Friday, July 31, 2015

White Defensiveness--Can We Let Down Our Defenses Enough to Be Compassionate?

As a minister, my job is not to tell people what they want to hear but to tell them--as best as I can figure out--what they need to hear.  Granted, I'm supposed to offer my thoughts in a loving and empathetic manner--not to mention in a way that makes sense--but plenty of times my delivery could be improved--to say the least!  

I've received some interesting responses from members of my almost entirely white congregation when I've preached, taught and written about race over the last several months.  I've spent a lot, lot, lot of time thinking about those responses, especially responses to my thoughts about how race and racism relate to our church's name, the neighborhood and part of Kansas City our church is located in and the history of race in Kansas City.  Some of the responses I've received have been positive, some have been helpful offering me suggestions of ways my thoughts or the way I expressed them could have been better, and some have been, let's say, defensive.

When a minister has church members who feel defensive about a sermon she or he preaches, it could be because the minister was out of line, the minister expressed herself or himself poorly or because the minister was doing what she or he is supposed to do--speak truth to the congregation even if they don't want to hear it.
At the risk of me being defensive about my own ministry, I'd like to talk about this defensiveness which I think I've seen when it comes to discussions of race in our church.  I don't think this defensiveness is unique to white people who are members of my church, but rather I think it is characteristic of pretty much all white people in America today.  I think I can speak about this topic, because I also feel defensive when I'm having conversations about race.  Nobody wants to think of themselves as racist--except for maybe the most virulent sort.  Neither do I.  Yet, I'm white and I live in America, so if I"m honest, I have to admit I am a racist.  

Oh sure, I'm not a Confederate flag waving, klan robe wearing kind of racist.  That's not the point.  I didn't actively create segregation or racial prejudice.  That's also not the point.  I have two bi-racial sons.  That's important but not the point.  I preach, teach and work to combat racism.  Also important, but still not the point.  

I'm white and I live in America.  That's the point.  

I didn't create racism.  I was born into a culture with systemic racism.  That means I was born into a complex web of present and past laws, policies, behaviors, opinions, norms both written and unwritten about what skin color means and does not mean.  Those factors are uncountable and unavoidable.  As much as I try to resist this cumulative weight of racism, I cannot avoid it.  I was taught these things by innumerable social interactions, media representations, and societal mannerisms often by people who had no idea they were passing them on to me.  I could no sooner avoid all these influences than I could avoid society's messages on gender, sexuality and class.  No matter how much I un-learn these things, there is always more for me to un-learn.  I am a racist as much as I hate to admit it, and if you are white in America so are you.

I was helped greatly in my thinking about why we who consider ourselves "white" (whitness is a social construction after all) are so loath to admit our racism at this particular time in our nation's history by a sermon preached by an African American writer named John Metta  He is a writer, not a minister, but he preached a sermon (at a UCC church no less) and the text of his sermon has circulated widely.  In it, he explains why he no longer has discussions about race with white people--including his white family members.  Here are some excerpts:

He begins by describing a conversation about race his black sister had with his white aunt in which his sister said, "The only difference between people in the North and people in the South is that down here, at least people are honest about being racist."

He goes on to write, "Over a decade later, this sentence is still what my aunt talks about. It has become the single most important aspect of my aunt's relationship with my Black family. She is still hurt by the suggestion that people in New York, that she, a northerner, a liberal, a good person who has Black family members, is a racist.  This perfectly illustrates why I don't talk about race with White people.  Even--or rather especially--my own family.  


