In our current landscape with COVID-19, the push toward racial justice, and an upcoming election, we are all imagining what a “new normal” might look like, how life might be different (and hopefully, better) when we emerge on the other side of these various crises. Already there is talk of how our workplaces may change as a result of both the pandemic and diversity and inclusion trainings, as well as our institutions such as schools, colleges, and universities. But what about other institutions, specifically, the church? When we envision a new normal for Christianity in America, what do we hope appears on the other side?
I had the opportunity to Zoom with Reverend Dr. Irwyn Ince, Jr. about his forthcoming book, The Beautiful Community: Unity, Diversity, and the Church at Its Best. Dr. Ince serves as a pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church of Washington, DC, and as director of the Institute for Cross-Cultural Mission. During our conversation, Dr. Ince shared his heart about his motivation for this work, his vision for the church, the things we need to see about God and about ourselves, and how we too can cultivate our own passion to contribute to God-glorifying change in the world.
Matt Lietzen (ML): At the start of your book, you mentioned that this is a work produced from a sense of “divine dissatisfaction.” Can you describe what you mean by that?
Irwyn Ince (II): Divine dissatisfaction is a term that I picked up from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who used it in one of his messages to encourage his hearers to go out with a divine dissatisfaction, emphasizing to them that there are things in this world and in the church that are not right and not in accordance with God’s Word. God gives us a divine dissatisfaction–a discontentment with the status quo–that is Spirit-driven. So, it’s not the idea of going against what Scripture says, for instance, when Paul says, “I’ve learned in every circumstance to be content” (Php. 4:11); rather, we have things we become passionate about, that we want to see things in this world be as they ought to be, according to what God says in his Word. As it relates to the book, my divine dissatisfaction is with the “mono-ness” of most congregations in the American context–monoethnic, monocultural, mono-socio-economic–when we see a different picture painted for us in God’s Word. This is a particular ministry passion of mine that I believe God has given me because he has opened my eyes to see where he’s taking humanity, what his desire for the church is, and that’s what I try to lay out in my book.
ML: Given our cultural moment–with George Floyd and racial injustice, unjust policing, and debates about monuments and legislation–I was really thankful for your timely your book is. One thing that I found about your book that really speaks into this present moment is that there are a lot of people who are eager to do something, who want to take a step towards change, and I think it is easy for people to jump straight to the second part of your book for solutions and action steps while bypassing the foundation you lay at the beginning in part one. Why is it so important not to rush past the foundation you lay in the first half of your book?
II: Thanks for that question. I think you’re right that people really get animated around these issues, around these moments as we can see injustice and develop a desire to really pursue reconciliation across lines of difference. But if it is only responding to a cultural moment or a cultural event or something that has become popular or a trend in the culture, like diversity and inclusion is now, then we won’t really be able to persevere in the healthy engagement of unity and diversity because it is too hard to do. You can’t manufacture it; it costs too much for all who are involved. The reason for the pursuit has to be rooted in God’s Word–what we find in the Scriptures about who he is, who we are, and who we are called to be. That’s why I start there, because it is the only thing that will give us the willingness to persevere and endure through the difficult things.
ML: The angle that you take in expressing your divine dissatisfaction is to tackle this subject from the perspective of beauty. What is it about the concept of beauty that captured your imagination and your vision for the church as you wrote this book?
II: I’ve always been passionate about what has often been referred to as the ministry of reconciliation–unity in diversity–for over twenty years now. But in the past few years, I have been influenced by several voices in the creative arts, particularly my son Nabil. In one of his projects called “I Heard God Laughing,” he has this poem where he talks about the beauty of God’s masterpiece. I’ve been drawn into this notion that God is beautiful, and that there’s something there for us in which to delve. Beauty is a way for us to grasp God’s nature.
The notion of beauty invites us into mystery as well. You can’t codify or quantify everything when it comes to beauty, and so we get to grasp the nature of God in a particular way–that his ways are higher than our ways (Is. 55:8). There’s always going to be mystery because we’re creatures, but getting to see how Scripture uses terms like glory and radiance and majesty and awe in describing God that invite us into this mystery, and what that means for us as those who are made in his image. “Beauty brings copies of itself into existence,” as one writer put it.
ML: One of the things I appreciated about your book was the variety of voices that you included in it. It’s not strictly a theological work (though you quote John Frame and Herman Bavinck), and it’s not just an academic work (though you quote Korie Edwards and others), but it’s a book where even artists have their own voice to speak. You quote your son (artist Seaux Chill), poet Mazaré, and Run-DMC as well! When it comes to the diversity conversation, a lot of people put their hopes in one of those categories–that if we got our theology right, or our institutions right, or if we empowered artists more, then things would improve. One thing you do well is that you bring all their voices to the table and help us see that it needs to be a collaborative effort.
II: You know that hymn, “This Is Our Father’s World?” This is God’s world! His image bearers are going to image him in all these diverse ways. All truth is God’s truth, so we can hear it from different voices as they speak about life, experience, joys, sorrows, and striving to listen to them. All these things you mentioned come from out of my own experience–whether it’s 80s hip-hop or other artists, or my parenting side and finding joy in my children and what they can bring to the table, or even academics and what they can teach me–people like Korie Edwards who take deep dives into sociology as it relates to race, ethnicity, and Christianity. This is true of theologians–even dead ones!–as well. When there are truths that come to the table, they should be engaged.
ML: One concept in your book that gave me pause as I was reading it came at the start of part two when you were talking about Babel and the “ghettoization” of humanity. I had never considered that portion of Scripture in that way. What do you mean when you talk about ghettoization and what role that plays in realizing the vision of the beautiful community?
