Dear Church, Listen Beyond Your Racial Identity
I remember being perplexed five years ago by images I saw on the news of civil unrest in Ferguson, MO following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man. I saw demonstrators destroying and setting fire to their own communities. “Who would do such a thing?” I wondered. I used that misunderstanding to justify—subconsciously—my own air of superiority, rooted in my identity as a white man.
I say subconsciously because there was nothing explicit about the idolatry of my identity. I was raised to treat everyone with dignity, irrespective of what you looked like or where you came from. The area of North Texas where I grew up was extremely diverse, both socioeconomically and racially. I was a good neighbor, just as I’d learned to be in church growing up. And since I didn’t see any problem with me, I surmised that the problem must be something with them. The issue may not be in their DNA, I reasoned, but maybe in the way they were raised. I was making an assumption about black culture that it was somehow less capable than my normative culture. It was racist.
That might seem harsh to some. The realization that I was operating out of racist idolatry of identity isn’t something that occurred overnight. It’s been a long, painful, tedious and ongoing excavation of my heart that coincided with my return to the Church after several years away from it. I’d grown cynical of an American Christianity that seemed more interested in policing culture than demonstrating Christ-like submission to it out of love. I was jaded, too, by increasingly toxic and polarized politics that seemed to leverage racial grievances for power.
It wasn’t until I heard a sermon by a pastor I respected—someone who looked and talked like me—that caused me to question my perspective. Matt Chandler, the pastor of The Village Church in Dallas, outlined some of the grievances associated with the unrest occurring in Ferguson and challenged his congregation to pay attention and to listen in order to learn. This disarmed my defensiveness that was reluctant to even consider the legitimacy of the claims black Americans were making about oppression.
When I stopped to actually listen, though, I learned that people were rioting because they didn’t feel like they had any other recourse. As Dr. John M. Perkins said in Dream with Me: Race, Love and the Struggle We Must Win, “Many blacks said that in the wake of so much oppression, they didn’t know how else to respond.” This was something I understood.
I’ve observed that in my own life. When I feel like people aren’t listening to me, I might lash out. I know I’m not a bad person, and I extend a lot of grace to myself when I do err. How much more grace should I extend to my black brothers and sisters for the hundreds of years of direct and indirect systemic oppression they’ve experienced at the hands of a society eager to sweep their actions under the rug? Is this not the application of Mark 12:31–what Jesus calls the second greatest commandment–to love your neighbor as yourself?
It’s difficult to describe how blind I was to my idolatry of identity until I was challenged to consider that it might be there. And then when I started listening to the multitude of voices standing on the perimeter, the consistencies and commonalities of their experiences began to outline its contours.
Their stories about being made to feel unwelcome in certain settings, like an upscale clothing store, when they see attendants treat them differently than white shoppers. Stories by black women about how in the workplace they have to be more accommodating than their peers lest they get labeled “angry.” Stories about being taught from a young age about how to appear as non-threatening as possible during police encounters. These kinds of stories weren’t necessarily new to me. I’d heard them all before in the media, but I thought they were overblown. Maybe they were simply misunderstanding those situations? Ultimately, I had trouble believing them because I was elevating my own experiences over their own.
“The reason I said providentially something’s at work is because God is at work in our hearts to reveal things we’d like to think aren’t there,” Chandler said in his sermon. “So we pay attention, and then we engage empathetically, and that moves into relationships,” he said.
Those relationships are like mirrors, showing us where we are deficient and where we need to both extend and receive grace. The danger, however, of living in a homogenous community is that we never get to that point of acknowledging the areas of our hearts we’d prefer to hide. I didn’t see the white supremacist ideology that was rooted in my heart because it’s hidden behind the idolatry of identity that my white peers were reflecting back to me.
Now when I find myself responding defensively to something a friend has said or something I’ve read in the news, I pause and try to identify where I might be reacting out of my identity. Once I know where those sensitivities are, I’m better postured to listen to the truth and hear with compassion. This empathy precedes any relationship, which is a prerequisite to racial healing.
Mark Bauer is a former journalist and co-host of Behind the Seen podcast, a conversation dedicated to understanding our biases. He was born in Arlington, TX and spent two years in Washington, DC before returning to Texas in the fall of 2019. He is currently running as an Independent for Congress in Texas’ 24th District. Learn more about him at www.bauerfortexas.com. And above all else, he is a reconciler.