Not with Torches Only

We harm our friends when we elevate ourselves above them

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Photo by Max Böhme on Unsplash

Every so often I overhear a conversation that strikes me as catastrophic miscommunication. One person comes into the discussion with assured beliefs, ready to tell the other that not only are they wrong in their understanding of a situation, they are wrong even for protesting. “It’s not like that at all. What you think — and especially what you feel — is completely unfounded.”

Here’s an example: white Christians go into the community comprising their brothers and sisters of color, and they bring with them the message that Jesus of Nazareth, Christ and Lord and Savior of us all, doesn’t care about racism. (In its extreme form, Jesus doesn’t even acknowledge racism, because to them — and coincidentally to Jesus as well! — racism doesn’t really matter.)

I saw it last week, in near real-time.

Two beloved friends have a ministry that integrates faith with culture, specifically their Black culture. They speak from their own experiences as Black people living in a white-centered Christianity and a white-elevating America. They focus on building up the community, restoring the broken, and encouraging a lively faith in a risen Jesus. Pretty much standard Christianity that is familiar to the white Evangelical faith.

But they do so with an authentic Black voice and Black view. It’s theirs. It’s valid.

I listen to them, because my experiences in American Christianity are of a Jesus who is white, the exemplar of faith for white people. This white Jesus is victor and king — he’s in charge and directs a passive, non-interventionist faith for those who follow him: he never speaks crossly to his own, never tells them to protest social justice issues.

I listen to my friends because I hear my own brothers and sisters in the faith share of their faith, their hope, their understanding. They help me see the risen, healing Jesus in a more dynamic light. I know Jesus better because they share Jesus with me. The Jesus they show me is the suffering servant who dwells with his people — and with his people suffers, dies, and rises again. This Jesus is victor because of obedience.

I also get to hear the white people who respond to my friends, objecting to their views and dismissing or trivializing their lived experiences.

“You need to stop bringing up Black themes, Black experiences, Black pain. That’s not the Gospel. Jesus came to bring people to the centrality of truth, but racism isn’t central to his message. Peace and love and forgiveness are. What matters are the feelings that he brings.”

I admire the audacity! Confident white Christians who think that Jesus doesn’t care about racism are a wonder to behold. The message that racism hardly exists and isn’t even really a sin is a fantastic comfort for white Christians. What we all need to do as Christians, they say, is to get people into a church building to hear a sermon, stop supporting liberals — and then the Kingdom of God will come. That’s all the Gospel is for: to make churchified people. Sanctified pew-sitters.

This is a passive faith regarding Biblical issues of justice, even though it is quick to be roused when white culture is threatened.

I’m not persuaded of this Jesus.

That’s a weird Savior whom they speak of, for one.

But that’s also an unkindness to our Christian community comprising many tongues and tribes and nations.

Jesus sees the widow and the orphan, the oppressed and the marginalized, the poor and the needy, the wounded and the suffering. He lives with them. Our scriptures tell us this. These same scriptures do not tell us to dismiss the stories — and the pain — of others, to claim that we are distressed when we become aware of both our participation and leadership in the systems that hurt these who are the “disinherited,” as Dr. Howard Thurman said.

There’s no way to declare intellectual and moral integrity and to simultaneously claim that our friends in the communities of color have few difficulties living in a white-oriented America or worshiping within a white-centered faith system.

What I see are white Christians who are threatened by the voices of the oppressed and sidelined. And what I see are white Christians who choose not to take the step of listening to our brothers and sisters, but instead demand that these brothers and sisters listen to them, because our white voices and our white opinions are all that matter.

You may remember a protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, back in 2017. A group of white men, mostly in their 20s and 30s, carried torches and shouted “Jews will not replace us! Blood and soil!” Later, many of these protestors attacked Black counter-protestors. One of them then drove through a crowd of counter-protestors, injuring many and killing Heather Heyer.

That protest was ugly and disruptive. It was a wicked, vile expression of the hatred that racists feel about Americans who are not white Protestants.

Antisemitism and racism and misogyny are wrong. This is easy to say, because it seems objectively true. Who wouldn’t agree with this?

But there are the parades that we hold and the torches that we carry and the words that we shout that are just as harmful to our brothers and sisters in our Beloved Community.

When we dismiss their words, when we devalue their lived experiences, when we deny their pain — we are marching along with torches. Smaller ones, of course, but nonetheless with the intention to erase our friends’ lives.

You will not replace us. We deserve to be in charge, always. You are here by the grace of God, and should understand your position of subservience to white wisdom.

It isn’t necessary to physically attack our neighbors. We simply need to silence them. If they remain uppity — well, we need to replace them with better neighbors. With people who look like us.

I hear this from white Christians: “When you express your lived experiences, when you speak of your learnings, when you confront a white-centered Jesus and a white-centered faith, you are getting off track. The Gospel of Jesus isn’t about acknowledging the sin of racism. It’s about the static belief that God’s in his heaven, and all’s right with this world. Our world. We can live untroubled lives of great faith by refusing to examine the world we live in that oppresses and marginalizes people of color. It is enough to believe. There is no need to obey — especially to obey the hard, inconvenient stuff.”

Now, I’m white. Born white, raised white, choosing white. I’m making attempts to act better — but inside, where I’m formed, it’s all white.

I have to work hard to not think and say and act in whiteness. It’s like learning a new language as an adult. A large part of the learning is vocabulary, of course, but for many of us, we are forever continuing to translate in our head from English into the new language and back again. We aren’t speaking natively. We speak as converts.

It is very hard to become a thinker and speaker in a new language.

So it is with unwinding our white selves from whiteness. So much of our formation of who we are, right now, is because we were formed to be white. If we work hard, we can acquire a new vocabulary. We can learn some new behaviors. We can pick up new ways to see things. But for most of us, for most of the time, it’s a continual process to un-whiten ourselves.

It’s hard, but it’s not impossible, to dethrone our white centering. Many people believe that it is too difficult. They stop at a convenient place where they are perhaps less purely white in their attitudes, but where they are no longer confronting their whiteness.

They’ve done enough.

For many of us as Christians, that is the moment when we have the revelation that Jesus loves everyone, and we can dance with them — but we don’t see that we’re still leading that dance. We’re still pulling and demanding and teaching and directing.

We’re still telling the Beloved Community that who they are isn’t as important as who we are. We speak of egalitarianism in the faith, but we still center our white theology, our white church communities, our white leaders, our white Jesus. We are all equal, as long as white people are more equal.

These words are the torches and the marches, and this is what our friends hear when we speak to them.

There are at least two results from continuing to insist that our friends ignore the things that don’t matter to us.

One is that we maintain, even extend, the division that corrupts the American church, not between left and right, conservative and liberal. It is the chasm of race, and it’s a division caused by and continued by white actions. We are not healing the division when we refuse to acknowledge it and then do something to bring healing.

But the second is worse: by our indifference to and intolerance of our friends’ lived experiences, we are dismissing their dignity and worth. We are minimizing their words. We are talking over their testimonies. We are erasing their very lives. We are telling them that they don’t matter, that their requests to be seen are foolish and not worth considering, that their pain is imaginary.

We are carrying our torches and telling them you will not replace us.

And that, my friends, is not the word of Jesus to us in our shared participation in the Gospel — the Good News that God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself — and us to each other.

It is time for us to let down our defenses and assured beliefs and listen to our brothers and sisters. They have a story to tell, and we can hear it — if we will just give them our attention.

Writer; observer; sometimes doer. Senior editor Our Human Family. Fiat justitia ruat cælum. More at stephenmatlock.com

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