Article

Starting a conversation about race

Sep 24, 2014

I don't identify with the heroic tropes that are often used to describe preachers. I think it was Martin Lloyd-Jones who described a preacher as "theology coming through a man on fire" or something like that. I don't experience it that way, unless he means that it leads to burnout. For me, preaching feels like walking in front of a freight train. It feels like I'm being mowed over by God's Word, by my own inner tensions, and at times, by the congregation itself.

This past Sunday was a profound experience of this. I preached on Ephesians 2:11-19, but I focused in on Ephesians 2:14, where Paul describes how Jesus destroyed the "wall of hostility" between Jews and Gentiles. We—the elders at Sojourn's midtown campus—knew this verse was coming, and knew that it was an opportunity for us to begin a much-needed dialogue at the campus about race, privilege, and our neighborhood. Shelby Park, where the campus is situated, is about 50 percent African-American, and Smoketown, a few short blocks away, is about 90 percent African-American. But Sojourn is about 80 percent white. Despite our desire and efforts to move in a more diverse direction, things haven't changed much.

Starting a conversation about race

So we started a conversation. I talked about why churches in the U.S. are segregated (one statistic says that 93 percent of U.S. churches are made up by 80 percent or more of one race), tracing some of the history back through the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation. I argued—as Anthony Carter does in his excellent book, On Being Black and Reformed—that churches are segregated today because white Christians failed to welcome and acknowledge the full humanity of their black brothers and sisters long ago. Segregated churches, for African-Americans, had to be a kind of relief; at least they no longer had to endure the hypocrisy of their white sunday school teachers and ministers.

I talked about white privilege—a concept I believe is best summed up by Propaganda's line in Precious Puritans, "It must be nice not to have to think about race." I argued that the failure to acknowledge its existence is itself a way of wounding our African-American brothers and sisters.

I then pointed to the Paul's formula for reconciliation: the cross is the only possible source of absolution for the horrors of racism, and in Christ, we're made "one new man." The gospel compels us to come together and offers the only real and lasting cure for racial hostility.

I am thankful for the words one of my fellow pastors said to me. "There's sometimes a tension between getting it right and getting it out, and sometimes, if we wait forever trying to get it right, we'll never get it out. We started a conversation, and that's the whole goal."

These are comforting words. Monday morning quarterbacking is a regular experience for all pastors, and in this case, I felt it more acutely than ever. Did I dot every "i" and cross every "t"? Did I avoid stereotypes and careless words or phrases? I'm sure I didn't. I'm not innocent of bias and carelessness, and if you combed through my words (I'm not asking you to), I'm sure you could find something that would offend you.

But I also learned some important lessons.

Racism, principalities and powers

When you deal with issues of race, you're stepping into the realm of principalities and powers. It's spiritual warfare. Racism seeks to dehumanize, belittle and limit the capacity of image bearers. Its entrenchment in our churches hinders the gospel. Satan has a lot invested in it, and perhaps his greatest weapon  amongst white folks is the conviction that it doesn't exist any longer.

As I said at the beginning of this post, preaching, for me, is exhausting, but that Sunday in particular, it was profoundly challenging. The further I pressed, the more tense the room felt. Some responded with tears and conviction. Some responded with anger and belligerence. It was unlike any teaching/preaching experience I’ve had in 14 years of ministry.

Rick Warren once posted on Facebook, "Preaching in 164 nations & pastoring members who speak 72 languages, I've found racism is a most common [and] least admitted sin." I think our difficulty with admitting it is two-fold.

1. Oversimplifying racism

I think our conceptual framework for racism is oversimplified. We think of it as being something akin to political affiliation, something we can check off on a box. “Am I a racist? No. I believe we’re all made equal.”

But this is a purely intellectual framework, and it fails to account for more subtle ways that racism might be embedded in us and in our culture. In a New York Times Op-Ed, Nicholas Kristof asks “Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist?” The studies he cites point to prejudices that operate under our radar, without a lot of cognitive processing. In other words, you can check the box that says, “I’m not a racist,” and mean it, but still be operating with a certain level of bias.

I think James K.A. Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom provides some helpful ways of thinking about this. Smith makes the case for a kind of embodied knowledge, a “background” that operates with a measure of independence from our cognitive processes. When we talk about intuition or our “feel” for the world, we’re talking about this kind of knowledge. Smith is building on Charles Taylor’s concept of “social imaginaries,” a constructed way of making sense of our world that gets imbibed subtly through stories and rituals that are repeated throughout our lives.

It seems to me that this implicit, under-the-surface racism is best accounted for in this framework. It’s imbibed in repeated stories and images, and it’s built into our social architecture. So we can pass the tests of political correctness, even as we’ve imbibed and embodied bias.

It’s even more disconcerting to think of it from the perspective of African-Americans. Perhaps, when we think about reconciliation and healing wounds, we should ask questions about how the social imaginaries of African-Americans are being constructed. What are the images and stories—arising from a biased culture—that they’re imbibing about themselves?  What are their plausibility structures—their sense of what’s possible—particularly when it comes to issues of identity and opportunity?

2. Oversimplifying sin

At the heart of all of this, though, is a question about our attitude toward sin. When it comes to race, many Christians seem to think that we’re simply talking about a doctrinal issue. “I believe we’re all made equal.” But racism isn’t just a doctrinal matter, it’s a heart matter. It has more in common with pride than with a theory of atonement.

What makes it complicated, though, is that pride is a socially acceptable sin. If you’re in a small group setting and say, “I’m really struggling with pride”, or for that matter, you confess to struggles with lust, greed, or anger, your friends will pat you on the shoulder and pray for you. But if you say, “I’m really struggling with racism,” you’ll be met with blank stares or worse. The political incorrectness of racism has made it difficult to acknowledge and discuss on any level.

But it’s no different than these other sins. Racism exists on a spectrum, and like pride or lust, it has ways of infecting a culture and simmering under the surface. So we swim in that milieu, unaware of the ways it’s working on us.

What’s needed

The challenge of dealing with racism is that it demands a level of maturity from us. The power of political correctness isn’t just social, it’s spiritual. It’s pharisaical. It sets up a moral code of acceptability, and if we fail to conform to it, we open ourselves up to scorn, not least from ourselves.

If we haven’t come to a place where we can say, with Paul, “what a wretched man I am,” than any discussion of racism will get muddled in the need to defend ourselves.

Thomas Merton, writing in the midst of the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement, accused Americans of making "a fetish of action,” meaning that in the face of a problem, we are desperate for something to do. Hashtag activism is a great example of this fetish. We take tag our photos on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram with the cause of the week, but these efforts don’t actually involve us in the crisis. They primarily serve the purpose of soothing our consciences and enabling us to present a politically correct version of ourselves to the world. Merton argued that the first and best response to humanity’s great crises are prayer and reflection. The problems of humanity are always spiritual at their roots, and racism is certainly no exception.

So perhaps this is the best next step for us, both at Sojourn and in the church at large. We need to pray. We need to listen. We especially need to listen to the witness of our African-American brothers and sisters, and we need to resist the need to filter their stories through any particular political ideology. Maybe, in prayer, in community and in humility, we can bring ourselves to a place where we are more receptive to the reality of our situation, better able to see the darkness that exists both in the world and in our own hearts.