The question that still remains concerning race in America is the question of unity. What does it mean to live in unity with those who are not like us? What does it mean for the majority to recognize and accept the issues that are important to the minority? How can the minority who has been oppressed and still feels the remnant of that suffering move past the hurt to embrace unity with the majority? There are no easy answers to these questions but that does not mean we cannot attempt to have conversations that move us toward resolution. The prevailing sentiment is that we are too far gone; that people have dug their heels in and there is no room for negotiation or discussion. The prevailing sentiment is that any compromise will be seen as defeat; any concession of any point concerning what we believe about race/racism will be viewed as losing our principles. None of which is helpful. We have to be able to have discussions. We have to be able to honestly question each other and allow ourselves to be questioned. We have to be able to hear one another with the understanding that no one has all truth and no one is all wrong.
My hope that this is possible comes from my belief in Jesus Christ as the savior of the world. This week’s lection from John 17:1-11, reminds us that Jesus was given authority over all flesh to over eternal life (v. 2). The tricky part is found in the very next verse: “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” The unity we seek is in knowing God the Father and Jesus Christ. But what does it mean to know God? People have used their “knowledge” of God to justify many abhorrent behaviors and beliefs. Racism has been justified using scripture. Division has increased as people lay claim to God’s word as their own, refusing to believe that anyone else has knowledge of who God is. Yet, Jesus prays for all who are his followers. He prays that we might be one as he and the Father are one. This does not mean sameness but does mean an intimately close relationship that allows for difference without separation. We have to be willing to come back to the table and discuss our difference knowing that we are united in Christ. We have to swallow our pride and let go of our self-glorification born out of this belief that we fully know God. We have to admit our limited knowledge of God and embrace the knowledge that others have been given by Jesus Christ.
Until we face the problem with honest reflection, we will continue to live in the division and conflict we see in the world today. Until we let go of our need to be glorified, to have the light shine on our thoughts and beliefs, we will continue to fail to glorify God with the unity God intended. I’m ready, let’s talk.
As Brian and I have engaged in this conversation about race, I have been challenged by some who question the benefits of engaging in this conversation. My role as a United Methodist pastor has been put forth as a leading reason for me to disengage from talking about race for fear that my position and opinions will create animosity. Racism has become a topic that is off limits even though we know it is still a problem in the U.S. Yet, we know that the only way to eliminate a problem is through meaningful discussion. This is a discussion that the church ought to be leading because we have the framework which allows truly open and honest discussion that creates the unity we seek without diminishing those who participate in the conversation. We have the cross of Jesus Christ.
American slavery and its legacy of racism seen through the power of the Cross is not about black victimization or white guilt. It is an example of resurrection. The Christian doctrine of resurrection provides the means by which we can discuss racism and how to move forward without assigning guilt or creating victims.
According to Christian belief, Jesus Christ suffered a terrible death on the cross. He was beaten and abused but he is not a victim but a conqueror. Jesus died on the cross but his death is not final. American slavery and the racism that followed created death in so many ways for people of African descent but this death is not final. African-Americans have come through the suffering, pain, and literal and figurative death of slavery and racism to not only survive but live. The experiences of African-Americans brought life to this country. There are many achievements that occurred during and following the suffering and pain that slavery and racism imposed on people of African descent that affirm this point. Viewed through the power of the cross our discussions about racism must not focus on black victimization but rather must focus on the faithfulness of God to bring light out of darkness; joy out of suffering; life out of death.
Likewise, Paul writes in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Immediately preceding this verse, Paul writes about how he wants to do right but evil is close at hand. He writes about the wretchedness that he feels; a wretchedness that he likens to death. It is in the cross of Christ that Paul finds relief and is free of the guilt that comes with sin. So it should be that talk of the sin of slavery and racism among Christians should not lead to condemnation and feelings of wretchedness. Instead, white guilt is replaced by the saving grace of Jesus Christ so that we know that the law of sin is overruled by the law of the Spirit. Paul does not refuse to talk about his sins but he also does not give sin the final say. Our conversation is not centered on the death which comes from sin but on the life found in the Savior.
An understanding of the cross as the source of redeeming suffering and atoning for sin opens the way for the final and complete end of racism, at least among those who claim Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. The power of the cross is greater than our sin, guilt, or suffering. Looking to the cross, let’s start the conversation!
In his last installment Brian writes, “we must be extremely clear of the danger of entering into spaces where your skin color has (been) weaponized and framed you with a malicious intent” in response of my reference to Luke 17:11-19. I refer to the ten people with leprosy being forced out of mainstream society and out to the borderlands as a parallel to the treatment of people of African descent in this country. I may have erroneously indicated that people of African descent have an option to stay in the borderland in relative safety. However, that was not my intent. The point I intended to make was/is that people of African descent are keenly aware that there are no safe spaces in this country for us. History has shown time and again that not even the church is a safe space for us. As a people, we have learned that even staying in the spaces where we have been pushed and limited to occupying does not ensure safety. We have also learned that staying in the borderland is not an option.
