*Editorial Note: The keynote lecture below was given by Dr. Oneya Okuwobi, one of five speakers who addressed broad themes on “The State of the Church in America” during Awakenings 2023. This session sought to address disparate vantage points from which to view and analyze the state of the church in America, asking: What have we learned from this season of disruption? Might there be an awakening on the horizon? What is needed now for what is ahead? Speaking from her social location of expertise as Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Cincinnati, Dr. Okuwobi’s talk focused on Race and Equity, and is entitled “Hungry People and Full People.”
- Purchase “The State of the Church in America” video plenary here.
- The full Awakenings 2023 Gathering bundle is available here. ~CK
Sketchy Theology participated in Awakenings 2023 by creating these fantastic sketchnotes of most sessions. So great!
Today, I’d like to speak to you about hungry people and full people. I considered talking about woke people and asleep people, but that might be a little too on the nose. But before we get to hungry people and full people, let’s talk for a moment about kingdom.
As a sociologist, I know that kingdoms have cultures. They have a language, mores (or prohibitions), accepted ways of doing things, and values or beliefs. So, when Jesus came preaching that the Kingdom of God was at hand (Mark 1:14-15), he couldn’t stop with proclamation. Jesus had to add instruction so that his people would know how to live. This is how we receive the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12). These familiar declarations of blessing set forth the character of the true people of God and the culture of God’s kingdom.
Jesus, like a good Jewish rabbi, formulated the Beatitudes as a chiasm. Jewish rabbinical teachings organized in a chiastic structure are the cream filled donut of the rabbinical world – the top and the bottom mirror each other, and the cream in the middle is the best part of the passage. Smack in the middle of the Beatitudes, we find: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6). Typically, particularly within Western Christianity, this Scripture text has been taught as referring to personal holiness. But that is not the Jewish view of righteousness at all. Righteousness was never solely personal. It was about seeking to make right. Righteousness requires that you see something in the world that is wrong, that is not aligned with the will of God for the Kingdom of God, and that you not be satisfied until that thing is thoroughly unmade and remade in God’s image.
Jesus makes it quite clear that he is very concerned that kingdom people be hungry and thirsty people. There’s something off-putting about that. Hungry and thirsty people are not necessarily easy to be around. They’re on edge (Just watch me anytime I’m fasting!). They only have one thing on their minds – that thing that will satisfy their hunger and thirst. Hungry people make others uncomfortable.
Interestingly, the Beatitudes is only one of many times we encounter hunger and thirst in the New Testament. Another instance is in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. The Apostle Paul is writing to a group of believers gathering for communion. Paul was concerned that the meals Christ-followers were eating together weren’t revealing kingdom culture, and he criticized them harshly for this:
“When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry, and another gets drunk” (1 Corinthians 11:20-21).
Paul then doubles-down, deepening his critique of the Corinthian community’s practice of eating separately from those in need, concluding:
“For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves” (1 Corinthians 11:29).
Paul finds the Corinthians lacking, and scolds them for reveling in their fullness while their brothers and sisters go hungry. In his conclusion, Paul makes clear what is implied by the Beatitudes: Hungry and full people can’t comfortably sit at the same table together, especially when the fullness of some results in the hunger and thirst of others.
Righteousness requires that you see something in the world that is wrong, that is not aligned with the will of God for the Kingdom of God, and that you not be satisfied until that thing is thoroughly unmade and remade in God’s image. Click To Tweet
So, what have hungry and full people to do with the state of the Church on race and equity?
You’ve probably already deduced what I’m getting at, but for the sake of clarity, I will spell it out. We live in a world that is profoundly unrighteous in the area of race. From the state sanctioned violence of police against Black and Brown bodies to the ecclesiastically sanctioned silence of churches in the face of that violence, we are far from a world made right. In the midst of this, there remain many who are full with what they have. Often, these people prefer unity and reconciliation to righteousness and justice, or don’t recognize that these aims are not synonymous. Those full only occasionally think about the hungry when a protest brings the hunger to their attention. Still others, heartened by the silence of full people, are tearing any possibility of food from the hungry under the guise of anti-CRT laws that silence hunger and thirst by denying the history of unrighteousness.
