Saturday, June 20, 2015

Race, Racism, Culture, and Problems

In my small and relatively insignificant corner of the world, topics of race, racism, white culture, black culture, and the problems related to all of the above have been on my mind and heart heavily for the last few weeks. This has been a topic within my church (the Presbyterian Church in America), where it was the center of many conversations at our annual General Assembly last week. It has been a topic in the national news, when—as you already know, unless you’ve been out of touch with any news whatsoever—an avowed white supremacist entered an African Methodist Episcopal church in my home state and gunned down nine members of that congregation. It has been a topic within my own family for other more personal reasons. 

It’s a topic that I cannot avoid—not that I’m trying to avoid it, nor am I interested in doing so. Nevertheless, I’ve been reluctant to enter the fray regarding this topic, not least because I’ve felt that anything I may have to say about it is probably already being said much better by someone else, and on the other hand my own words about it would likely get drowned out by the many, many voices speaking up about it. 

But it is an important topic, and one that has rightly come front and center for the last year (beginning with the events and injustices in Ferguson, MO—another place and event that was close to me, as I called St. Louis home for longer than anywhere else other than my hometown. It has also been on my mind for the last year because, last summer, my family moved back to the Memphis, TN area, and as we re-acclimated to the culture here I’ve been reminded more times than I would like just how deeply Memphis and the Mississippi Delta region have been in the thick of racial tension for the last half-century and more.

As much as I’ve read about this vital issue, there are some things that I have yet to see someone articulate—or state in the way I would, from the perspective that I have—that may be worth hearing/reading. So I have set out to put a few thoughts into words and sentences, which hopefully will add to the many well-stated articles and blog posts out there as a voice of harmony: not singing the same “melody" as the rest, but also not so dissonant that it undermines the important words of others either.

(I’ve put these in “bullets” not because they are all that brief but due to the fact that the paragraphs below are related only loosely to each other.)

  • The last day of General Assembly for the PCA (and particularly from about 7pm on) was incredibly moving, humbling, and, overall, a powerful and large step in the right direction. I am grateful that my denomination seems poised to take real action, from the highest levels on down, to make confession of our sins regarding racial injustice, inequality, and indifference. It is encouraging to see those who sometimes (and even frequently) disagree come together in unity to act on this. Yet I find myself wrestling with temptation to be pessimistic, and even cynical, about the possibilities of how this will play out: too many times, an action like this one (where something substantial happens at a denominational level) can serve as an excuse or even cover for local congregations that need to do much, much more than just pass resolutions to simply give a nod toward the denomination’s action and little or nothing more. I pray that the small part of me that doubts will be astounded by how wrong I am.
  • Like many others, I applauded the words of one of the founding pastors of the PCA, Jim Baird, when he stood and gave assent to his own participation in racial injustice in the denomination’s early years. Like others, I recognized this publicly by posting a photo of him on Facebook and Twitter, calling his action “brave, humble, and heroic.” I stand by my claim that this was indeed a powerfully humble thing; however, after being checked by my friend Jeremy, I have reconsidered whether it was truly “heroic”—and I think now I must say that, as great a moment as that was, it fell short of true bravery and heroism. In re-reading the transcript of what was said, there were ways in which Dr. Baird hedged his words a little too much, and qualified his positions and actions too frequently. I’m certain that saying what he did took great humility and no small amount of courage, but it also strikes me as falling short of what we needed to hear from one of our remaining founding fathers: that the actions of many PCA churches were not just indifferent but aggressively (even if often passively) racist, that we need to repent of that as a denomination, and that local churches need to repent of that as congregations. Given the context—where he was in perhaps the very most favorable of all circumstances to make such a public confession—he would have had nothing to lose, and everything to gain, in making such a statement. It is impolite, I admit, to critique another man’s public confession of sin, and I apologize for that; but I feel the need to say it, as much to recant my own public statement as anything.
  • There’s something to be said for giving people credit for “progress” when it comes to growth with regard to their worldview and cultural mindset, such as how they think about racism and those of other races. I’ve heard, and said myself, qualifications like, “…considering that they grew up in a racially segregated culture…” But let’s keep that in check; the American Civil Rights movement began over 60 years ago, and even the oldest generations among us have lived more than two-thirds of their lives under its influence. It’s time to stop giving a pass to people who persist in racist behavior (even—and especially—when it is more subtle and passive) just because they are old. I know a man who, in his 50s, decided to stop going by “Dick” and start self-identifying as “Richard” because he recognized that the former made some people uncomfortable. If he can change his very identity for something so relatively insignificant, who among us is unable to strive to change something that is as important as racism?
  • I’ve heard and read the words of a number of people criticizing public officials for “politicizing” the shooting at Emmanuel AME Church of Charleston, SC. This doesn’t make any sense to me; isn’t this precisely what we both need and expect our civic leaders to do in a moment of local, national, and cultural crisis? It may be idealistic and even na├»ve of me, but I think that is actually what they are there for. Politicians are put into office to serve their constituencies, and service to them at this moment should look like a compassionate display of commitment to stand against such acts, as well as the motivations that beget such acts. Or, put another way: if circumstances like what we’ve seen this week are not the very reason for our civic leaders, then we actually have a very low view of the offices they hold (and should cease complaining when they “don’t lead” in other occasions).
  • One thing that has struck me is just how deep the racist divide goes in terms of an “us vs. them” mentality, and how this affects the way people speak. At General Assembly, I heard someone say that they hoped that the African-American pastors in the PCA could/would “teach us” (my emphasis) how to relate to “them” more inclusively. I’ve read, in response to the Charleston shooting, that “we” (referring, of course, to white people) need to see this as the racially-motivated crime that it is. If true racial reconciliation is going to occur culturally—within the church and/or outside of her—then white people have to stop talking like this! “We” includes black people and white people, as well as hispanics, asians, and other ethnicities and/or races. Do I think about the fact that every time I say “we” or “us” and mean white people, I may be inadvertently setting up my black, asian, or other non-white brothers and sisters as outsiders? (I do now.)
  • The shooting at Emmanuel AME was unquestionably a racist act, and as such fits the bill as a “hate crime.” It was a crime that was deeply rooted in sin and specifically in the disregard for the lives of others. Yes; AND, it’s also an act that should call us to consider how guns come into play in crimes like this. Sure, he could have used a knife, an axe, or a match—but he didn’t. (And can we agree that he probably would have been subdued without killing as many, at least, as he did, had he been using a knife or an axe?) We have sin problems in our culture, we have race problems, and we also have gun problems. Arguing that “guns are not the issue” is simply a false dichotomy and, in my opinion, willfully turning a blind eye to one of the pressing matters that also needs to be addressed, along with race and sin. Can we quit treating these as if they are simple “either-or” issues? (I say this as a gun owner, by the way.)
  • It so happens that I am preaching tomorrow; I seriously considered setting aside the sermon I was planning to preach, and instead turning to Scripture to exhort the congregation about race and racism. I’m not going to, because I’m not the pastor of the congregation I’m preaching to and that is really his ministry to them, not mine. That said: if your pastor hasn’t seized upon the many cultural moments that have presented opportunity to preach about the problems of race and racism in our world, perhaps you should ask him why he hasn’t. The reconciliation of the gospel is not only about racial reconciliation (and some pastors err in seemingly trying to make it so), but it certainly does include racial reconciliation. You—and me, and all of us who sit under the preaching of God’s Word—both need and deserve to be taught and ministered to on that topic, especially when the topic is so pressing culturally.

Well, that’s all I have to say for now. Thanks, as always, to my tens of readers (if you’ve made it this far) for checking in.

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