Tag Archives: racial conflict

Narrative Wars and the Way of the Cross

I did it!
art credit: Catherine Clark

Everyone loves an overcomer story. We cheer for the underdog, holding our breath as they persevere through obstacle after obstacle and booing the advantaged one simply for the fact that he expected to come out on top. But what about those moments when life casts us in the overdog role? “I didn’t sign up for this!” we may be tempted to whine. “I’m just doing my best to live my life and do good by all. I didn’t ask to be written as the oppressor in someone else’s story!”

Race killings and race riots in the United States have awakened many white Christians to the prevalence of racism. But with that awareness comes a deep discomfort as lifelong assumptions about how the world works and who we are within it are suddenly overturned. I wonder if much of white angst in America today comes from fear of being cast as the bad guy. If I listen to the cries of my African American brothers and sisters, my version of the story—the one in which I am the “little person” who worked hard, came from behind, and made it despite all the odds—comes under threat. Instead, I’m suddenly that privileged, arrogant “champion” we all despise, enjoying the luxuries of monogramed equipment and expert coaches to give me every advantage in the game of life.

Since when is pride compatible with the cross?

I don’t like that second version of the story, and even when I am pushed to admit that it is true, I don’t like the way that it makes me feel about myself.  I’d rather rehash stories of the American Revolution in which “my people” fought off the colonial oppressors with bare feet and raw grit.  I at least want the luxury of largesse, to think of my people as the liberators who brought down the Nazis or brought aid to suffering populations around the world. But when I stop to consider the story from the perspective of a Native American who was driven from her land or an African American who was imported to the land but denied equal status, “my people” come out as the bad guys. Add to that generations of mistreatment and social positioning in which my people continue to come out on top, and the pride I feel in my heritage—the heritage which forms much of my identity—starts to crumble.

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews…
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.
Philippians 3:4-7

Perhaps that is exactly what needs to happen. It may not feel nice, but since when is pride compatible with the cross? The reason we love the underdog is because God Himself has a heart for the disadvantaged. Scripture is replete with statements about what He does for the humble and how He treats the proud. The fact that I am holding on to my pride reveals which side of the narrative I actually am standing on. As a follower of Jesus, I get to lay aside anything in which I formerly found gain, including the advantage of my whiteness.

“I don’t see color”—spoken to a person of color–is a sure sign that I do.

But how can I help that? Perhaps a second cause for white angst comes from the sudden sense of helplessness in the face of finding ourselves on the wrong side of history. I want to jump the fence to the other side, distancing myself from the racism around me with claims of #NotMeToo. “I don’t see color”—spoken to a person of color–is a sure sign that I do.

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
Philippians 2:1-4

Examining myself for areas of implicit bias (while assuming that they are probably there) is a good start. Where do my impulses betray an internal sense of being better than, or perhaps deserving better than, people of a different race? These may surface in the respect I demand for myself or the treatment and opportunities I expect for my children. Am I equally incensed when these are not afforded to my neighbor from a different “community” or her children? Am I equally invested in looking out for her interests as I am my own? What have I done (or not done) to change the systems that make it hard for them to flourish?

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.

…“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks…”
John 4:9,21-23

Confronting the areas of bias within myself not only benefits Black lives; it also helps me become more like the Jesus I adore. I adore Him for His meekness with the Samaritan woman, absorbing her defensive reactivity over the way her people had been treated and extending to her a listening ear, a willingness to consider her side, and a friendship that broke all the social rules. I adore Him for going out of His way to seek out her company and sit with her on her turf, neither lecturing her for making a mess of the opportunities that had been afforded her nor insisting that she adapt to His cultural ways in order to be accepted. It can’t have been easy to listen to His people being framed as the bad guys, yet He acknowledged their privileged position in history while also considering her too valuable an asset to leave out of the new integrated community He was forming.

And perhaps it is in Jesus’ example as a privileged Jewish male that I find a way forward as a privileged white woman. Try as I might, I can’t stop being white. And I can’t undo the parts of my heritage that I am ashamed of. But I can humble myself, reach across the racial divide, and use whatever advantage is mine (though I may need help in being able to see it) to my neighbor’s advantage. After all, is this not what Jesus did for me?

