Resilience, Race, and Resistance: Plenary Highlights, Part 2

Editor’s Note: Last week, Missio Alliance hosted an online event—Resilience, Race, & Resistance—featuring an incredible roster of thought leaders, theologians, and practitioners to tackle the challenging question of how the church should respond to our country’s ongoing racial divisions. This week, we are featuring excerpts from the four plenary talks; this is second set of excerpts from the talks given by David Swanson, founding pastor of New Community Church in Chicago, and Enid Almanzar, director of global access partnerships at the American Bible Society. (You can find the first set of excerpts by Christine Lee and Tod Bolsinger here.) If you would like to access the full replay of the event, it is available for purchase for a limited time, until February 10th.

Embracing the Truths that Lead to Solidarity

by David Swanson

In the past six months, we have witnessed an unprecedented awakening in this country. Time and time again, I’ve heard friends and mentors of color say something like this: “I’ve never seen so many white people speak and act publicly against racism.” It remains to be seen what will come of this emerging awareness of the truth to which people of color, and Black people and Indigenous people in particular, have been testifying since as long as Europeans first stumbled onto these lands. Have we reached a tipping point or will this be yet another flash in the pan?

Here’s something that I have noticed during these months of awakening: white Christians who have finally become convinced of the urgent need for racial justice have almost no theological or biblical vision for the way forward. This isn’t surprising; those of us who have been discipled in white churches have mostly ignored the deep connection between Jesus and justice. Unlike so many in this country and around the world, we come to this call for racial justice bereft of memory and imagination for how to seek racial justice as followers of Jesus. And so we plunge into the work, passionate but ignorant. Our thrashing about is impressive, but is it actually drawing us any closer to our sisters and brothers in Christ, leading us into greater solidarity? I fear for all of our sermons and our strategies, we remain as physically distanced and ecclesiologically disinterested as ever in the very people on whose behalf we claim to seek justice. I fear for all of our sermons and our strategies, we remain as physically distanced and ecclesiologically disinterested as ever in the very people on whose behalf we claim to seek justice. Click To Tweet

And so today I want to simply suggest two things for white Christians to reckon with, as we take our long-overdue place in the ministry of racial justice and reconciliation. First, whiteness is an idol; and second, racial justice begins with worship. It’s my conviction that if we open our eyes to both of these truths, the idolatry of whiteness and the worshipful origins of racial justice, we can set down the resounding gongs and the clanging symbols of our efforts and move instead into righteous and loving solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Christ.

When white Christians begin to wake up to racism, we start reading the recommended books and listening to the recommended podcasts and watching the recommended documentaries. We organize conferences and launch publishing imprints and offer new degrees and certifications. And it turns out you can do all of these things, all of these good things, without ever reorienting your life. It is exceedingly possible to become fluent in the vernacular about supremacy and intersectionality and privilege, and to have bookshelves jammed with the latest titles and to offer scathing critiques, exposing the implicit biases of those other unwoke Christians—and all the while continue deferring to and benefiting from the patterns of this dehumanizing world. But if those of us who have only recently awakened to racial injustice are going to actually take our place alongside our sisters and brothers who have long suffered and resisted it, we must learn that justice for the Christian begins in worship.

There is more to this work of reconciliation and justice than knowing and telling the truth. But none of this work can be done without knowing and telling the truth. Tell the truth and worship the one who is the Truth. Encounter the holy God who is justice. Respond with lament and repentance. Commit yourself to the sacred work of repair. Join your voice and your life to the saints who have praised their God not out of ignorance of the deadly idol of whiteness, but in defiance of it. Many of us do not have an imagination for the way forward, but so many of our Christian siblings of color do. Sustained by the God who sets captives free, who fills the hungry with good things, and who makes a way out of no way, these are the faithful ones who can lead us away from our idols to worship the Lord who is our God.

Heeding the Prophetic Call to Build Trenches

by Enid Almanzar

I had to learn the hard way that by leading some toward freedom, I would become a threat to the very power structures on which many had built their lives. I’ve had to battle power structures built on xenophobic foundations as I encounter some people who believe that all Hispanics just crossed the border yesterday and therefore should not be sitting at tables reserved for those that worked hard to get there. Time and time again, I’ve come face to face with power structures that affirm that the only thought leaders worth listening to on any subject are men. And I came to this place where I was just tired. Tired of fighting, tired of constantly having to defend my place at the table, tired of carrying the expectations of excellence amidst a sea of white privilege.

Just as I found myself wallowing in this pit of despair and confusion, I felt the Lord impress upon my heart something that revolutionized my life: “You’re not in a pit, daughter. You are in a trench.” A pit is a dark place where people were left to lose their lives. But a trench is a place that people went to preserve it. During times of war, they’re one of the most effective ways for soldiers to protect themselves against heavy firepower. So from the inside of a trench, soldiers could regain strength to strategize their next move, they could fire back at their enemy; from the inside of a trench, they could prevent their adversary from advancing. During times of war, the trench was actually the safest place that a soldier could be.

And so I believe that today we need to look again at the trenches we find ourselves in because God didn’t leave us to die. He’s preparing us to fight. There’s a radical resistance that can arise from within us if we would just shift our perspective, because what we once thought was an inferior position is the exact place God needs us to be in order to light a fire inside of us. So what does this radical resistance I’m referring to look like? Biblically speaking, it’s Moses standing before Pharaoh demanding the liberation of his people. It’s Deborah leading a great army toward the Canaanite king, and then Jael quietly slipping into his tent to gain her victory. It was Elijah challenging King Ahab. It was Jeremiah challenging King Zedekiah. It was Daniel challenging King Nebuchadnezzar. It was John the Baptist standing against King Herod. It was Paul and John standing against the corrupt power of Rome. So yes, radical resistance requires moments of boldness and audacity. It challenges. It calls out. It confronts. There's a radical resistance that can arise from within us if we would just shift our perspective, because what we once thought was an inferior position is the exact place God needs us to be in order to light a fire inside of us. Click To Tweet

But there are also times that radical resistance is just finding the strength inside of us to keep going. And we see this idea come alive in 2 Kings 3, as the kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom and their armies were marching toward Moab to declare war, only to find themselves stranded in the hot desert and dying of thirst. And so the three kings from the three kingdoms went to the prophet Elisha and asked for a word from the Lord. And he tells them in 2 Kings 3:16, “Thus says the Lord: make this valley full of trenches.” He told them to make some trenches, and I know it’s an odd set of instructions. Given the circumstances here, they were in this hot and arid place, this dry place, their throats were parched and their bodies were weary and fatigued from marching with their metal armor for days in the hot, Middle Eastern sun. Yet God tells them to dig some trenches. And so he’s calling them to humble themselves, to put aside what they thought they knew about survival, trust him, and create those trenches.

What they didn’t know was that from that seemingly dried place, God would restore them and bring them victory. Sometimes the most radical thing we can do is to embrace our call for the trenches in order to regain the strength we need to forge ahead. It’s in the trenches of life, in those desperate places, in those places of unpretentious humility, that radical resistance is born. And I want you to know that it’s not born in conference rooms or lecture halls. It’s in the margins. It’s in the trenches. It’s in the forgotten places of society led by those who are sick and tired of being sick and tired. That’s where real change begins.

For access to the full replay of both David’s and Enid‘s plenaries, visit this link to order. The replay will only be available until February 10th, so don’t delay!

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