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Monday, August 25, 2014

Our Captivity to Racism, Part 1

After watching the over-militarization of the police in response to mostly peaceful protests by the folks in Ferguson; after seeing the murder of Kajieme Powell in St. Louis; after seeing video after video showing the police treat African American men with brutal force for the most mundane of matters; after all of this, what I wanted to make the title of this piece is, “All Whites are Racists.”

I didn’t though. I chickened out. I honestly get tired of people – especially the non-stop talking heads on TV – throwing out words such as “racist” with little thought or context. It’s a controversial word that carries a lot of power, but often very little substance or meaning. People yell racist when they have very little idea what it means. In the end, it detracts from the value of the word and even more importantly, from the possible change that could happen if we readily accept what it really means to be racist. Sadly, although it makes for good news television, using the name without any thought detracts from the substance of what should be a meaningful and possibly transformative conversation.

I wanted to put this title out there to be provocative, but I changed my mind because I honestly want to be more serious than provocative so pardon my cowardice. I want to be listened to.

But yes, I do think all whites are racist. So, let me explain.

Racism is embedded in our culture. It has been since this country was discovered by white men. Yes, in the last 50 years some much-needed transformative steps have been taken, but much of these were taken to get us to a place where we are not murdering, raping, and oppressing people of color and specifically African Americans out in the open as a means of entertainment. And let us not forget, it took a generation of African American leaders who sacrificed their livelihoods, their families, their sanity in some cases, and even their lives to get us here! So, let’s try not to break our arms giving ourselves a pat on the back for where we are at this point in time.

Still, there has been progress.

But we still have a culture deeply embedded in racism. It goes beyond the fact that our criminal justice system imprisons African American men at a much faster rate than whites when they commit the same crimes. It goes beyond the fact that neighborhoods are still very much segregated as are the schools serving those communities, not to even mention our churches, the most segregated institution in our society. It goes beyond all of this because racism is so deeply embedded in our culture we rarely openly talk about it. It is as accepted as our beliefs that the world is round and the sky is blue. To use a fancy term, racism in our culture is hegemonic.

In a study of the colonization of a tribe called the Tswana in South Africa, Jean and John Comaroff discussed the process of colonization as being hegemonic more than happening in one catastrophic event. Hegemony, for the Comaroffs, is “habit-forming . . . For it is only by repetition that signs and practices cease to be perceived or remarked; that they are so habituated, so deeply inscribed in everyday routine, that they may no longer be seen as forms of control – or seen at all” (1991:23, 25). Colonization of the Southern Tswana was established through adopting the daily activities of life within the Tswana culture through a common exchange of ideas and practices with their colonizers.

It is my contention that white privilege and racism directed against people of color in US society has become hegemonic, something accepted so easily as to rarely be discussed, at least in any kind of deep or profound way. And, when there is some kind of horrific event such as the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, we rely on our hegemony to say that racism could not possibly exist in our culture.

Although hegemony is pervasive and unspoken, the Comaroffs assert that hegemony is also quite fragile. Once the colonized became conscious of the contradictions within their own subjugation to the colonizers, the hegemony began to break. Breaking hegemony is often associated with the first step towards a release from captivity - towards liberation. When the silent hold of hegemony is spoken out, it loses its intensive grip on those held captive and instead becomes an ideology to be debated and changed over a long process by the various groups involved.

My hope is that we can move racism from the unthinking reactionary yelling, and identify the hegemonic ways in which we participate and benefit from white privilege and perpetuate racist attitudes, behaviors and ideas. For when it comes to racism, whites are in captivity as much as are people in color, although we benefit from it at the same time.

I will discuss ways we can be saved from racism in my next post, but for now, it is enough to identify racism as hegemony. How is racism hegemonic? There are numerous ways of course, but I would point out not just the fact that churches are the most segregated of institutions in our society, but even more, there is a common belief – hell, it was taught in my doctoral classes in seminary – that to grow local churches numerically, you can only do so homogeneously. From an institutional standpoint, diverse, multi-cultural churches just are not financially sustainable.

This seems stunning when we look at how the church was birthed. The church began on the day of Pentecost when the disciples of Jesus were so filled with the Holy Spirit they spoke in other languages! A Church birthed in diversity and justice is now ironically dying and becoming irrelevant through the homogeneous synchrotization between church and dominant culture.

However, the historical growth of the Body of Christ throughout the book of Acts – from the diaspora of the Church after Stephen’s martyrdom, to Philip witnessing to the African eunuch, to Paul planting churches throughout the Roman Empire, to Peter witnessing to Cornelius and his household of God-fearers, to the first church council in Jerusalem when the early leaders finally acknowledged that Gentiles could become followers of Jesus too – every expansion  of the Church was accomplished through crossing the racial, ethnic, moral, social, economic, and political barriers of the day.

