‘It’s time to spring clean the church’
Sadie the Cleaning Lady, aka Katalina Tahaafe Williams, candidate for ministry and former director of Communitas, has urged members of the Synod of New South Wales and the ACT to embark on a spiritual, theological and ecclesiological spring clean.
“This could very well be what a new and risky path would look like for many of us,” Ms Tahaafe-Williams said during her Bible study for the Synod meeting in Newcastle on September 27.
Ms Tahaafe-Williams was dressed as a Tongan woman cleaner with scarf, gloves and cleaning equipment to emphasise how God chooses ordinary people and confers on them extraordinary responsibility.
“What could be more ordinary than a minority ethnic cleaning woman?” she asked Synod members in her study entitled “Shaking off the dust and cleaning out the cobwebs”, based on Matthew 10:1-16.
Ms Tahaafe-Williams then painted a word picture of how as a child in Tonga the fale (house) was cleaned with coconut taufales (brooms) and tapa cloths retouched, the roof replaced and the sweet smell of frangipani perfumed the air.
She also detailed wittily how she would not be engaging in “highfalutin, scholarly, hermeneutical shenanigans” but remain true to her own ordinariness. It was her ordinariness, she said, that also led her to name drop the usual Bible study culprits all in one go — Tertullian, Augustine, Foucault, Heidegger, Luther, Calvin, Barth and Brueggemann to name a few from her lengthy list — because she believed naming Patristic fathers and European white, middle class dead men “was how such Bible studies were normally conducted”.
Ms Tahaafe-Williams said that in the Western context, our epistemological tendencies — in ordinary language, how we produce meaning and knowledge — constituted the most effective tool for:
- inferiorising the other;
- effectively maintaining racial-ethnic boundaries manifested in unbalanced power relationships;
- privileging the dominant cultural voices, demands and mindset;
- maintaining unjust systems; and
- keeping the status quo.
“If you can walk in the shoes of an ordinary black woman like me — and I use the term ‘black’ in its political sense deliberately — you will understand how important it is for the sake of sanity to articulate an objection to the kind of pretentious nonsense that perpetuates the oppression, or at least the kind of oppressive atmosphere in which black people (brown/yellow) particularly black women must exist and survive,” Ms Tahaafe Williams said.
Our pedagogical approaches in Bible and religious education also needed deconstructing in order to expose entrenched, dominant cultural bias.
“A truly multicultural body of Christ is forever remote if we cannot at least do that,” she said.
“My intention, as an ordinary woman who cleans, is to sweep away this kind of clutter and heavy dust that clings to us, disabling us from becoming true and radical disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ; serving God and each other with grace and humility.”
Ms Tahaafe-Williams said that in Matthew 10 the disciples were sent only to the House of Israel and that this was a good analogy for the Uniting Church today.
“It suggests to me that our going out on new and risky paths must give key priority to putting our own house in order,” she said.
It also meant being done with silo mentalities and disunity.
“It requires a good cleaning and de-cluttering; ensuring that any hidden cobwebs and junk that keep us captive to sinful pretensions and addictions are cleaned out.”
Ms Tahaafe Williams said the church needed to dig out root causes instead of always settling for the easy option of dealing with symptoms.
“You will note that I am advocating for subliminal forms of racism and means of exclusion to be prioritised as root causes that warrant our multicultural focus and energy. This is the point we should already be at in our multicultural journey. We are not, so we need to start.”
Church members also needed to remove all that stood in the way of each of them being the face, hands, feet and heart of Christ to one another, she said.
“Nothing is to get in the way of the witness we make to the gospel. Not our egos, not our greed for power, not our insatiable desire for glory and empire building, not our insecurities, not our self-centredness.”
Ms Tahaafe-Williams said a thorough spring clean was called for.
She asked, “How can we proclaim the good news to the lost and heal the sick if we are too busy stifling the anarchic and liberating nature of the Holy Spirit, preventing it from breaking through to heal and give life to all that would constrain humanity?
“How can we witness to the good news when we are too busy avoiding at all costs being perceived as anti-anybody and pretending that justice is about being neutral?
“How can we be the body of Christ we’re called to be in the 21st century when we are either too busy accommodating ourselves to the dominant ideology of capitalist individualism and consumerism or devising ways to enhance our dogmatism and hierarchical patterns that directly counter Christ’s message?”
Going out on new and risky paths, as the Synod 2011 theme called for, required great integrity and honesty in how we exemplified Christ’s good news, Ms Tahaafe-Williams said.
“Our task and mission is to draw attention to Christ and his Kingdom.”
Such witness was not possible while carrying the baggage of self-importance, lack of self awareness and inability to see our limitation with humility.
“Perhaps our primary task is to rediscover some connections with transcendent reality for we live in a postmodern world that has lost a sense of mystery and so this is not going to be easy.
“I am completely on board with Aidan Kavanagh when he said that, ‘One learns how to fast, pray, repent, celebrate and serve the good of one’s neighbour less by being lectured on these matters than by close association with people who do these things with regular ease and flair.’”
The liberationist anarchist tradition still offered Christians a way of embodying the Kingdom of God in our lives, relationships, communities and political and economic practice.
Ms Tahaafe-Williams quoted Tolstoy who, she said, liked to proclaim that he had become an anarchist because Jesus and his Sermon on the Mount had made him one.
“We have all been summoned, as ordinary folks that we are, we have been authorised and are now to be sent … we are to go from here fully empowered and accompanied by the love of the holy Triune God on new and risky paths, to continue the mission and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ,” she said.