Dear Church, I Am A Racist
In August 2011, I read my first Dr. Martin Luther King book, Strength to Love. This book would be a turning point in my life, not so much because of what was written on its pages, well yes, it was what was written on its pages, but not in the usual sense. You see, I got about three-fourths of the way through this book and paused, reflected, and then thought to myself, “This guy is brilliant.” But then something else happened. I qualified that thought with “especially for someone who is black.” I believe that if I made the qualifying statement ten or five years earlier, or even perhaps the year before I would not have given it a second thought, but not on this day. This day, the Holy Spirit whispered to me, “Did you hear what you just said? When was the last time you said, ‘Wow, this person is pretty smart for a white guy’?” It was in that moment that I realized I had an issue with race, that I was indeed, racist. What also came with this was no small amount of shame and guilt—something that I will come back to later.
When I think about this event, this turning point in my life it makes me recall a conversation with my dear friend, Patty Wudel. Patty is the Executive Director for Joseph’s House, a hospice for homeless men and women dying of cancer and AIDS. I often refer to Patty as the “Mother Theresa of Washington DC”—she has helped homeless men and women die with dignity for more than two decades. Our conversation was three years ago on a brisk October morning during the annual walk to end HIV which takes place in Washington, D.C. During our walk we were discussing creating Christ’s kingdom here on earth and what are the things needed to create it. It was in this context that Patty exclaimed, “We need to be awakened–the blinders that we wear must be removed.” As I look back on this conversation today I cannot help but think of the discussion between Nicodemus and Jesus in John chapter three.
Nicodemus is identified as a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews in the story and he acknowledges Jesus as a Rabbi and that God is with him. It is after this acknowledgement that Jesus states, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Far too often the power of this passage gets put into an Enlightened, Western box. By “Enlightened” I mean, focused on the individual; by “Western”- the North American Church operating within a paradigm that is destination oriented (i.e., getting into heaven). For many years, I read this passage and believed this act of being “born again” was a one-time occurrence in August 1989 where I prayed to accept Jesus as my savior. Bam! I was born again; my get-into-heaven card was stamped “Approved”! However, today, I read this passage and I see this act of being “born again” as something that happens over and over and over again. It is focused on Christ’s Kingdom and it is focused on the present—“The Kingdom is at hand.”[i]
Let me share another story involving my friend Patty. My wife and I have been volunteering at Joseph’s House for more than six years now. Patty has been part of a group of friends that have been having conversations, difficult and vulnerable conversations, on race for years. She asked to invite two of her African-American friends, Harold and Michael, to join us to break bread with us and help facilitate a conversation on race. During the second month of having these conversations, Patty just came out and said, “I continue to struggle with how I am racist.” Here is the person that I see as one of my role models for how to love others, who has lived in a home for 20 years that primarily serves homeless black men, and she just self-identified as racist. Meanwhile, I live in a nearly all-white neighborhood, and I was thinking because I had become more self-aware, I had transcended the label of racist. This opportunity helped me recognize that I, too, need to be born again.
I will be honest. Our Saturday conversations on race during lunch at Joseph’s House are awkward—they at least begin awkward—because they take a good bit of effort to get going. But once they do, I walk away with a better understanding of my own racism. Yes, I am racist. I will remain so for the rest of my life. But I have come to understand that me being racist is much less about me and more about the system that I live in that provides me privilege for the mere fact that I was born white. Recognizing my racist thoughts when reading Dr. King’s Strength to Love led to me thinking of myself as a bad person—I felt shame at those thoughts and coming to the realization that I live in a system that provides me with privilege for the mere fact that I am white also led to deep feelings of guilt. The enemy loves having us in places of shame and guilt because it cripples us from taking action and allows destructive systems to remain in place. This is true because shame and guilt force us to hide. And when we hide, the truth gets hidden. However, Jesus says it is the truth that will set us free. Set us free from what? For one, it will set us free from shame and guilt, and once we are past the shame and guilt the truth can begin to help us dismantle oppressive systems. Our freedom can then lead to the freedom of others.
Throughout our history, it is overwhelmingly white men that have been our Senators, Representatives, Presidents, CEOs, members of boards, and who have written our history. It is this power—combined with discrimination—that creates the system of racism. Therefore, while it is possible for a black person to be prejudiced or discriminate against other people, it is not possible for them to be racist because they lack the power to create a system that is oppressive to whites or any other ethnic group. Robin DiAngleo, in her book What it Means To Be White, describes our oppressive system of racism with these words:
[W]hat differentiates oppression from acts of discrimination is that oppression is large-scale discrimination backed by institutional power. This results in the inequitable distribution of power, control, and resources. While anyone can discriminate, oppression is a one-way dynamic and only benefits the dominant group at the macro level. Again, members of a minoritized group can be prejudiced and discriminate against members of the dominant group in limited and contextual situations, but are not in the position to oppress the dominant group across the society because they don’t control the institutions necessary to do so.[ii]
Michael has helped me learn that through this system of racism, with people of color living under oppression, they typically carry around a lot of anger and hurt. The Wednesday after hearing Michael share about carrying anger and being hurt, I was on my way to work where I was again able to be born again.
