How Frank Peretti Helps Us Work Against Racism

A friend of mine, Scott Jones, commented to me recently, that if we’re not careful, “racism” talk can take on the same qualities as “spiritual warfare” talk in Christian circles. The way Christians engage spiritual warfare is most often split between two camps: the Frank Peretti influenced crowd (of This Present Darkness fame), who see demons everywhere behind every thing that goes wrong, and those who completely dismiss spiritual warfare as hocus pocus. The second crowd dismisses the reality of demons as a reaction to the first crowd. The excesses of the Peretti crowd, who see demons everywhere, provide occasions in which the second crows can say “see, I told you so! that’s just not true” and this provides the means to discredit the presence of demons everywhere. Scott Jones implies that this same dynamic can be at work in the ways talk of racism develops.

Undiscerning Talk of Racism

This may be a false caricature of Peretti, but the analogy still holds sway for me. “Racism” talk, if we’re not careful, can unfold. If racism talk becomes undiscerning, and we hurl the charges of racism everywhere, as behind every devious act carried out by white people, then these same white people will dismiss all racism with simple anecdotes and isolated factual statements which disprove (in their own minds) the case for racism. The two crowds become enemies hurling arguments against one another, making each other angrier, meanwhile never really engaging the concrete realities of racism taking place in our everyday lives. We lose the wherewithal to actually discern the racism at work in our lives. If we hurl racist charges at every devious act of white people they will dismiss all racism. Click To Tweet

Now, I must vehemently argue, that my criticism and exposing of the way “racism” talk can unfold does not give us white people any excuse to disregard the social realities of white privilege, white supremacy, and racism in our society that our lives have become such a part of and help sustain.

NO!, again I say, NO!

Instead, I am arguing for doing the hard work of discerning racism together in the everyday practices of our lives in the ways we live, engage, vote, and become present to the racial oppressions that take place in our neighborhoods, towns, cities, village halls, policing, schools, real estate practices and the very neighborhood blocks we live on.

Isolating “Isms”

Cultural theorists (writers like Foucault, Lacan, Zizek) have showed me how power interests in a culture like to isolate an issue at hand that threatens their power. They then turn it into an “ism,” detach it from the practices of everyday life (where change can actually happen), and create sides and divisions with it. It becomes a master signifier separate from every day life that is used to stoke the flames of anger and violence. Isolating issues into 'isms' detaches them from everyday life, where they actually happen. Click To Tweet

Broadcast Media, university discourse, political discourse, and especially social media all play into this dynamic. The people in power actually work to incite two sides around the anger and resentment. The resulting antagonism consumes all relational energy. The hatred, anger, rage and media violence cause people to dig in on each side locking the existing power structures in place.

Meanwhile, nothing happens on the ground. The oppression and power structures not only stay in place, they are more firmly locked in than before. In regard to racism, as Elizabeth Warren said on the first night of DNC, in describing how Jim Crow kept the poor white person down as well as the black person, inflaming “racial hatred was part of keeping the powerful on top” (She was talking about Donald Trump).

Starting with Awareness

None of this denies just how very important it is to make a culture and its people aware of the real realities of racism. White privilege and white supremacy are at work among us. This is the first step in creating space for change: awareness of the problem.

How we respond next, however, becomes immensely important. These terms—”racism,” “white privilege,” “white supremacy”—that helped us diagnose the realities and relationships, structures and oppressions so well, get turned into ideological objects. They become the tools of the power structures we are seeking to expose. These terms get thrown around and flung back and forth, inciting anger, accusing everyone and everything, gaining a twitter following, and thus the ideas become separated from reality.

These terms are now dismissed by the very white people who need to learn. The antagonism becomes ensconced in the culture even more. What results is more division, not less, more violence, not less, and yes, surprisingly, not more engagement with the problems but less. And the power structures and oppressive systems win. They become more immovable. And no reconciliation happens. Diagnostic terms become ideological objects, and are dismissed by those who need to learn Click To Tweet

What Is The Church To Do?

