There have been so many excellent, insightful, and powerful pieces written about Ferguson and the state of race relations in our country over the past several months and this past week in particular that I didn’t think I had much to contribute to the milieu of voices. But I’m a bicultural person (probably more of a third culture kid), and as such, I frequently find myself able to empathize with different people groups and their various perspectives. In the aftermath of Ferguson, I have found myself identifying with the searing pain and anger of many of my Black friends, whose understanding of oppressive systemic injustice is as natural as eating and breathing, yet at the same time empathizing with the bewilderment felt by many of my White friends, who find concepts and terms like “systemic injustice” and “institutional racism” either completely foreign or perceive them to be made-up and self-perpetuated. There is a rift in how the two groups perceive, interpret, and talk about race and even American society itself, and the rift is as deep as it is wide. Tragically, this rift is no less profound and may even be more so within the Christian church, among people who ironically are supposed to be known as ministers of reconciliation.(2 Corinthians 5:18-20)
Cultural Fragmentation of the American Church
Everything Starts Somewhere
Things don’t just take place out of thin air. They always start somewhere, and they always have context. In this current age of instant communication and immediate gratification, it’s easy to forget that. For example, last year, a well-known pastor borrowed an iconic photo from the Chinese Cultural Revolution and entered his caption of choice under it, then posted it on Facebook. By that simple act, which probably took less than 45 seconds, he made that photo mean what he wanted it to mean for that day: that his staff was very enthusiastic about being at work that morning. He didn’t realize that the photo was associated with an oppressive revolutionary movement in which millions of innocent people were slaughtered under the direction of Mao Zedong. Was it important? I think it was. Tremendous distortions take place when we separate images from the circumstances in which they arise, and also when we try to interpret current events without adequate historical and sociological knowledge. Before we can talk about Ferguson, though, we Christians need to better understand why we can’t, well… talk about Ferguson. Why we can’t talk about it well, anyway.
The Fragmenting Power of Individualism
I’d like to start by proposing that the radically individualistic nature of faith in the United States has probably severely hindered meaningful integration of the gospel message into the collective life of the national church. By “national church,” I’m not talking about a formal organization with tax-exempt status or a denominational affiliation; I’m talking about the living, breathing body of Christ made up of every person in this country who knows Jesus Christ as Lord and as Savior. While individual believers respond all the time to the Holy Spirit’s direction to live holy lives, our collective spiritual conscience in this nation has been fragmented into hundreds of thousands of isolated clusters under the influence of individualism. This fragmentation has resulted in a multiple silo effect in the church as people are magnetically drawn to those with whom they share common ground – common ground that is not necessarily at all related to our faith in Christ: cultural and socioeconomic background, ethnicity, age, education level, musical preference, sermon delivery style preference, political party affiliation, favorite sports teams, hobbies and common interests, parenting styles, schooling preferences, fashion sense, epicureanism, pet ownership, etc. This magnetism to sameness is not all bad, though. One advantage of it is that it allows for deep, meaningful community to form quickly and naturally. It also minimizes conflict and promotes unity. What’s not to like about that?
Introduction of the Homogenous Unit Principle
Third-generation missionary kid Donald McGavran was living and ministering in India in the 1930’s when the caste system there was still extremely rigid. It was then that he developed the idea of the Homogenous Unit Principle (HUP) that encouraged “the establishment of churches within homogenous units, churches which are designed to exploit existing social networks and stratification.” He observed “that people more easily come to Christ and, consequently, into the church, when they do not have to cross racial, economic, or linguistic barriers to do so.” McGavran intended it to be primarily an evangelistic and missionary tool, to remove social obstacles to non-believers’ acceptance of the gospel. He returned to the United States, continued to minister cross-culturally, and eventually systematized his ideas in the 1960’s and published them in his book, Understanding Church Growth in 1970. In 1972, the conscious effort to apply his principles to church growth in the United States gave birth to what is now known as the American Church Growth Movement. It’s important to keep in mind that during the period in which the HUP was being systematized, violent protests were taking place all across the country against racial integration of schools and other institutions and White evangelical leaders were still openly criticizing the American Civil Rights Movement. The American Church Growth Movement, therefore, was born in an atmosphere of extreme racial prejudice. And its application of the HUP, with all the baggage of racial and class bias fully attached, set the American church on a certain trajectory from which it is only beginning to recover.