New York State is one of the most segregated states in the country. Buffalo, New York, where my aunt lives, is one of the 10 most segregated school systems in the country. The racial inequality of the area she inhabits is so bad that it has been the subject of reports by the Civil Rights Action Network and the NAACP.
Those, however, are facts that my aunt does not need to know. She does not need to live with the racial segregation and oppression of her home.  As a white person with upward mobility, she has continued to improve her situation. She moved out of the area I grew up in- she moved to an area with better schools. She doesn't have to experience racism, and so it is not real to her.
Nor does it dawn on her that the very fact that she moved away from an increasingly Black neighborhood to live in a White suburb might itself be a aspect of racism. She doesn't need to realize that "better schools" exclusively means "whiter schools."
I don't talk about race with White people because I have so often seen it go nowhere. When I was younger, I thought it was because all white people are racist. Recently, I've begun to understand that it's more nuanced than that."
Moss goes on to explain why he no longer has conversations about race with white people:
"To understand, you have to know that Black people think in terms of Black people.
We don't see a shooting of an innocent Black child in another state as something separate from us because we know viscerally that it could be our child, our parent, or us, that is shot. . .
Racism affects us directly because the fact that it happened at a geographically remote location or to another Black person is only a coincidence, an accident. It could just as easily happen to us--right here, right now.  Black people think in terms of we because we live in a society where the social and political structures interact with us as Black people.
White people do not think in terms of we. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals. You are "you," I am "one of them." Whites are often not directly affected by racial oppression even in their own community, so what does not affect them locally has little chance of affecting them regionally or nationally. They have no need, nor often any real desire, to think in terms of a group. They are supported by the system, and so are mostly unaffected by it.
What they are affected by are attacks on their own character. To my aunt, the suggestion that "people in The North are racist" is an attack on her as a racist. She is unable to differentiate her participation within a racist system (upwardly mobile, not racially profiled, able to move to White suburbs, etc.) from an accusation that she, individually, is a racist. Without being able to make that differentiation, White people in general decide to vigorously defend their own personal non-racism, or point out that it doesn't exist because they don't see it."
I think Moss is correct.  Because "white-ness" is the norm in our culture, those of us who are white do not have to identify with all white people.  We accept there is diversity among white people.  But because black people are in the minority--not the norm--they are forced to deal with the judgment by those in the majority that one black person is the same as all black people.  So black people think in terms of "we" while white people think in terms of "I."   Of course, all generalizations about people to a lesser or greater extent are false, but just because they aren't true doesn't mean they aren't real--at least in terms of a culture's norms.
The reason white people--myself included--feel defensive about being called a racist is because we have a complicated compartmentalization going on inside our heads.  We acknowledge racism exists, but we believe it is always someone else and somewhere else.  Just because we do not actively discriminate in overt ways does not mean we are without racist thoughts or attitudes.  It's just outright denial to believe that those racist thoughts and attitudes don't influence our actions one way or another.  Yet, acknowledging this reality is painful.  Who wants to think of themselves as racist?  Not me.  

Another part of white defensiveness is the assumption that taking responsibility for one's own racism is the same as taking responsibility for ALL racism.  Yes, as a white person in America, I am born into racism and become complicit in it, but I did not cause all of it.  Even so, accepting responsibility for one's own racism is not an easy thing to do.  The hardest part--I think--of accepting my own racism--my own part in this complex web of our racist culture--is acknowledging my privilege.  

"Check your privilege" has become a trite catchphrase on college campuses and on social media, and it is dismissed as political correctness run amok.  Yet, privilege is real.  Just by being born with the skin color I've got has opened countless doors for me and created opportunities for me--most of which I'm probably not even aware of.  The most helpful thing I've read lately about the concept of privilege is a blog post by Maisha Johnson.  She writes, 

"1.  Having Privilege Doesn't Mean You're a Bad Person
The fact that you get benefits that other people don't is really messed up. So when someone says you have privilege, it can feel like they're accusing you of deliberately taking from oppressed groups.


