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.
On Sunday our church took time to consider some of the implications of Trayvon Martin’s murder and George Zimmerman’s acquittal. Paul’s charge to the church in Romans 12:15 was our starting point: “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” The entire tragic story – from the initial profiling to the eventual verdict – has provoked me toward lamentation and other related emotions. It was a gift to bring my lament and questions to our church and to listen to the community talk and listen well to one another.
I’ve not felt especially able to write about this story since the verdict. So that my silence isn’t taken for more or less than it is, let me point you to a few responses that have benefitted me. If you’ve found other helpful responses please leave a link in the comments.
“My Son & Trayvon Martin” by Michael Washington. I didn’t want to think or write about that place in my inner soul that keeps memories locked away in my heart. Like the time a woman crossed the street when she saw me approaching her and like the shame I felt when I turned around after passing her only to see her cross back to the same street after I’d gotten beyond her and how downcast I felt because I was headed to a class in seminary where the story of my faith would remind me that I was called to love and serve people just like that woman who clutched her bag while passing a preacher on his way to being better.
“Christian Atheism: The Only Response Worth its Salt to the Zimmerman Verdict” by J. Kameron Carter. And just as we cannot talk about god-in-the-abstract, nor can we speak of idolatry-in-the-abstract. The white, western god-man is an idol that seeks to determine what is normal. It is a norm by which society governs the body politic or regulates, measures, evaluates, and indeed judges what is proper or improper, what is acceptable or suspicious citizenship. It is this idol, the idol of the “American god,” that is the symbolic figure Zimmerman identified himself with and in relationship to which he judged Trayvon Martin as, in effect, religiously wanting—wanting in proper citizenship, and ultimately wanting in humanity.
“A Hispanic Response to the Trayvon Martin Verdict” by Danaís Torres Gilliard. I was not around in the seventies; and thus, was unfortunately unable to witness the time when Coretta Scott King visited Cesar Chavez in Phoenix in order to pray for him. Yet, I still find inspiration from this image today in 2013. I know that the more we die to ourselves in order to submit to the will of the Father, the more fruitful our lives become because it us who no longer live, but Christ within us. The more this becomes a reality within our Hispanic churches the more we cultivate a space for reconciliation and for us to be used by God. The transformative power of the Holy Spirit is capable of creating powerful moments that create space for the presence of God to be truly and fully felt in our generation and in generations to come. These are the moments where truth can be spoken and heard and even understood in surprising ways.
“Reflections on Race, Faith, and Gingrich” by Dominique DuBois Gilliard. I’ve endured because I’ve been blessed, coming from a strong family, resilient community, and rich tradition, which has taught me to navigate the stony road I’ve been forced to trod. However, even this knowledge in and of itself would prove inadequate to sustain such a burden. The truest source of my strength and hope is Jesus Christ. I’m forever grateful for African-American theology teaching me that all people are equally endowed with our Creator’s image and elucidating how living in a fallen world causes people to disregard this truth. Thus, I learned I must inscribe it upon my heart to endure. African-American theology also taught me that “they can kill your body, but not your soul,” and this is the communal truth that we’re forced to cling to, abide by, and trust in. Pastorally, I’ve engendered faith within beleaguered believers using these sentiments following the demoralizing verdict.
“The Zimmerman Case and the Credibility of the Church on Racism” by Mark DeYmaz. For far too long we have turned a blind eye to the lack of diversity within our congregations; proudly championed homogeneity in church planting; celebrated numeric growth and attendance more than community revitalization and transformation; encouraged the purchase of land and built new buildings instead of repurposing abandoned space in the community as a physical manifestation of the power and message of redemption; refused to empower minority leadership or to share authoritative responsibility in otherwise all-White churches; and the list goes on.
“Unpopular Grace” by Robin Afrik. Before you leave, you can’t help but notice the familiar faces here. People you know from living in a small town. Friends of colleagues, school mates, parents of kids you grew up with. People who go to your church. Suddenly, your husband becomes that ‘black’ man in the room who might be uncomfortable with the verdict. Suddenly, you must consider all the lessons that must be once again re-taught to your children regarding what it might mean to be black in this situation, then to be a Christian, then to be a black Christian, then to be a good black Christian, and then . . . and then, this is when they watch. Everyone watches to see what you’re going to do next. The children learn from your reaction, your silence and your emotions. The people in the room react to you trying not to react to them.
