This is one of a series of posts (intended to be read in the order above) focused on exploring the issue of race and how The Gospel shapes our beliefs and response. Racial reconciliation is a common name for this topic, and although it “is not the gospel or the central focus of it, it is a qualitative application of the gospel in function and practice” (Eric Mason).
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” deeply touched the nation. Writing on April 16, 1963, King was unusually vulnerable about the hurt he felt toward the indifference and even criticism that he received from the white Christian community. Leaving himself wide open, King shared this:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate…who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season…” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
These words are haunting for me, and they serve as a constant reminder of the dangers of a halfhearted pursuit of cultural identity.
While most of us would like to live under the illusion that the great threat to racial progress is the “bad” white people, King dispels that. Even back in 1963, he was clear that it was not the “bad” people of the White Citizens’ Council or the Ku Klux Klan that were the greatest threat to progress but instead the “white moderate,” who often demonstrated “shallow understanding” and “lukewarm acceptance.” For King, halfhearted commitment was far more confusing than absolute rejection. He then added an important commentary:
I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.
To put his words in the positive, can we develop the vision to see that “injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action”? I believe King was 100 percent right when he said this, and with these brilliant words he left us with a call to full devotion to the kingdom vision of Jesus. To participate in this work, we have to dig in for the long haul. We have to take seriously that life as we know it is a battle between two competing kingdoms and that we must be strong, we must be persistent, and we must be determined.” (Hill)
Over the last four posts, we’ve explored common responses to racial realities including white guilt, white fragility, color blindness, and denial. In this post, we will add indifference and neutrality to the list and tie it all together to explore an overall theme, our ability to walk away.
Indifference is a common response to conversations about race, and before God began to lead me through this awakening process, it characterized much of my lack of action as well. I found myself feeling the way Dr. King described the white moderate of his time because I could agree with the idea that racism still needed to be addressed, and at times I felt sympathy, but in the end I wasn’t moved to action. I personally wasn’t affected by racism, so it was easy for me to not think about it or care to investigate it.
I believe this is one of the reasons why so many white people are indifferent. We rarely, if ever, have experiences where our skin color changes anything about our daily lives. In addition, we don’t have close relationships with people who are affected by harmful racial beliefs, so we are not able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.
In addition, along with our indifference, many times we respond with neutrality to issues of race. We don’t want to get involved in uncomfortable conversations, so we take a neutral stance thinking it will prevent both sides from getting hurt and lead to peace. However, whenever we choose to stay neutral or indifferent, instead of promoting peace, in reality it is an action that can further fuel inequalities.
We live in a majority rules world. Wherever there is a majority, unless there is consistent and determined action, the majority determines the outcome. Therefore, when we are neutral, we are actually contributing to the majority. Consider a non-race related example.
Imagine you’re with a group of people that are trying to work through a decision. The majority of the group is in favor of direction A, but a few people in the group side with direction B. Unable to come to a consensus, the group asks an outside person to make a ruling. However, the outside person, in a good will effort not to offend either side of the discussion, decides to remain neutral and not give a ruling. The group is then left to decide for themselves.
It only makes sense that the members of the majority will eventually determine the group’s direction. Although the outside person didn’t appear to make a decision, he inadvertently did make a decision to support the majority because the majority rules unless someone takes a committed stand for the minority. The neutral outside party allows the majority to continue to drive the decision.
I’m not saying that it’s necessarily bad to have a majority, or that the majority is always wrong and oppressive, or we should always take the side of the minority. I’m not saying that we need to get rid of all majority culture and instead make any minority culture the dominant culture. Majority cultures are not inherently sinful, and many times it makes sense and is beneficial to take a majority rules approach. However, when it comes to racial injustice, which we explored here and here, we cannot remain indifferent or neutral if we hope to see change.
The Ability to Walk Away
In each of the responses we’ve explored, guilt, fragility, color blindness, denial, indifference, and neutrality, we see specific illustrations of a privilege we have, the ability to walk away. Whether we are feeling angry, frustrated, guilty, exhausted, or unphased, we have the ability to move on and not be affected by it. For our brothers and sisters of color, this may not always be the case.