Decades later, the result has been the formation of countless homogenous churches all around the country. Only now, exclusionary policies and conscious elitism are no longer necessary to preserve homogeneity. Homogeneity preserves itself almost exclusively through the unique culture created by whatever the dominant majority in each group happens to be, even though all people are now legally free to move about and choose where they want to worship. Institutional homogeneity turns out to be quite a juggernaut, which partly explains why even when a predominately White congregation is located within walking distance from a large Latino, Asian, or African-American community and sends out flyers inviting people from that community to attend its worship services, it is unlikely to bring more than a few adventurous souls through its doors. And even if some were brave enough or curious enough to show up, it would be highly unusual – not impossible, just improbable – for them to stay and become an integral part of the church. For them, merely showing up is as intimidating as being suddenly transported to a foreign country, even if the people are warm and welcoming. Because being warm and welcoming on the surface is not the same as being adept at cross-cultural relating or cross-cultural sensitivity, especially if any awareness of needing to possess such relational skills has been thwarted by the mistaken “doctrine” of color-blindness.
Unfortunately, decades of wrongfully applying the HUP to church planting and church growth in the United States has contributed to the formation of an ecclesiastical landscape characterized as much by ethnic and class self-segregation as it is by denominational diversity. But such self-segregation does not happen on equal terms across the board. Those with the greatest number of choices available to them – those with the most economic and social freedom – tend to find each other. As a result, their abundant resources get concentrated. They are able to build nice buildings and fund great programs. The remaining brothers and sisters, those with fewer resources, fewer choices, and greater abundance of social problems, end up clustering together by default. The Jim-Crow-era mentality may be a thing of the past, but the religious (and even faith-based non-profit) institutional infrastructure that reflects it is still in place, and therefore, so are many of the racial and economic disparities that are built into such a societal-level infrastructure. Prophetically, McGavran himself warned in a letter to a colleague, “There is danger, of course, that congregations (whether established according to the HU principle or not) become exclusive, arrogant, and racist. That danger must be resolutely combated.”
What is Being Lost
This current state of affairs is a great detriment to the American church as a whole because groups of people who are drawn together primarily by their similarities will rarely have genuine opportunities to have their collective blind spots, weaknesses, and even moral and spiritual deficiencies meaningfully identified and challenged. Although we are in reality inextricably bound together in Christ, we exist as if we do not, and we are completely out of touch with very significant things that affect or are happening to entire groups of God’s people. Meditate on the following passage of scripture for a moment and think beyond your immediate small group, men’s/women’s Bible study, or church, to the larger collection of God’s people in this nation:
“The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-27)
A great example of the implications of our fragmentation, our lack of cohesiveness as a church, was provided this week when many of our Black brothers and sisters were openly expressing deep lament. And they weren’t just a little perturbed. They felt serious pain and anguish. However, many (but definitely not all) White brothers and sisters in the national church were and have continued being unable to hear them and unable to understand why they are so distraught, unable even to the point of believing that their pain must somehow be self-inflicted because of an unhealthy obsession with race. The voices and cries of Blacks have refused to be silenced, stifled, or trivialized, however, and the longer their White brothers and sisters have remained silent and stand-offish, the louder and angrier their voices have become, demanding a response. Their White brothers and sisters have found themselves unable to connect with or make sense of the pain and outrage, and they have grown indignant about any suggestion that they’re closet racists because they’ve been raised not to be, so many of them have defaulted to the narratives and explanations with which they are familiar and comfortable. He was obviously a thug. The problem is fatherlessness. Their community is not motivated to better themselves. We need to focus on the facts of the case. The problem isn’t racism, it’s sin. Isn’t Black-on-Black crime much worse? Martin Luther King, Jr. condemned violence. There they go race-baiting again. But this only serves to further enrage, wound, and provoke the Black community.*
We’ve had Ferguson-like moments before – many of them. They usually go like this. And then, after a while, people return to life as usual. One group tries to contain its sense of hopelessness and despair and harness it as constructively as possible; the other group breathes a sigh of relief that the din has died down and hopes that the next Ferguson-like event doesn’t happen again anytime soon. People from the two groups will continue to mingle mostly cordially in supermarket lines, in the work place, at restaurants, and in other public places, but no fundamental advancement in mutual understanding will have taken place. This isn’t unity or oneness. This is superficial peaceful coexistence periodically interrupted by events that ignite overt racial tension, even violence. We must do better than that. In fact, we have a biblical mandate to do so.