Sitting side by side with the full are we who hunger and thirst for righteousness in the area of race. Primarily, but not exclusively, we are Black and Brown, Asian and Indigenous, a remnant like some gathered in this very room who cling to God’s promise of satisfaction. The hunger fills our lives and spills into that of our children. My 13 year-old daughter is not with me at this gathering as she has been at so many others, because this weekend she’ll be preaching her own sermon. She’ll recount the racial slights she has borne in school since the age of 4 –
children who wouldn’t play with her,
numerous microaggressions about hair,
classmates who called her the ’n-word,’
and the teachers who looked the other way.
But none of that bothers her so much as the failure of the church to provide the solidarity and hope Scripture promises to face those struggles. And with the words she will speak this weekend, I recognize that despite my best efforts, I feel I have failed. Hunger for righteousness in the area of race will not be satisfied in our generation, for this hunger has already continued, fully formed into the next.
From the state sanctioned violence of police against Black and Brown bodies to the ecclesiastically sanctioned silence of churches in the face of that violence, we are far from a world made right. (1/3) Click To Tweet
Many are full with what they have. Often, these people prefer unity and reconciliation to righteousness and justice, or don’t recognize that these aims are not synonymous. Those full only occasionally think about the hungry. (2/3) Click To Tweet
Sitting side by side with the full are we who hunger for righteousness in the area of race. Primarily, but not exclusively, we are Black and Brown, Asian and Indigenous, a remnant who cling to God’s promise of satisfaction. (3/3) Click To Tweet
Brother and sisters, this doesn’t have to be the case. We have God’s promises for a hopeful future of racial equity, but if we are to achieve it, those who are full today must decide to be hungry. Moreover, they must recognize that this hunger isn’t out of mere sympathy. It is for their own good. Why? Because simply being full is far different from being satisfied, and being full because of unrighteousness can never permanently satisfy.
McDonalds can make you full, but that’s very different from that ‘mac ‘n cheese, collard greens, sweet potatoes, cornbread type of satisfaction!
When we unite around a common hunger, we will collectively be satisfied as one body.
What does it look like to have a hunger for righteousness constantly on our minds and hearts regarding racial equity?
It involves doing one thing every day as individuals, churches, denominations, or networks to help make the world right in terms of race:
attending a protest,
living out emancipatory theologies,
funding reparations for past racial harms,
writing a Congress person,
shopping at a Black owned business,
and even embracing being reviled along with your hungry brothers and sisters.
After all our struggle, when will the Church finally bring about racial equity?
The answer is simple: When we all experience the discomfort of hunger and thirst for the sake of righteousness; we will be called blessed. Satisfaction will follow, and then, and only then, will the Kingdom of God be at hand in the area of race.
When we all experience the discomfort of hunger and thirst for the sake of righteousness; we will be called blessed. Satisfaction will follow, and then, and only then, will the Kingdom of God be at hand in the area of race. Click To Tweet
Dr. Oneya Fennell Okuwobi is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Cincinnati. Her research interrogates how diverse organizations (including churches) affect racial inequality. Oneya serves as teaching pastor at 21st Century Church, a church plant in Cincinnati, OH. She has co-authored Multiethnic Conversations: An Eight-Week Journey Toward Unity in Your Church (2016) and Multiethnic Conversations for Kids (2022). Oneya’s work has appeared in American Sociological Review, Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, and Sociology of Religion, among other venues. Prior to joining the University of Cincinnati, Oneya served as a Rice University Academy Postdoctoral Fellow with the Religion and Public Life Program. Oneya is married to Dele Okuwobi, and has one daughter, Cadence.