a Christian podcast about tabletop RPGs and collaborative storytelling

The Horror of Prejudice and the Grace of Welcome

As I sit down to write this, it’s late Sunday morning. I’ve just come back from church and I’ve been marinating in the news about the events surround a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that left 3 dead. My pastor was pretty unequivocal from the pulpit this morning – and he summed up my feelings pretty well when he said that racism is sin and that it’s destructive to not only the victims, but also that it’s destructive to those who practice it. He furthermore added, and I have to agree again, that there’s nothing in Christianity that’s at all consistent with white supremacy. As a former Non-denominational Evangelical and current Mainline Methodist, once again, I agree. There is nothing in either one of the traditions that I’ve been a part of that leaves room for that kind of hatred and violence. Racism, to use the words of Richard Beck, is demonic. The sermon this morning also emphasized the importance of being welcoming to the outsider, confronting our own prejudice and thinking of ways that we may subtly turn others away.

Certainly, the both scripture and church tradition tell us to be welcoming of strangers; one of the oldest books of the Bible includes some extremely clear language about the treatment of foreigners:

When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. -Leviticus 19:33-34 (ESV)

And of course Jesus also had some things to say in The Sermon on the Mount:

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, -Matthew 25:35 (ESV)

It’s fairly obvious what all of this means in the context of faith alone in response to racism. Don’t participate in it, don’t tolerate it when others around you do, and do your best to make your place of worship, your workplace, your home, and anywhere else where you have sufficient influence safe to those who aren’t like you. I think of Nadia Bolz-Weber serving communion to sex workers as she describes in her book Pastrix or churches offering services in different languages as prime examples of this. The message of the Church (capital “C” – as in “all Christians everywhere”) should always and above all else be “even if you are not like us, we care about you. You have inherent value because you are a person, which makes you a child of God. And all of God’s children are welcome here.”

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. -Matthew 22:37-39 (ESV)

All of this should be well-known to people who have been sincerely following Jesus (or trying to) for any length of time, but what does it have to do with gaming?


Listeners may remember a comment that Dr. Sarah Lynne Bowman made about J.R.R. Tolkien and his contemporaries about “moral rearmament” in the episode where we spoke with her as a guest host, and she goes deeper into that in her book The Functions of Role-Playing Games. 

Tolkien believed that the narrative arcs of “fairy-stories” were transcendent of space and time. Fantastic narratives, for Tolkien, serve three major functions. They allow people to Escape the mundane in order to Recover a sight that was previously obscured. As a result of these processes, the participant in fantasy experiences a sense of Consolation, which Tolkien refers to as eucatastrophe. According to Brian Stableford, by eucatastrophe, Tolkien “means a climactic affirmation of both joy and light: pleasure alloyed with moral confidence.” He further makes a distinction between the fantasy genre and both speculative fiction and horror, claiming that the narratives in the second two classifications lead to a feeling of “despair” versus “moral rearmament.”  –The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity by Sarah Lynne Bowman, Page 56.

Now we’re going to have to cut Tolkien some slack on that last bit because he came to those conclusions in a world that didn’t yet include Star Trek or Hellboy, but his point is well taken. And Tolkien was further referring to art that was to be passively consumed, not participated in. Probably the most-quoted words in our podcast and this blog are a TL;DR of that same concept by C.S. Lewis as he reviewed Tolkien’s work:

“The value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity.” -C.S. Lewis

So we need some morally re-arming myths. This can be heavy and harsh if you’re in the mood for it; there’s a game out there called Dog Eat Dog that deals specifically with the mistreatment of the Other and puts people in the shoes of natives and colonists. There’s a fantastic and powerful review of it that SUSD did of it that you can find here. But it doesn’t have to be heavy and harsh. I know I personally have an easier time emotionally processing what it looks like when that type of evil gets thwarted before it really gets traction. Being forced to play out the oppression like SUSD did in Dog Eat Dog would, very likely, just make me non-constructively angry. Fortunately, that’s not the only approach!

The D&D game which Grant runs deals with a colony from a different perspective; with the truth of what happened to native populations firmly in the back of my mind, I’ve been working to make sure the narrative of the colony the PCs are part of doesn’t go the same way these things went in the real world with native populations being crushed by the colonizers. In fact, the story so far has mostly been an inversion of that – colonists show up, see problems (like incredibly evil sea hags, or slave-taking frog monsters, or vicious banshees) and at least try to help. (The banshee was a bit much for us, sadly.) It’s been interesting too that Grant has been using the evil forces in the game to try and goad the colony into some of the evils that real colonizing powers did over the years – like slaughtering native populations for their own benefit.

I keep coming back to colonial narratives here because that’s where the root of the problems we have with identity-based issues here in the West stems from, but that needn’t be the only way to tackle this. Bring in some traders or refugees from a far-off land into your game and let the PCs deal with them and the differences they bring. To get back to Tolkien for a moment, Legolas and Gimli are a great example of people from differing backgrounds that didn’t much like each other at first finding reconciliation and even friendship as their stories progressed. And neither one had to change to match the other’s expectations, either. They simply grew to appreciate each other and the good that they both brought to the table.

And then of course there’s the other scenario where the PCs are neither the insiders nor in power (like colonists tend to be by virtue of technological superiority) and have to function as the outsiders in a strange place. Show what it’s like to get the looks of suspicion, the shunning treatment from merchants and folks on the street and then have some compassionate party show them radical welcome so they can experience outsider status and being welcomed anyway from the other side.

This is important as Christians because welcome is, on an essential level, about God’s grace.

but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. – Romans 5:8 (ESV)

We also see that in the Parable of the Vineyard Workers; God is really completely disinterested in our human notions of “us” and “them” of “earned” and “unearned” of fairness and privilege. He wants everyone working for Him.

For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last. -Matthew 20:1-16 (ESV)

Despite the fact that as imperfect humans we are totally and essentially different from God, he sent Christ to show us that we are welcome in His presence, and whether you believe in penal substitutionary atonement or Christus Victor atonement, that is still true. Whether Jesus unlocked the gates of Heaven or Hell (or both!) he still opened the barrier(s?) between us and God.

Our games are a powerful and useful tool for Tolkenian-style “moral rearmament” and we should be taking advantage of that fact as much as we can without blunting the experience with artificial and forced didactism. And let’s not pretend like this is some sort of hardship or chore; what I’m really talking about on some level is making sure we aren’t lazy and make sure to use the really good stuff, narratively-speaking. Liberating oppressed people, building bridges between disparate cultures and people groups, healing wounds of the past and tearing down systems of oppression makes for awesome, compelling, and powerful storytelling and can be a much-needed break from Yet Another Dungeon and yet Another Rampaging Monster. Those elements are in everything from Robin Hood to Star Wars. Gaming as a tactical puzzle can be enjoyable and a nice break from a rough week, but I know I at least start getting bored when that’s all there is, and as Grant will confirm, I am quite the tactician in play.

Start telling more complex stories and working those moral muscles. Ideally, games serve as a way to make doing the compassionate, moral, oppression-opposing thing reflexive; there’s a lot to be said for building up good mental habits through play, if we’re ever going to bring about the Kingdom of God. It won’t get the job done all on its own, but it’s another step toward the world Dr. Martin Luther King laid out in his famous I Have a Dream speech:

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” -From the ‘I Have a Dream‘ speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Photo by Jacob Meyer on Unsplash

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