Interview by Andy Azzopardi and Dan Wilton. Transcript by Dan Wilton.
Anna Robbins was the LST Laing Lecturer in 2016, speaking on the topic “We are Babylon: Transforming postcolonial crocodile tears into collective repentance.”
Can you briefly introduce yourself for our readers?
I used to be on faculty at LST–for 12 years–and I taught Theology and Contemporary culture. In that time I did a lot of other things too: I was Vice-Principal for a while and acting Principal for a year. I had good times at LST. After that I went to Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia; that’s my home ground, I suppose. I’ve been there on faculty for the last three and a half years. I’m Academic Dean and Theology, Culture and Ethics is my area of teaching and research. That’s me in a nutshell.
What draws you to that particular area of study?
I think in some ways that’s an easy one. I think that our theology, if it’s going to be any use to the Church at all, has to hit the ground. If it’s just culture then we’re just navel gazing all the time; if it’s just theology without ever engaging the world then it’s not much use either, it’s just an academic navel gazing really. But if we can get the two to dialogue, that’s where the rich things happen, where the questions from our context come to the Bible and to our theology and vice versa. The challenge comes from our theology to ask if the way that we’re behaving in our culture is appropriate, and what is the best way to be Christians in the world in which we live. I think most people wrestle with that on a daily basis. Our culture is changing so fast, all the time, that there’s always new questions and new angles to look at things. I find that exciting, I guess.
What do you think are the most challenging areas of contemporary culture for the Church today?
I think it’s our blind spots. We tend to think “oh, it’s abut sexuality” or “oh, it’s about the decline of the Church” or “oh, it’s about consumer culture”: I think there are other things that are our blind spots that we don’t see and I love to try and uncover those. We find them hard to see because we’re so sucked into them that we don’t recognise them. That’s where we need a Biblical view, to really show us where we’ve become so compromised that we can’t see those blind spots anymore. So, I think that it’s the blind spots that are the most crucial things and they make it harder to say “well it’s just this, this and this”. But I do think things like the way the economy works, the way we’re so part-and-parcel of consumer culture are huge things because they shapes so much of the rest of culture.
Different things interest different people, but I think the most crucial areas are the things that we tend not to see so easily.
How would you say that the Church can identity those blind spots?
Well I think that’s where the challenge for Christians (all Christians, not just the leaders, although especially the leaders) comes to understand the Scriptures better. And the challenge comes to understand our theology and our historical perspective better: those things help us to feed our understanding of culture and they help us then to detect our blindspots. So if the Scriptures are saying a lot about a particular area of life and we’re really never talking about that in Church, or they Bible helps us recognize we’ve got a view that is much more coherent with culture than with Scripture, then I think that’s how we start to detect those things. The difficulty is that a lot of people that I encounter, who are interested in culture, don’t have enough of that other side of knowledge. So you get a lot of stuff–you see it all the time on Facebook–“Ten things the Church should know…blah, blah blah”. I mean, honestly. First of all, as if posting on Facebook is going to change the Church, and second of all, many of those things are not even remotely theologically informed in terms of critique. I think everybody, not just leaders, has to get some theology and Scripture into them so that they can read the culture better.
You’ve been involved in many different Christian organisations: have you found useful to apply that academic theology into those areas?
Yes definitely, it’s worked out all the time. I theologically advised for Tearfund, for example, and questions would come up. How did we as theologians think the Church should respond to whatever the issue was on the ground? It was the same kind of thing when I worked with the Evangelical Alliance as a theological advisor for their group (which used to be called ACUTE): as we responded theologically to whatever the issues of the day were. They were brought to that group and we had that space to cogitate about them and to respond to them. When I think about it, that organisations would set aside that role for theologians within their organisations, that’s really an exciting thing because I think it means that an organisation is heading in the right direction. If you’re able to hear from what you hope are some of your deepest thinkers, on issues that you have to wrestle with, and are able to bring that to bear in practice, then it should help the life of the Church. Certainly in those places it worked out a lot.
I think particularly what comes to my mind is, through Christians in Politics I would go occasionally to lead Bible studies in Westminster. To bring the word of God right into the centre of cultural power and to allow the truth to speak to power, which I think is what we do (to use Brueggemann’s term for it) is very exciting. Where the two feed one another, I wouldn’t be anywhere else. That’s the cusp, right?
How do we as Christians live without becoming complicit in corrupt systems?
I think that evangelicals have been very individualistic in our understanding of the world, I think we continue to be individualistic. I think there’s been a bit of a recovery of relational ontology, but I don’t think that that solves what I think is one of the basic issues. We still think that I am responsible for my sin before God and I don’t think that we see ourselves as responsible for our sins before God. I’m quite convinced that we need to recover this–it’s not even a recovery really, there have been very few places in evangelical history where this has been present. I think we need to discover this I suppose. I think it’s in the Scriptures and I think we have to recover it from Scripture for our own day to see how we recognise, in the first place, our complicity in these systems and then ask, how do we respond? How do you repent of something that is so much bigger than your ability to do much about it? Then how do you live with that tension that it creates in your own life?
