On this Martin Luther King Day, I find myself contemplating where we are in our pursuit of Dr. King’s beautifully-articulated dream.
I recently heard a pastor offer what I think is a popular viewpoint concerning the issue of racism. I asked him for permission to share that viewpoint on my blog and assured him that I would not use his name so that his privacy would be protected. He said that he had no problem with that.
Here is the viewpoint:
I don’t know why we keep making racism such an issue. Most of us have been delivered from racism. But when we keep making racism a point of focus (like we are in our annual conference and other places in the church), all we’re doing is beating a dead horse and highlighting a hugely negative thing that doesn’t deserve to be highlighted.
Shortly after my conversation with that pastor, I heard the following comment made by a United Methodist church member, who also permitted me to share the comment in a blog post:
People have told me that they don’t want a colored pastor at our church. They’ve told me that they would leave if that kind of thing ever happened. Truth be told, I might leave too. I guess I just wouldn’t be comfortable with that kind of thing.
Those two viewpoints help to illuminate the painful complexity of the issue of racism in the church. Racism is as real as it ever was, but we are tired of hearing about it. A pastor’s ethnicity is still important enough to cause a parishioner to leave a church, but the last thing that we want to hear is someone highlighting the issue of racism. We prefer to think that we’ve been completely delivered from our racist impulses and presuppositions.
When contemplating this issue, my concern has to do with the simplistic way in which many of us define racism. I suppose that the American Heritage Dictionary’s definition of racism—“any form of discrimination based on race”—can be utilized as a bare minimum. But the kind of racism that is operative in the church is often far more elaborate and insidious than one-on-one discrimination. It is an institutional racism, often perpetuated by the structures and processes that many within the denomination are reluctant to change or even acknowledge. These structures and processes are often undergirded by an ethos of what might be called “white privilege” which is, in its essence, a desire to preserve the status quo because the status quo guards and protects the privileges of the race in power.
Of course, what is most frustrating about white privilege is that most of us do not even recognize when it is in operation. For example, here I am, a white male, waxing eloquent on matters of racial diversity. But what do I really know about it? What is there about my comfortable suburban life that would inspire me to believe that I could somehow “educate” a group of readers who, I assume, are predominantly white? It would be foolhardy of me to assume that white privilege does not figure prominently in every segment of my living, even in the motivation behind this blog post.
When one begins to take seriously a racism emerging from white privilege, one is compelled to move beyond defensive rhetoric like this:
“Hey, those black folks are just as racist as I am.”
“Black people need to stop playing the race card in every situation, because nobody wants to hear that anymore. After all, I never owned any slaves. It’s time to get over the past.”
The danger of this kind of rhetoric is that it overlooks or, at the very least, oversimplifies the complex and institutional dynamics of racism. Moreover, such rhetoric often causes one to ignore completely the most crippling racism of all—specifically, the kind of racism that can only be generated and perpetuated by people in power.
I have no easy answers in the midst of all of this. But this much is certain: The current emphasis placed upon dismantling racism is, first and foremost, one of the many necessary consequences of both the sin of racism and the fervency with which that sin has been perpetuated by white America. The aftermath of this particular sin is an environment in which Christ-followers will have no choice but to be creatively and prayerfully patient with the messy tensions that often exist related to this issue: tensions over how to create ethnically and culturally diverse communities of faith; tensions over the fact that there are so few ethnic minority clergy in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference; tensions between those who see racism as an ongoing problem and those who simply want people of color to “get over it;” tensions over what it means to have a church that makes tangible its belief that “red and yellow, black and white—all are precious in His sight.”
These tensions are not going away any time soon, nor should they. They are tensions emerging from the unsettling presence of a Holy Spirit who stubbornly refuses to allow a church to settle for being less than what it has been called by its Savior to be.
Personally, in my life and ministry, I want to guard against the desire to oversimplify these tensions (since such oversimplifications would often be the byproducts of the condition of white privilege in which I live and move). I want to live into an ever-deepening sensitivity to the sin of racism and all of its manifestations. Even more importantly, I want to lead by repentance. I want to name and confess all the different ways in which I have perpetuated the kind of racist presuppositions and patterns of behavior that have simultaneously fortified my sense of white privilege and broken the heart of God.