Race is a subject that is difficult to talk about. At least it is for white people – that’s my observation. Most white people, like me, don’t think about race until a major incident happens that involves race. And only when talking about race can’t be avoided. And when that happens it is usually something pretty negative and it forces us to talk about something we’d rather not deal with. Often times, we end up expressing fixed notions about race, rather than learning anything that would cause us to question our beliefs. And we have the privilege of not having to deal with it or talking about it most of time, and think this is normal for everyone. Except it’s not.
Most of the time we would rather not talk about race. It’s much more convenient to just talk about people of other races rather than talk with them. People make assumptions. Emotions flair. Identity is wrapped in race. Biases come out when we talk about race. Fear comes out when we talk about race. Blindness and closed ears and hearts show up when we talk about race. Those are the obvious things.
The less obvious things are the reality that we don’t really understand the experience of people with other skin colors. We really don’t. And if we are honest, most of the time we don’t want to understand. It’s inconvenient and it a lot of work. It makes us uncomfortable. A great example is the hoopla around the conflict that arose in DC last weekend with the Black Hebrew Israelites, the white MAGA hat wearing boys from Covington Catholic high school in Kentucky, and a Native American.
I have not seen any of the videos. Not one. It doesn’t matter if I see any of the videos. Which also means I haven’t said a single thing about the incident. Instead, I have been watching the reactions. I have seen articles that are in direct conflict with other articles – all in the name of making sure we don’t have to actually talk about race – we can use race as a weapon to bludgeon our opponents and enemies. We can go on worshiping a golden calf that we have constructed in our nation – being right. Comfort and convenience are also golden calves that rear their head for situations like this. We don’t want to be uncomfortable, so clearly we don’t have to hear anyone who expresses different ideas from ourselves. We don’t have to try to understand where people are coming from. We don’t have to try to see where our own reactions may be off or missing parts. Instead, we can just point out how right we were. We can point out how the “facts” show that we, and those like us, are the real victims, and “our” people have no responsibility for the conflict.
Race is a difficult subject, especially for the church in America. I’m part of the ELCA. It is one of the whitest denominations in the country. Something like 97% of the membership is white. That’s even with emphasis on diversity and openness. That hasn’t worked. Resolutions about race haven’t worked. 10 year initiatives to move the denomination towards greater diversity haven’t worked. And the question is why?
That’s the question that was asked in an ELCA clergy Facebook group recently. I took a crack at exploring why the ELCA is one of the whitest denominations in the country. Here’s what I wrote:
Why is the ELCA overwhelmingly white? Because the vast majority of the people in the pews don’t know anyone who is not white. They have no relationships with people of different colors/nationalities/etc. Their entire life and world is with people who are white. How do people who have no relationship with someone different from them invite someone who is different? That’s the real question. Until the people in the pews start to build relationships with people who are different from them, “those” people will not come into an ELCA church. Until people in the pew invest time to get to know and build relationships and actually care about others who look different, without an agenda of getting butts in the seats, “those” people will not come into an ELCA church. Until “those” people are just people, they won’t come to an ELCA church.
We can have all the right words, but without actual relationships with people, the words are empty. We can have all the right initiatives, but without actual relationships with people, the initiatives are empty.
Our denomination is suffering from being comfortable. Building relationships with people who are different from ourselves takes work and it is uncomfortable. Too often our congregations would rather just cut a check instead of go out into the community, meet people eye-to-eye, and get to know people who are different. Too often our congregations would rather serve food to someone else and see that person as poor and needy – thus keeping them at arm’s length – rather than eating with these same people, learning their names, listening to their stories, and actually caring about them like they would with someone who looks like us. We’d rather have acquaintances who are a different race, rather than seeing these people as family, friends, and more – Our salvation and theirs are directly tied together, our well-being is directly tied to them. Their humanity is our humanity. How we treat people who are different than us is the answer to the question of “Who is my neighbor?”
Do we really want to be more diverse? That’s the first question. I’m not convinced that we, as a denomination, really want to. We voice the words that we do, but we haven’t followed up those words with actions. We seem to be more concerned with getting butts in the seats – in this case, different colored butts. Butts in the seats is about saving an institution – it’s not about discipleship and following Jesus. So what is our real goal with this – being more diverse as a denomination? And what are we committing to actually do?
Want to be more diverse? Here’s a way to start – find people different from you and get to know them. Know their name, listen to their story. Come with no other agenda than to build relationship with that person. Show love, mercy, compassion, and find ways to make peace. Eat with people. Spend time with people who are different than you. Care for them and allow yourself to be cared for. And have no agenda, except to build a relationship. If anything else is more important, it will come through – people aren’t stupid. They see through fakeness. They know when they are being used. They also see authenticity. And people are starving for authentically lived out Christianity.
Here’s why I think it would be good for our denomination to be more diverse. Because it would be living out the invitation from God to participate in the unfolding of God’s reign. It would be the embodiment of Good News. It would be authentic Christian community. It would open us to being more empathetic, to listening more, to empowering more, to healing more, to feeding more (materially and spiritually), to being disciples more, to doing ministry more. That’s not a one way street where we are the ones doing this to someone else – we aren’t the saviors. We need salvation. We would be on the receiving end of all of this too. We would be changed just as much, if not more.
Diversity would be a way for us to experience an encounter with Jesus. And in so doing, to be changed so that we can be a change in the world. We would experience mercy, grace, forgiveness, peace, love. We would come to better understand what Jesus was talking about when talked about the poor, the outcast, the stranger. We would identity with these children of God. And we could more fully go and be disciples of Jesus.
Dear fellow white person, the world calls on us to bow down to the golden calves it has set up – comfort, convenience, being right. As Christians, we are called to reject these false gods, their false promises, and false gospels. Instead, we are to follow Jesus – a dark-skinned Jew from the Levant…If we can worship and follow Jesus, who doesn’t look like us (Despite the white Jesus images we surround ourselves with)…If we can answer Jesus’ call to pick up our cross and follow him…If we can answer Jesus’ call to love our neighbors and enemies, and welcome the stranger…then we can certainly do this. Why?
Because as much privilege as we have, we are broken and sinful. We don’t have the power to do any of this on our own. We are scared. We are afraid of what the new normal between races will look like and mean for us. We are afraid of what we will lose. We are afraid to be uncomfortable. We are afraid to not know. We are afraid to not be in control. We are afraid to not have all the power or most of the power. We are afraid.
And it is that brokenness that God sends the Spirit to us to guide us and move us forward. To take the next step. To be uncomfortable. To be inconvenienced. To love. To empower. To be changed. To encounter Jesus and experience God’s reign and salvation.