Being the Church in Pre-Post Racial America

Post Author: Yejide Peters

We’re delighted to review Pre-Post Racial America, by Sandhya Jha, a fellow young clergywoman from Oakland, CA. Many of our members have already enjoyed this book since it was published by Chalice Press. Tentatively titled Transforming Conflict: What People Like You Did to Create Healing in Their Communities, Sandhya's next book is about how regular people have created peace, equity, and dignity in their communities through simple group processes from Zimbabwe to Newark and beyond. Estimated publishing date summer 2017.

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Young Americans

Young Americans

Rarely can a book successfully weave together complex theological concepts, social justice frameworks, and the stories of ordinary people of faith. Pre-Post Racial America: Spiritual Stories from the Front Lines does just that. The book’s author, Sandhya Rani Jha, is deft at the art of storytelling. Her insightful analysis of the theology of racial/social justice-making plays a perfect melody against her counterpoint: a subtle but devastating critique of the ways we as mainline Christians are tempted to separate the (spiritualized) Good News from God’s call that we build the Beloved Community.

Jha does theology by participation, and through her willingness to locate herself, to tell her story, and to listen intentionally to the life stories (both spoken and unspoken) of others, she invites us to do the same. She lifts up both the deep theological roots of knowing and loving one’s neighbor, and the deep socio-economic roots of our systems of racial and class-based injustice.

It is these twin balances that define the book. Her essay “#Every28hours” is a Jeremiad in the truest sense. It comes after she sets the context with nearly a dozen stories of people committed to the work of justice, and just before her final three chapters, which are filled hope, wry humor, and deep optimism. She wisely notes, “We can’t get to hope without acknowledging what’s happening that robs us of our hope: despair is a necessary word, even though it is not the final word.” Amen, Rev. Sandhya. Amen.

Perhaps the greatest gift of the book is the brilliant job the author does in defining the terms. For all of us who have struggled to explain “intersectionality” or “race as social construct,” her work is invaluable. The definitions are neither stilted nor abstract. She defines words as she goes: when they come up in her analysis, when they relate to compelling personal narratives, or when they are illustrated in Holy Scripture. Her definitions are clearly elucidated, a key when one is sharing a concept that is both challenging and emotionally charged.

Books for church audiences are often geared toward the perpetuation and preservation of our institutions. This book is deeply committed to revitalizing the faith lives of Christians, particularly the mainline. However, Jha has unhooked her raft from the bricks and mortar concept of church and instead writes passionately and convincingly about the need for the church to strive to become the Beloved Kingdom. What holy boldness! Her approach liberates us to speak honestly. It is no accident that we as Christians in America have as our primary text a book written primarily by a people who were defined by their religion but also their ethnic heritage. The Bible is saturated with stories of racial conflict, of overcoming, of surviving, and of claiming power amidst defeat.

What Jha names over and over again is this: to be the Church, we have to engage with this God, with this Savior, who is committed to this work, who embodies the labor of love. To be the Church, we have to be willing to engage in the work of building the Beloved Community, and that work begins by opening our eyes. That work begins when we no longer refuse to see the thousand ways our privileges limit our ability to love and serve our neighbor. To be the Church, we will have to be brave, and say things that aren’t polite, and be willing to ruffle feathers, and have our own feathers ruffled. The payoff is beyond our wildest imagining:

“loving your neighbor— your different race and different worldview and different class and different nationality and different orientation and different religion neighbor— can save your soul, and it can save your congregation.”

While I might differ in her praxis-driven soteriology, I would say without a doubt that loving your neighbor is essential to our growing in holiness. If, as a song Jha quotes early in the book suggests, Jesus is a verb, then we who love Jesus and seek to imitate him must love Jesus in word and thought and deed. We must love sacrificially, see the hidden and marginalized, and engage together in the work of transforming the world.

Yejide Peters is the rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Briarcliff Manor, NY.

Image by: Lorenia
Used with permission
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