Tag Archives: Racism

Rediscipling the White Church, by David W. Swanson

“…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)

Rediscipling the White ChurchAfter 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.

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A Good Neighborhood, by Therese Anne Fowler

Good NeighborhoodValerie Anston-Holt is working in her beloved garden when she sees a new white family move into the subdivision behind her Raleigh home. It’s the recently gentrified neighborhood for people with new money who want to masquerade as people with old money. Brad Whitman is just the type: built his HVAC company from the ground up, and now he’s a media darling. He married his desperately grateful receptionist and became a stepfather to her little Juniper. Since then, they’ve had a child of their own, and Brad’s carefully curated image is complete.

Xavier is raking leaves for his mom when he sees Juniper sunbathing by the pool. Although the quiet musician is hesitant around girls, the two strike up a friendship that is well on its way to becoming something more. When Valerie sues Brad for cutting the roots of her ancient oak tree while installing his pool, she is unaware of her son’s delicate relationship, and when Brad finds out that Juniper is seeing a young black man, he reacts like a man whose property is threatened—and Brad is all about his property.

Although author Therese Anne Fowler receives national acclaim, she lives here in the Raleigh area, which is abuzz with speculation about the neighborhood that inspired her scandalous novel. No, we reason, those are McMansions, that one’s too settled, the other one’s filled with spec houses. It keeps us busy. In the meantime, while our streets are filled with protestors shouting about racism in our governmental systems, Fowler has written about the quiet bigotry, along with all the other slimy evil, that resides quietly in our hearts. Here is where the battle is pitched, in the shadows, where people who seem so nice are revealed to be self-seeking creatures armored with socially acceptable veneers.

Absorbing, infuriating, and compelling.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

american marriageCelestial and Roy had been married for a year now, and they were just beginning to talk about babies when they went to visit his parents for the holidays. While they were fast asleep in the middle of the night, police broke into their hotel room and dragged Roy away. An old woman he had been kind to earlier in the evening had been raped, and although she couldn’t see her attacker in the dark, she pinned it on Roy. He went to prison for being a young black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Their families were in shock, and a well-connected uncle immediately went to work to get Roy released. Celestial visited him regularly, and at home she toiled harder than ever to succeed in her doll-making business, along with the help of her childhood friend, André. Roy got a new cellmate, an older man who became a mentor. The years went by, and they each made a life for themselves. Nothing happened as they had planned, but they had to keep on living and making the best choices they could.

Tayari Jones’ novel, an Oprah pick and on many “Best of 2018” lists, deals with a myriad of issues that tie into and flow out of one another. Certainly, racism in our criminal justice system is front and center, but while news stories concentrate on the injustice to the individual, Jones takes us inside a relationship, a young marriage that is imperfect and just trying to find its footing, but filled with hopes and dreams waiting to come to fruition. When the husband is incarcerated, it is not just a crime against him, but it also tears a rift across his wife’s life, the lives of his parents, her parents, their friends, and even the children they might have had. It creates a ripple effect spreading out from their little circle of two.

Jones also examines marriage itself. All couples bring baggage into a relationship, and who can say what would have happened if Roy had never gone to jail? Perhaps he would have been successful in business, or perhaps his uneasiness about the difference in their families’ finances would have overcome him. Perhaps he would have been supportive of Celestial’s business, or perhaps jealousy may have made him petty and broken their marriage apart. Perhaps children would have healed all of their problems, or perhaps they would have thrown them into sharper relief. Celestial and Roy will never know what their marriage was meant to be, because their involuntary separation has become the defining issue of their lives, and while that may not be the true cause of every problem they face, it will certainly bear the blame.

This compelling story reveals the complexities of all American families, generations filled with secrets and bound by blood, love, betrayal, and compromise. The chapters are told in turn by the main characters, giving the reader a sympathetic understanding of everyone’s perspective. All of the characters are realistically flawed, and I remember telling a colleague one morning, “At this point, I’m just furious with all of them,” but I couldn’t wait to get back home to see what happened to them. Celestial and Roy will get under the readers’ skin and stay with them long after the novel is closed.

Recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Almost Sisters, by Joshilyn Jackson

Almost SistersThat little flutter in Leia’s belly makes her face the reality that Batman will be with her forever. Single and in her late thirties, she has decided to embrace her last chance at motherhood. Perhaps she had a bit too much fun at the Con where her famous graphic novel, Violence in Violet, was lauded before adoring fans, since she was several tequilas in when the Dark Knight ended up in her room. Now she can’t remember his name, and time is running out for her to find a way to tell her family before they can see the evidence for themselves.

Leia didn’t see the text that her step-sister sent, canceling the family’s weekly brunch, so she witnessed the messy break-up for herself. Standing in the collapse of Rachel’s marriage, Leia’s phone exploded with texts and calls from Birchville, Alabama, where her grandmother, the last reigning Birch, had just given scandalous evidence of her advanced dementia by revealing every dirty secret of her beloved First Baptist Church, and even her dear friend Wattie had been helpless to stop her. With her crushed thirteen-year-old niece in tow, Leia is rushing down to the small-town South to save the day, and as she drives, she realizes that one thing about Batman may suddenly become important. She does remember that he was black.

What is a graphic novel artist doing in a Southern chick-lit novel? How did this light read that I chose for fun end up so full of important issues? This is the first novel that I have read by Joshilyn Jackson, although a friend who is an expert reader’s advisor recommended her Gods in Alabama to me a couple of years ago. Always trust librarians, especially when they know you well.

In this novel, Jackson explores the phenomenon of two realities, two truths, existing at the same time and in the same place. This theme is woven throughout the story, and always through the lens of personal experience. She writes from the inside. When she describes the warm and loving Southern small town, where everyone knows and cares for everyone else, we feel the truth in our hearts. When she describes the cold and vicious Southern small town, where race and class divide everyone into rigid groups and hatred simmers just below the surface, we also feel the truth in our hearts. It is not a choice between two options; both are real, and it is just as appropriate to rejoice in one as it is to mourn the other. Similarly, her wide-ranging criticisms of the church are obviously made by a believer. Invective from an outside observer was never so insightful. Institutions that have forgotten the love of the gospel message can never be mended by emergency casseroles.

Beloved characters and a many-layered plot come together with Jackson’s friendly style to create a story that is more than meets the eye. Not just a glass of sweet tea—maybe with a bit of bourbon. I have a trip to the beach coming up, and Gods in Alabama is definitely coming with me.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not express those of my employer or anyone else.

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Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

AmericanahIfemelu sits in a shop in Trenton, having her hair braided before she returns to her native Nigeria. She half-listens to the African hair dressers around her as she thinks back over her life—her childhood in Nigeria and her thirteen-year sojourn in the United States—wondering whether she is making the right decision.

The dream of so many of her friends and relatives was to get a visa to live in America and to make it big, sharing the wealth with all of the family they left back home. Reality was jarringly different. No one wanted to hire an African woman. There were financial struggles and struggles of the soul. After a time, she started a blog, explaining black American culture to non-American blacks. Later, she said that she had never felt black until she came to the U.S. “I discovered race in America and it fascinated me.” (p. 499)

The story of Ifemelu’s awakening is a journey of awareness for the reader, as well. Her hopeful and frustrating romances: the experiment, the one who seemed so perfect, the one who got away. Ifemelu desires happiness with another, but the only man who understands her is the Nigerian she grew up with, whom she repeatedly and thoroughly rejected years ago.

Just as a traveler never returns to exactly the same place, so also does a reader never remain the same person after a novel this immersive and wise. We read in order to see the world through the eyes of someone unlike ourselves, and in this absorbing story, we journey with a woman who seeks her fortune in another nation, where there are people who look like her, but do not think like her, and others who look very different. This is a fascinating gaze at our own country through an intimate observer.

Do not miss this bestselling novel by an important author. Adichie’s brilliant and moving Ted Talk on feminism will also allow you to hear her beautiful voice. That accent will follow you all the way through Americanah. In this tumultuous time in our nation, let’s hear from all the reasoned voices, and let’s listen.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own, and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

Hate U GiveStarr and Khalil grew up together in Garden Heights, but they’d grown apart these last few years. When they met again at a party and some trouble started up, Khalil offered to drive Starr home before the police arrived. It wasn’t long before Khalil was pulled over for no apparent reason, and Starr found herself crying over his dead body while the cop held his gun on her until reinforcements arrived.

