“Whitewashing” racism – throwing privilege to the dogs
It might be good for one's “radical” gospel bona-fides to stand in camaraderie with the #blacklivesmatter movement. It might lend credibility to my interpretation of the work of Jesus among certain churches if one yells that whites and Intervarsity need to raise a black-gloved fist. Certainly, I should write about how the police must stop killing black youth (NOW!) and be punished by the legal system just as young black males and poor whites so regularly and unjustly are.
Yet, none of those actions indicate what the role of the church is in a world that is full of injustice. Worse, when whites shout out the need for justice in the black community by latching onto the most intimate moments in black history, we've missed both the point of our participation in institutional racism, and, the point of the cross. For those who have ears, let them hear – if you are white, you are responsible for institutionalized racism, and the gospel does not indicate that we overcome racism by trying to join or “support” black movements. Whites tend to believe that it is our support that gives movements credibility – thank about that.
Overcoming prejudices is a positive goal that every human must do to be whole. Yet, each of us must first, if we're real, recognize that we do have prejudices. And, while overcoming prejudices helps us make friends, friendships are not the outcome we should be reaching for. Nor should we continue to suggest that a colorblind society is what our creator has in mind.
Let's believe that God’s action in confusing things at Babel is a blessing. (Tower of Babel) Then, the church must recognize that God’s hope for our relationships is a plan that sees diversity of experience and perspective as good things. This means that, not only overcoming prejudices to better understand ourselves and grow as individuals, but that we recognize the danger in hoping for a world that somehow erases differences between us. Without difference, there can never be unity, and without difference, there cannot be healthy conflict. Without conflict, we not only don't recognize problems, we lack the means to solve them. Imagine a world where we aren't bothered with finding solutions to problems. Why, we would be colorblind, just as the election of Barak Obama proves…
The gospel of Jesus calls for the church to address issues of racism. (I Corinthians 12:12f) However, it does not teach people of privilege to join the intimate growth movements of the “other” in hopes that the “other” will somehow share in our own privilege. The gospel calls upon Christians to empty ourselves of privilege and be servants to both the oppressed and the oppressor. (Love of enemies) While Jesus may have fully understood the #blacklivesmatter movement, he would not have joined it for his own end-game. He would not have offered his leadership skills or organizing resources. He would not have been picketing with a #blacklivesmatter sign in his hands. He would have insisted that his community be one that works to eliminate the things that make racism real. Remember, as the story of the Syro-Phoenician indicates, Jesus has his own issues. We have our own houses to clean before offering our presence to those who are not allowed housing of their own. Then, we allow them respite while they build upon their own blueprints. (Mark 7:25-30)
Jesus would have been teaching and preaching the gospel to a community of privileged individuals who had made a decision to eschew privilege and follow him. Let’s drop the concept that the disciples were all poor peasants. They had jobs and sometimes came from families who had access to capital. (Mark 1:14-20) Some were bandits – political revolutionaries who wanted to drive out the Romans. Tax collectors were not, I repeat, were not, poor people who could not pay their bills. Followers of Jesus did not join the Zealots after Jesus died. They did not avenge his death. And, though the aim may or may not have been just, they did not join in the Temple uprising and they not join with the Essenes. They maintained their commitment to Jesus and the Kingdom of God. But read the text – Jesus’ movement dropped what they were doing, not to join others, but to create an alternative place for all people according a very specific way of reflecting God's love.
As Paul makes clear in Galatians, the church of Christ is to eliminate distinctions among us. (Baptismal Hymn of Galatians) There is no need, though, to eliminate differences. For the church, or for Christians, to latch onto the coattails of grass roots African-American political and social justice movements has no biblical support. However, there is much biblical support for direct action by the church, and that action is to refuse to participate in our society from a position of racial, economic, or political privilege. To act out in attempts to control political outcomes or overwhelm evil with violence, or coercion, or even with elections is no more than an indicator that things must remain the same, only with more participation for “the other” in our system of privilege. Remember, the "movement" did not ask for a "White critique".
