This week at my church, Solomon’s Porch, while our usual master of ceremonies, Doug Pagitt, is out of town for the Christianity 21 Conference, I will be hosting the sermon time conversation. Actually I will be co-hosting the conversation with my friend Victor, who is one of the only black men in our community. And we’re going to talk about race.
Church continues to be one of the most segregated spaces in our culture. And my church is no exception. How does a predominantly white church go about talking about race anyway? Is it important for us to talk about? How do we come to empathize with an experience that is not our own? Lastly, can we connect a modern discussion about race to the teachings of Jesus in a meaningful way?
To answer my own questions, I think that predominantly white churches begin talking about race first by listening. We seek to listen to the experiences of people in our lives and community as well as people outside of our immediate experience who have spoken to us through creative expressions like films, books, and works of art. We come to the table seeking to understand. I want to open this conversation because I believe that it is important, and that it is central to the spirit of Jesus’ call to love and see and hear others the way we also want to be loved, seen and heard.
I’ve noticed that in predominantly white churches the topic of race doesn’t come up much. Perhaps it is occasionally mentioned in a passing comment. And this is a form of passive white privilege; we don’t have to deal with issues of race unless we choose to. And that’s just not right or fair, for some of the body of Christ to live in a protected bubble of privilege, while others face issues of racial injustice everyday. Not talking about racial injustice in churches gives false impressions, like that there isn’t a racial problem in our society, or that its not ok to talk about it at church, or worse, that Jesus doesn’t care about racial injustice.
So simply giving space and breathe to the topic is important because it keeps us learning, feeling and thinking about it. And in that process, we grow, stretch and change, as both individuals and as a community.
So how do we talk about race? First I we start by listening. Hopefully this helps us gain some perspective on where we’ve been, and where we are now. I’ve listed some helpful, informative and inspiring films about racial injustice, specifically the black experience in recent American life, below.
Oddly, the way I was first candidly educated about the black experience in America was by staying up way too late at night watching black stand-up comedians like Dave Chappelle as a child in the 1980’s and 90’s. There was something about the comedic format that was disarming, engaging and brutally honest. In the clip I’ve attached here, Chappelle begins by saying,
“You see, black people are very afraid of the police. That is a big part of our culture. It doesn’t matter how rich you are or how old you are (applause…) And we have every reason to be afraid of them…and I didn’t always know that that was a black thing, it took me a while to figure that out…that whole police brutality thing is common knowledge now, but there was a time when only minorities knew about that…and white people, I don’t blame you…it wasn’t until Newsweek printed it that you knew it was true…”
Well, I think we white churches can do better at understanding a part of the body of Christ’s experience in life than to wait until we read about it in Newsweek! Let’s talk about this and see what we learn from each other.
This week we’ll be encouraging people in our community to see a recent film like Selma or The Butler and talk about our response to it in light of where we are facing in our society today. I would also like to add what I consider to be ground zero in terms of understanding the civil rights movement in our country, a documentary called “The Untold Story of Emmet Till” (Emmet Till is called the “sacrificial lamb” of the human rights movement in the U.S. since his young and brutal death kicked off the civil rights movement. Emmet Till was mentioned by Oprah’s character in The Butler. Though if you’re not familiar with his story you may have missed it!).
Lastly, in terms of tying in the teachings of Jesus…progressing in human rights and breaking down social barriers between people is what I think Jesus was foreshadowing in John 14:12 when he says,
“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do EVEN GREATER things than these, because I am going to the Father.”
Jesus wasn’t just saying that people would do miracles of healing or other physical feats after he ascended, but that we would do the greater things relationally and societally in ways he couldn’t accomplish alone in his life. For example, in terms of progressing in human rights, after he left, we have done more than he could do during his short life. Over time, his Spirit has worked through courageous people throughout history to stand up for what is right, to help change society, and make a more just world. Sadly, often these heroes of human rights had to take a stand against many facets of the church itself and the way that these churches were using the Bible to oppress people rather than to heal and lift them up! Jesus continues to do this work through us, his hands and feet and body on earth. May we be so privileged to join him in doing greater works of racial healing in the world than he did!
Selma Trailer http://youtu.be/x6t7vVTxaic
The Butler Trailer http://youtu.be/dhrR4B0hUaw
The Untold Story of Emmet Till http://youtu.be/bvijYSJtkQk
Dave Chappelle on police brutality http://youtu.be/VFHpvPwq2i8
Happy Martin Luther King Day!