Swords, Stories and Snowballs
RHE "Ask a racial reconciler" continues!
In September Rachel Held Evens asked me to be a part of her "Ask A..." series by answering questions about being a racial reconciler. There were many more questions than I could possibly answer in one post (which you can find HERE). So this is a second installment of "Ask A Racial Reconciler" using 3 more questions submitted to Rachel's blog. Hope you enjoy!
Q: "I am trying to become a racial reconciler, but am finding it amazingly difficult to overcome my anger. I find that Christians, white and black, here in South Africa are averse to changing the status quo unless it advantages their race. I feel like there are only a few of us who want to actually reconcile. I want to go on the journey, but I am just so angry at everything and everyone whenever the subject of race comes up. I want/need help overcoming my feelings and turning these emotional swords into spiritual ploughshares, so tell me, how did you overcome your anger?
A: I haven't! I still get angry all the time! The work of reconciliation is tough, and though I have never been, my guess is South Africa is not an exception to that rule. Its been my experience that anger is a natural part of the work of racial justice.
The question instead becomes, 'how do we work through the anger?' And my first answer is, we share it. You need a community of people around you that will nod and say, "We understand," when you share your anger with them. If you don't have anyone around who is just as invested as you are, knows the anger you're experiencing and can say, "been there!" then you need to focus on finding that community. If you are so angry that you believe no one in South Africa (or your city) cares about this as much as you do, you'll start sounding like Elijah in his dark days; we don't want that! I cannot stress enough the need for community in this work. They should be people you can turn to who immediately help you beat that sword into a ploughshare before you cut someone (or even yourself!)
The second thing you may need to do is clarify the work God has called you to do. I think sometimes when we have a passion, we think we have to do it everywhere, all the time, for everyone. Not so. God has called you to many things- a church community, a family, friendships, etc. There is a time and place for the work of reconciliation, but if you are never stopping, always engaged, always going, always 'on', you may find that no one is going to measure up to that standard of investment. For your own sake, clarify the work you've been called to do- in the church, on college campuses, for girls, for educators, for government? Focus your attention on the spaces God has called you and put boundaries around the rest.
Lastly, it might be time to take a break. Find a spiritual discipline that reminds you reconciliation is the work of the Divine. Reconciliation is not done in our own power, and most people don't move through it quickly. It is a life-long journey to which we are all still growing, still learning, still reading, still asking questions, and still wrestling with our own junk! We need to recognize how little we are in this work for our own spiritual, mental, emotional and physical health! Don't forget to keep using that discipline when you begin the work again.
Q: Most of the members in my church are completely okay with the lack of diversity in our church and are blind to issues of privilege and systemic/institutional racism. What is the best way to begin a ministry of reconciliation in such an environment.
A: 4 steps!
Step 1: Determine if God has called YOU to the work of reconciliation or your church to the work of reconciliation. I think there are a lot of angry reconcilers out there who really want their church, pastor, elders, etc to care about racial reconciliation but are finding themselves alone in this desire. Lets not assume that both you and your church have been called to reconciliation and multicultural ministry. God might be calling you to do this work elsewhere! Your first step is prayer!
Step 2: Find a community. Set up coffee dates. Talk with your friends. Network within your church or community. Reach out to others who might also feel called to the work of reconciliation. Discern together how you might proceed as a team. This is not work that should be done alone, especially if your church has been resistant or uninterested. Find community!
Step 3: I don't think there is any one format that works universally for introducing a church to systemic injustice. Start a class. Plan a worship service. Bring in a speaker. Go to a museum. Begin a book club or movie night. Start with whatever already moves your congregation- are they moved by movies? Are you always swapping books? Do you have a regular class or Sunday school schedule? Take the format that people are comfortable using, and reformat to teach about systemic injustice!
Step 4. Story time. I personally don't know one person who started the work of tearing down systemic/institutional racism because they were moved by definitions, statistics, or historical documentation. All these can be powerful aides on that journey, but the beginning is typically through personal narrative.