The Incarnation as our Model for Healing and Reconciliation
Where do we start, you ask? Well, I propose that we start by reflecting on the Incarnation. It is the beginning of the Advent season, after all. Let’s start by taking a look at Philippians 2:5-8 (ESV):
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
We typically think of the crucifixion as the great sacrifice of Jesus, but as Louie Giglio points out in the November 30th entry of this year’s Advent devotional, his birth too was a sacrifice. In our salvation story, it is as cosmically important as the crucifixion, for without the incarnation, there never could have been a crucifixion. Jesus, who was God, the Son of God – limitless, worshipped by angels, omnipotent, omniscient – took on flesh. He emptied himself. He laid down his glory, power, and majesty – his GODness. The King of Glory who holds all things together entered into his creation anonymously – no pomp and circumstance, no royal welcome, not even remotely recognized. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. (John 1:10) He who created heaven and earth reduced himself to a microscopic zygote in the womb of a young girl. He allowed himself to be birthed into a dark, fallen, broken, and despair-filled world, where he then spent 30 years learning and becoming intimately acquainted with his earthly father’s carpentry trade, as well as the language, culture, and politics of his day. The emptying of the incarnation meant that He, the all-wise God, mysteriously had to grow in knowledge and understanding. In the fullness of time, only after He became mature and wise, He spent 3 years teaching, healing, revealing, resurrecting, rebuking, exorcising, forgiving, and offering salvation. Then He secured that salvation for us at the Cross in the most gruesome and beautiful convergence of love, mercy, justice, and wrath. This is the kind of God He is. And He commanded us to have the same mind among ourselves. How often, though, have we emptied ourselves of all that we are in order to become like infants, to “take on the flesh” and enter the world of those who don’t resemble us? What would that even look like?
Incarnational Ministry: What Does It Look Like?
Effective missionaries take time to study the population that they want to reach. They learn their language, their history, their laws, their customs, and their culture. They learn how to do things that would communicate love to them as well as how to avoid doing things that would offend, even if those same things would neither communicate love nor be offensive in their own culture. The Apostle Paul described his own mindset about how he reached different kinds of people:
“Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews, I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I might share in its blessings.” -1 Corinthians 9:19-23
This mentality goes far beyond the sincere but superficial notions of racial reconciliation that began in the 1990s, which involved people of different ethnicities hugging and crying and inviting each other to attend special-event-like joint worship services on designated Sunday mornings but did little to foster deep, ongoing, and transformative relationships. It also goes beyond mere diversity, which secular institutions are actually getting quite good at promoting through various policies, because authentic relationships do not naturally form on the basis of contracts and policies. Consider the words of Sherwood G. Lingenfelter:
“The practice of incarnation (i.e., a willingness to learn as if we were helpless infants) is the first essential step toward breaking the pattern of excluding others. Missionaries, by the nature of their task, must become personally immersed with people who are different. To follow the example of Christ, that of incarnation, means undergoing drastic personal reorientation. They must be socialized all over again into a new cultural context. They must enter a culture as if they were children – ignorant of everything, from the customs of eating and talking to the patterns of work, play, and worship.”