And if you're making an effort to actively fight oppression, it feels even worse - like you're trying your best, but people are still accusing you of doing something wrong.
But having privilege isn't about deliberately demanding something - it's just about the circumstances of your life that give you benefits you never asked for.
For instance, I have privilege as a temporarily able-bodied person. I don't want to live in a world where I get accommodations that disabled people don't have access to, but the truth is that I do.
That's not my fault. But I recognize that I benefit from it and I should do something about it, because everyone deserves access to basic resources.
Besides, taking this system of discrimination personally, as if it's just about something I'm doing wrong, would distract from the real point of talking about privilege: taking down oppression.
To be a supportive ally, I can't just focus all the attention on my own guilt - I have to help center the voices of disabled people who spread knowledge about how people like me can do better. Their liberation is what disability rights are all about.
2. Having Privilege Means There's a Whole System at Work
Privilege is not about individuals being bad people, but it is about entire systems that favor some groups and put down others.
These systems - like ableism, white supremacy, and classism - get structural support from laws, the media, and policies that affect our lives every day. Most of us aren't taught that these systems are such an influential part of how the world works.
We learn that everyone can work hard to earn rewards, pull themselves up by their bootstraps to gain wealth, and be a decent person to get respect.
So finding out that your privilege gives you a head start in achieving these things can be shocking - it challenges what you've always thought to be true.
That's why, to a certain extent, it makes sense that you haven't always been aware of your privilege, and even that it's hard to get used to the idea of having it."
I guess it's not surprising that I and white people across America make the discussion about racism in our society into one about us as individuals.  After all, one of the chief benefits of being white in America is that society is designed for you (as a white person) to believe everything really is all about you.  Yet, when we get defensive and make a discussion about racism in our society all about a debate over our own individual character (rather than our complicity in a racist social structure) we place the focus in the wrong place.  When we discuss racism, the focus should always remain on the people who are oppressed rather than on those who benefit most from society's norms.

As a Christian, I believe all ethics must begin with compassion.  Compassion meaning literally "suffering with."  Jesus Christ "suffered with" humanity and calls us to do the same with one another.  A discussion about racism that keeps the focus on an individual white person's behavior rather than on the oppression of black people is not a compassionate discussion about racism--it's just a white person being defensive.  If I and other white people want to have a conversation about race, we need to shut the hell up and listen for a change.  We must listen to the pain of people who must live with the discrimination society places upon their skin color in so many different ways if we wish to be compassionate.  If we refuse to acknowledge their very real pain, then there is really no point in having the conversation at all.

I'm working on my own white defensiveness, because I believe it is the ethical human thing to do.  I also believe it is the truly Christian thing to do.  I'm challenging my congregation--however imperfectly--to do the same.  I didn't become a minister to make people comfortable--that's not what I understand Christianity to be.  Christianity is about making people uncomfortable in all the best ways.  That's why I wade into the difficult waters of uncomfortable topics.  I may blunder about in those waters, but I know that's where I will find Jesus.

When Jesus began his ministry, he preached about the Community of God and called followers to repent.  Repent means "to turn away from" or "turn around from."  When it comes to racism, how can we repent when we are too defensive to even understand what we are repenting of?

I may not have all the answers when it comes to racism, but I do have a book to recommend.  I'm about halfway through Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is the most poignant and powerful writing about what it means to be a black man in contemporary America I am aware of.  As a white person, it is tough to read it.  It's words have been literally blowing my mind and causing me to rethink what I have understood America to be.  I encourage you to read it, but don't say I didn't warn you.  (Here's anexcerpt of the book in The Atlantic.  Here's an NPR interview with Coates.)

Grace and Peace
Chase
    

Recommended Reading 7-31-15 Edition

Each week (more or less) I send out an e-mail to my congregation with my thoughts including stuff I've read over the past week that I want to pass along. 
Christians Behaving Badly
Race, Racism and Privilege
More stuff

My Church in the News Again

Monday night I was contacted by a reporter from KCTV-5 seeking a comment on the national board of the Boy Scouts of America lifting it's ban on gay scout leaders.  (National staff will not be discriminated against, but he chartering organizations and churches of local troops will get to decide whether they will allow gay scout leaders based on their own policies and beliefs.)   When the board was considering lifting the ban in 2013, our church made national news with our advocacy for lifting the ban.  This week's story contains some great shots of the church building.  Here's the video.

