“…One of the significant challenges of discipling white Christians away from segregation is that we do not consciously identify ourselves as a racial group. We don’t consciously think of ourselves as white.” (p. 159)
After the death of George Floyd, there was a very short time in which we began, as a nation, to unite around the tragedy of racial injustice. Within days, however, protests turned into riots, which took over broadcast and social media and split the national conversation into political parties so that we could slide back into our camps and not have to go through that uncomfortable, squirmy examination of our consciences.
Before that slide, though, I ordered a whole pile of anti-racist reads, just to make sure that I got really uncomfortable and stayed there. The one I picked up first is pointed at the white church, since I pitch my tent in the community of those who call Jesus Lord.
David W. Swanson is a white pastor in the Bronzeville section of Chicago who regularly speaks on issues of race, particularly addressing the white church. Because churches, particularly Protestant churches, are usually segregated to at least some degree, it is difficult for us to empathize with believers of color, since we never see them. Swanson points out three ways of thinking that are largely invisible to us but are influencing all of our conversations about race within the church.
First of all, white Christians are very proud of the American ideal of rugged individualism. We are quite sure that if each person worked harder and took personal responsibility, they would be fine. It worked for us, it will work for everyone. Often, we refuse to acknowledge that slavery and Jim Crow— although they are in the past and perhaps none of our personal ancestors were involved in them— have caused lasting damage to our society and our national psyche so that it is far more difficult for people of color to advance in the world.
Secondly, white evangelism and preaching appeal to the intellect. While we are rational creatures, we are also physical beings with emotions. Salvation is not an assent to a logical proposition, but a life that has been radically changed by the grace of God. As a result, we take up our crosses and follow Jesus. Discipleship engages the whole person.
Finally, white Christians tend to be anti-structural. That is, they are so afraid to shift blame away from the individual that any mention of “social justice” smacks of politics, and so they turn away. Eschewing the beautiful example of Christian abolitionists of the past, we forget that the Bible tells us that God requires us “to act justly and to love mercy.” (Micah 6:8)
Building upon this foundation, Swanson explores several ways that the church can reorient its discipleship toward solidarity in the kingdom of God using the Lord’s Supper, preaching, children’s ministry, liturgy, evangelism, and the many other ways in which we relate to one another. He also asks church leaders to examine their bookshelves to see whether there is diversity in the voices they are hearing. Perhaps no one will be able to use all of these suggestions, but they may be a springboard to the imagination for churches that desire to move into a true picture of the kingdom of God.
Although Pastor Swanson has years of experience living out his own ideals, his thesis will offend some readers, which is one good reason to hear him out. In this polarized time, all of us, Christians and non-Christians, seem to have drawn into two camps on nearly every question. In this instance, some churches have become all about social justice, as if that is the purpose for the existence of the church itself. Other churches are so opposed to that view that they refuse to confront the issue of racism at all and never approach the issue humbly, examining their own hearts. In my reading of scripture, though, it seems that the church exists, first and foremost, to worship God. After that, Jesus tells us to “go and make disciples of all nations,” teaching people to follow Jesus. Flowing from our love for God, we repent of our sins, and as we are Christians who happen to be Americans, it is completely Biblical to lament for our nation’s sins. This is not false guilt, and it does not involve kneeling before anyone but God, but it is acknowledging that the sin of racism is real. We must consider how we, as priests of God (1 Peter 2:9) can further the kingdom and “do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6:8)
There are two points that Swanson and others make that hit home with me and encourage me to continue reading and meditating on this issue. One is that white people may have suffered in their lives, and we all do, but we have never suffered because of the color of our skin. Millions of people have to go through the same trials that we endure in addition to overcoming our society’s hurdles caused by racial oppression.
Secondly, white people, often unconsciously, consider our lifestyles, our preferences, our speech, and our modes of worship to be the neutral standard by which everyone else is measured. Even in a multicultural church, the church leadership is most often white. Swanson talks about an exercise that he and his wife went through to adopt trans-racially in which the participants examine how many people of color are authority figures in our lives: your boss, your pastor, your doctor, and so on. The stratification of power in our world may seem invisible to us, but what are we silently communicating to our children?
In other words, although we may not consciously hurt other people, it is important to understand the other person’s perspective and to see if there is some way that we can change to bring about a more equitable society. As David pleaded with the Lord in Psalm 139:
Search me, God, and know my heart;
Test me, and know my anxious thoughts
See if there is any offensive way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting.
Scripture tells us over and over to examine our hearts. “As the eagle stirs up its nest” (Deut. 32:11), our churches should encourage us to get uncomfortable, to grow up, to act justly, and to raise up the next generation to love others who may not look like them.
We can start here.
Disclaimer: I purchased a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or any group.