I think at the end of the day, we have to learn to live in that space of a repentant attitude before God, allow him to speak, and to embrace the tension along with that knowledge that when I buy that thing off the rack, that’s probably exploiting somebody, when I have a bank account, that’s probably exploiting somebody. So that we don’t go off with that attitude that we often have that Christians know it all: “I’m going to tell the Church in ten easy things what they’re going to fix about themselves”. Well, look in the mirror, right? So there’s this tension between the individual and the group and yet we’re responsible for the actions of both before the Lord, I believe. It’s interesting to me: I don’t have all the answers yet.
But then everybody asks “but what do we do”. What I think the Lord is calling us to in this recognition is not necessarily to jump into fixing it. That’s what we tend to want to do, but I think that he’s just inviting us into this space of repentance, to sit there for a while a listen: not a very appealing call in contemporary culture, right? “What are we going to want to do? Oh we’re going to sit and listen!” You know, it doesn’t seem very exciting but I think that’s how we’ll hear the voice of the Spirit beckoning us into something else.
Can you explain a bit more about the topic of the Laing lecture, We are Babylon?
I’m quite fascinated by the fact that people particularly missional people, keep saying “Oh, we’re in exile. Oh the Church is in exile.” Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? So I spend some time just picking that apart a little bit and looking at what the evidence is for the Church being in exile. Are we actually in exile? As I looked at it and thought about it, I realised that it’s really the wrong metaphor for what we’re facing in post-Christendom. When we say that we’re in exile, we put ourselves in the place of the victim almost and then we fail to acknowledge how cosy we are to the powers that be; we’re completely cosy. We’re happy to make our money and have our things and live our lives without being bothered too much about how that impinges on other people. So my argument is that when we look soberly at who we really are in culture, we are not actually people in exile, we’re Babylon. We’re not just serving the powers of Babylon, we’re there, we’re part-and-parcel, we enact the power of Babylon.
It’s hard. I hate saying it because I feel it, because I is we.
Do you think that that’s a particularly Western phenomenon, with guilt as a post-colonial power?
Hugely. That’s a strange thing as I was here in the UK for 15 years, naturalised citizen, and I had to think carefully about what it meant to be British before I took citizenship. I returned to the place where I was from–Canada–and realised that I knew nothing about what it meant to be Canadian because I never had to go through that process. You just grow up in a system and you accept it for what it is. So we were told all kinds of stuff in school that was just so not true. Going back, God’s brought me into some really interesting encounters with indigenous peoples, for example, Christian indigenous people–and when you look at that history, how can we do anything but repent of that history? I know, having lived here for so long, it’s hard because this was the heart of colonialism, and it’s so layered, and it extends all around the world. How can you begin to unpick any of that? Well I don’t know if we need to keep revisiting things a million times over but we do have to have an appreciation of what happened and to own it, today.
There was a study done recently, published in a newspaper, and roughly 50% of British people are proud of colonialism. Well I get that there were some good things that came out of it, I get that, and yet there was complete genocide of some people. How can you be proud of that? We can’t be proud of that. Yet, somehow, we are! We think it’s better to be British than anything else, right? When I got my British passport, I remember someone telling me, “you know, we feel it’s better that you have a British passport, than a Canadian one”. That’s ridiculous because white Canadians are just colonials that have been over there since colonial times. They never went home – they stayed. My argument is not just a Christianisation of some secular idea of ‘white guilt’, although it is guilt and it is visited on us as white people because of what has been exacted in the past. We are guilty because we have benefitted from the sins of our parents, our grandparents and their parents. So the benefits of colonialism exacted have come to us in our lives, we’ve benefitted from it. So there’s that aspect of repentance, but there’s also the ways in which we continue to perpetuate that. I’d call it a virtual colonialism that we enact over the rest of the world through our economic systems. Now I’m not an economist, I’m not going to pretend to be an economist, but we all know that London controls a heck of a lot of the world’s economy and the country, our country, is based on that system that exploits huge numbers of people around the world. So, yes it generates wealth, I get that, I’m not stupid enough to think that generation of wealth isn’t potentially a good thing for people in poverty, because sometimes it is, but it also exploits. That is us continuing the sin: that’s not just us saying “well it was my grandfather’s grandfather”, no that’s us. So the sin comes to us not only as that inherited sin, but also because we continue to enact it. I’m really concerned about it, because I think that God’s really concerned about it.
My research around trying to recover a sense of collective moral responsibility really was birthed here at LST, through my study of culture and theology. It’s really taken root going back to Canada because I’m face to face with an indigenous person, whose family was treated horribly and they look at me and I’m who I am, right? You can still say that’s complicated because apparently, somewhere in my history, there’s an indigenous person, but I’ve grown up as a white person which has come with lots of benefits. I have to understand and own that. If we go around crying about being in exile, we can’t see any of that. We don’t see our participation and how we continue to perpetuate that. Ultimately, I think we find our security in Christ: we’ve got to be willing to let go of everything else. When we know our security in Christ, then he shows us the way forward, but we have to actually believe it, not just give it lip service.
Finally, what advice do you have for students at London School of Theology?
It’s a great opportunity while you’re here, don’t take that for granted, I would say. There’s some really good people here who love you and will invest all that they can into your development and take that for all it’s worth. This is the place where you work out who you are in Christ, I think, and that’s hard. Sometimes that does mean letting go of who you thought you were in Christ before and realising that there are these spiritual and theological depths into which you’ve never plunged. That can be really disorienting but hold on because it comes together, it really comes together again and you’ll have been so much better for the journey. You will know who you are in Christ, because you will know him better and love him more with your heart and your mind and your strength.