Somehow – and there are numerous sociological and historical reasons that are beyond the scope here – we have turned this biblical truth on its head. We now accept the lie that to experience growth – numerical as well as spiritual – we must do so homogeneously. Rare it is do we have truly multi-cultural and multi-socioeconomic churches; diverse churches in make-up and leadership. And when I say multi-cultural churches I mean churches lived out in faith from multi-cultural perspectives. I have seen (and been a part of) too many churches where there are some different races and ethnicities present, but it is, for all intents and purposes, a white church: white worship, white discipleship models, and especially, white leadership.

Racism is hegemonic in the church in that as whites we tend to be discipled by other whites while any cross-racial relationships occur more in a missional context; “us” reaching out to “them.” From this framework, is there any wonder why racism is so endemic in the Church?

I will focus more on solutions in future posts, but with hegemony, remember, we merely need to raise this to the level of discussion – something I hope is done here and perhaps some other places. But it must be discussed. Salvation and liberation can be attained, but too often we move far too quickly onto liberation and we skip over recognition, or confession. As a white person, I am a racist. If you are a white person, you are a racist. Let's quit being defensive and just admit it. the sooner we do the sooner we can get on to freedom.

To highlight our current captivity, let me posit this: what would happen if whites intentionally left their white churches and went to churches where they are in the minority and then intentionally submitted themselves under the cross-racial leadership of the leaders in those churches for their spiritual growth? What would happen if we took our large all-white churches and split them up and intentionally planted small groups within predominantly cross-racial neighborhoods and let them attend churches where they are the minority?

I know one thing as I write this – I do not have all the answers. But I know I live in a racist society, I am part of a racist Church, and I struggle with racist thoughts and feelings. I know I must be intentional if I am to be free from the binding sin of racism and this must first start with my recognition in the very silent, subtle ways in which racism has infected my life and the life of my Church and culture. Freedom starts with recognition and confession.

More on this to come but I pray the hegemony of racism is broken, and that racism can be deeply discussed, not in an effort to score points or point fingers, but as a means to live into the power of the early church. I want to be saved, but I also need to know what I am being saved from. It ain't comfortable, but salvation wasn't really meant to be, was it?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Michael Brown, Yazidis, and Our Racism

It has been an unusually eventful news week. Seeing yet another unarmed black youth gunned down sends outrage through me as a parent of a young man who is perceived to be African American (he is biracial; his birth dad is Caribbean and his birth mom is white). And you know what? I am exhausted from being outraged by the constant racist murders of young black men and the fact that it continues means that we have yet to fully exercise this demon from our society.

At the same time, I am also struck by the grotesque images of ISIS in Iraq and the brutality they are committing against vulnerable people, including the genocide they are threatening against the Yazidis (which is also spelled Yezidis). It reminds me that for whatever reason this is happening – and I believe that there are numerous reasons for this with one of those being the horrible foreign policies put in place by President Bush that are still coming back to haunt us – we have to accept the fact that there are people who are simply bent on evil in the world and no diplomacy or reasoned outreach will stop them.

I also think far too often we settle for the most simplistic explanations for why we see such social evil in the world. I do not want to add to the simplicity – really, to the stupidity. There are reasons for the violence – both in Iraq and against young black men in the streets of the United States – that are beyond my capability to understand if only for the fact that I cannot see life through the eyes of those responsible for the violence being done. However, I am struck by at least one common theme I see in both of these events.

It is striking to me that there are some who see the highly weaponized police in the streets and who applaud their efforts to “maintain the peace.” They aren’t alarmed by the fact that much of the police weaponry was supplied to them by the Pentagon due to a directive in the early 90s to provide local police departments with the weapons they had a surplus of. That means our local police have weapons at their disposal that were meant for war. The fact that police departments are armed for war means that a war of some kind will eventually be found – or created. You don’t arm yourself for something you don’t expect to happen. So, now we have police, in far too many cities, who, far too regularly, over-react to situations and then exacerbate small events into large scale violence. The presence of such heavily armed forces can easily fan peaceful protests into violent outbursts.

At the same time, we see ISIS systematically killing and brutalizing entire populations as they make their way through Iraq, including a group called Yazidis and even some Christians. They are unashamedly attempting to commit genocide particularly against the Yazidis while President Obama takes even the most timid of steps to protect the Yazidis through humanitarian food drops where they are trapped and one round of air strikes against ISIS to protect them. While I am certainly no fan of re-invading Iraq – a quagmire of a foreign policy for the past 14 years, I am greatly in favor of doing whatever it takes to protect victims from genocide. Yeah, I may not win the “Liberal of the Week” award for being ok with US military involvement in Iraq, but I believe we have to protect victims of genocide even if that means military intervention in addition to the use of all other efforts.

At this point, I feel like I have to ask this: would we be a little more outraged over the murder of Michael Brown if he were an unarmed, white, suburban teenager? Would we demand answers a little more intensely if his parents were members of a local United Methodist church, members of the PTA, and Boy Scout leaders?

