And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and
will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh
--Luke 5:37-38 NRSV
Over 17 million people watched Oprah Winfrey’s interview this week of the former Duke and Duchess of Sussex Harry and Meghan. (Are they former or do they still have their titles? Forgive me for not knowing all the details of British royalty!) Millions more, like me, have watched the highlights and read recaps of it. What the now ex-royal couple revealed says a lot about the institution of the British monarchy and provides a metaphor for thinking about church in 21st century America.
One of the main reasons for Meghan and Harry leaving the royal family has to do with racism. Apparently, some in the royal family were very concerned their son might be born with dark skin. (As an adoptive father of two mixed race sons whom my wife and I adopted at birth, I can empathize with having family members concerned with a new family member born “too dark.”). Furthermore, the press covering the Royal Family—apparently an industry unto itself—applied a double standard in its coverage of Meghan compared with say, its coverage of William’s white wife Kate Middleton. As Meghan and Harry related, the silence from the royal family when Meghan was attacked spoke volumes about how they felt about her. Perhaps, the greatest act of racism occurred with Meghan and Harry’s newborn son, Archie, was not given the title “Prince” with all that comes with it, as his white cousins received.
As someone who has only a passing interest in the British royals and more importantly as a white man, when I heard of the racism directed at Meghan and her son, I thought, “That’s terrible,” but missed the wider systemic issues involved. A number of black women have written about the interview, and as should be no surprise, their responses were more insightful than mine.
Both Zeba Blay in The Huffington Post and Salamishah Tillet in The New York Times pointed out the Windsor family’s history of colonialism is a backdrop for its treatment of Meghan. As an American (and a white man), I tend to think of British royalty as sort of the same thing as characters at Disney World—something for the tourists, but unlike cartoon characters, the royal family gained their wealth by heading an empire based upon conquest and exploitation of conquered peoples—most of whom happened to be darker-skinned. To allow a woman of “mixed race” into their ranks goes against the history of the royal family. The royal family, as an institution, clings to its wealth and power even as every year passes its relevance wains in a pluralistic democracy seeking to shed its imperial past.
As a minister with standing in two historically white denominations, I hear echoes of Meghan and Harry’s experience among clergy and lay people I know who happen not to be make, white, heterosexual and/or cisgender. Through the blinders of my white experience and privilege, I grew up believing that racism was a thing of the past. Similarly, as I gained awareness of them, I thought sexism, homophobia and transphobia were on the way to the scrap heap of bad human ideologies. Yet, the more I have learned from people with different experiences than my own as a white male, the more I have realized all these -isms and -phobias remain living things still causing oppression. The church in its broadest and most particular senses remains a hotbed for such dehumanizing ideas and practices.
Like the British royal family, Christianity has a history of empire, exploitation and violence. Its many institutions were created with these intentions in mind. The teachings of Jesus became militarized to empower the few and to oppress the many. Just like the British royal family, the church today clings to its former cultural relevance struggling in all the wrong ways to prove it has a place in a world seeking to shrug off its oppressive ways. Like the British royal family, the church presents a kinder and gentler face to the world, yet its racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and so much more remain “baked in” and have never been successfully removed.
I have encountered this resistance to a more inclusive and just church in numerous ways. Church members of “open-minded” churches have said they welcome everyone but end up resisting such inclusion in practice out of fear of being called “the gay church” or having people from the wrong side of town (e.g. poor, non-white) show up. As harsh as the judgment may be toward the British royal family for its racism, shouldn’t a harsher judgment be on the church? The Windsors pledged fealty to an earthly kingdom with all that entails, but Christians have supposedly claimed to belong to a different kind of “kingdom” altogether—the Kingdom (or Reign) of God.
I wonder what would have happened if the British Royal Family had embraced the inclusion of a non-white member and her children? In their attempt to protect their institution, they ended up undermining its continuing reason to exist. What if instead they used the occasion of one of their very white princes marrying a woman of color as a way to forge a new future where their “Commonwealth” was more equitably shared among darker-skinned people who have been historically exploited?
Some of the same questions could be asked of the church. What does it take for every level of the church to embrace a new future where the inclusion and graciousness of God is modelled for a divided world? What parts of the church’s institutions must be dismantled in order to allow for such a future to occur? In every occurrence of the church resisting such a future—from global actions down to local congregations—the church’s efforts to defend itself only result in its inevitable demise. Two thousand years ago, Jesus declared that new wine (wine that was still undergoing the process of fermentation) could not go into old wineskins (skins that had already been stretched by past fermentations and would no longer stretch). Then, as now, the inbreaking of God into the world requires new models, new structures, and new ways of being.
If the church doesn’t find its “new wineskins,” it will end up much like the British royal family—a curiosity from a bygone era.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851