Bridging the Gap: Confessions from a Member of the White Race

attachmentConfession. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Trust.

These words scroll endlessly down my screen as I read my Ugandan and Rwandan students’ essay submissions from this month’s Spiritual Formation unit. They have been asked to write about the people they find it the hardest to forgive and about situations in which they need to take steps towards reconciliation. My screen is full of stories of betrayal, slander, violence, and theft. But many of these stories are not just about individuals; they involve whole tribes or communities who carry complicated, time-accrued grudges towards each other.

I can sit at my less-than-tidy desk miles away from East Africa and try to mentally untangle the cause-and-effect web of historic animosity between these conflicting groups, but one thing is abundantly clear. At some point, someone from one of the groups has to stop pointing the finger and start admitting where their people have been wrong. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. And leaving it as it is will only result in further segregation, mistrust, and retaliation.

It’s crazy what I can see so clearly in someone else’s country but am blind to in my own! As I read the headlines about ongoing race conflicts in the U.S., I am struck with the fact that the same dynamic is at work. As a white member of the American middle-class, I am wired to think individualistically, to think of my status as something that I alone determine and am responsible for. But my individualistic mindset has blinded me to the fact that I am part of a race, a group of people from whom, for better or for worse, I have inherited my appearance, my social position, my identity, and my worldview. I may not be overly conscious of my race (looking for the Caucasian box on application forms always strikes me as a bit odd), but that is more a testimony to my having grown up with my race being the dominant one than it is to my being color-blind. I can afford the luxury of not thinking about it!

But for American blacks, especially in my beloved South, race is something they are never allowed to forget. The days of slavery and legal segregation may be past, but (often not-so-subtle) snubs, derogatory comments, and biased treatment from people of my color serve as daily reminders that they are not only different but also despised. Media-coverage of incidents of unfair police treatment and spiteful hate-crimes has only recently brought to white awareness what has been the ongoing reality for American blacks: that they are still treated as second-class citizens in their own country, and that even the “nice” whites hold pre-judged assumptions about the intentions and moral character of the black race of which they are presumed guilty until proven otherwise.

I could throw up my hands in defense and exclaim: “I’m not a racist!” But even if I could honestly claim that I have never avoided the seat next to a black stranger in a subway or clicked my automatic-lock button as I drove by a hooded black man at night, the inescapable fact is that people of my color have perpetuated the ongoing divide between whites and blacks. I may not condone their actions, but they still represent my “kind.” And until enough people from my race go out of their way to demonstrate a message to the contrary, their message of hatred, mistrust, and division will stand as a representative banner over us all.

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, …then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
Philippians 2:1-7

As uncomfortable as it is for me to suddenly discover myself on the side of needing forgiveness rather than being the one asked to give it, I recognize that this is exactly the position I need to adopt if true reconciliation is ever to take place. If a few people can represent my race with their hateful comments and violent actions, then can I not step into the gap they have created and verbally acknowledge the wrongs of my people, both past and present? I may not be guilty, but we are. And beyond guilt, I feel a profound shame over this aspect of my cultural inheritance.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, …. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge… As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Ephesians 2:14-16; 3:17-4:3

So it’s my turn to practice what I teach. Lay aside my rights. Promote others’ interests over defending my own. Take up Christ’s ministry of reconciliation and humbly do what it takes to break down the barriers of hostility between groups of people for whom He died. If that means listening sympathetically to the hurt and frustration of my black brother, then I consider it a privilege that he would be willing to open his heart to me. If it means confessing the ways in which racist assumptions have influenced the way I think and asking my black friends to help me see life through their experience, then I can only pray that they will find me worthy of their trust.

Confession. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Trust.

We’ve got long way to go. But thanks be to God, we’ve got a great Mediator already on the job. May His Spirit reign in all our hearts, bringing peace that defies history and love that surpasses human understanding.