Church, We Have Work To Do

It is tempting to say the rally in Charlottesville to “Unite the Right” was ignorant. Or to call it bigotry. It’s easy to call this “divisions between people” or something else that analyzes, holds the situation at arm’s-length, and allows us to return to our plate of penne. But keeping our interaction with Charlottesville outside of ourselves only “others” those involved.

What if we saw Charlottesville as a mirror, exposing us as we are, showing what is truly true in the United States. What if we saw Charlottesville as a mirror, exposing America for who she is? Click To Tweet

And if this is us, if this is representative of us, not some fringe incident but something that is a more public version of what is happening in cities across the United States everyday, then—for folks who live in America and especially for churches in America—what will you do?

Ignorance Was Not the Cause for Charlottesville

The violence fueled by white supremacist racial hatred that happened in Charlottesville is not a symptom of ignorance; it is the result of living in a racialized society where we “other” each other and do not question our own bias. And this type of bias pops up in many ways within the context of our church life.

I am not immune to implicit bias. I observe it in myself, in my unconscious reactions to people in stores—who do I think works there, who do I think is a shopper? I see it in the ways I respond to folks on the street. I’m trying to notice the stories I create about people without even realizing it—and then stop myself and check that against actual actions or evidence.

I have a short attention span and only remember to check my bias for about ten minutes at a time. But even that little bit has been a humbling experience. I carry this bias with me when I enter the church—who do I think is a guest and who is a regular? We see this played out over and over at Christian conferences, as they choose speakers and teachers who look alike—often all white.

So these last few days as I’m sharing my outrage, concern, and anger on social media, I have felt convicted not only to condemn White Supremacy and its deep connections to the American Christian church in the strongest possible terms, but to examine my own life. Where have I let implicit bias and the fruit of a racialized society infect my actions and heart? My circles of relationships? My family? My church? My community? Are there places and spaces in which I’ve been silent, and therefore contributed to perpetuating generational racism?

As I look at the spotlight on racial hatred in Charlottesville, I have to confess, I see the seeds of racism and White Supremacy in conversations and relationships around me all the time. And I have not always been faithful to speak out in the moment. Verna Myers, in her TED talk about overcoming bias, gives a great exhortation: we have to be courageous, speak up boldly against bias, even (and perhaps most uncomfortably) to people we love. As a mother, I am particularly convicted by Myers’ challenge to engage (instead of dismissing) during moments of racial othering because there are always children listening. When children hear uninterrogated racist commentary, we can’t wonder why racists attitudes and actions continue generation after generation. Myers suggests that confronting racist speech can be as simple as saying, “We don’t say that about people anymore.” When children hear uninterrogated racist commentary, racists attitudes continue for generations. Click To Tweet

Othering in the Church

In the context of the church, do we defer to politeness under the guise of “grace and forgiveness” instead of speaking the truth in love? When a racist joke is told at a Bible study, do we look down and laugh or don a smirk? Are there ways that we can stop racist commentary from growing within our church communities?

Self-examination and the commitment to resist “othering” our neighbors is important work, but we’ve also seen that generations of just trying to heal racial wounds on a personal level isn’t enough. We have to engage with the ways that these racialized attitudes and racist views have crept into our community, our culture, our churches, and our institutions. If we do not actively work to divest every level of our society from racial biases, we will be informed by them. Are there practices in our church that alienate others?

  • Does your church reflect the geographic community it is a part of? Does it reflect its neighbor’s socio-economic, racial, or immigrant make-up? If not, are there ways the church is accidentally “othering” people, saying “you don’t belong here”?
  • Does your church have a uniform on Sundays? Do all your worship leaders sport the same facial hair? Dress in the same brands?
  • To build relationships in your church, do you have to speak a specific language?

I often think that the sign of a church that has done some work in breaking down “othering” is that there are a wide variety of people, wearing a wide variety of clothing styles. Variety is needed for people to feel welcome.

Where are there places where we “other” people, and how can you actively work against policies, attitudes, practices, and rules that perpetuate the othering? What does this look like in your neighborhood, in your attitude to government policies, in your church? We must actively work to divest every level of our society from racial biases. Click To Tweet

Doing Nothing in the Church

To do nothing is to passively absorb racist ideology. It is to allow ourselves to be formed by the world, and not transformed. To do nothing fails to invite the renewal of our minds that God promises will enable us to discern God’s will. This takes a commitment on a personal level to challenge our own views and bias. It takes courage to speak up, and engage with others in our lives. And it takes a willingness to live out Christian discipleship in the public space. It takes a church that is willing to speak up, to take action, and be a prophetic witness.

Church, we have work to do. For those living out their faith in the American context, no one gets to sit on the sidelines. This is an all-play situation. If we say and do nothing, society will assume that the church, Jesus’ bride, is OK with racism, with hatred for others, and with violence. Silence, in this case, does equal complicity. For those outside of the U.S., teach us, coach us, and help us as we wrestle.

A version of piece was originally published by evangelicalsforsocialaction.org. Used with permission.