A Tribe Called Quest has just released their last studio recording and one of the tracks is titled “The Space Program.” This track speaks to the notion of making space for people of African descent in this country. Using the recurring hook, “ain’t no space program for niggas.” As much as I detest the word “nigga,” I felt its use here is appropriate and would pray that my inclusion of this word does not sidetrack the conversation. For in many ways debates about the use of the word “nigga” or other side debates take the focus off of the real problem that the Tribe is addressing. This track calls us to understand that space is not limited to physical, geographic space but rather refers to social, cultural, and historic space. People of African descent are often denied space in this country. The teaching of African American history has faced opposition and hostility even in school districts that are more than 80% African American. The use of the name “African American” itself ignites debate and hostile opposition. People of African descent are often invited out of the borderland to sing, dance, and/or play a sport with the understanding that no space will be made for you. African American culture is often co-opted, from rock and roll to hip hop, from soul food to spirituals. There is no space for people of African descent.
Yet, we survive. We continue to exist and that existence cannot be denied. It is the denial of our existence; the lack of space being made that continues to fuel the conflict. We are here and we are not going anywhere. The simple but complex answer to our racial problem in America is the creation of a space program for people of African descent.
My friend Brian Foulks writes, “Racism shapes itself to this form of identity where only those who are willing to conform to dominate culture are seen as Christ-like and worthy to be humanized.” My initial response was to immediately disagree and point to the need to not give this much power to the evil that is racism. I am always tempted to simply point to the sovereignty of God and remind anyone who will listen that there really is no battle between God and evil. Yet, as I began to write I was convicted that I am speaking as I would like things to be but not as they actually are. I am reminded that Sunday service is still mostly segregated. I am reminded that we have a ways to go in dealing with racism in this country and if there is going to be any real change it has to start in the church.
However, the gospel stills speaks to me. Luke 17:11-19 relates the story of Jesus healing ten lepers. Verse 11 tells us that as Jesus travels along the border between Samaria and Galilee on the way to Jerusalem. Jesus is between two groups of people, two different and opposing worlds. We are reminded of the current race relations in America. Whether we want to admit it or not people of African descent and people European descent often live in very different worlds in this country. Jesus not only travels along the border between these two worlds but he brings healing in this space between these two worlds. In our time we have to meet each other at the border. We have to realize that we cannot continue living separate from each other and still claim to be followers of Jesus Christ. Jesus travels the border between all existing conflict that separates people from each other. Jesus travels the border between what is and what should be.
As a person of African descent it is not unusual to have border experiences. I often find myself in places where I am surrounded by people who are unlike me. The key, and this is where I agree with Brian, is people of European descent being willing to come out to the border. There will be no racial reconciliation until people of European descent are willing to come to the border and participate in the healing that Jesus offers. There is hope but we have to be willing to acknowledge what is while believing God for what can be.
One of the most confounding and frustrating aspects of living as a person of African descent in this country is how the majority population responds to our depictions of racism. Responses take various forms but essentially boil down to “suffer in silence.” People of African descent who expose racist acts or who continually speak out against racism are charged with being divisive, race baiting, overreacting, and the list goes on. Well meaning people have said and sincerely believe that those who are being oppressed by racism make their condition worse by speaking out. These well meaning folks advise silence as the solution and this is frustrating for the person being oppressed.
History does not support this claim. Oppression has never ended simply because the oppressor came to his or her senses. There has to be pressure applied in order for change to occur. In this situation, the change will only come when it is no longer only the minorities who are speaking out. There are those of good will that want to see racism end but are uncomfortable and may even feel attacked when racism is exposed. The hurdle is to not take the exposure as a personal attack but simply as a statement of fact. We are still a country that has a way to go before we are truly the “land of the free and home of the brave.” We have ways to go before we are can truly say, “with liberty and justice for ALL.”
The command to stop talking about racism; to keep silent is an affront to the struggle to end racism. As well intended as this advice or instruction (which is problematic as well) may be, it denies a certain dignity to those who are suffering. Richard Rohr writes, “The body can live without food easier than the soul can live without meaning.” By telling a group of people to be quiet and stop talking about your suffering you are saying your life does not have meaning. Your life is not even worth talking about never mind being worth saving. So please, don’t tell someone who is suffering from the effects of racism to be quiet and stop talking about it. Instead, tell the racist to stop being racist.