Race Talk in Colorblind Churches

In the wake of the weekend verdict over George Zimmerman’s shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin, my Facebook page was ablaze as various news outlets repeated the same story and as some friends expressed shock and a few fear. In the midst of this a colleague asked her friends for their reflections on how churches in America ought to respond to this moment that clearly bespeaks of the continuing racial divides in our nation. She sent us to noted progressive evangelical Jim Wallis’ reflections as a conversation starter. It got me thinking that I had left tabs open to several blog posts from noted Protestant Christian clergy, so I took it as an opportunity to synthesize the comments with Wallis’ post to start.

Wallis’ words are engaging as always. He joins some Christian bloggers in using this moment to speak directly about the anti-black racism in our nation, and how Christian can work against it. What focused my attention was his solution, the importance of multiracial churches, churches that have no more than 80% of its congregants reflecting one particular racial group. From here, Wallis contends, white and black parents can speak with one another, learn from one another and ultimately stand with one another against systemic injustices that are targeted against some but not others. Noted conservative evangelical John Piper echoed the same point in more theological language of “reconciliation.” His point is the same as Wallis; reconciliation requires some kind of exchange where individuals and groups address a grievance and restore a broken connection. Such an exchange presumes a preceding relationship, and for many Christians the relationships at church take precedence. Hence for racial reconciliation to be effective, multiracial churches must be part of the solution.

While I advocate the importance of racial diversity in our churches, I am not confident in their efficacy to raise the kind of awareness that many are calling for. Sociologist Korie Edwards observed a predominantly African American church as it tried to transition into a multiracial church.  Her observations were telling: even when African American Protestants led the church and were the larger numerical group, the culture of the church conformed to the new members who were white. Rather than an equitable exchange and compromise among both (or all) groups, inclusion of whites in non-white congregations often results in acquiescing to their perspective and cultural assumptions.

This results in colorblindness in matters of structural racism, while still maintaining the veneer of diversity. That is, a lot of churchgoers like the idea of diversity these days, just so long as we agree to “focus on Jesus” and remain silent and ignorant about injustices that affect people of color, women, sexual minorities and other vulnerable groups. So we can look like a racial mosaic while never really understanding that our fellow church members don’t experience their day-to-day lives the same way.

But again I want to support the importance of these churches because these form the largest voluntary organization in the US, and sadly the most segregated. Frankly, if we were to take Wallis’ idea to heart, American Christians have more opportunity for interracial interaction in the workplace and in some neighborhoods as well, much more so than their churches at present.

And yet, I suspect that even in our neighborhoods, our schools, and our workplaces, there is still limited conversation on matters of racial injustice. If my guess is right, our everyday discourse is individualistic at its root; each of us, in theory, is only responsible for our own outcomes. Even when we are in a group, a team, a business, a church, the default attitude seems to be individualist. This way of thinking and seeing the world is so taken-for-granted that many bristle when someone makes mention of anything systemic. It feels artificially injected somehow to bring up talk of racial inequality. So if Wallis’ point is that multiracial churches are key because they allow for conversations among Christians across different racial groups, I would say, let’s look at all the other contexts that different Americans should be having these conversations, in theory, and ask why aren’t we having more conversations outside of church?

To be sure, African Americans, Christian or not, are having these conversations. And the shared sentiment of lament, moral outcry speaks to me as a sociologist: the patterns of interpretation are so consistent and racialized. Compare the reflections from Wallis and Piper with theologian Reggie Williamscampus minister Sean Watkins, and Wheaton College professor Shawn Okpebholo. While not an ideal setting, their posts have helped bring their voices to my mind when I have no one in my network at my place of work who echo a similar sentiment.

While there’s no study out there I know of that can document whether this can work, I suggest that the key is to dialogue within deep relationships that engage the mind, the emotions, and the body. I picture this: coworkers in the breakroom talking about anything but work; one of them mentions this “thing he read in the news the other day” which seems, from his perspective, like racism. Repeat this scene on a semi-regular basis, and perhaps someone might speak up and say “yeah something like that happened to a friend of mine last week.” At first some coworkers will find this unbelievable, exceptional, and dismiss it off hand. But if the stories keep coming in, and different coworkers speak up as well, then we are witnessing a conversation that brings structural racism into the fore. Regular exposure to this kind of structural awareness may nudge more people, churchgoer or not, to reconsider the notion of colorblindness.

For multiracial churches to promote structural awareness, they have to raise the community’s consciousness away from the trappings of individualism both in its beliefs and in its practices as an organization. Frankly this is a very difficult road to travel and requires more commitment intellectually and relationally than most people want to give to a congregation. Churches may have the advantage of more opportunity for relationship building than the workplace, but few have the wherewithal to create real deep relationships that demand giving up “me time” for the sake of getting to know others who face struggles that are completely foreign to one’s experience. It’s not surprising then that many churches emphasize “me and Jesus” Christian individualism. And if a church emphasizes “us and Jesus” Christian collectivism it can still suffer from colorblindness, even when the church is noticeably diverse. All you need is a community culture that does nothing to promote deeper engagement with others beyond a hearty handshake and hymns sung in unison for 60 minutes once a week.

Beyond the challenges facing a typical congregation that would like to have richer relationships across racial boundaries, we should consider the education of the clergy themselves. To what extent is their theological training in any way equipping their worldview to think in terms of structures (apart from the church)? I suspect that today’s seminaries too often describe racial difference in paternalistic tones or in a tourist-y/ buffet-style understanding of culture. It’s this thin understanding of culture that can create a church that has a sense of “we-ness” and still be oblivious to systemic inequalities. Of course it’s important to know that some traditions worship differently; it’s more important to know how these traditions reflect the way blacks and whites have lived in American society as sociologists Jason Shelton and Michael Emerson explained.  Understanding the historic role of systemic racism in cultivating theological traditions and practices is a first step that seminaries can take in creating structurally-aware multiracial churches.

For now, perhaps we can heed the suggestion of Eugene Cho, a pastor in Seattle:

Can we just take some time to hurt and mourn with many of our Black brothers and sisters?
Can we take some time to hurt with many Black churches and communities?
With our black friends, co-workers, and neighbors, can we commiserate with them – however limited we may be in that commiseration?

For us – as Christians – if our Black brothers and sisters in Christ are hurting…If they are truly our brothers and sisters in Christ; And if we are truly the Body of Christ as we profess…can’t we just shut up, listen, and mourn with them? Can we possibly try to listen, hear, and capture a glimpse of why they are upset, concerned, anxious, worried, and even fearful?

Race, Culture and Character: Seeing Jesus

Recently painter Thomas Kinkade, “painter of light” passed away at the early age of 54. While many viewers have decided views of what they think about this art, whether it suits them or not, one thing is certain: his work was decidedly informed by his faith. Kinkade had a particular theology about his art work and tried to convey his understanding of his faith through his art.

Kinkade’s passing coincided with my preparation for a class session on understanding religion and race. One of the themes I begin with is to ask students what Jesus and Mary look like. To this day, many students might remember seeing a Thomas Kinkade painting at a doctor’s office or in the hall of some academic or religious building.  

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