1. Reveal White Privilege

The church of Jesus Christ must do the important work of understanding the social dynamics of white privilege, white supremacy, and racism and how it operates in our society, oppresses minority lives, and, perhaps worse, has become melded with certain versions of white Christianity. As I said, ‘awareness’ is the first step.

The church can educate, and then become present in a town or a neighborhood to reveal racism at work. I believe the church of Jesus Christ has the unique posture of unanxious presence which enables it to be present, listen and expose the ‘powers’ and to give a witness to its oppression and then work for reconciliation. To do this we must actually become present among the antagonisms, give witness to them, and peacefully call attention to them.

Make white privilege visible. We cannot do this by simply making accusations, screaming at every thing that happens across social media.

2. Resist the Anger And Make Space for Actual Engagements

The church of Jesus Christ uniquely responds to injustice without anger, rage and violence. Instead we become present, refuse to get pulled into the antagonism, and invite into reconciliation. We open the space between and among the brokenness and oppression. We submit to one another.

For instance, those of us who are white can submit (first) to those of color to hear what we said or have done that is complicit with privilege and the posturing of racism, from a person of color. Whether it be language, a business practice, a real estate transaction — by opening space between people, white, black, asian and latino, a revolution can begin. We can humbly confess, make things right, begin to heal divisions and change the socio-economic cultures of our lives together. Jesus teaches us that the first must be last, that those (perceived) in power must be first to submit to those victimized by that power.

I, a white male, have no business telling a black person to resist anger. The outrage of #BlackLivesMatter is justified. The question becomes now, in the midst of the rage, how do we engage for transformation. I suggest, all sides, all people, in Christ, take on the posture of being present. Why? Because this is how the existing frames of power are undermined by the presence of Christ. “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can,” to quote Martin Luther King, Jr.

3. Be Present in #BlackLivesMatter Marches and Demonstrations of Like Kind.

The church of Jesus Christ stands alongside/with the hurting, the oppressed, being present in the protests/demonstrations against the injustices in our society against people of color. By being present, in prayer, showing up, marching arm in arm — white, black, Asian, Latino –Christians lend ‘presence’ to the march, a physical face to face witness to an injustice that people cannot just dismiss as one group against another. In so doing, a ‘constructive tension’ (MLK Jr.’s words in Letter from Birmingham Jail) takes shape and are maintained, from which God can work among the various spaces in a community.

4. Talk Less and Do More Justice

There will come a time, I don’t know when, when we must talk less about the “ism’s” and instead do more in actually engaging one another. We will know when this time has come, when talking about something has gone on long enough, appears only to be inciting anger, and is not bearing any fruitful dialogue.

Now we must actually “do” justice.  Arguing about justice gets us only so far. It is easier to write books, write blog posts, post on Twitter/Facebook, than it is to walk out the front door and down the block, or across the boundaries, and be present with people who are not like us and begin the process of listening, responding, confessing, changing.

At some point we need to stop talking ABOUT racism and actually DO reconciliation. By talking less and doing more, I do not mean to make justice happen on our efforts. I am actually talking about the practice of reconciliation. Opening space for bringing people who have oppressed, victimized, or hurt someone together with victims. Shape the space into Christ’s forgiveness and renewal. Let God work, Christ’s reign to take shape. For many of us, this means to first go out the front door and become present in the places where we live and racism is at work. If we live in a homogenous space there are ways to be invited to be with people of ‘the other’ and sit and be with each other. Listen, hear from others how I have participated in racism, confess, seek forgiveness, and work for changes etc. At some point we need to stop talking ABOUT racism and actually DO reconciliation. Click To Tweet

In Summary

God is calling his church to make space for His presence to work among the brokenness, hurt, anger, pain, striving, oppression and violence of the racism in our society. By doing a few of these things mentioned above, the church as a people can open space among our neighborhoods for Christ to be present and His Holy Spirit to work, heal, renew and transform our places one town, village and neighborhood at a time.

By writing this post, I am saying this first and foremost to myself. What do you think? How have you, your church faced this issue? What things have you done to get started?

Some of this material draws on my forthcoming book with IVP, Faithful Presence.

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