Some Thoughts on Race for White Christians
Alan Jacobs recently wrote a couple of posts addressing the question of how Christians ought to approach the struggle for racial justice. In the first post, responding to a recent statement made by Baylor’s president regarding the institution’s relationship to race, Jacobs argues that justice is for the work of reconciliation. He writes, > In my judgment, it is the opportunity to receive and extend forgiveness that is the greatest possible inducement to repentance and amendment of life, and — I cannot stress this too strongly — a shared repentance and amendment of life make genuine community possible. I have many colleagues who believe the same, and students at Baylor can find us. We will join the prophets and cry out for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. But we will also echo St. Paul and tell you that we Christians forgive others because God in Christ has forgiven us. We will tell you that your shortcomings and failures can never outpace the mercy of God, who loves his wayward children, all of them, and will someday wipe from their eyes every tear. This is the great hope of those who wound as well as those who are wounded. And all of us sometimes wound and sometimes are wounded.
(And then we will sit down at a table and strive better to understand, and better to pursue, the good, the true, and the beautiful.)
But does Baylor University, as an institution, believe in any of this? If so, why is none of it ever mentioned in our administration’s public statements about race and racism? Why do we strive to build an entire system of dealing with racism that doesn’t touch on the Christian Gospel at any point? Why don’t we offer a word of hope? President Livingstone likes to say, “The world needs a Baylor.” If Baylor simply echoes the language and the policies of other institutions, then no, the world really doesn’t need a Baylor. But if we think and speak and act out of a deep commitment to the Gospel of the Crucified and Risen One, then we can make a difference indeed.
In the second post, he addresses white Christians who responded to his first post, saying they feel like they “can’t win” in this struggle. He paraphrases their complaint, “Nothing we can do is right. If we speak, we’re wrong to speak; if we’re silent, we’re wrong to be silent. What are we supposed to do??”. I’m not unsympathetic to this frustration. The ideas behind the exhortations to both speaking and not speaking are more nuanced than their apparent contradiction conveys, but I understand how those messages can feel disorienting.
And I also feel it bears saying that in the midst of our necessary national reckoning with the legacy and ongoing presence of racism, a lot of harmful and regressive ideas are being propagated as well. Others have written about how some purportedly anti-racist efforts and ideas actually help to perpetuate prejudice and inequity. I think these issues are worth thinking critically about, but I don’t want to belabor them here.
That said, I think bemoaning state of the culture wars can become tiresome, and I want to turn my attention for this post elsewhere. As an encouragement to those feeling beleagured, Jacobs presents Christ’s marching orders to Christians: love, serve, and forgive those who mistreat you. For Christians, this command is universally binding and applicable; I don’t expect this behavior from someone who doesn’t already confess Christ as Lord. Of course, it is certainly possible, and even commendable for a person of any (non)faith to practice such virtues, but I would never compel them to.
But, as Jacobs admits, the command to love, serve, and forgive doesn’t make these actions any easier to practice. And, I would add, despite the universal applicability of Christ’s command, it can be, and has been, abused by white Christians to deflect calls for justice made by our black brothers and sisters. This is not to say they every affirmation of love, mercy, and forgiveness is such a deflection, only that it can be. That said, I’d be remiss not to note that the late John Lewis showed us that the way of the Good Shepherd can be remarkably transformative.
To augment what Jacobs as written, here are some practical thoughts for white Christians who are feeling befuddled at the moment:
Empathize. Consider how it would feel to always be treated with suspicion, to operate from a place of ongoing, low-grade fear and anxiety. Perhaps you’re already familiar with these feelings to some degree. Now, consider how it would feel that these experiences and feelings are the result of something as immutable and arbitrary as the color of your skin. You might feel that you “can’t win”. If you sit by quietly as you experience injustice, mistreatment, or disadvantage, your predicament will go unacknowledged. If you speak up, you run the risk of being charged with impoliteness and divisiveness. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. It’s an impossible situation. The words of St. James are instructive here: “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak”. He doesn’t say don’t speak, or don’t think critically, but listening and understanding are our first responsibility.
Get the hell off Twitter (or any social media, for that matter), and stay away from the clickbait/ragebait media machine. These platforms thrive in a crisis by perpetuating an environment of anxiety, suspicion, and outrage, leading to fatigue, exhaustion, and despair. In the content hustle, the most ideologically polarizing and superficially clever voices rise to the top. You will think you are on the losing side of a zero-sum struggle because these platforms privilege whatever will get the most attention, and it turns out that caustic, vitriolic, amygdala-damaging content gets a lot of clicks. These platforms distort our perception and make us feel perpetually threatened, and their business models will always, ineluctably enable this tendency. Which leads me to my third suggestion…
Mister Rogers used to tell a story that when he was afraid, his mother would tell him to “Look for the helpers”. Aside from reading, marking, and inwardly digesting the Word of God, and thinking for yourself, open yourself up to voices that are addressing the problems we face with wisdom, love, and grace. Even if our “national discourse” is a complete dumpster fire, dominated by bad faith and vindictiveness, the role and actions of the Church are note inevitably subject to it. Instead, we are already declared to be salt and light, and our responsibility is to faithfully do the work of seasoning and illuminating, showing mercy as we have been shown mercy. The battle is not over, but it has already been won. The same Christ who forgives our sins will also come again to judge the living and the dead.The justification of God both justifies the ungodly and will undo the damage wrought by the ungodly. In Christ, we are declared peacemakers because he has already made peace between us and God, and in so doing tore down the wall of hostility between people. If we see walls of hostility go up, it is not our responsibility to tear them down, but to proclaim that they’ve already been torn down, and to live accordingly. We have been declared forgiven, and are therefore free to own the sin and suffering of our histories, and bear the burdens of those who came before us, to repent where we need to repent, and lament where we need to lament.
I realize that the foregoing paragraph tells what the words and actions of helpers might look like, but doesn’t actually share any examples. Here are a few places to start replacing your Twitter diet with more nutritious thoughts about faith, race, and society:
- Queen of the Sciences podcast on being “white” and Christian.
- Most anything Esau McCaulley writes
- Breaking Ground, a “a collaborative web commons” from Comment Magazine, Plough Quarterly, and The Davenant Institute to imagine how we might build a society that is good, true, and beautiful.
- The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby
- The Front Porch
- & Campaign
- Sacred Ground
Some of these resources skew toward primarily talking about race, while others are more general, but I would say they are all worthwhile. I’ll probably write up another post or two of suggested reading/listening about some other topics, as well as my blogroll, but that’s for another day.
This post is running long, but I hope these thoughts and resources are encouraging, clarifying, and refreshing. Thinking about these things can be painful, but Christ has already moved through the pain for us and will move through it with us. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.