What Do I Mean When I Say the Word "Christ?"

Following worship the Sunday before last, I was asked a really good question: "What do you mean when you use the word Christ?"  My sermon had been on Ephesians 2:11-22 where Paul describes how Christ brought together Jews and Gentiles in the early church to create a new community.  My reading was that the passage was not only about first century relations between Jews and Gentiles but also about how Christ today can bring people together to create a new community transcending all the cultural barriers of our day.  I had used the word "Christ" a lot in my sermon.  I was pleased with the question, because that meant this person actually paid attention to my sermon--let's face it, that's never a sure thing.  Also, I'm really glad when someone asks me a question about one of my sermons, because that means she or he is engaged, thinking and willing to do more than accept my limited thoughts at face value.

For most Christians, there would be no need to question what their minister means by the word "Christ>"  After all, for them "Christ" is who the historic creeds or confessions of church history say Christ is--which confessions and which creeds are dependent upon the particular kind of church.  For some Protestants, the question would be answered by saying, "Christ is who the Bible says he is."  While most Christians would probably say the word Christ means something like Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, the Messiah who took away the sin of the world through his death on the cross and rose from the dead, the further along I get on my journey, the less such a traditional answer satisfies me.

I'm glad to be in a congregation and a denomination where there is freedom for people to hold a variety of different understandings of who and what Christ means while still being in community together.  For most of Christian history, up through today, agreement upon the definition of the term Christ is a necessity for being in community and diversity of belief was at least frowned upon, if not cause for literally killing people holding "heretical" views.  I get it when friends of mine from more conservative churches are baffled by how a church can be a church without doctrinal agreement--it's messy when you allow freedom of belief, doubt, questions.  But to my way of thinking, messy theology allows for mystery and guards against my very human tendency to try and place boundaries around an uncontrollable God.

When I first came to my current church, numerous long-time members came to me privately to confess they weren't very good Christians.  I was expecting juicy details of deep moral failings, but instead they told me they didn't believe many of the things Christians were "supposed" to believe.  I tried not to let my disappointment show.  Usually, I responded, "Oh, is that all?"  Their so-called lack of belief just doesn't threaten me very much.

Paradoxically, I've discovered in my time in ministry that usually some of the best church members were the ones who believed the least traditional Christian theology.  For some reason, there seems to be a correlation many times between believing less doctrine and being a more loving, dedicated member of the community.  I'm not sure if that's because the universalists and agnostics have just spent more time thinking about such things and have a greater investment or there's some other factor at work.  I just like to tell the folks who tend to believe less traditional Christian stuff that even if they don't believe in God the way I do, the love of God they demonstrate in our faith community inspires my belief and helps me to see God in our world.  They can believe or not, but their actions help me to overcome my own doubts.

I've spent enough time reading and studying doctrinal battles in centuries past and observing ones in the present to come to the conclusion that how us church people decide what we believe about God is a decidedly flawed human process.  Folks can say they believe the Bible is divinely inspired, but the variety of different images, theological concepts and cultural metaphors used to explain who Jesus Christ was and is and accomplished through his life, death and resurrection tell me there is a lot of room for different ideas to coexist.  The biblical canon, in my opinion, rather than providing a consistent set of doctrine, offers instead a spectrum of theological beliefs.  I would argue we are being faithful to our scripture by holding seemingly contradictory beliefs side by side instead of falsely pretending it all fits together like a jigsaw puzzle.  Furthermore, the history of church battles over the identity of Jesus Christ tell as much, if not more, about human politics than they do about divine guidance.  In my own journey, I've seen more often than not, Christians using their doctrines to harm people who need God's love.  In their zeal to be certain, they drive more people away from God than toward God.  I find more reason to allow for mystery than certainty when it comes to talking about Christ.

