By Rev. Chrissy Tatum Williamson
As holiday celebrations have faded and we are back to our daily work in this new year, many white American Christians find ourselves holding out hope that 2017 might be different. For many of us, the ghosts of our racialized history have come to life in ways that have left us all more confused, hurt, angry, and compelled to take to the streets – literally.
I suppose this is an appropriate time to pause and state that yes, I am a white, Christian, woman, writing about race. It is from this distinct perspective that the rest of this post will emerge. As a white person, I have lived my entire life completely oblivious to my own race. I wake up, eat, work, exercise, pray, parent and sleep day in and day out; and I do these things unaware of the impact that race has upon my life. That’s because I have the privilege of being part of the majority culture of whiteness in this country. I get to be oblivious.
On September 20th of last year, everything changed for me and other Charlotteans. Keith Lamott Scott was killed by a Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Officer near his home in the University Area. Almost immediately after the shooting, the news of Scott’s death emerged on social media and local news. Protests began and the real Charlotte came out for the world to see. Some accounts were translated through traditional media networks: newspaper, cable news, network news, radio, and press conferences. While others streamed on Facebook live, Twitter and other online and social media.
In response to these various and seemingly contradictory accounts of what had taken place, some took to the streets. Some stayed home. Some gathered in churches. Some wanted business as usual to return to the Queen City. Others knew that business as usual would never again suffice.
As stories emerged that seemed irreconcilable, one with another, the demands of the protesters and the demands of the power brokers in town seemed equally uncompromising. Business as usual and quiet, polite streets had paralyzed and silenced the voices of those left behind. It just so happens that the economic lines implied are also true among racial lines.
During the days of protests I marched a couple of times with fellow clergy in this city. I also had the privilege to participate in the planning and carrying out of several rallies and vigils that took place in our city (honoring both Keith Scott and Justin Carr, the protester who was killed in uptown on 9/21). Living each day alongside my sisters and brothers of color opened my eyes to the very real forces of racism and prejudice that is still alive and well in this city.
Returning to my congregation was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. Ironically (or some might say Providentially), we had just begun our year-long faith formation series on racial injustice, so the topic was already at hand. But when I returned to my people, the same question kept coming up: What can we do?
Caught between quick fixes, despair, and the long-seeded, exhausting, real solutions to the systemic problems that led us to the events of September 20th and after, I had no idea how to respond. After some very honest “I don’t knows,” I started brainstorming about what white people really need to do to confront racism and finally work toward it’s dismantling. The following is not an exhaustive list of solutions, but it is, in my opinion, a starting point for white Christians trying to understand the invisible (to us) forces that are keeping us out of communion with people of color. If we start here, who knows what might be possible.
Take the initiative to learn about race, racism, and white privilege. It is easy for white people to live each day without ever thinking about race. When we do think about it, it’s often because we are considering the race of others, in relation to our own. If we are being honest, it is often in the context of wondering how people’s race may play a role in preventing their success or limiting their opportunities. It’s time to pay attention to the way whiteness functions in our own lives, communities, and churches.
(Re) learn our shared history. American history can be told in a number of different ways. The glorified history that many of us learned is a tale of discovery, adventure, freedom and hard work. While those may characterize parts of our past, white Americans need to go back and rediscover the stories of our past told through the lenses of Native Americans, enslaved Africans and other historically marginalized and mistreated people. White Christians could use the same skills we use when reading the four Gospel accounts, each distinct from the others, and yet still revealing certain truths that are still critical to the bigger story of God.
Remember that Jesus was not white and his revelation of God started on the margins. Some theologians and church scholars call this doing theology from the bottom up. When we read the stories of Jesus in the Gospels, many of us remember the white Jesus from the paintings or felt story-boards in our churches. What if we held in the front of our imaginations that Jesus was a refugee, of questionable birth, before he was the crucified and resurrected messiah? What if we could remember Jesus’ message as it was: a radical movement that brought voices, experiences, and lives from the edges of society into the center of the conversation? What if we found ways to seek out those who are looked over, passed by, and deemed unworthy of our dinner (or communion) tables and affirm their stories, their truths, their experiences, and their value as equal with out own? Jesus was not a bystander, so following the Gospel means challenging yourself to actively question the status quo and the narratives it produces.
Build your stamina. Engaging in conversations about race is difficult. It stretches us beyond our comfort zones and into places of growth and learning. However, too much of that stretch zone can become harmful. Staying there too long can sometimes lead to feelings of depression, guilt, anger, and hopelessness. We all need to pay attention to ourselves and to our individual journeys of awakening to racial injustice. When we begin to feel stretched beyond that which feels productive, we need to know how to pull ourselves back from the edge for rest, rejuvenation, and to process our experiences.
I like to think about toddlers learning how to walk. They slowly build the strength to stand. Then, one day, with a beautiful destination in sight they set off, one foot in front of the other. All of a sudden, plop! Rather than giving up in that moment, they sit on the floor (sometimes crying) and consider what they’ve learned. Before long, they’re back at it, gaining strength, stamina, and courage with every new step. In the same way, we will grow weary, we will fall flat on our behinds, we might even cry. But then, we need to pick back up and resume the hard work that leads us toward God’s beloved community.
Don’t give up and don’t lose hope. When we go where God calls us, into the work of reconciliation and love, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and to feel like our small efforts could never change the big problems. Don’t give up. Don’t lose hope. If we really do believe in a God who became human in the most scandalous way… if we really believe in a God who can redeem this world through the life, death, and resurrection of that crucified and resurrected one…if we really believe it, we can never give up and we can never loose hope. For it is in that hope, courage, and endurance that love will win.
I don’t know what’s next on the journey of awakening for me or for the congregation that I serve. As I said earlier, this abbreviated list is not the whole solution; it’s just the first step. No one knows what lies ahead. What I do know is that I will never be the same following the events of 2016 and the series on racial injustice; and that I am grateful for my friends, colleagues, teachers, and congregation who have all been critical parts of my own journey of awakening.
Suggested reading for those beginning the journey of awakening to racial injustice:
Between the World and Me by TaNehisi Coates, 2015
Waking Up White by Debby Irving, 2014
White Like Me by Tim Wise, 2008
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson, 2014
Trouble I’ve Seen by Drew Hart
Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God by Kelly Brown Douglas, 2015
Rev. Chrissy T. Williamson is minister of faith formation at Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C.