Let me just say that I am not fully with it until after lunch; I have never been a morning person. I was walking toward the entrance door with an elderly black woman in front of me. She opened the door and walked through as I followed behind, when I heard, barely audible, with anger, sarcasm, and frustration, “You could have at least opened the door for me!” My first inclination was to holler back with as much anger, sarcasm, and frustration, “Lady, you could have asked me to open the door.” However, I did not do this, because I was taken back to that conversation on the previous Saturday when Michael shared about anger and hurt. This was an opportunity for me to be “born again.” It was in that pause of recalling Saturday’s conversation that my blinders were removed. This woman had a purse in one hand, her lunch in the other hand, and at least two other bags—one over each shoulder. It is in that moment that I recognized that I might have been frustrated, too, if someone was not willing to open a door for me. Therefore, I said, “You know what? You are absolutely correct! I could have and should have opened the door for you. I am very sorry. Will you accept my apology?” I could tell that she was not expecting this response. It completely defused the situation. We got on the same elevator, and when I got off first she said, “I hope you have a blessed day.” This is a small thing, but is it not a small step in creating Christ’s kingdom?
Still, I don’t want to use the experience with my co-worker as a way to gloss over the fact that an oppressive system remains in place that holds power over people of color—I still need to be cognizant of that and use my power as a white man to dismantle this system. Jesus, rarely discusses heaven in the Gospels; a critical reading of the Gospels will reveal that Christ’s mission, while here on earth, was the establishment of his Kingdom, not in the future, but here and now. Biblical scholar Marcus Borg says it well:
Jesus’s mission and message were not about ‘heaven,’ not about how to attain a blessed afterlife. Though Jesus like many of his Jewish contemporaries, affirmed an afterlife, it was not his primary concern…Rather his mission was about the character of God, the way of centering in God, in the kingdom of God…Matthew most often changes ‘kingdom of God’ to ‘kingdom of heaven’ not because he’s thinking of an afterlife, but because of a common Jewish reverential practice of avoiding using the word ‘God’ as much as possible. And the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, is for the earth, as the Lord ’s Prayer in Matthew affirms. It is about the transformation of life in this world.[iii]
I have read many more books from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. since Strength to Love. King also had a term for Christ’s Kingdom called “The Beloved Community.” Only through the dismantling of the oppressive system of racism can we begin to move toward this dream. To make this dream a reality requires me to regularly be born again, to remove my blinders, and wake up a bit more each day—it requires this from all of us.
What about you? What are you doing to wake up, remove blinders, and to be reborn?
Can I suggest a few things?
- Ask leadership in your church what they are doing to breakdown the system of racism. Be willing to criticize through creating if you take this approach. By this, I mean be prepared for the question, “What do you want us to do and how are you willing to take the lead with this?” This could be creating a small group that discusses racial reconciliation or inviting a black pastor willing to give a sermon on Sunday morning.
- Read books on racial reconciliation. I recently read Robin DiAngelo’s What it Means To Be White. I highly recommend this as a great starting point. One point here: drop your walls as you read—approach this from a place of seeking to understand, rather from a defensive posture feeling a need to debunk what you read—you don’t need to agree, but be willing to sit with the tension.
- Read books by black authors. Make some of them biographies of former slaves. Yes, they are heavy and hard to read, but they are history written by people of color—they deserve a platform for their narratives as much as the white narratives we have been fed our entire lives.
- Be awkward! It is fun to have conversations on your favorite television shows and who is going to win the game this weekend, but go deep, make conversations on race a topic that gets discussed as often as the other stuff. Ask questions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”.
I will end this letter borrowing from Paul’s letters to both the Ephesians and Corinthians. For our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the principalities and powers (Ephesians 6:12); the evil systems that oppress the majority for the self-aggrandizement of the few. But Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them. All of this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:14-19)[iv]
This is long and hard work, with the first step taking a long look at the face in the mirror. I know I must do it every day.
[i] See Matthew 1:15, Matthew 4:17 and Mark 1:15. This saying also includes repentance whose Greek meaning is “to change one’s mind.” Or in other words to be born again or to remove blinders.
[ii] DiAngelo, Robin. What it Means To Be White. 2012 Pg. 90-91.
[iii] Borg, Marcus. Jesus: The Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. 2006 Pg. 143-144.
[iv] The passages that I borrowed from are Ephesians 6:12 and 2 Corinthians 5:14-19. Also noteworthy in the passage from Corinthians is the Greek translation for “reconcile,” which is a word meaning “to exchange” in the context of money. We often think of reconciliation as an end game of getting one side to agree to the other’s demands or ideas. A pastor friend chided me on this end-game concept and challenged me instead to see reconciliation as a never-ending exchange of words—a dialogue. It is this dialogue that breaks down our walls, helps us to understand the other and creates lenses for seeing evil systems as well as humanizing the other. Interestingly, the word “reconcile” appears five times in this short passage—a reminder that reconciliation is something that is ongoing.
Steve Graybill is a sinner in recovery, beloved son of the Father, lover of water, seeker of reconciliation, disciple of Jesus, working toward the establishment of His kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. When he’s not at work, you can find Steve tackling some great outdoor adventure kayaking or hiking or something else, usually with his wife by his side. Above all, Steve is a reconciler.
Mission Reconcile thanks you for taking the time to read its blog and welcomes you to share with others below and/or submit your own.