This was the second friend who had been shot in front of Starr, and she was only sixteen years old. In spite of the danger from one of the gang lords, she decided to give evidence in the case, but she hid the truth from her private school friends and even her white boyfriend. Starr’s life had already been complicated. Her father was a store owner and her mom was a nurse, but her father had served time in prison for drug dealing. In the meantime, her uncle was a cop and his wife was a surgeon. They lived in a big house in the suburbs. While Starr and her half-brother played basketball in the neighborhood under the watchful eye of one of the rival gangs, she traveled every day to a school where she was the only black girl in a very white world. Witnessing Khalil’s murder forced her to reexamine her everyday realities, her hopes and dreams, and her loves and loyalties.

It has been said that the Civil War was sparked by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. All of the elements were there for years before, but slavery was an intellectual question for most people in the north, and it didn’t touch their lives. Fiction has a magically insidious way of bypassing academic arguments and touching the soul. If you are a middle-class white person, as I am, we can read about racism in America, and we may even see Black Lives Matter protests on television, but then we can say, “Oh, dear! How terrible!” and turn off the TV. We don’t know what to think, and it happens far away (usually), and we just want them to stop so that we can all live peacefully. In a novel, we get a chance to live someone else’s life and to see through their eyes, and all of their experiences happen to us. We feel their sorrows and frustrations because we become them for a time.

I have had the advance reader copy of The Hate U Give for some months, but I knew it would be a gritty, emotional read, so I just kept it in the pile on my nighttable. It’s a debut novel, so when I bought it for our library system, I ordered the standard amount. Then people started to read it, and I’ve reordered twice. The holds continue to climb because everyone is talking about this amazing young writer and her complex, harrowing, yet triumphant story of personal growth and social justice. Fair warning that the language is realistically profane all the way through, so it may only be appropriate for older teens and adults.

Become Starr for a while. She has no easy answers, but she’s holding fast to the truth.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this novel, which was published in February. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Dispatches on Race from North Carolina

Esther Meg Josie India

Sweet Cousins

As a long-time resident of flyover country, I am often stunned by the off-hand comments of media types that are accepted as fact. These people are cloistered into large urban areas such as New York and Washington, and learn about the South by watching Duck Dynasty or Deliverance. Perhaps they have a friend who knew someone who once had a layover in the Atlanta airport. In other words, they are as knowledgeable as someone who considers himself an Egyptologist because he has danced to “Walk Like an Egyptian.”

Ferguson, MO

Ferguson, Missouri

One morning a couple of weeks ago, I was watching the news while getting ready for a funeral. Like the rest of the country, I was horrified at what was happening in Ferguson, Missouri. A young, black man was shot by a police officer, and the town erupted into violence, looting, and rioting, which the police, the Highway Patrol, and even the National Guard seemed unable to quell. One of the commentators on the news panel flippantly opined that we can’t expect anything else from the South, since they’re all racists down there. Wait.. what? The discussion continued, but no one even blinked an eye at this comment, let alone challenged it.

What a tidy way to distance oneself from the situation, though. “We” could never be “them.” We don’t live in the South. It’s all a matter of geography. No, it’s not. It’s all a matter of the darkness of the human soul, and there’s plenty of darkness to go around. The most startling racist remark I’ve heard in the past year or so came out of the mouth of a visitor from the Northeast. (I recently learned from Colin Cowherd that he is offended by the term “Yankee,” bless his heart, so I’ll refrain from using it.) She was expressing distaste at the generous diversity of our area, as if we lived in a bad neighborhood. We all stood there with our mouths open. This is our neighborhood, thank you, and we like it.