Why is this emptying process so important when it comes to desiring good cross-cultural relationships? Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, explains that because all communication is heavily adapted to a particular culture, it is important to contextualize our communication consciously to the recipients of our communication in order to avoid distortions of what we are trying to say. I would take it a step further and argue that if we do not also take care to learn the language and culture of the ones who are trying to speak to us, we will fail to hear them correctly. And this kind of learning requires that we empty ourselves and enter into the world of others. We cannot merely invite them into our world and demand that they relate to us exclusively on our terms.**
Distortions in communication, in both speaking and hearing, definitely take place in conversations about race in this country, and these misunderstandings and distortions are quite dramatic between Blacks and Whites following Ferguson-like events. On the surface, the two groups may appear to speak the same language, but they use language in such different ways when talking about race that they could almost be speaking two different languages. What has been said of Americans and Brits can also be said of Blacks and Whites: “They are a people divided by a common language.” Words are not enough in these types of conversations. And that’s because language does not exist in a vacuum; it proceeds from complex cultural contexts and dynamics. Therefore, if meaningful exchange on a subject as important and controversial as race is to take place between the two groups, cross-cultural proficiency must be cultivated in each one. And perhaps more importantly, where there is enmity, it must be replaced with empathy, and that can only be achieved through fervent prayer. Each group must be willing to learn the language of the other, to enter into the stories of the other, to cast aside assumptions about the other, and to develop a genuine interest in the well being of the other.
How White Christians Can Practice Incarnational Ministry to Black Christians
- Suspend any preconceived ideas and start asking questions. To my White brothers and sisters who really struggle with all of this, prayerfully ask the Lord to help you divest yourself of your assumptions and pursue understanding through earnest questions, with the eyes of a child who is learning something for the first time. Asking questions is far better than maintaining silence, which, you should probably be aware, doesn’t feel neutral to people who are hurting and actually hoping for a response of solidarity from you. This graphic was created by a good friend of mine to capture responses to racial incidents that he has found to be hurtful, overly simplistic, or offensive. Every one of these responses reflects some level of unwillingness to listen and meaningfully engage. Take a close look and see if you have made any of them. Let me be the first to admit that I myself have responded in a number of these ways in the past. Then I found out why they hurt so much, how uninformed I was, and why they were inappropriate.
- Investigate terms that initially seem foreign and feel offensive. It’s entirely understandable for you to be put off by terms such as White privilege, institutional racism, White power structures, and systemic injustice; but before you formulate arguments to discredit them, find out exactly what your Black brothers and sisters mean by them. The terms themselves are merely word tools that people developed in order to put words around and make sense of their painful and very real personal experiences, not the other way around. In other words, they didn’t first learn those terms from so-called race-baiter indoctrinators and then go around on a witch-hunt looking for evidence of racism under every rock. Practice active listening and cultivate humble curiosity. I promise that you will be blown away by what you learn if you do this.
- Beware the fallacy of using Black voices to refute or discredit other Black voices.* Again, historical context is extremely important. You have undoubtedly noticed that Black people respond to Ferguson-like events along a spectrum. Some will respond with militant anger, others with quiet sadness and despair, while others will publicly criticize or satirize certain aspects of the Black community (such as criminality, fatherlessness, and Black-on-Black crime). What you may not be aware of are the complex historical and sociological factors – ones that have affected them very differently from how they have affected you – that play a prominent role in these differences. Bottom line: Opinions that mirror your own may not represent what you think they represent. They may even represent another reflection of or facet of generations of racial violence and oppression. Psychologist Nancy Boyd-Franklin explains: “One of the consequences of the system of slavery and the historical legacy discussed above [degradation of the honor and manhood of an African American man in front of his family] has been that some Black families have identified with the dominant society and incorporated some of the prejudices of the majority White culture.” She also points out that members of the same family may be at different stages of racial identity development and that the “differences may be related to the age and generation of the person; the community in which that person was raised (Black, White, or mixed); the part of the country in which he or she was raised; his or her personal experiences with African Americans, Whites, and other ethnic groups; and his or her own idiosyncratic experiences and responses.” It is important to point out too, though, that just because some of a Black person’s opinions might line up with what some Whites happen to think about the issue, this does not necessarily or always represent internalized racism or adoption of majority culture opinion. Bottom line: We need to respect the diversity of opinions among them, paying attention to what the majority of them are saying while neither dismissing nor capitalizing on/exploiting the minority opinions to bolster your own. Just please don’t use Black voices to refute or discredit other Black voices following these types of events because that can be extraordinarily hurtful. It’s the same technique that Christians employ when they use certain parts of Scripture to defeat other parts of Scripture that they like less. It’s not a perfect illustration, but you get the point. Listen, learn, and hold differing opinions in respectful tension.
