On August 6th, the Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Elizabeth Eaton, and William Horne III, a member of the Churchwide council, led a webcast discussion and Q&A on racism. For our church, it was a significant attempt in bringing the topic of racism to the forefront in our church. You can watch the 40 minute webcast here.
My initial impressions were overall positive, but at the same time I was left wanting. I think it is a good step to bring the whole church along, slowly, into the conversation. I think we have to realize that not everyone is as well-versed, nor self-actualized to reflect on things like privilege, prejudice, micro-aggressions, and subversive discrimination and racism. This is a hard conversation, and for me, I hope it’s not one we simply restrict to the forms of racism that African-Americans experience. I think we need to have a conversation about racism that goes beyond one ethnic or race group and includes all who suffer through their experience of it.
More than that, however, I think the thing that left me wanting was people in the church want to solve a “problem” – the “problem” of racism. A good friend of mine reacting to my rather confrontational blog post prior to this one, expressed that in some ways, he feels like he’s “part of the problem.” I find sadness in that statement, and sadness for those who share that same sentiment, because I often wonder, “where’s the grace that leads to reconciliation in that?” Problem-solving seems to cause a divide along lines of right and wrong, just and unjust where some are left in perpetual shame. Additionally, people are not part of a “problem” or a “solution.” Rather, they simply are part of a larger narrative, a reality that exists in our world, a reality held in bondage to human sin. And frankly, as a person of color, I don’t want people to think of my life as a “problem” to be solved, but rather, an experience to be engaged, empathized with, and respected. Rather than a solution, I seek to be understood….and we cooperate in addressing the reality of racism in our society as the church, and on terms in which we share in our broken humanity, together.
I think issues of race are best addressed not as a problem, but rather, by being honest.
Consider the following:
- Our church is and always has been a non-diverse, white church racially, ethnically, and culturally.
- Our church has very few people of color in positions of leadership, and we so often do not hear those voices speaking on the issue of racism.
- There is little that exists within our church’s forms of communal life, worship, and ministry that align with the cultural and ethnic values of persons of color.
If we view these things as problems, then we start pointing fingers. Someone’s right or someone’s wrong; someone’s to blame. There tends to be a right or wrong answer, a solution to the problem, to which we basically categorize people as “part of the problem or part of the solution.” (What makes it even stranger for me is that it tends to be whites who think and talk amongst themselves about the topic of racism; it’s like a bunch of history majors trying to teach each other about Nuclear Power)
However, if we approach these statements as simply an honest portrayal of reality, we realize that these things simply exist. We take them at face value, and if they don’t alight with who God has called us to be, then we simply work to change them as followers of Christ. There is a critical distance that comes with the exercise of being honest, identifying what is true and examining if it aligns with what we confess about God and Christ. That critical distance, I believe, creates a less anxious and shame-inducing process than problem-solving. That is a more Christian, and honestly, a Lutheran response. Our tradition steeped in a theology of the cross proclaims that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is not about offering solutions to life and society’s problems, but rather simply being honest about reality and “calling a thing what it is.” Our confession and repentance in worship is a corporate one; “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves…..” I think we have to acknowledge first our non-diverse church and the limits that exist because of it when we talk about racism. The response is that we just have to stop deceiving ourselves and acknowledge the fact we are not diverse, and perhaps consider where we need to fill in the gaps if we’re to understand racism further.
That brings me to my second response to Thursday’s webcast: honesty also moves us to a posture of listening rather than fixing. The honest admission is that because we are not diverse, we do not know what experiencing racism is like, so we need to listen. We need to listen to the stories of African-Americans, Latino/Latina Americans, Asian-Americans and all others of what it’s like to live as a person of color in this country. We need to listen to the harassing, fear, anger, frustration, and the hope in their stories. Listening, rather than fixing, means that people of color become our teachers, because their stories are the purest form of understanding racism and what is at stake for people’s lives everyday. “Fixing” leads us toward the need for uniformity and comfort, and usually ends up in shame, division, and avoidance within communities. Some are right, and some are wrong….and we remain unchanged, our hearts actually hardened against the other. Racism is not a problem to be fixed…..but rather a reality to be heard, understood, and transformed by.
What if we simply listened to the truth in stories told by people of color….and allowed ourselves to be transformed by them?
I believe something else is powerful about listening to honesty in story. Listening moves us to a place of grace. We become gracious in allowing space to hear someone’s story. People are gracious in sharing honestly with us. And aren’t we so transformed in such a gracious exchange? It is this grace, freeing us to be vulnerable with each other, to connect with each other as humans loved by God that perhaps, will indeed be the salvation of us all. And isn’t that what God’s grace is all about? And as Lutherans, isn’t this a manifestation of God’s Grace in Jesus Christ that we all hold so dear?
The truth is, in my humble opinion, that this is the liturgical movement we experience in our Lutheran worship: honesty as confession, humility and openness to the other as repentance, and listening as grace being imparted on us. We can’t solve the problem of racism on our own because we are all sinful and fall short of God’s grace…..but maybe the point is, racism is not a problem to begin with; and when we’re honest about that, we can start being honest about what God is calling us to say and do as a church confronting the sin of racism in America.