If you’re coming into this post without having read the previous post, stop right there, buster. Read “four level of racism” first, then read this, lest you try to put new wine into old wineskins. Don’t rush to the solution without first listening to the problem, or you could fail to hear at all. Deconstruct first, build second.
If you have read the previous post, then welcome to its follow-up. To review, racism has four general levels of operation: personal, group, institutional, and systemic. Of course, there are various nuances that could be added. For example, personal racism can be expressed via conscious prejudice or unconscious bias. The four levels can intertwine, as well, as in the case of an individual leader with powerful influence on groups and institutions.
But now it’s time to do some living in the solution, from the perspective of a church seeking to obey God’s call to multi-ethnicity and understanding that the it exists for both inward personal redemption and outward creation-wide transformation.
Level one: the personal. Members of such congregations can make a commitment to be actively anti-racist. This may be uncommonly difficult in the Midwest and amidst Dutch-Reformed communities, both of which are strong adherents to the Cult of Nice. But when it comes to racism, not speaking up when it rears its ugly head is usually aiding and abetting. Silence is complicity. At a regional church meeting, I was speaking with another church’s elder about a pastoral care situation they were struggling with. It involved unmarried parents in a relationship likely to collapse as she deepened a commitment to Christ. The elder concluded, “Well, and it wasn’t going to work out anyway. He was black.” If his pastor and I had said nothing…? Church people, be responsible for one another and love enough to be the iron that sharpens iron.
Another way to be actively anti-racist is to choose inter-cultural relationships. Make space for those who are not of your culture at your dinner table, but recognize that for some, relationships have to be deep even to enter another’s kitchen. But you can start by making the extra effort during church fellowship, at the block party, or at the lunch hour. This is, by the way, much harder than we think it is, and the difficulty you’ll encounter will give you a growing knowledge of how strong and pervasive racism and prejudice actually are.
Level two: the group. Groups can learn. It often begins with acknowledging and reckoning with history. My own people, the Dutch Reformed, once believed that “In isolation is our strength.” This was an unofficial yet widely-understood statement from 1800s and early 1900s Dutch immigrants to America, who desired just to be left alone to practice their religion. Given the religious context in the Netherlands, one can charitably understand their mindset. That isolation went along with the less-formal tongue-only-partly-in-cheek, “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.” Those attitudes were part of what killed dozens of them during the 1850s, when their isolation meant low resources during harsh West Michigan winters. Those attitudes still kill churches.
But churches can also learn to be better, so they should bring in people to teach about racial reconciliation, cultural competence, and Biblical justice, for example. Sometimes, even “caucusing,” or dividing a mixed group for each sub-group to talk about their own in-house issues, can lead to more fruitful whole group interaction.
Church can also arrange visits to culturally-different events, churches, and neighborhoods to learn by experience. Even travel or service abroad, if framed the right way, can be well worth the expense, not because one more short-term group of well-meaning Americans is going to save the Dominican Republic from poverty, but because if those Americans are humble enough, the poor might contribute greatly to the saving of the rich.
Level three: the institution. To work against racism and for equitable and equal human community, an institution needs to figure out how to balance the scales of power among different ethnic groups it chooses to include. It helps that churches are not democracies, because, if they were, we would be forever bound to simple majority vote. Rather, churches can restructure decision-making so that groups that need to be included more but aren’t yet are given more weight. Church leaders can review by-laws to determine if a different mechanism is needed to include would-be outsiders in accomplishing God’s calling on the church. For example, my current congregation once asked every non-white guest within a three-month period what their experience was like, and one comment held in common influenced the style of our worship. Note that this is not about pleasing those inside or outside, but aimed at having integrity with what God has asked.
Churches also need to be honest with themselves about whether their current ministries contribute to the vision of a multi-ethnic congregation or not, and if not, to change or eliminate them. I myself have too often underestimated the cost to vision that is incurred when ministries once effective in a past context simply continue because they can. Perhaps they aren’t detracting from the vision, but if they are not contributing, then there is a compounding net loss of organizational direction and energy. New wine needs new wineskins.
Outside the church, a healthy multi-ethnic church will be able to offer support to the broader community and community institutions. In Lansing, IL, a certain bi-cultural pastor played a crucial role in getting various non-church groups to discuss a racially-charged incident. Or, after a different incident, a member of a multi-ethnic church in town wrote a thoughtful op-ed in the local newspaper about “grace and truth.” Of course, churches live with Christ flowing in their veins and forgiveness is what we ought to bleed when you cut us, so some concepts may out of reach for a secular context, but I hope churches allow the chance to witness and be salty (in the Biblical sense, not the current pop-slang sense) to win out.
Level four: the system. If a church works at the first three levels, it will begin to influence systems, but there also comes a time for broad-based public action. One form of that is advocacy for Biblical justice. Historically, that’s abolitionists or the core of the American civil-rights movement. Currently, there are churches who have realized that efforts to heal broken families in their neighborhoods have much to do with reforming the United States prison-industrial complex. Or consider that Saddleback Church, which began working to bring relief amidst the HIV/AIDS crisis many years ago, found that some of the barriers to effective service were systemic, and so they had to learn to advocate for systemic changes. But to get to advocacy presupposes deep involvement and commitment at levels one, two, and three, or the love won’t be sustainably strong enough to transform societal structures for the Kingdom.
Another systemic action that belongs to the church is prophecy. Not prophecy in the sense of fore-telling (revealing the God’s Will for the future), but forth-telling (revealing God’s Will for the present). The minor prophets are loaded with examples of prophetic challenge to systems. For Amos, it’s wealth disparity and injustice at issue. Jeremiah frequently battled the false prophets, who survived on networks at work: weak kings using niceties to keep the people calm and to maintain possession of the throne. Can’t forget Micah 6:8. Malachi indicts the Israelite priests for their loose and lying living and then calls for repentance and reform.
So that covers a lot of ground. It might be overwhelming to think a church might be called to be involved at so many levels, let alone to consider the complexity of sin. But what do you believe about redemption? Is Christ strong enough to save not just individuals, but also the world? Is the Spirit that dwells in you real enough to make you an agent of Christ? And do you really believe that not even the gates of the realm of the dead can hold back the work of God’s Church?