“George, Trayvon, and the Church” by Efrem Smith. My experiences in a race-based society also led me to a ministry of racial reconciliation and righteousness. This calling is why I can’t ignore George Zimmerman in all of this. Or, I can’t simply be angry with him for getting out of the car and following Trayvon when he was told not to. I have to love him too. I am called to pray for him. Because he is still living, there is an opportunity for his life to be committed to reconciliation in new and powerful ways. As hard as it is, I’m called to minister to those who support Trayvon and those who support George. This is the heavy cost of reconciliation ministry. This is exactly where the Church needs to be right now.
“When the Verdict Hurts” by Howard-John Wesley.
In reviewing these unscripted meditations on violence (1, 2, 3, and 4) I notice one theme especially: violence pervades and implicates us all. It is notable not for being exceptional but normal. So normal that we ignore all but the most grievous examples, examples that exist away from us except when they are done to us. We are so accustomed to violence that we can hardly imagine ourselves as violent.
This deceptive view of violence lets the individual off the hook while insidiously transferring the guilt of violence to the societally-accepted other. And unlike me – the one who is not perceived as violent – the other is a group, a people. This other-group allows we individuals to escape the stain of violence.
Each weekend in Chicago we are told how many people have been shot and how many have been killed. In these warmer months these statistics are particularly grim. The bulk of these shootings and murders take place on our side of the city or to the west, the vast swaths of the city inhabited in most cases by women and men and children whose skin is darker than mine and whose cultures developed in response to the supremacist tendencies of my own. It is these who are understood to be violent, not as individuals but as the other, the group who acts violently. It is a convenient if thoroughly wrongheaded way of understanding the terrible headlines on Monday morning; I’m allowed to feel sad (and, on a good day, sympathetic) without any guilt at all.
Reducing violence to the specific, willful action and transferring these actions to the other(s) is deceptive twice: I’m undeservedly relieved of a violent identity while entire groups are first removed from a history of violence suffered and then reduced to contextless, tragic moments.
As it often does, the most recent neighborhood education meeting I attend each month featured a representative from Chicago Public Schools. This man spoke for about twenty minutes and took a number of questions from the participants. It was a normal presentation aside from the subject matter: helping students cope with the upcoming school closings. A long, anxiety-producing process throughout the winter culminated in the announcement last month that 49 schools will be closed at the end of this academic calendar.
Displaced children and their families are now trying to understand their options and considering the consequences of their eventual decisions. How much farther will a child’s new school be from home? How welcomed will she be? What invisible lines now have to be crossed?
A few months back I attended a breakfast with other clergy from the South Side and the CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Dr. Byrd-Bennett is clearly an intelligent woman and very capable as the CEO; she said much during our breakfast that I appreciated. But there was this one thing… “Don’t forget,” she stated while discussing the upcoming school closings, “children are resilient!” Her point was simple: It’s unfortunate that we have to close these schools, but kids are tough and they will be just fine.
The representative at our neighborhood meeting said much the same thing even as he ran through a massive list of programs, initiatives, and strategies to help school children who are experiencing crisis. Crises like the school closings.
So which is it? Resilient or vulnerable and in need of systems and support during crisis?
Probably it’s both, though if we get clearer with our language we might be slower to talk about a young child’s resiliency. The more than 31,000 displaced students (8% of these are currently homeless) are experiencing the violence of the system in which they find themselves. Dr. Bryd-Bennett, Mayor Emmanuel, and the Chicago School Board would dispute it, but theirs are violent decisions. That they aren’t talked about as such only indicates the extent to which violence is normal, the currency of the powerful.
Of course, we can all sleep easier if we believe soothing truisms about the resiliency of the powerless.
Immigration reform has been a regular topic on this blog over the years so it’s encouraging to see some genuine momentum in DC toward this legislation. (If this is a new issue to you then you might be interested in my two-part interview with Jenny Hwang, co-author of the very important book Welcoming the Stranger: part 1; part 2.) Over the past few months I’ve sat in a room with one of my Democratic senators and listened in on a conference call with a Republican senator (from a different state); both of these men are in the thick of the effort to pass the legislation currently being debated.
It’s also been encouraging to see Evangelical folks get behind these efforts. Some friends have put together a campaign to encourage Christians to pray for the passage of reform legislation that will be just and hospitable to immigrants and refugees. Check out the #pray4reform website for a bit more information and to commit to pray in the coming days.