Or what if the Yazidis were Brits or Northern Europeans? Would we be more inclined to defend them no matter the cost if they were people who looked like us, whose names sounded like ours, who professed beliefs similar to ours?

I don’t know the answers to these questions of course and those who say they do are just trying to make headlines. But I do believe these are questions worth asking. I cannot help but wonder if, for some of us at least, our white privilege prevents us from having empathy for those being victimized unless they look or sound more like we do.


I continually will wonder if all the military that is in place in Ferguson might be better utilized in Iraq pointing at ISIS rather than being pointed at the black and brown members of the Ferguson community. It seems to me we will have a more peaceful and just society when we see the value of black lives as important and significant as white members. When we do, maybe the Michael Browns and Trayvon Martins will live to see adulthood and maybe then, the groups such as ISIS will be stopped and the Yazidis will be allowed to live in peace. And maybe the parents of children of color can sleep a little easier and not be as exhausted at the constant feelings of terror that grip when our children simply walk down the street. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

To Do Justice AND Walk Humbly...

This past Monday I officially started my long-awaited sabbatical. I definitely have some things I want to accomplish while I am away from work, but I mainly want to have fun, rest a lot, hang out with my boys and did I mention have fun? I have greatly appreciated everyone’s good wishes, many of which have been accompanied with statements encouraging me to enjoy my “well-deserved rest” for the cause of justice. I understand the sentiment and, like I said, I am very appreciative, but to be honest, I am really not that tired from the work of justice.

I honestly love what I do. I get to work with amazing United Methodists from all over who are committed to seeing justice made a reality for those who have known injustice. The overwhelming majority of those I work with are people directly impacted by broken systems, or those incarnated among those directly impacted by broken systems. These are United Methodists who witness the brokenness of injustice among people they love intimately, who care for those whose lives are torn apart, and who steadfastly and faithfully make witness of a better world, a better Kingdom where the poor are valued and the marginalized are recognized and treasured.

Working alongside these kinds of folks does nothing but excite me and encourage me, inspire me and make me want to work that much harder. I don’t need a sabbatical from my sisters and brothers in the field. Man, they are what get me up in the morning.

Nope, my sabbatical comes from being worn out by those who live and work in the same city as I do. Yep, Washington DC. And nope, I am not talking about the knuckleheads in office – you can’t get worn out by someone for whom leadership and progress are a complete surprise.

I am talking about the supposed “leaders” of the issues I work on, at least the leaders the media loves to quote. In the over 8 years I have been in DC I have seen more ego-driven, narcissistic, self-absorbed leaders of “justice” movements than I have seen in the 36 years of my life prior to arriving in DC combined. And these are supposed to be leaders of justice!

The personalities honestly wear me out. I am so sick of press conferences because I know almost every one is a battle royale of who gets to speak, in what order and for how long. And don’t get me started on rallies – good Lord, those things can be a real mess. Few and far between are the leaders who speak out because they know and experience the injustice directly or who are incarnated among those who do. Few and far between are those leaders whose passion for justice is so great that they speak out not because it will advance their name or sell more copies of their latest book, but rather, because it will advance the cause of justice. Like Jeremiah, they speak because they are unable to hold it in.

It is a rare thing – and I mean a rare thing – for justice and humility to go hand in hand these days among some of our “leaders” for justice. But it shouldn’t be.

In the first chapter of Isaiah, as God rebukes God’s people for expecting God’s blessings while they practice empty traditions, God instructs the people to “seek justice, rescue the oppressed” among other things. However, before God tells us to do justice God first says to “wash yourselves, make yourselves clean.” I feel like far too often those of us who care for social justice forget our own individual righteousness – which necessarily entails humility.

Even more bluntly, one of the most quoted Scriptures we like to use to support the work of justice (and it does support that work by the way), is from Micah – a contemporary of Isaiah’s – who tells God’s people to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” (6:8)

Something tells me that doing justice and walking humbly means God doesn’t give a damn what the order of speakers are for an immigration press conference. Yes, we should utilize every resource we possibly can to build the movement to defend and support the rights of immigrants, but I also believe we have grown far too dependent on certain justice personalities and this breeds the cult of personality that makes Washington DC such an odious place to be.

I believe we should be wary of always looking to the same voices. Why do we look for these same old personalities when we need to hear first the voices of those directly impacted by broken systems and then invest our lives for years in their lives so that we are adequately shaped and formed by their perspectives? The more incarnated we are I believe the less we will be dependent on the prima donnas of justice, those whose voices have become rather stale and routine. What we need is a fresh movement of the Spirit in our lives and in the lives of those directly impacted. If it is justice we seek, then we only have to hear God speaking from within ourselves.


I will be happy to end my sabbatical early if we can do that.