- Get in touch with your own hidden biases and prejudices. By this, I don’t mean in a general “Of course we all have biases” sort of way. Learn what YOUR specific biases are. For example, are you able to be friends with Black people but then find yourself feeling very critical of them whenever you find yourself under their authority, influence, or leadership? Is the critical spirit really justified, or might there be something deeper going on? If you see a Black man arguing with a White man from a distance, do you fear for one over the other, and if so, why? When you’re on the playground with your kids and there are 2 groups of slightly older boys (say, 7 or 8 years old) running around playing with each other – one Black and the other White – do you internally feel a difference in the level of protectiveness when one group comes near your children versus the other? And when President Obama does something you disagree with, is it merely his policies you disagree with, or might there be an extra level of personal contempt present that might not be if a White President were doing the same thing? Although philosophical disagreements often get personal, I often detect something out of sorts in open attacks on the President and the First Family, like it’s perfectly acceptable to broadcast intense scorn for them. I had a friend share a photo of the First Couple that was originally shared by Ann Romney with the caption, “SMH. Share if you agree that Michelle Obama is a disgrace.” She was referring to the First Lady’s choice not to put her hand over her heart when the national anthem was being sung at a baseball game. And Elizabeth Lauten, Republican aide to Tennessee Rep. Stephen Lee Fincher, posted excoriating statements on Facebook about the Obama girls, aged 13 and 16, last week, criticizing their bored demeanor at the annual turkey pardoning event at the White House. It was insulting and patronizing and full of contempt. Sasha and Malia Obama are children. I know, I know… “Why is any of that necessarily about race?” I didn’t say it had to be. I’m just asking you to ask yourself if it could be. Racial biases are hidden deep within our psyche, and they are hard to expose. Sometimes they’re intermingled with class bias. For example, do you value the life of an educated Black doctor more than the life of a Black high-school dropout who sells drugs? Is this consistent with your belief that all humans bear the image of God? We need to come to terms with the truth that anti-any-kind-of-person bias is ultimately an act of violence against the image of God in them. These questions are difficult to ask ourselves, but we must. We can’t just claim to be enlightened, post-modern, and post-racial people. We are intellectually, perhaps. But then we would have to argue that our heads and our hearts are always aligned in every other area of our lives, and we all know that that is simply not true of any of us.
- Get in touch with Black pain. There is a lot of it, and no matter how remote you think the past is from the present, their present pain is inseparable from the unique history of Blacks in this country. The same friend who created the American Racial Incident Bingo card above shared some of his story in the following heartbreaking account. Keep in mind that he’s not 90 years old. He’s in his late 30’s:
We freely acknowledge the challenges that occur in a society when a bunch of war veterans come home with PTSD. Families are broken, children grow up reacting to that and take new sets of challenges into adulthood. Why, then, is it so hard to imagine that there might be some kind of lasting effect on an entire people when generations of PTSD survivors are produced by state-sanctioned campaigns of terror and a continuous crushing into the ground, both physically and spiritually? The survivors are alive and among us, by the millions. I know because one raised me. He was particularly strong and stoic, and so I saw little of the negative. But I watched him face down Klansmen who were his clients in the 1980s. I watched him stand up to rude and condescending bosses with professionalism and with neither disrespect nor deference. I watched him navigate a corporate structure that loved his phenomenal sales skills, but passed him over again and again while they promoted the people he taught how to do the job. I also watched how he was told not to live in certain areas when we looked for homes here in 1981. I watched my parents decide whether to raise us among people who looked like us or not and trying to figure out how we would manage the microaggressions and challenges of the latter. I remember road trips with packed food and a pistol, both memories of a time as close then as the 90s are to now, when a wrong turn or a wrong stop could be the end. This is living memory, and all the stock images of black and white handshakes won’t wish it away. We can move forward from here. But do you believe me when I tell you these things? Or did the race baiters mess with my mind again and make me imagine my father’s life and my childhood?
