“Are we really going to talk about racism again?”
I feel some self-consciousness when I write about racism in the United States again because I know some people will roll their eyes because Jonny is writing about racism again. I think the idea is that there is so much more for pastors to say and talk about, why focus on such a divisive political issue? I guess for me it’s because the matter at hand isn’t political, it’s personal; it’s not abstract, it’s material; it’s not just the news, it’s my life.
This moment is unlike any other
At the beginning of the pandemic, on February 23, 2020, just a week after we quarantined in Circle of Hope, Ahmaud Arbery was murdered while jogging. The man was hunted down and killed. In mid-March, it was Breonna Taylor, who was fatally shot by police in her own home. Two months later, on May 25, his killers were arrested. And on that same week in Central Park, Amy Cooper called the cops on birdwatcher Chris Cooper. She described him as an African-American man who was threatening her life. On the same day, George Floyd was killed by police apprehending him, with other police watching. Two weeks after this incident, police killed Rayshard Brooks. And at the end of August, Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by Kenosha police.
As I jaunt through these incidents, I’m reminded that I’m not talking about racism too much (I may not be talking about it enough, to be honest), rather, the United States and its law enforcement is the one that’s doing too much. They are too racist, they are too violent. We need to keep talking about it. Yes, it’s exhausting and daunting, and it would be easier to just talk about something else. But I’m moved to speak now because I can’t hold my peace. I can’t let it go. It keeps getting worse. Kyle Rittenhouse murdered two protesters in Kenosha, and the President of the United States justified it. It looks like the whole country is spiraling into a race war, and it appears to be an election strategy for the incumbent to double-down on.
I feel it in my body
But it isn’t just the frequency and intensity of racist violence and white supremacy that is compelling me to write, it is that I feel it in my body. I’m not black, I’m brown, but I’m well-acquainted with racism, having been a victim of it. When it’s so thoroughly on display, I’m reminded of my place in society and I’m empathetic with the black people who feel the same way. Though we have different experiences, we have a relationship, too.
Avoiding the conversation is just avoiding my feelings and experiences. And in fact, it is organizing around the feelings of the people that I might “offend” by bringing up a controversial subject when we’re all just trying to get along. I’m quite adept at adapting myself to other people’s feelings and expectations, and while I won’t apologize for mastering that useful skill, doing so too much lacks integrity and it ultimately dehumanizes me.
And I don’t think Jesus wants me to disparage myself, belittle myself, or self-efface to the point of not being able to stand on my own. I don’t think that’s the self-emptying love he modeled, to be honest. Jesus emptied himself of his power and filled himself up with the weakness of humanity. This is why Jesus said he was found in the least of these, and why liberation theologians have said Jesus stands most closely to the oppressed.
So when I talk about racism, I’m expressing my own weakness in the face of evil, my own vulnerability in the face of hatred, my own frailty in the face of violence. When I talk about racism, I’m asking to be seen, to be known, and I’m asking for help. There’s a certain self-consciousness that I feel when I do, though, like I won’t be accepted, that I’ll be rejected, or my experience will be denied. I am self-conscious about that because I have experienced it. And so, believe it or not, there is a vulnerability when I talk about racism because I’m also sharing about myself. I admit, it’s easier to hide behind the headlines, to stick to the issues, to even talk about the theology of antiracism and liberation theology. Those things are important, but I admit most of my passion is personal.
And I’m moved to talk about my personal experience because I think that cuts through the partisan crosstalk. In online spaces, which are where many of us are spending our time during the dreaded plague, the issues themselves can become abstracted, even though they are deeply personal, because the online format tends to be cerebral or intellectual. On top of that, though, when we don’t even see the people with whom we are interacting, it becomes even easier to abstract the issues and not realize that they are deeply personal. Racism isn’t a question of political ideology, it’s a reality that people experience every day. If you deny that reality, you are denying their experience, and thus their humanity. To take it further, you are denying the image that God made them in.
So for me, it’s essential for the church to oppose racism, and it’s essential for me to be a part of an anti-racist church, and when I’m its pastor to lead it in an anti-racist way. For my sake, and for the sake of the victims of racism, this is often a difficult process, but I can’t deny myself for the sake of keeping us comfortable and complacent.
I have been a victim and complicit in racism
Like I said above, it’s easy to hide behind having the right ideas instead of being personal and being intimate. The right ideas can keep us from confessing our sins, and they can keep us from admitting that we are hurt. And so I want to move the locus of our discussion of racism from our minds into our hearts. I want to take it from the political and theological academics, and into the streets, with regular people.
There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus; we are free to repent of our sins without fear. We are already saved and that’s the beauty of the cross. That’s not an excuse to sin or a justification of our past behaviors.
But in the face of the racism that I experience around the country and I approach ten years as a pastor, I look over my time of service with both joy and sorrow. Sometimes I’ve triumphed, and the victory of Christ showed through me. I’ve fallen short and missed the mark at times; God’s grace filled in the gaps.
Specifically, as we look to our war-torn society, torn in particular by racism, I’ve been both a victim and complicit in it. I’ve participated in racism; at times siding with whiteness and white power in order to protect myself. But I’ve also been hurt by it. I’ve been a victim of the whiteness that I’ve tried to assimilate to. I grew up with immense pressure to assimilate into the American way of life, but that assimilation didn’t end when I moved from Central PA. I experience and I am tempted to conform to white norms everywhere I go. The sad part is, I’m pretty good at it. That has served me well, but it has hurt others, and in other ways, it has hurt me.
I’m seeking reconciliation. I forgive those who have harmed me as I awaken to the pain I’ve experienced. But I also ask for forgiveness for those who I have harmed, as well, as I come to an understanding of the pain I’ve caused. It is a painful process to realize the harm I’ve caused because it opens me up to harm I’ve experienced. But I feel able to say that now, because it’s Jesus who completes me and gives me the courage to forgive and be forgiven. God is continuing to disciple me, even in this time of isolation, in new ways.
I’m looking for people who want to do a similar thing alongside of me. That is people who are brave enough to admit when they’ve caused harm and when they’ve been harmed. That’s the way of the cross, the way of reconciliation, the way forward. We no longer need to defend ourselves because we aren’t condemned, and we no longer need to deny our pain because we are saved. That’s why I keep talking about racism. Because I know another world is possible. Jesus paved the way for that world and I want to keep following him.