II: Genesis 11 is the last time in the biblical record (well, before you get to Revelation) that humanity is described as one, big, happy family that is united in every way. Their unity, however, is in their sinful rebellion. God had re-issued the command to be fruitful and multiply after the flood in Genesis 9, but we read that the people migrated east and settled in the plain of Shinar. Humanity’s words to one another was, “Let’s build ourselves a city and a tower with its heights extended to the heavens, lest we be dispersed from here over the face of the earth.” So, God in his judgment and mercy forces our hand–he forces us to do what he commanded us to do. He confuses our language. The mercy is seen in those words where it says, “This is only the beginning of what they will be able to do,” utilizing all their creative genius for sinful purposes.
The Lord disperses them throughout the ends of the earth, and you get these hostilities between groups because of the confusion of languages. Now my sense of value and identity–what it means to be human–comes from my group, my tribe, my ghetto, from the people with whom I am affiliated and who shape and form me. These groups are not naturally drawn to different groups to say, “Let’s appreciate the facets of beauty seen in that culture, in that ethnic group.” Rather, we immediately distrust and are cynical towards them. In order for beautiful community to take place–this unity in diversity–God has to undo what he did at Babel. This is what he actually says he’ll do at the beginning of Genesis 12 when he calls Abraham. He tells him that in you all the nations of the earth, all the families of the earth, will be blessed. All those I had just divided into these segments, these ghettos, they will be reunited, reconciled in the seed of Abraham. This unfolds in the rest of Scripture. We see this thread run all the way through the Bible.
One of the challenges is that very often we are just unaware of the ways in which we are shaped and formed by our particular ghetto that are not only different than others, but we believe that our expression of humanity is the sum total of what it means to be human. The ideas of the true, the good, and the beautiful–we believe that only our group has it and that we need to teach everyone else about it. This is what the Spirit undoes at Pentecost in Acts 2; it is a reversal of Babel. We see this multinational church begin to take form and expression in Acts, particularly Antioch. We get of out the ghettos by the Spirit of Christ.
ML: Along those lines of redemption, you draw attention to a dichotomy some people have raised about salvation. You use Dr. Anthony Bradley’s distinction between Great Commission Christianity (GCC) and Cosmic Redemption Christianity. The former side is focused on individual conversion, getting souls to heaven, while the other points out that redemption is not just for the soul, but for all creation. How have you seen people broaden their outlook of salvation, helping them to see that God’s work of salvation is not less than GCC, but so much greater than what we typically think of it?
II: First, within my tradition, it is embedded in our understanding of Scripture, this framework of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation and glory–the renewal of all things in Jesus Christ– which our theological commitments and expressions in our confession and catechisms all affirm. So, it is always not about some disembodied, spiritual truth or spiritual emphasis, but a faith that has an impact on the embodied lives of people. Within my own tradition, it is just utilizing our theological commitments–our Confession and our catechisms–and saying, “Here it is,” and seeing light bulbs go off because we’ve already said that we believe this is a faithful expression of the system of doctrine that is taught in Scripture. If you’re coming from outside that tradition, it still resonates, but there’s more of a connection that needs to be made between here’s why our experience matters to God, and has always mattered to God. So, on the one hand, going from our theological commitments to show here’s why you should care–to be blunt, here’s why black lives matter–and in another context saying that, yes, our embodied lives matter, so let’s go back into seeing through the lens of Scripture and our theological lenses why that is the case.
ML: In your book, you provide four action steps. The final one, when you talk about “toasting to the truth,” is about being filled with gratitude and rejoicing. How do you go about cultivating joy while doing this important work?
II: We know the Scripture says, “The joy of the Lord is our strength” (Ne. 8:10). It is the joy of the Lord. It is different than being happy about circumstances. In the current moment in which we find ourselves–with protests over racial injustice, unjust policing, people dying from a pandemic, people being shut in and shut off from one another–there are things we cannot be happy about, but we can still be cultivating joy. It comes through a commitment to prayer and a daily and ongoing embrace of the Lord’s promises. The reason to do this pursuit of beautiful community is that this is what God is committed to, and that gives me joy! When I see the Lord showing up and answer prayer about these things–when connections are being made, when we are able to have hard conversations and not divide–those are sources of joy because I see the Lord at work in them. Cultivating joy through prayer, God’s Word, believing his promises, and looking for when he’s showing up on these things that we’re praying about and seeking to see happen.
ML: Finally, Irwyn, at The Washington Institute, we want to help people get clarity on faith, vocation, and culture. Going back to the beginning when you were talking about your divine dissatisfaction, what would you say to people who are trying to discern or identify what their divine dissatisfaction is and to take steps to work that out in the world?
II: Speaking from my own life experience, my sense of divine dissatisfaction came from what I was pursuing before I was committed to Christ, what my worldview was before knowing him. When I started following him, he began showing me what his heart was as it relates to race, ethnicity, and cultural differences. We all have things that bug us in our communities, our workplaces, our vocations, right? I would say, go down that road! Start with what’s eating at you, and then explore what the Lord has to say about this–what ought to be that’s not. Ask yourself whether I am bothered by something just because I prefer it to be this way, or is this something that the Lord says is not good? Explore that through his Word and through prayer.
Next, look to trace the arc in Scripture. God tells us what ought to be, so do that kind of work to point out where things aren’t in line with how God says it ought to be–with how it’s not and why it’s not–and ask God how you ought to engage in a Christ-centered, Christ-exalting way, how to be engaged in the pursuit of what ought to be, believing that the kingdom has broken into the present age, and the he will demonstrate what ought to be from time to time. Yes, not necessarily with permanence, but he will do it. That kind of processing, asking, examining yourself particularly, is this something that’s just eating at me because I don’t like it, or is this guided by the heart of God, and then walking with humility.