In the last couple of weeks we have looked at the fact that all of us, regardless of race or ethnicity, have prejudice against others. However, for those of us who are white, when we combine our innate prejudice with the white privilege that is characteristic of US society, this makes us racists. The first step towards liberation must begin with acknowledging our own racism.
Last week we followed the first step of confession with the second step of repentance – turning away from our racism – and we discussed the ineffectiveness of the current models of salvation currently taught in our churches and seminaries. More effective and more contextual models for us to follow might be the Rich Young Ruler and Zaccheus where following Jesus is intimately tied with making right our relationships with others, particularly those who are marginalized or oppressed. You cannot have right relationship with God without right relationship with people.
And this all takes us to this week where we will focus on the nature of those relationships and how we live those out. This requires we live incarnationally among those we are most distant from. For those of us who are white and benefit from white privilege, this means living intentionally in relationship with people of other races and socio-economic groups.
Now, this can conjure up some incredibly unhealthy images of the great white hope coming to save people of color. Quite frankly, these images are all too real and have been devastating in their impact on communities of color. But incarnational relationships as modeled to us in Scripture are actually mutual, reciprocal and egalitarian in nature. I need the other person as much or more than the other person might need me. Their hopes, dreams, and fears are my hopes dreams, and fears. This is the essence of incarnational living.
Incarnational relationships are absolutely necessary to addressing our own racism, but individual relationships alone will not effectively address societal racism. They provide a lens with which to see societal racism – something I cannot see on my own. Incarnational relationships sanctify us individually, but we also must make real the Kingdom of God in our society. There can be no individual holiness without social holiness. This is where the rubber hits the road for the Church.
I want to suggest here that at present the Church is almost entirely irrelevant in addressing racism because we do not acknowledge our own racism, we do not follow the Rich Young Ruler or Zaccheus models of repentance, we do not live out our sanctification through incarnational relationships and we do not address systemic racism. Other than these things we are doing great!
The truth is that addressing systemic racism or societal injustice of any kind is not an added burden if we are truly incarnated among those directly impacted by racism and oppression. Advocacy naturally flows out of the deep love we have for people directly impacted by injustice when we are incarnated among them. If there is no advocacy happening in our lives or in the life of our congregation, then it is likely we lack incarnational relationships among people directly experiencing injustice. And there is some strong research that bears this out.
Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, in their excellent book Divided by Faith, studied evangelical Christians in the United States and their views towards racism (2000). Their findings are still relevant because they show how the individualism innate to evangelicalism not only prevents relationships with those who are marginalized by racism, but actually promotes the social systems that perpetuate the causes of racism. Historically, evangelicals during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s were not active in the struggle alongside African Americans. Southern evangelicals often sided with the segregationists and the Northern evangelicals were “more preoccupied with other issues – such as evangelism, and fighting communism and theological liberalism” (Emerson and Smith 2000:46).
Evangelicals are now verbally opposed to racism (though I contend that all whites, including white evangelicals, are racist in the US), but they understand racism solely on an individual level with very little recognition of the social, economic, or political reasons for its existence. Racism is seen by evangelicals, according to Emerson and Smith, as a problem of personal relationships and not as something inherently systemic.
Emerson and Smith found that white evangelicals and black evangelicals view racism very differently. Black evangelicals generally see racism as involving every aspect of society including schools, treatment by the police, the judicial system, participation in elections, and even churches. White evangelicals, on the other hand, due to an individualistic perspective, are generally unable to see the advantage that racism plays in their favor (Emerson and Smith 2000:91).
Emerson and Smith describe the solutions white evangelicals put forward to the problem of racism as ineffective. White evangelicals contend that the United States will no longer be racist if everyone will “become a Christian, love your individual neighbors, establish a cross-race friendship, give individuals the right to pursue jobs and individual justice without discrimination by other individuals, and ask for forgiveness of individuals one has wronged” (2000:130). What is striking is how entirely individualistic this solution is and how this leaves the social, economic and political orders intact. Moreover, even the encouragement to enter into cross-race relationships is singular, implying that one black friend is enough to eradicate societal racism. “They do not advocate or support changes that might cause extensive discomfort or change their economic and cultural lives. In short, they maintain what is for them the noncostly status quo” (2000:130, italics mine).
Essentially, Emerson and Smith claim that white evangelical Christians are unable to approach racism, or any social issue for that matter, because they do not have the “cultural tools,” or resources within their worldviews, to work towards genuine reconciliation in a racialized society. Moreover, Emerson and Smith present a sobering finding.
The white evangelical prescriptions do not address major issues of racialization. They do not solve such structural issues as inequality in health care, economic inequality, police mistreatment, unequal access to educational opportunities, racially imbalanced environmental degradation, unequal political power, residential segregation, job discrimination, or even congregational segregation. White evangelical solutions do not challenge or change the
society . . . The result . . . is that white evangelicals, without any
necessary intent, help to buttress the racialized society. (2000:132)
This is a hard word to be sure, but again, racism will not be effectively addressed unless we are brutally honest with ourselves and with one another. And for too many whites in the US – evangelical or not – our individualism has served to sustain the social, economic and political orders no matter how unjust they may be. In serving the needs of the individual, much of Scripture that addresses the broader social and structural issues of justice are either spiritualized or simply ignored, making such entire sections of the Bible like the minor prophets obscure texts that have little significance or application to our lives. The church that refuses to question or challenge the social, economic and political structures in society while providing ministries for those who are casualties of the status quo ends in being so fused with those structures as to almost cease being the Church that God calls us to be. Speaking and acting prophetically are as important to the life of the Body of Christ as providing food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, or clothes to the naked.
And all of these must ministries must be rooted incarnationally among people most directly impacted by injustice. The truth is that many of us who are white lack incarnational presence among people directly impacted by injustice because developing incarnational relationships take time and we are often geographically separated from people experiencing injustices. Segregation still exists in other words.
The time factor is, in many ways, simply a matter of commitment, but the geographical separation is more nuanced and perhaps more important. There are numerous historical, political, economic, and sociological reasons for this geographical separation, but what has been most tragic to me has been the way in which the Church has accepted this geographical segregation between races and has even benefitted from it. Thus, segregation continues unabated.
Suffice it to say for now, for those of us who are white in white-dominated churches truly want to build incarnational relationships with people of color and with people who are directly experiencing injustice, then we must be ready to sacrifice the facilities we have constructed in the homogeneous and isolated enclaves in which we are held captive. While this is a subject for another post, perhaps we should dump the temples we have erected, like King David to match our own opulence and look to the simple tabernacles (which are essentially tents) where God truly resides.
White racism is destructive and deadly, as seen so repeatedly on the evening news. But praise God we are shown that our salvation is at hand. All that awaits is our answer. And our answer will not be one that we can voice. Our answer is one we live out. For those of us who are white, we must acknowledge we are racist, we must repent of that racism, and we must be ready to expend the necessary time and energy to enter into incarnational relationships with those directly impacted by injustice. Not only does our own liberation from racism depend on it, so too does the liberation of our society.