Mike and Bekah

Mike & Bekah

I had to turn off the television so that I could get to the funeral of a man from our church. It’s a good thing I was early, because the church was packed. Although I had not known Mike well, I had taken classes from him and chatted with him a few times. He was brilliant, of course, but also warm and friendly, and his wife, Bekah, is smart and fun. What I did not know until the representative from the C.S. Lewis Institute (the C.S. Lewis Institute!) spoke was that Mike was a major scholar who had taught in loftier places than our little church. He also composed music and founded a company. All these accomplishments were wonderful, of course, but that’s not what drew us to the church that day. It was our love for Mike as a brother in the Lord, and our love for his wife and kids. As Mike’s African-American family and Bekah’s white family filed into their seats that day, and as different mourners from our diverse congregation came up to honor him with music or memories, I looked around at our grieving members and wondered, “Could this much love and sorrow heal Ferguson, Missouri?”

One of the eulogists spoke of conversations he had had with Mike, who grew up in what he called “the worst zip code in the nation for young, black men”— somewhere near Washington, D.C., I gathered. Mike had been a gang member and a drug runner, a fact that most of us had a hard time reconciling with the quiet father of four that we knew. One day, the family came home to find that their house had been broken into and ransacked, and Mike was ready to run out and avenge himself on the perpetrators. His dad looked around and calmly said, “Let’s go get some dinner.” He refused to resort to violence and vengeance, and that was a turning point in Mike’s life. He learned that he did not have to act on his anger, but could rather choose peace. Mike became a Christian, went on to college and seminary, and… well, you know the rest. We are not doomed to act out a role in the play that our culture has written for us. We can choose the better way.

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Our son, Michael, and our foster daughter, Tiffany, in 1995

You may or may not remember the media guffaws and slurs over the photograph of the Romney family with their biracial grandchild. Their assumption was that the conservative grandpa was quietly having a stroke over this adoption. Now, I do not know the politics of our church members— since our elders wisely focus on the gospel, not temporal endeavors—but most people assume that evangelical church members are conservatives. In my thirty-some years as a Christian, I have never known a Bible-believing church—all over the South, mind you—that did not have at least one family who had adopted across racial or ethnic lines. Sometimes it is very deliberate, an effort to break barriers. Most of the time, though, it’s just a couple, overflowing with love, adopting kids who need their open arms. They know the challenges, and they joyfully accept them, because Jesus tells us to care for “these little ones in my name.” Diversity in our families and in our churches is a tremendous blessing to all of us, as we have the opportunity to dwell on our shared faith and all those things we have in common, so that we begin to see beyond race, to see that we are all just children in need of grace.

In the larger community, too, though, we normally live and work in peace and cooperation. When I left the funeral that day and made my way back to the library building, I mused a bit on our workplace. We are men and women, black and white, who spend eight hours together every day. We don’t tolerate each other; we like each other. We talk about our work, our families, and our rival sports teams. We complain about the weather and exclaim over cute shoes. We continually ask, “How are your kids?” We are exasperated with cranky computers, and of course, since we’re in a library, we spend hours talking about books and authors. Rarely do we consider race. However, on that day, I thought about the maybe-not-so-young black men that I worked with and realized that all of them were wonderful husbands and fathers. Did they come to a decision point in their lives and choose to rise out of poverty, or did they grow up in happy, middle-class homes and just followed in their father’s footsteps? I don’t know, but here they are now, making everybody look good.

Eli Mzee

Father and Son

Perhaps I am Pollyanna. I am a middle-aged white woman working in a quiet profession. I’m not a poor person living in the inner city, but neither am I a wealthy elitist, solving the world’s problems at a sanitary distance. I’m just an ordinary person, but I think that is the point. There are pockets of real problems in cities, sure, including the cities near me, and the media will always throw gasoline on any fire they can find. It’s what they do. But the civil rights movement happened more than fifty years ago, and although we need to remember its lessons the way we remember the Holocaust, we get it. I believe that most people are like me. We’re working for a living, raising our kids and grandkids, and participating in our communities. We’re ordinary people, and we’re doing okay. We are the ones who can make Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream a reality. We really can judge people by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin. We do it by living our ordinary lives together, day after ordinary day.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are entirely my own and do not reflect those of my employer, my church, or anyone else. Photos of individuals are used by permission.

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