If #Blacklivesmatter intends to address racism, our position as whites in the church should be to confess our sin, and admit that the privilege that we continue to enjoy is due to institutionalized racism. By institutional racism, I refer to the fact that an overwhelming majority of white to lighter-skinned individuals have access to resources, economic advantage, healthy environment , quality education and health care, community stability, and political power, over and above the access available to persons of color. Institutional racism provides for whites to take advantage of privileges of citizenship and economic opportunity that are often not at all available to blacks. It does little to reflect God’s justice if we support the oppressed while still enjoying the fruits of being among the oppressors. It does little to reflect God’s justice if we work to accept an oppressed group into an oppressor class – believe, much of the “formerly” oppressed class will be left behind. To welcome people into the oppressor class only accomplishes the vindication of the oppressor. It legitimizes the entire edifice as one that slowly grinds through history towards a justice that, if we are honest, is not being realized among the nations. (Philippians Chpt. 2)
If #blacklivesmatter is to be about the black experience and justice for African American brothers and sisters, that is a proposition that does not need, and has not asked for, my support. Certainly, we may be asked to listen and to try and understand – to learn about ourselves and the nature of the suffering of others. However, #Blacklivesmatter exists and gains strength on its own. The Bible and the God of Abraham and Sarah directs the church toward a different role in establishing justice.
That is to reject the privilege that comes from being educated, white, and assimilated. An oppressive system will not understand the nature of racism and privilege until it begins to suffer from the lack of economic participation by those who seek justice for the poverty class. More than a boycott of racist economics and politics, the church must create a community that rejects such politics and offers an alternative. All are invited
How might we reflect a biblical call for justice start? Servanthood is the answer. We reflect Christ must by providing food and water to both the protesters and their tired and overworked oppressors. Police must receive the loving attention and a relief from working conditions that drive them towards a hatred perhaps more inspired by exhaustion and trauma than evil hearts. The church must be there for each individual, as a servant, and not as the militant white wing of racial justice. The church is not a force for universal racial justice, the church is an inviting place where this can happen – the church must be racial justice. We must strive to be the community that some see as an alternative to racist realities. The church is a community that knows racism exists because privilege must be maintained, and we must reject that privilege first and foremost. This is the cross. Others may not believe we are their friends. They may, however, feel safe and welcomed.
I am reminded of the anecdote of a white college student asking Malcom X what whites can do to help blacks. Malcom said at the time – “nothing. You can’t do anything;” Or something to that effect. Yet, when he made pilgrimage and saw a woman of light skin-tone crawling toward Mecca without a hint of privilege – he assumed a nature of both redemption and mercy toward this woman. It was her eschewing of privilege (of which he may have assumed she enjoyed) and her humility that made known to Malcom X the nature of her faithfulness, and as such, her heart toward all human beings. It is in this Muslim woman that we must see Christ.
It is not power and privilege that equals justice, at least not in terms of the gospel and the life of Jesus. Christ-like are those of washing the feet of victim and victimizer, and feeding the hungry souls of those who enter into raging conflict. African-American neighbors and friends are not a monolithic group of people that share a monolithic understanding of preferred political or social outcomes. Yet, we tend to include them under our own racially tinged umbrella of "justice." Blacks might not trust supportive whites to help in reaching goals. Such trust, it seems, has failed to often. The church is called to reject privilege so that the oppressed have options to pursue and goals to establish that are no longer hindered by or redirected by white privilege. For this to happen, the church does not need to join the movement, it needs to get out of the way and welcome all who come near the grace of food, shelter, love, understanding, and above all an intended racism-free community of respite.
Do not misunderstand my words. When I say the church should not enjoin or co-opt African-American protests – I do not mean we do not agree with their perspective, nor must we be critical of any aim or methods used by our neighbors and friends. I do mean that, first, our support cannot be misunderstood as means of whites trying to vindicate ourselves and our liberalism while all the time enjoying our privilege. Second, I mean that the church seeks a different outcome, a racism free community that we understand can only occur through the emptying of power and control over outcomes. There is nothing to suggest that #blacklivesmatter should or wants to emulate such a perspective on truth, or that they should be bound to eschew privilege if it is political and economic power that some or even most are seeking.
Indeed, the church is a refuge for both refugee and warrior, for both oppressed and oppressor. One must only lay down their weapons and reject privilege to enter. May we refresh the souls of everyone. May we reject making Jesus king by force. (John 15:1-15)