“Privilege can be a loaded word, but to simplify it for the journey of cultural identity, I appeal to the definition of Rev. Julian DeShazier. Julian is a pastor who does a lot of great work with racial reconciliation in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago and is also known as the successful hip-hop artist J. Kwest. One of the concepts he frequently talks about in cross cultural settings is privilege, which he simply defines as “the ability to walk away.” This is one of the essential truths we as white people need to remember (or become aware of, if it’s new) as we contend with the normalization of whiteness. When the journey begins to feel like any combination of scary, confusing, disorienting, or even painful, we have a privilege that people of color do not: we can walk away; we can go back to “normal,” if we choose.” (Hill)
For white people, since we tend to live segregated lives and our culture is the normalized, majority culture in America, our daily lives are pretty much unchanged by the color of our skin. However, for many people of color, there are times where life must be lived through the lens of being different from the normalized culture, and as we saw in post 3 and 4, underlying racial hierarchies and systemic structures provide challenges that need to be considered in order to navigate life safely and effectively. Although this may not necessarily be true for all people of color as a whole, it’s a reality that impacts many.
Again, because white people are a member of the majority culture, we can’t just stay neutral or walk away in order to avoid offense. This further reinforces the harmful effects of underlying racial systems and structures in our nation. We have to step forward despite the feelings inside of us that want to back away.
“Therefore, when white people decide to engage in meaningful cultural identity processes, we’re choosing to say no to the privilege of avoiding race-based stress, and that direction should always be encouraged. With that being said, we also need to realize that the privilege of mobility does not disappear with this positive movement; we will continue to be able to choose whether or not to stay engaged once we’re exposed to race-based stress. In DiAngelo’s words, when our “racial comfort” is challenged and our low stamina for engaging racial stress is revealed, we need to find a way to stay in the game. DiAngelo often tells her audience that white people tend to confuse comfort with safety, and that can be a helpful idea when navigating the disoriented stage. Because our stamina is low and tolerance for racial stress is weak, we often have conversations about racial justice being unsafe…But it’s rare that these situations are actually unsafe; they’re uncomfortable because we aren’t accustomed to that level of discourse.” (Hill)
I can attest to the fact that it’s rare these situations are actually unsafe. In reality, I’ve found that people have been very welcoming and gracious when I open up about the things God has been revealing in my heart. My brothers and sisters of color have been incredibly patient and kind when talking through these issues with me, and their help has given me more ability to see and understand.
What about The Bible?
How does The Bible speak to the ability to walk away? We have the choice of whether or not to participate, but as we’ve seen many times throughout this series, our lives as Christians are meant to be active and engaged. This is especially true when reconciliation is at stake. We’ve been given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-21), and really, the whole Bible is a story of reconciliation. God has reconciled people to Himself, and those who have been reconciled now have the privilege of participating in God’s reconciling mission. Therefore, if there is anything in front of us that needs reconciliation, we are called to be ministers of that reconciliation. This is certainly true with the issue of race in our culture.
Our call is to engage and not walk away. Although this is disorienting for us, we must endure. Although we have the ability to walk away from this issue, our call is to strive for peace and unity.
“Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”
We are called to go and make things right if our brother has something against us (Matthew 5:23-24).
We are called to empathize with people and mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15).
We are called to not just give our warm thoughts but also be active participants in loving others (James 2:14-17).
We are called to eagerly maintain unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ (Ephesians 4:1-6,13-16).
We are called to see the image of God in one another and treat each other appropriately because of the inherit value this brings to every human being (Genesis 1:26-27).
Throughout scripture, we are called to be active in loving our neighbor as ourselves, and it is the love of Christ that drives us.
“For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Does this mean that we have to all jump into the frontlines of social justice issues and make this our sole focus in life? No. However, asking God to search our hearts, seeking out ways to educate ourselves and uncover heart issues, and humbly, empathetically hearing out and learning from others who have been affected is a good place to start. And as we begin to see more clearly and recognize inequalities in the structures around us, we need to ask God for His help to have courage and engage what we see.