The road to integration is an unforgiving assault on the hearts and minds of black clergy that serve in predominately white denominations. The continuous reshaping to make one’s authenticity fit into another’s warped shape of the Gospel becomes a perpetual task that tries to hijack one’s sense of being. The tragedy of being present, in spaces, where my humanity is only confirmed by my acceptance to assimilation is a solidarity to injustice, which I refuse to accept.
It is clear that the many within the ELCA camp voted for Donald Trump. (Lenny Duncan wrote a good piece about it) I am left to wrestle with this problem, “Why I am in the ELCA?” Why do I continue to connect with people who are so opposed to equality, equity, and justice? I used to say it was a sense of calling to the mission fields of whiteness but now I stand bewildered beyond reasonable thought. The constant awareness of having to explain your presence is insulting. I was assisting with the officiating of a funeral at the church. It was a very small funeral so there were no ushers. I took the liberty to greet friends and family as they arrived. Well, as I was opening the door, a lady comes to the door and says, “I almost ran when I saw this big, black man standing at the door.” Why am I in the ELCA?
Every day, it feels like the very essence of my being is sucked out of me. There are a lot of good people in the ELCA but there is no emotional safety. The task of naming and eradicating racism has been co-opted as racial reconciliation: the place where Black and Brown must become like us (white) instead of us becoming like them.
There were moments, when I thought that being in the ELCA was an honorable journey. I understood that it would be a hard road ahead, but I never considered the theological racism that masks itself as legacy and doctrine to be such a high mountain to climb. My faith has run out of faulty forgiveness that amounts to more opportunities to be dehumanized. I am tired of hearing that this is just how Lutherans are…The truth is that a Lutheranism that is still steeped 1517 rhetoric and liturgy never really had me in mind from the beginning.
Why am I in the ELCA? Well….
Walter spoke about the need to cross racial borders in order to produce some form of reconciliation. Honestly, that would be the end result of any conversation about race –we come to a resolution where everyone is humanized. The Gospel calls for such revolutionary actions to be normalized. But, borders are instituted by people when they do not want others to enter their space. So when we think about the possibilities of reconciliation, especially, when considering crossing racial borders, 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. I would pose the question: Does our need to be reconciled have to come at the price of being harmed?
Therein lies the issue of race that appears to reshape the conversation. For black people, there are no spaces of safety in a narrative controlled by racism. The narrative called (a)merica has redefined the humanity of people of African descent, and any time some of us enter in to what Kelly Brown Douglas calls “cherished spaces,” we must assimilate or risk being terrorized.
I am not as hopeful as Walter that these places for border crossing will ever happen in (a)merica. Authenticity must be foundational for reconciliation to be probable, and I am not sure how authentic people can be when their power is on the line.
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.
There is absolutely no protection from racism in the church. As much as I would like to say that the church is a true embodiment of Christ, I am displeased to admit that it may be the most embarrassing part of Christ. The subtle notion that we are all children of God gets swallowed up in the evil construct of race. The thought of compromising how worship is conducted in order to best serve the community is overlooked in order to keep with a dying tradition.
Honestly, it is a lie to speak about inclusion but never present oneself as inclusive. The church has managed to promote such a lie on a continuous basis. The church has made proclamations of being inviting only to rescind those invitations when folks are unwilling to assimilate into a prison of pseudo-joy –the Sunday experience of worship.
When the imago dei (image of God) is structured to represent those in places of perceived power, atheism appears to be a viable institution.
Inevitably, racism becomes a prime component of what it means to be Christian in a space where black bodies are weaponized. When this happens, no longer is grace a bilateral covenantal gift from God but a right reserved for those who assimilate properly. 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.
Racism thus changes the Gospel from liberation into church propaganda where grace is earn by simply being white.
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.