If King Wrote Us a Letter Today (a guest post from Grace Biskie)

Throughout the month of February, Patheos has invited its bloggers to contribute to a conversation called 50 Years After Birmingham: Reflections on and from the Black Church. I loved Patheos’ idea to host this conversation in honor of Black History Month and wanted our blog to be part of it. As a white woman with a mostly white blog-audience, I also wanted to invite us to consider bigger questions of race in our churches.

It didn’t take me long to know who I wanted to ask to help us lead us into this discussion. I’ve been following Grace Biskie‘s blog for several years and her perspective on race and the church continually challenges me. She is brave and vulnerable and funny and irreverent. I’m also pretty sure she takes the best selfies in the whole wide world of Instagram. I’m honored to have her words and her bold presence here with us today.

 

infitnite hope

It’s a sobering task to pontificate on what Dr. King might stew on when given the prompt, ‘If King wrote a letter to American Churches today would his dream have turned into a nightmare?’ He’s THEE Martin Luther King, Jr. for crying out loud. How could any of us possibly delve into the depths of his potential joy or pain at the State of The (American, Christian) Union in 2014?

Yes, he may be elated, overjoyed like so many African-Americans that the single most powerful man in the world is our two-term black American President, but what of the most segregated hour in America during Sunday morning worship services? Would that profoundly disappoint him or would he try and find an explanation? After all, African-Americans are only 13.1% of 316, 128, 839 people. Logistically speaking, 24, 131, 972.4 blacks can’t be at everybody’s Church on Sunday morning. (Not to mention these are census numbers. How many of the 24 million are Jesus-following Christians is a mystery). Perhaps King would throw us a bone on that logistical detail?

Maybe not. If Dr. King wrote a letter to the American Church as a whole (not divided by denominations or other demographics) he’d be a fool or clearly not himself to ignore this glaring conundrum.

I wonder if he’d information seek…

…okay, so first off, what happened after the civil rights movement?
….how did the American Church step in to right the wrongs?
…does the American Church believe they should play a role in reconciliation between blacks & whites?
…is the American Church taking advantage of MLK Day, Black History Month to remember, teach & challenge?
…what role is the American Church taking to contribute to racial justice?
…is righting the wrongs of our sordid history even a thing anymore?
…wait, what? It’s that bad?
…Facepalm. I, Dr. King, am facepalming.

I believe he’d have lots and lots of questions with lots of bad answers. The American Church may produce answers along the lines of…

…we’re sorry but not sorry. But sort of!
…yeah, we haven’t done much.
…well some of us are “called,” to this work, some of us aren’t.
…we have other things to worry about.
…we don’t trust them white folk.
…the black people are dangerous.
…we moved all the white Churches out of the black neighborhoods because, well, safety.
…we are post-racial, Dr. King, can’t you see? No more Jim Crow laws! Obama! Obamacare!
…we are STILL too busy to address this.
…we enjoy historical amnesia, like, SO MUCH BETTER than addressing privilege & guilt.
…we ain’t got the time to be messin’ with these racist white folk.
…sorry, Dr. King but we are all triflin’, God will forgive us right?

When it comes to the dream Dr. King gave us, The American Church -all of us- have done appallingly, astonishingly, pull-out-your-hair awful. How much progress in racial equality between blacks and whites can be attributed solely to the blood, sweat and tears of the American Church? Half? Less than half?

“Thank God for the American Church for their tireless work to end racism!”
“Thank God for the American Church for addressing not only the disproportionate amount of aborted African-Americans but also the fostering and adopting of black babies!”
“Thank God for the American Church for hosting discussions on race relations.”
“Thank God for the American Church for continuing to challenge it’s congregants to love those who look different than them!”
“Thank God for the American Church for being unafraid to address white privilege.”
“Thank God for the American Church for being willing to displace themselves IN AMERICA.”
“Thank God for the American Church who shines as a beacon of hope to Christians globally.”

SAID TOO FEW PEOPLE, ALMOST NEVER.

