Dear White Christian Leaders, Don’t Do It.

Last week brought disheartening news from white-evangelical-church-world. A well-publicized men’s conference was reported to have used both women and gay people as punchlines to jokes told from the stage. And, in An Open Letter from the Asian American Community to the Evangelical Church, a group of influential Asian American Christians pointed out a bunch of instances of racial stereotyping by different evangelical conferences, publishing houses, and pastors. For those paying attention – and/or on the receiving end of these offensive and marginalizing stereotypes – it seems impossible that these things keep happening. How is it that many Christian leaders of the evangelical-ish variety are continuing with language, images, and assumptions that are so unloving? It’s crazy, right?

Well, yes, except that I get it. The white men who lead these conferences, publishing houses, and – yes – churches are steeped in privilege. This is the sort of privilege that comes when ones (my) race, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status place a man at the top of the heap. And for these men (me) it’s almost impossible to imagine what it feels like to have something fundamental about yourself reduced to a punchline. Of course it is theoretically possible to stereotype white men, but there is no real sting in such stereotypes because the power differential remains unchanged. This is why a white man’s claim of being a victim of racism (or that mythical thing, reverse racism) rings hollow. Perhaps he has been prejudiced against, but racism requires that added element of power, something he still retains more of within our society.

Deeply ingrained, subconscious privilege makes it really hard to imagine what it’s like for something elemental about yourself to be co-opted and reduced for someone else’s purposes. I get it. So, from one white man to other white men here’s some unsolicited advice. Don’t do it. Don’t use someone’s race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender to serve your purposes, whether that’s getting laughs or selling a book. Just don’t. Here’s the thing: If your message is good enough (and if you’re a Christian leader than your message damn well better be more than good enough) than there is absolutely no reason to resort to stereotypes or marginalizing tropes. When you resort to these things you not only appear prejudiced and tone deaf, it also seems like you don’t trust the quality of your own message, as if it has to be propped up on someone’s disenfranchized back.

Another thing. We white men will say and do stupid things. We are, in so many ways, products of our privilege and despite our best intentions we will harm others with our words and assumptions. Time spent submitted to diverse community holds a lot of promise for our own spiritual formation, but we will still mess up. The point can never be for us (or, for that matter, any Christian) to always get it right. Impossible! The point is, however, to be quick to repent and ask for forgiveness when we do get it wrong. When we do hurt those we mean to love. And if the Gospel of Jesus is true for us, than we can really repent and really ask for forgiveness. None of this non-apology if-I-offended-anyone baloney. No, Christians are meant to be an always repenting and always forgiving people so we need not be devastated or evasive when confronted with our sin.

One last thing for my white, male comrades. It won’t be long before we see another well-known leader or pastor goof up in this area. It’s absolutely going to happen. When it does, if at all possible, we need to speak up. We’ve got to call this stuff out even while acknowledging our own blind spots. We can tell our diverse Christian family that we’re not OK with stereotypes and sanitized prejudices. We can contact the offending party and, gently but directly, point out the damage that has been done. And we can do all we can to make robust reconciliation an ever-increasing reality.

7 comments

  1. Rob Alexander

    Was “reported” to have used? How about some documentation to go along with your allegation? Perhaps the truth doesn’t actually fit your liberal narrative.

    • David Swanson

      Rob- it wasn’t the sort of thing I wanted to link to. I’m happy to send the article to you directly if you’d like. For future reference, I ask commenters on my blog to assume the best about each other’s (and my) motives. Thanks.

    • MB

      Why is it that when somebody speaks (or writes) about not being racist or sexist, that people assume the person is liberal? I take it from your comment that you think fighting prejudice and sexism is something only liberal people care about, which is tragic. It ought to be something that all people care about, regardless of political or religious affiliation.

  2. Shaun

    “Perhaps the truth doesn’t actually fit your liberal narrative…” Wow.

    Perhaps David’s writing here is more focused on our responsibility as evangelicals to understand the dynamics of race, power and privilege and their impact on how we share the gospel. For example, Rob, would someone far from God read your comment, and upon learning that you are a Christian, be drawn closer to or further away from God? Perhaps THAT points to a truth that supersedes conservative or liberal narratives.

  3. Tim

    I agree that believers should not produce material, produce skits with 50 year old stereo types of what actually occurred. It is immature and fleshly rather than Spirit driven. Racist? No. “Mocking”? No. As one who was born in Asia and spent my first 17 years there, living in the barrio, this kind of play is mostly kid’s stuff. Asians I grew up with would joke at how we spoke English or their language and we joked how they spoke English. That did not characterize our whole relationship nor demonstrate anything about our social economic differences.

    Perhaps Zondervan or other whites will never again use any Asian stereo type from this day forward. The divide between Asian believers and white believes will still be in place in the believers gathering. I responded to a website for a Christian university that was proud to set up an Asian M.div program. I objected to this systematizing of separation of believers on race issues and gave scripture to support Christ’s desire that His people be united in fellowship and relationship. My scripture was rejected by this Asian American theologian with a list of cultural rationalizations. Asians themselves separate from other Asians in their faith. The Koreans are here, the Japanese are over there, the Chinese have their own place, etc. Even Asians cannot unite in faith. They don’t even have their own ethnicity worked out on faith issues. They have their own log in their eye to address. They have zero unity that I can see just within Asian culture if there even is any commonness as Asians. They are all very different, but only on a human level. What Christ has done for all of them is the same. They will not let what He has done prevail over their own flesh differences.

    My reasoning for why different races have such difficulty coming together in faith is that the dominate pattern of faith is institutional and chain-of-command leadership orientation with almost zero intimacy and mutuality. Gatherings are driven from a platform with one-way communication. This all completely contradicts what the scripture specifically says about believers gathering. The scripture is twisted to justify it all. The saints are severly dumbed down to accept in as normal. It feeds or flesh and nullifies the commands of Christ in so many ways, yet the saints love it because it is so easy and comfortable consuming 75 – 85% of our giving to buy goodies for ourselves rather than to serve the poor and reach all nations with the good news.

    David said, “This is why a white man’s claim of being a victim of racism (or that mythical thing, reverse racism) rings hollow. Perhaps he has been prejudiced against, but racism requires that added element of power, something he still retains more of within our society.”

    I disagree with this power oriented racism completely. It is 100% rationalization. It is not based on a Biblical driven world view were evil comes from the heart of every human regardless of social status. No one is exempt from racism or envy or hatred or any flesh problem because of their financial or educational status. It gives people a pass for their own racism because they are fewer in number or their bank account has less figures. This is shallow thinking and analysis in my opinion. God’s revelation is left out of the mix completely. Perhaps I have missed the text on this. Fill me in if you have it. From my understanding of this rational, it was started by Jessie Jackson. The quality of his thinking and life choices is severely corrupted. Maybe he got it from someone else and is passing it on.

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