“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28 NIV)
I need to make a confession to begin this post. I’m white. I’m Joe White Dude. I like all those stereotypical things that us white bread types like: Starbucks, wine, sea salt, Moleskine notebooks, and ugly sweaters. Yep, I’m about as white as they come. I’m so white I have a “driver’s tan.” I’m white, and I’ve screwed up, bad. If you’re reading this and you’re white, you probably have too.
How have we screwed up? Look around. We live in a country that is marred by racism, violence, and anger. Our history is chuck full of overt racism and yes, even genocide. If that’s not bad enough, many, if not most, of the societal systems and institutions we have set up are inherently racist. If you want to dispute that, I can’t help you. Look at the criminal justice system. Look at who is sitting in jail. Look at what the history books in schools teach about Native Americans, slavery, Manifest Destiny, the Civil War, and Jim Crow. Look at the schools themselves, even though we have “integrated” public schools, in many areas of the country the under-funded public school system is often the home of minorities while the white kids go to “private academies” or “charter schools.” Look at our churches. Martin Luther King Jr once said that the 11 AM worship hour was the most “segregated hour in America.” He wasn’t wrong then and he’s not wrong now. I thought about that a little bit, and I thought “You know, I think my church is pretty diverse!” Then I thought back to when I preached a few weeks ago and I thought about the faces I saw in the full sanctuary at the 9 AM service. A couple of black people, maybe one person of Hispanic descent, a person from India, and a couple of gay people. Everybody else in our fairly large sanctuary was white and straight. It made me check myself a little bit.
Yeah, we’ve kind of screwed up. We’re not as diverse as we tend to think we are. You thought that after the election of President Obama that we were entering a “post racial society?” Uh, well, you might want to rethink that, after all, it’s the year 2016 and we still have a pro sports team named “The Redskins.”. But man, it’s easy for us white people to just sit back and dismiss all of what I’ve just said by trotting out many covertly and overtly racist arguments. “Well, if they just worked a little harder.” “Well, if they didn’t try to just depend on the government and welfare.” “All of that happened so long ago, they need to rise above it.” “Don’t they know that #AllLivesMatter?”
I wretch just typing those things here on my screen, but the plain fact of the matter is that you can watch a Trump rally, pretty much any newscast, or hit up social media and see those and other arguments playing out over and over again everyday. These are symptoms of a major issue in our society: We still don’t “get it.” While I’d hazard a guess that most people who read this blog don’t entertain overtly racist thoughts or ideas, we still don’t get it because as much as we try to empathize, we can’t put on black skin or brown skin and experience what they do. Never in my life has anyone looked at me sideways, refused to serve me, or made derogatory comments to me because of the color of my skin. There’s no pro sports team called “The Honkies” or “The Whiteys”
So what do we do about it? If you’re like me, and you’re like an awful lot of good people in this country, you’ve recognized that the status quo is unacceptable and things need to change, but how do we go about that? There are many pitfalls for us to fall into here, and we tend to stumble into them right and left. It’s not that we don’t mean well, it’s that we just don’t understand. Many churches, especially many mainline protestant churches that have a quality record for supporting civil rights are trying to reach out, but as Robert P. Jones, author of the book “The End of White Christian America,” points out, many of these efforts have met with limited success at best.
Why is that? I think there’s three reasons that we can start off with.
First, I think it’s because we have a hard time sitting still and LISTENING. For many of us our hearts are in the right place, but we perceive the injustice and just immediately jump into a flurry of action without learning about the injustice that has been done. Look at it like this: a friend of yours gets shot and you get upset, but instead of treating your friend’s wounds you get up and go after the person who shot him while leaving him bleeding to death in the corner. Yes, we should seek justice, but we must have healing too. We must seek to understand as much as we can, and that starts by LISTENING to people tell their stories and seeking what is important to them.
Second, we have to be really careful that we don’t encourage more racism by acting like it “It’s ok, we white people have caught on now. You just sit there and do your thing while we try to fix this.” That’s condescending. Again, our hearts may be in the right place, but we run the risk of making all of this about us instead of them if we’re not careful. So many of us think that we need to advocate “for” people when what we need to be doing is advocating “with” them. In other words, if we’re all on the reconciliation football team, we shouldn’t always insist that the quarterback and leader of the team be a white person.
Third, and perhaps more importantly, we can’t just jump straight to reconciliation without repentance and perhaps even penance. This is a big one that Robert P. Jones points out in his book. It’s kind of like knowing that you’ve really hurt a good friend, but you just try to patch it up and gloss over it by jumping right to repairing the relationship without acknowledging your culpability.
So what do we white people have to acknowledge, repent of, and maybe even do penance for? Here’s just a few things:
–The theft of land from American Tribal Peoples
–The purposeful genocide of American Tribal Peoples
–The extermination of the cultures of American Tribal Peoples
–The continued poverty and poor living conditions on Native Reservations
–Ignorance of slavery and the consequences of slavery
–Jim Crow as he existed previously
–Jim Crow as he exists today
Seems like a tall order, doesn’t it?
In his book, Jones believes, and I agree with him, that the church can have a huge role to play here. No other social institution is as well positioned to help deal with these issues as the church. If we jettison our ill-advised quest for political power then perhaps we can truly take up the mantle of Jesus, listen to others, and work with people of all races and creeds to stamp out these things and make this a better place for everyone.
I’m thrilled to hear that over the coming weeks and months my church is going to try to take some concrete steps to begin repentance and reconciliation in our community. I’m a little nervous because there are all those pitfalls we talked about, but I’m optimistic. We’re purposefully seeking out black voices and leaders to tell their stories. These ideas are in the infant stages, but I pray that Christ brings them to fruit.
For the rest of us, see what maybe you can start in your churches, even if it’s having someone come speak or doing a pulpit exchange where a minister of a different race comes to speak at your church once in awhile. Maybe we could take a Sunday and go to a different church. Last year my family went to my sister’s church just outside of Washington DC, and it was great. I was surrounded by people of different ethnic backgrounds and races and I loved it! The style of worship wasn’t what I am accustomed to, but I really felt like yes, I was sitting in a little mini model of God’s world and that yes, these were my brothers and sisters, as Paul says in the verse above.
If you have a story to tell about these things, I’d love to hear it, and maybe post it here on the blog or point to another forum where you might be more comfortable telling your story. Only through interaction can we seek to understand.
Dear God, give us the strength, grace, and love, to work together to face these problems head on.