In my personal, humble yet strongly worded opinion, I believe Dr. King would cry big, fat tears of sorrow over our current state of affairs. It’s been 50 years since he penned the famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” yet, his dream of full racial equality remains unfulfilled. If racial polarization remains a problem in our schools, offices, churches, and neighborhoods, what’s changed? It’s obvious we’ve progressed some, but has the American Church progressed in learning to deal with our history in a way that honors God? Have we progressed enough to be able to point to ourselves as an example? Have we progressed enough to be able to acknowledge, “we don’t know what we are doing but we are trying!”

All I feel we have to offer Dr. King to day is a blithering excuse-laden pontification about how we haven’t done much and less than half of us care at all. It was 50 years ago when Dr. King wrote of disappointments and “shattered dreams” with the American Church and its leaders. Fifty years ago, King praised those “noble souls from the ranks of organized religion” who have “broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity” and joined in the struggle for freedom and equal rights. Why aren’t American Churches major contributors to racial justice today? A shattered dream then, a shattered dream now.

Yes, of course I know of Churches fearlessly addressing these issues, but is it our overall Modus operandi? No. There’s rarely an in-between. The type of investment it takes to truly work through and resolve the cut-like-a-knife tension between white-Americans & African-Americans takes an enormous amount of integrity & longsuffering. You don’t feel “called” or even willing to happily dish out blood, sweat & tears over this issue? Congratulations, you are NOT going to be part of actual racial reconciliation. I’ve never seen anyone form genuine, loving, mutual relationships across racial, ethnic & cultural boundaries without HELLA drama & pain. Even if it’s unspoken, it’s there. The more at stake, the larger the Church, the more congregants to lose, the more painful it is.

You want to ramble on about your black best friend or your white best friend. Pardon me for being UNIMPRESSED. Even your atheist boss has one of those. Tell me, how you’ve changed structures, how you’ve displaced yourself, how you’ve read (and read and read and read) historical and present day writings from people who look different from you for the sake of understanding. Tell me how you’ve used your life work to create opportunities for those who look different from you. Tell me, how you take your family to places where you are the minority despite how safe you feel or not. Tell me how you challenged your leadership team or worship team about racial equality no matter who got mad at you or left the team.

Tell me how you’ve bled.
Tell me how you’ve sweat.
Tell me what tears you’ve cried.

Tell me American Church.

Tell me we can do better.

Tell me we can have infinite hope.

 

 

Grace is a non-profit manager/trainer, writer/blogger by night.  Contributing author to Talking Taboo.  Grace is working on a memoir about surviving her father, her brother, abuse, racism, Christians, boys, and poverty, while growing up in inner-city Detroit.  Grace blogs at GraceBiskie.com & tweets at @gracebiskie.

  • Felicity White

    If you knew how hard I’m trying to make some of this happen, you wouldn’t yell at me. : ) But as you said, this is a long-haul process. I’m just at the beginning.

    • michaboyett

      Grateful for the work you’re doing, Felicity. And, yes, how do you measure the work of individuals? Racism comes back to what everything comes back to–relationships between broken humans. And relationships are the the stickiest and most difficult and the foundation of everything in life and in the church.

  • http://www.leighkramer.com/ Leigh Kramer

    This is so wise and insightful, Grace. I can see Dr. King asking those questions and I can see his tears over the response. I care about these things but I don’t often know what to do about it and that’s completely on me. You’ve got me thinking and I’m grateful for that.

    • michaboyett

      I totally feel the same, Leigh. Challenged and unsure. And grateful for the ways this is making me think…

  • http://www.idelette.com idelette

    This is my heart, Grace, not just for the American church, but for the church globally … My story is on the side of oppression–my background is Dutch and I only connected the dots around slavery and the Dutch trading posts along the African coast with my ancestry a few years ago … when I realized WHY the Dutch came to the Cape in South Africa. O, dear. The part around slavery was whitewashed and hidden for me until a moment at The Justice conference three years ago when I had to face that not only is Apartheid part of my story, but so is slavery.