So. Take some of your Black friends out to lunch and invite them to share with you some of their personal stories and experiences as Black people. If you receive an invitation from one of them to break bread in his or her home, then accept it. And if any of these precious friends ever actually feels safe enough to share the unedited version of his or her story openly and honestly with you, then make yourself worthy of the trust, vulnerability, and faith they have just exercised with you. Listen well. Believe what they say. Ask them questions, but don’t question their credibility. After all, no one knows their story better than they do (except God). If you don’t have any Black friends (and some of you don’t), then start praying about why that is the case. If it’s a matter of geography, that is, living in a place that literally has no Black people, that’s probably understandable. But if you live in Atlanta, GA or Houston, TX and you have no Black friends, then it’s definitely time for you to ask God to grow your relationship circle. In the meantime, read a book written by a Black author to allow yourself to see life and faith from a different perspective. One of my favorites is A Quiet Revolution: The Christian Response to Human Need, a Strategy for Today by John Perkins. The training manual for deacons at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York heavily references this book, by the way. Finally, if you do have Black friends but have felt untouched by their pain this week, then reflect on the following passage of Scripture and ask God to help you live it out: Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. (Romans 12:15-16)
How Black Christians Can Practice Incarnational Ministry to White Christians
- Patiently, lovingly, and humbly expose injustice by both your suffering and prophetic utterances. My Black brothers and sisters, I know that you are tired. I know that you already feel like you live in another people-group’s world, that your very existence in that world already involves a form of incarnation every single day. You are already and necessarily well versed in the language, customs, and beliefs of that world. But adaptation and acculturation stop short of biblical incarnation, which must involve a complete emptying and identification with Christ’s own sacrifice in entering this world the way that He did. You bear the heavy burden that oppressed people all around the world bear of being the ones to expose what remains unrighteous, unjust, and unmerciful in God’s Church so that it may repent and experience redemption and sanctification. Currently, it is a position of earthly dishonor and pain, but through it, God is preparing a place of honor for you in eternity. This is actually a high calling in God’s economy. If you will empty yourself as Christ did, the Lord will purify His bride through you and bring healing to both you and your brothers and sisters. You are all coheirs together with Christ, and no amount of sacrifice for God’s holy purposes is foolish or in vain because ultimately, you are storing up for yourselves treasures in heaven, a future weight of glory that will far outweigh the cumulative weight of your present suffering. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 5:5b-10)
- Empathize with and enter into the mindset of your White brothers and sisters. Their culture is highly individualistic in nature, in contrast to the more collectivist and communal culture of most African Americans. They do not readily understand racial discrimination and inequality at the institutional and societal level. Those who were raised in the last 4 decades were raised to think of racism as immoral and evil, and the education they received on it was probably limited to the Civil Rights Movement of the 50’s and 60s, which unfortunately has left many of them with the impression that racism was a thing of the past and has been overcome. This, in conjunction with their relatively homogenous social circles and their lack of experiences witnessing overt racism first-hand, genuinely makes some of them believe that they (and the country) are free of racism. Despite this, a good number of them have either had conversations with non-Whites in which they felt accused of being racist or have read inflammatory statements made by some race advocates that basically accuse all White people of being racist. It creates a terrible amount of cognitive and emotional dissonance for them, and has created in them an almost visceral aversion to being called racist, so much so that some have adopted the narrative about reverse discrimination and injustice in order to defend themselves against what they feel are unfair accusations. While this may feel absurd to you, it doesn’t to them, and you need to know the specific ways that their unique history has impacted their paradigms on the matter. To further complicate matters, engaging in conversations with non-Whites about race feels taboo for many of them. They may feel comfortable talking to one another about these issues or publicly posting an article they agree with on Facebook as a reflection of personal opinion, but they approach direct conversations about race with non-Whites with both fear and skepticism because in the inevitable frustration that is generated, they feel like they always end up being called racists. No matter how justified it feels to make accusations, it’s essential to withhold them for the sake of preventing conversational stalemates.
