not only I that had been missing out; it was the whole world that had been missing out as the church had silenced women’s voices in the pulpit for thousands of years.

I already knew on an intellectual level that our voices are necessary. Now I felt it on a visceral level. I felt it with a sense of urgency. I understood that there are things we understand, experiences we have, that the church needs in order to understand our scriptures, our God, and our calling.

Who better to explain what it means to give birth than a woman? We understand the cycles that create life. We understand that birth is tied to blood and pain, and life is tied to death. We understand what it would mean for a virgin or a barren woman to conceive. Bringing God into the world was a dangerous endeavor.

Who better than women to tell the church: we are in the midst of birthing pains, and we will suffer, but on the other side is new life?

My generation has been keenly aware of that, as Millennials have led uprisings around the world through the use of social media. In my own nation, the United States, we have watched a hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter, utterly transform the dialogue taking place in our nation. The words were given birth when they were first tweeted by a group of three women—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—on the night George Zimmerman was found not guilty after he had stalked and then shot a Florida teenager, Trayvon Martin, who was walking home with an Arizona ice tea and a bag of Skittles.

Birth, whether it be of a child or of justice, involves by necessity a period of sustained discomfort. Just as a mother must endure the contractions and the pain, we—as a people, as a nation, as a church—must be willing to endure discomfort in order to see a new day come.

In order to be a truly global church, we must learn to listen to voices we have not listened to before. It is a vital step that the voices of women are being lifted up, but that in no way completes the birthing process that is necessary for us to be whole. There is more to be heard. This is an exciting time to be alive because we have the opportunity to read books and hear sermons from people who represent the full breadth of the body of Christ.

There was a time, in the not too distant past, when the church knew scripture almost exclusively through the lens of white, educated men. Do not get me wrong, white, educated men have some things to say. Yet they cannot tell you what it was like for Mary to go through birthing pains. They cannot tell you what it was like for Jesus to be a member of an oppressed minority living under the violent control and occupation of an empire. In fact, it is voices from the countries that our American troops now occupy who would be more capable of faithful exegesis. That is a sermon I would like to hear.

It is said that Christianity has survived in Iraq since the apostle Thomas brought it there in the first century. It has survived in Ethiopia since biblical times. Acts 8 tells us that the apostle Philip told the Ethiopian eunuch about Christ. Perhaps no one would be more capable of explaining to us what it meant for Jesus to grow up in occupied territory than the Palestinian Christians themselves. They live in the area of Galilee, where their ancestors have followed the teachings of Christ since the time he walked the earth as Mary’s son.

Now even the fact that I mention such a controversial region of our global family is going to make some people uncomfortable. It is okay; we need to be uncomfortable. Change does not come without discomfort. We all need to commit to endure the birthing pains if we are going to get to the other side.

For some people that will mean saying things that are uncomfortable to say. For other people that will mean being quiet when they are used to being the ones heard, and doing the hearing instead—for once. For all of us, it will mean change.

We cannot be the global church that we are called to be without listening to one another with respect and being willing to be uncomfortable and willing to change.

That is part of the importance of those words that I mentioned above, “Black Lives Matter.” Interestingly, the words make some people uncomfortable internally. So they push back against the discomfort and say that creating discomfort is counter productive. It is only counter productive, however, if you are not trying to give birth; and we are definitely trying to give birth. And when you are giving birth, discomfort and pain are a necessary part of the process. Even if you take drugs to numb the pain, your body is still experiencing it. It is necessary.

Discomfort is necessary. We will not get anywhere without it.

Yet people who are accustomed to the world and the church working to their advantage, for instance many white people like myself, can perceive discomfort as a threat to peace and unity. What we as white people often do not realize is that the rest of the world has been uncomfortable for a while, and we cannot expect them to prioritize our feelings over the changes that are necessary anymore. We cannot expect to get to deploy our privilege by imposing the language of All Lives Matter as a rejection of the leadership of people of color and the language that they have chosen for the movement. When we do so, we reveal that we do not really want unity and equality and justice; we want a system that appears to be just but that keeps us a step ahead, without allowing people of color to lead us.

So we say things like Black Lives Matter, knowing that the words make people uncomfortable, and that people need to experience discomfort in order to give birth to something new. The words need to be said because they are true. The church needs to say it because we helped teach the untruth.

David Chidester helps explain how the church did this in his book Savage Systems. He writes that

according to the seventeenth-century English theologian Lancelot Andrewes, animals [by which he meant indigenous persons of the Americas, Australia, and Africa] “can have no right of society with us . . . because they want [lack] reason.” With respect to land, animals had no rights, Andrewes concluded on biblical grounds, because God had given the earth to humans. . . . Since they had no human rights, animals could be exterminated, both in the sense of being driven from land settled by humans and in the sense of being killed, because biblical commandments against theft or murder did not apply to nonhumans.[1]

While we like to remember and honor the fact that many of the founders of our own Methodist movement were staunch abolitionists, who rejected that kind of theology, things changed when the movement crossed the ocean. Within a nation whose economy was built upon a theological falsehood—that the people indigenous to the Americas, Africa, and Australia were not made in the image of God and were therefore not human—the new religious movement found itself failing in many places to remain true to what had set it apart. In a context where faulty Christian theology was used to justify holding lives and taking lives, we faltered.

At the root of this disconnect was that theological error, that exegetical fraud, that hermeneutical crime—or, as we once called such things—that heresy. The heresy that God did not love all people the same. The abominable heresy that not all people were made fully in the image of God. This, then justified leaving them out of the words, “all men are created equal . . . endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”[2] This, in turn,, allowed the “Three-Fifths Compromise”[3] to go unchallenged on theological grounds.

Many Methodist preachers resisted, but among their ranks many owned slaves and some took the lives of Native Americans. Others compromised their voices and their prophetic responsibility because their church members owned slaves, and they did not want to cause disruption within their congregations.

So we stand here. We find ourselves in a moment in history when the wheels of justice have turned enough to at least give people the opportunity to speak. The question is: Can we as a church sit in this space of sustained discomfort, this time of listening and acting, long enough to give birth to a new day? Can we be a church that is global in more than just name? Will we create opportunities for people to be heard and for that hearing to create change?

Can we join our voices with Oscar Romero in saying, “I have no ambition for power, and so with complete freedom, I tell the powerful what is good and what is bad.”[4]

In order for us to be that kind of church, we have to be able to embrace and not fear the things that make us uncomfortable. Who knows what kind of beautiful vision has been gestating in our womb? We will never know unless we are willing to endure the discomfort it takes to get to the other side.

Thank God that we get to live in such a time. Thank God that we get to live in a moment when we teeter on the brink of possibility. Thank God that we live in a time when young leaders in my generation can dialogue and support one another while they are continents and oceans apart. In that place of new life, something is growing, and it is beautiful. I, for one, would like to be there to see it when it emerges. I would like to be there to witness what our beautiful Body of Christ is capable of producing when we include the voices and hopes and griefs of all. I would like to be there to witness a truly global church, where we approach new voices with hearts trembling with the honor of getting to hear good news through a voice that is not our own.



[1] David Chidester, Savage Systems (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996), 14.

[2] The Declaration of Independence, 1776, paragraph 2.

[3] Constitutional Convention of 1787.

[4] Oscar A. Romero, The Violence of Love (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), 205.

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