    I don’t even know how I get to participate in conversations around race; the shame sometimes wants to cover me and silence me. I’ve worked on that and I’ve been invited into gracious spaces for healing, with my African sisters.

    I have worked hard to pull out the ugly weeds of racism and that “superiority”–I shudder even to say that word, but it’s part of what causes racism–that ran in my blood. And just when I think I’ve got it, I discover more. I have cried and cried and cried … buckets and buckets before God. I am willing and ready to do anything to speak up and tell those who diminish anyone based on race, how it diminishes the oppressor too, how it diminishes EVERYONE. Dr King + Desmond Tutu + Nelson Mandela have helped give me language for how we are all connected, even in the injustice.

    I’ve thought about shaving my head and calling for deep, public lament … I’m still willing to do that … an outward sign of the inner agony of this story of being on the wrong side of oppression that I live with and this big story of racism that we live in. But I don’t know what would demonstrate best to my brothers and sisters how white Christians lament the pain and oppression we have been part of and have benefited from. Maybe you could help answer that question? Is there something more we–the beneficiaries–can do? What do you need, my sis? is there something I can be part of doing, for example?

    I read a post on lynching over at Red Letter Christians the other day that had me just weeping. I heard Bryan Stevenson speak about prisons in the US this past weekend (and also before) and I was a mess and I wasn’t the only one. It’s all so much and I can only imagine how it breaks God’s heart and why isn’t it breaking ALL of our hearts more?

    Please know that your voice is heard and that there are some of us who are hungry to have this conversation and hungry to be part of changing this story. Meanwhile: Sing, my sister Grace, sing.

    • michaboyett

      Love this comment, Idelette. You inspire so many of us. Thank you.

  • michaboyett

    Grace, it was a quiet day here. And I know that’s because your words are challenging and dangerous and it’s hard to know what to do with them. But I hope you know that even the quietest posts are out there speaking loud. Thank you for saying the True Hard Thing.

    • http://www.gracebiskie.com/ Grace Biskie

      Oh Micha, guuuuurl I get it. Least interacted with posts ever are of these variety. =) I’m good. xo

  • http://www.coffeestainedclarity.com/ Bethany Bassett

    I don’t always know how to respond to your posts, Grace, but they always–without fail–get me thinking. If I can be shamefully honest, a little part of me wants to respond with indignation because I had nothing to do with the oppression and prejudice of my ancestors, because I worship at church alongside brothers and sisters of many different colors, because how can I keep teaching my daughters that appearance doesn’t matter while I’m keeping issues of race front and center? Truthfully, however, I realize that I feel indignant because I’m being challenged. You’re asking me to engage in a social justice issue that is scary and messy and so much bigger than I know what to do with sometimes. You’re asking the hard questions, and answering them is equally hard. This kind of hard is good, though, and necessary. Thank you for your bravery in speaking up, no matter how your message is received (or not received, or feared). I’ll be thinking over this one for a long time…

  • http://littledidsheknow.net/ Cara Strickland

    Thank you Grace. You always challenge me and lately all of this has taken hold of me. I need your voice in my head.

    • http://www.gracebiskie.com/ Grace Biskie

      Cara, glad to hear it, Sis. Much love.

  • http://www.bethanysuckrow.com/ Bethany Suckrow

    Like Idelette said in her beautiful comment, I’m at a point now in my journey of acknowledging my part and privilege in this issue that the stories move me to tears, but I also feel convicted to take the next step in reconciliation and I’m not sure what that is. In my “sphere of influence” as it were, a lot of people mindlessly post and share things on social media that smack of benevolent racism, so I’m often posting things to counteract it – to amplify voices like yours in hopes of peeling back their layers of protection to reveal the ugly underbelly of pervasive inequality. But I’m hungry for the next step. As Cara said, I need your voice in my head. Keep speaking up, Grace. We’re listening. Love you, sister friend.


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