- Practice radical generosity of spirit with your White brothers and sisters. This may feel like a lot to ask of you if you already feel like you’ve done more than your share of this and have not received the same in return. But incarnational ministry is much more than a sentimental idea that missionaries write home about, accompanied by photos of smiling people and feel-good stories. It is costly – overwhelmingly costly. Look how much it cost our Lord. And keep in mind that when Jesus came to us, we were not seeking Him. We were running away from him, rebelling against him, and generally completely undeserving of what He did for us. However much you have had to empty yourself in order to accommodate your White brothers and sisters, you have not had to empty yourself to the extent that Christ did for you. Therefore, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 13:14) Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1,2) Have the mindset of Christ among yourselves. (Philippians 2:5) This will be your source of empowerment to do the impossible. Because many of your White brothers and sisters have never been initiated into the concepts and terminology of racial dialogue that are second nature to you, they will likely say things that you find provocative, outrageous, irritating, and/or ignorant, but they will feel very justified and even righteous in holding certain views and won’t even know why they bother you. We are all like this with God, yet in the incarnation, He chose to condescend to our level in the most unfathomable way. You’ll have to figure out how to explain the things that you understand to them in neutral language that they can understand and receive. For their sake and yours, hold back the urge to roll your eyes, sigh, patronize, or retort sarcastically. Value the fact that they’re actually talking to you about race now instead of just talking about you behind your back or limiting their conversations about race to other people that think the same as they do. Resist the urge to punish them for not talking about the subject in the way that you think they should. They are not your enemies. They are your partners in the making.
I conclude with a powerful excerpt from the song, “The Final Word,” by Michael Card:
You and me we use so very many clumsy words.
The noise of what we often say is not worth being heard.
When the Father’s Wisdom wanted to communicate His love,
He spoke it in one final perfect Word.
He spoke the Incarnation and then so was born the Son.
His final word was Jesus, He needed no other one.
Spoke flesh and blood so He could bleed and make a way Divine.
And so was born the baby who would die to make it mine.
* If one or more of these ideas happen to resonate with you, or if you actually posted any of these kinds of things on social media this week or before, yet you’re still open to hearing a different perspective, I highly recommend two reads:
1) “Four Common but Misleading Themes in Ferguson-Like Times” by Thabiti Anyabwile on the Gospel Coalition blog, in which he adeptly addresses a number of these statements. http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/thabitianyabwile/2014/11/27/four-common-but-misleading-themes-in-ferguson-like-times/
2) “Sin’s Part in the System (and Vice Versa): Thoughts on Voddie Baucham’s ‘Thoughts on Ferguson'” by Alan Noble, which is an excellent breakdown of how the elements of systemic injustice are affecting the Black community. http://christandpopculture.com/sins-part-system-vice-versa-thoughts-voddie-bauchams-thoughts-ferguson/
** I shared a little bit last year in a previous post about what the learning process looked like for my husband and me. If you’d like to read about it, it’s toward the end. https://lifereconsidered.com/2013/08/02/what-color-am-i/
 Blake, John. “The new threat: ‘Racism without racists.’” CNN U.S. November 27, 2014. http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/26/us/ferguson-racism-or-racial-bias/index.html. Accessed on November 28, 2014.
 Robbie, Neil. “Challenging the homogenous church growth principle.” February 27, 2008. https://transforminggrace.wordpress.com/2008/02/27/what-is-the-homogenous-church-growth-principle/. Accessed on November 30, 2014.
 DeYmaz, Mark. Should Pastors Accept or Reject the HUP? Little Rock, AR: Mosaix Global Network, 2011, p.16.
 ibid, p. 15.
 Giglio, Louie. “November 30: By His Wounds You Are Healed.” Waiting Here for You: An Advent Journey of Hope. Atlanta, GA: Passion Publishing, 2014, p. 26.
 Lingenfelter, Sherwood G. Mayers, Marvin K. Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships, 2nd edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003.
 Keller, Timothy. Center Church, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, p. 96.
 Boyd-Franklin, Nancy. Black Families in Therapy: Understanding the African American Experience, 2nd edition. New York: The Guilford Press, 2003, p.41.
 ibid., p. 38-39
Comment Policy: Please remember our common humanity – yours, mine, and everyone else’s – and keep your comments as kind as possible. If your comment is critical, please make it constructive. If it is rude, offensive, or abusive, it will be deleted. If you are a troll or are consistently negative or abusive, you will be banished to the phantom zone.
Categories: Church/Ecclesiology, Culture/Social issues, Race/Ethnicity, Spiritual Formation
Profound, convicting, gave me hope after feeling despair over what happened in Ferguson.
A very insightful and thought provoking dissertation on race and the American church.