As advocates of racial justice, once we've realized the power, reach and devastation of systemic and institutional racism, its extraordinarily difficult to still care about individualized racism. When you want people to care about how racism affects millions in the criminal justice system, you don't want to recount that time last week your black friend got pulled over by the police. When you want people to care about environmental justice, you don't want to talk about your best friend's kid who just got asthma because of the newly built trash incinerator in the hood. When you want people to care about educational justice, you don't want to talk about the one kid at the one failing school who could have really achieved something great.
But you have to. People are moved by personal stories. Stories matter to us. Stories move us to investigate. Stories move us to dig for more. One story, leads to more stories, and those stories make the case for systemic injustice. Eventually you don't need new stories. You know them. You've heard them. You're convinced that the justice work you are doing matters. But think about when you started. Was it numbers that moved you? Was it a story that you just couldn't shake, that struck you, knocked you senseless? What was the moment when you thought, "I'll never be the same."? Maybe it was a story you were told. Maybe it was a story you lived. Maybe it was when you realized how different your story is from someone else's. But almost always, if you want to move people to care about systemic injustice, you have to start with the individualized injustices. Then increase the opportunities for engagement, experiences, education and, yes, the numbers, too. Like a snowball, start small and keep rolling!
Q: Is there a day when white folks get to stop apologizing for all the bad that has happened?
A: Maybe in a couple hundred years? No, just kidding. Though not intended to be, this is a very loaded question, as can be seen by the conversation that ensued online! So I'd like to take a couple approaches in answering. First I'd like to bring some clarity to what it is that people of color want! For a long time we have used the idea of apologizing or saying "I'm sorry" to respond to instances of injustice. Congress apologized for slavery in 2009. Lifeway just last week apologized to Asians for offensive materials they've published in the past. Don Young had to apologize at the beginning of the year for using a racial slur while describing migrant workers. In 2012, Victoria Secret issued an apology to Native Americans for a culturally insensitive costume in a runway show. Apologies are all around us! And sometimes when we are sitting in small groups, listening to people of color recount the many instances of injustice faced in America, it seems like white people are being set up to apologize… again.
In the instance of Congress, Lifeway, Young, Victoria Secret and many others, an apology is entirely appropriate. But it is only a small piece of what people of color want. What we desire far more than an apology is repentance, justice, and sometimes reconciliation.
What we want is to live in an America that acknowledges our histories of pain, many of which were legalized (slavery, internment camps, stolen land, arbitrary citizenship changes, and the list goes on.)
What we want is to live in an America that no longer subscribes to the supremacy of whiteness.
What we want is equity and equality.
What we want is to be able to bring our whole selves to the table- our language, our culture, our ideas, our beauty, our community.
What we want far more than an apology is a world that recognizes us as fully human. We want to live in a world that so respects us that Lifeway, Young, and Victoria Secret can't even conceive these offenses, let alone perpetrate them.
I'm sure there is more we want, but perhaps this is a good place to start :)
The second approach I want to take, is to suggest that stories of lament aren't always a set-up for an apology. I personally really enjoy talking about my history, even when its painful. I take great pride in recounting how much my ancestors had to endure from generation to generation. From the shores of Africa to those of America, from being packed in boats to packed in slave quarters to packed in ghettos, from no rights and 3/5 human to a President of the United States. I am proud. But when I recount the pain, I am not expecting an apology. Oftentimes, I am just sharing. I wonder how often white people mistake a desire to be understood with a desire for an apology. Now, I can't say that no person of color anywhere, ever wants an apology! And sometimes an apology is necessary, particularly when an offense has occurred between people. But in the moments of hearing someone share their pain, rather than jumping to the conclusion that you are expected to insert your apology [HERE]… just sit in the pain with them. Be honored that they trust you with their pain. Do something far greater than apologizing. Repent of the system of injustice and work to change it!