Over the next few months I plan to take a personal journey. I invite you to consider joining me along the way, particularly if you are a part of Redemption Hill Church. Please take the time to see the motivation and reading list.
This is a guest post from my friend Pastor Shaun Cross. Pastor Shaun is planting Union Church in Washington, DC. I love what God is doing through this man and I’m so grateful that he is committed to this city. His perspective as an African American man and a pastor is invaluable to this discussion.
I remember the first time I realized I was Black. I know that’s a funny thing to say because my skin has always been brown. My hair has always been dark and tightly curled. I’ve always been Black. Still, I remember the first time I realized I was Black and that it meant something. I was in fourth grade, in aftercare at my school, a progressive, Fairfax County elementary school. We were playing Smear the Queer—they weren’t as concerned with safety or political correctness then—and I absolutely destroyed a kid running with the ball. He was mad. Understandably so. He muttered under his breath, loud enough for me to hear. “Stupid nigger.” Fairfax County, Virginia. 1991. My friend, Alfredo, asked if I heard what he called me and ran to tell the teacher. I remember him getting in his truck with his dad. It had two stickers, a confederate flag and a Grateful Dead head (I still have to disassociate the two things in my head from time to time). I remember my mom being livid. I remember seeing the boy at school and aftercare the next day. I didn’t understand the historical context and gravity of the word but I began understand that I was Black, not White, and that could be used as a weapon against me with relative impunity.
It wasn’t until years later that I became aware I was Black in the (White) church. That didn’t happen all at once, like at school. It happened over years and years, conversations and conversations. It became common place to be asked questions like “Why aren’t there Reformed Black folks?” (hint: there are) or “Why are Black churches overwhelmingly theologically liberal?” (spoiler: they aren’t) What this revealed to me, although I lacked the bravery to say it, was that I was a token, a symbol of a diversity that didn’t really exist. What’s more, it exposed an inherent difficulty I’ve notice within Whiteness, the inability to apply this country’s history of racialization to its current institutions and racial realities. In other words, the answer to those questions should have been obvious: the first seminaries and divinity schools to integrate were progressive or mainline. Conservative (Reformed and Evangelical) schools were decades behind on this. Black, American theologians and pastors went where they were accepted, learned under professors who would teach them, and adopted the systems that created equal space for them. Black theological liberalism is a byproduct of White Evangelical racism. Our current racial climate cannot be divorced from the fullness of our racial history.
These differences remained subtle until Trayvon Martin was murdered. What was so clearly injustice to me wasn’t to my White brothers and sisters. It couldn’t be. The weaponizing of Trayvon’s Blackness—both in his final moments and posthumously—and the divorcing of the past from the present (“This was an isolated incident and can’t be judged in light of collective history.”) made it near impossible to accurately assess the reality that the vast majority of Black Americans have understood and lived with for centuries. Trayvon, like Latasha in ’91 (the year of my awakening), like Emmitt in ’55, was murdered because he was Black in America and would become both the cause and the victim of his own murder. Perhaps more disheartening, it made my Christian brothers and sisters unable to even sympathize with my grief and frustration. I found myself simultaneously unsurprised and in disbelief at how many of my White brothers and sisters more readily sympathized with Trayvon’s murderer than Trayvon’s mother. In those moments, I began to realize that whatever I was, I was not fully a member of the Evangelical family. Not fully.
It’s become popular to talk about racial reconciliation in Evangelical circles. We want “multi-ethnic” churches, conferences, networks, and denominations. Still, in practice, what’s being communicated is we want you color but not your culture, context, causes, or concerns. In other words, you’re in the family but not really. Not fully. I get asked a lot by white brothers and sisters what they can do to work towards “racial reconciliation”. Frankly, I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s possible in this country, in this world, in this age. Still, there are ways you can be a better brother or sister to your brothers and sisters of color.
- Move from the language of racial reconciliation and to family. Before you close the tab, I know that reconciliation is Biblical language and rightly appropriated for this cause. However, reconciliation, the restoration of friendly relationship, is an unhelpful term in American race relations because it implies there was a time in America where race relations were good. This simply isn’t true. What needs to happen is ethnic justice and conciliation. Still, the church will be best moved towards ethnic justice and conciliation when they fully embrace the New Testament notion that the church is a family, adopted brothers and sisters brought together by the Spirit of the living God. We are a family. The bond of our family is stronger than ancestry, skin color, gender, or nation. The true affections that bond creates will be greater than the affections we have for our country, political ideals, and even theological system. Those affections and their Source free us to be agents of justice and conciliation because they give us compassion, hope, and humility.
- Trade a posture of defensiveness for one of humility. There’s a Louis C.K. joke that comes to mind here. The premise is that when someone says you’re being a jerk (he uses stronger language), you don’t get to say you’re not. “It’s not up to you,” he quips, “that’s up to everyone else.” Instead, if someone says you’re being a jerk, you should understand the reality of the human condition not only makes it likely, but completely probable. Your response, C.K. jokes, should be, “Okay, crap. How’d I get here and what do I need to do to change that?” I would argue that you could replace jerk with racist, sexist, or any other number of terms. As you pursue conciliation and family, you, because you are human, are going to say and do some unintentionally ignorant, insensitive, stupid things. If you have brothers and sisters that love and trust you enough, they’ll let you know. In that moment, you’ll have two choices, get defensive and prove why you’re not racist or wouldn’t say racially insensitive things or say, “Okay, crap. How’d I get here and what do I need to do to change that?” Choose humility over defensiveness. So many people are more concerned about being called racist or racially insensitive than they are about actually being racist or racially insensitive. Don’t fall into that trap. That’s not what family does.
- Don’t explain away Black frustration. It’s easy to explain away other people’s experience when it doesn’t fit your understanding of how the world is. I’ve noticed this a lot in white, particularly conservative, Christian circles when people of color talk about their experiences in America or the American church. Too many times, I’ve been in conversations with White folks where it was clear that they believed they were more capable of interpreting my own experience than I was. Apart from being false, it’s dismissive, insulting, and unhelpful. Trust that in the same way some may be socially conditioned to see racialization everywhere, you’ve been conditioned not to see it at all. Consider that the narrative you’ve been given about America and its goodness may, in fact, be only partially true. Don’t dismiss Black stories and hurt simply because they don’t fit your understanding of America. Choose to listen.
- Acquaint yourself with the real history and sufferings of Black people. This will actually help with the previous point. It wasn’t until I read Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States, that I began to realize just how little I knew about our collective history. That was compounded by the fact that the little I did know was told through a very narrow, white-washed lens. Black (or Women’s or Native American or Latinx or Asian) History in my life had been relegated to a month out of the year and an elective in college. As a result, it’s easy to think that Black history a) began with slavery and b) is, at best, tangential to true American history. One of the more troubling effects of this is that Black history begins and finds its importance only in light of White history. This subconsciously reinforces the notion that White reality is more normative, more definitive than Black history. Even worse, you can slowly begin to believe that Whiteness can exist independently of Blackness. The truth is Black history is American history, Whiteness and Blackness are constructs of that history, and the education you received is deficient—dangerously and intentionally so.
As you do this, you’ll find yourself better equipped to bear one another’s burdens, to mourn with the mourning, to pursue justice, to love mercy, and to walk in humility. You’ll be better equipped to be family. It’s a lot, I know, and still it barely scrapes the surface. It’s a lot, I know, but family is worth it.
God help us.
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