Another big caveat I should mention when I talk about Christ is that I'm more of a postmodern thinker than a modern one.  Unlike many in the churches I've served in, including the one I serve currently, I wasn't educated like people were educated more than 40 years ago.  Culturally, I've been exposed to contradictory views held in tension with one another throughout my life.  I certainly see the value of reason, the scientific method and everything philosophical thinking has come up with since the enlightenment, but I've been taught and even culturally conditioned in a more postmodern way.  (Just like people younger than me have grown up with ways of thinking even more postmodern than me!)  I'm just not bothered by the idea that the same word, concept or image can mean very different things to different people depending on that person's point of view, culture, ethnicity, sexuality, income, etc. etc. etc.  I'm not a relativist who denies the existence of any universal norms, but I am perfectly willing to let what I consider to be universal ideas exist in my mind in a more spongy than concrete way.  I'm willing to live with contradiction a little more easily than people who grew up being taught a thing can only be one thing and not several things at the same time.  For instance, thinking of Jesus as both human and divine--a paradox if there ever was one--just doesn't really trouble me.

That's probably enough caveats, I should get back to the original question: "What do I mean when I use the word Christ?"

When I use the word Christ, the scriptures I most resonate with would be ones like Ephesians 1:9-10 where it says, "God  has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth."  or Colossians 1:15-17 where it says, "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together." and Philippians 2:5-11, "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death- even death on a cross.  Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

I know, I know, believe me I know, that these verses are probably big turn offs to my church members who hold a low Christology--meaning they see Jesus as human only rather than as human and divine.  These verses are about as high Christology as one can get--Christ is pretty freaking divine in these verses.  I empathize with really good church folks of mine who feel that if Jesus is God then they can't relate to him.  For them, if his actions and ministry were not human efforts to be followed as an example, but rather divine ones that only a god can accomplish, then what Jesus did has little to nothing to do with their all-too-human efforts.  I, on the other hand, have never felt like I had to choose between Jesus being human and divine.

One of the contradictions I hold in tension without being too troubled by it is I can hold tightly to my beliefs about God (which come across, I know, as traditional if not conservative), while at the same time, I don't have to worry about my parishioners who hold beliefs about God that are very different from my own.  I think it is possible for me to say that on my journey I've chosen to believe in Jesus as divine and human and to accept the doctrine of the Trinity, in at least some form, without at the same time also believing that anyone who doesn't share my view is a heretic.  In my mind, I can hold onto my beliefs without having to condemn someone with different ones.

To me, I understand the term "Christ" to refer to the part of God, or essence of God, or facet of God or whatever of God that seeks to reconcile all of creation with God's self.  I think "Christ" is a way of talking about whatever it is of God that accomplishes the on-going act of creation that God began at the very beginning.  Christ is what binds humanity together with God, with one another, and with all of Creation.  When we resist the work of Christ in the universe, we bring about broken relationships, a destroyed environment and false understandings of God that hurt rather than heal.

Yes, I know that such a view of God's activity in the universe just doesn't make sense to folks who are understandably stuck on questions of suffering, evil and all kinds of really stupid stuff done in the name of God by people who claim to know the mind of God better than everyone else.  I have those same questions too--some days those questions resonate louder than the part of me that holds faith in a benevolent deity who is active in the universe.  What thinking person hasn't looked at genocide, natural disaster, the death of a child, the death of a loved one, or any number of awful things and had doubts?  I have them too, so I don't judge people who just can't get there when it comes to Christ being a cosmic force for good.  I could be wrong after all.

I believe Christ--this whatever of God that pulls everything towards harmony rather than discord--was in Jesus, in his life, his relationships, his death and his resurrection.  I'm really not too concerned with whether this happened through a virgin birth or some other way.  I like to say sometimes that I choose to believe God was in Jesus and Jesus was in God in some extra special way, because at least then God knows what it really feels like to be rejected, abandoned, tortured, scorned and killed.  A deity who hasn't experienced such things firsthand can't relate to me or people I care about when we go through similar moments.  I'm able to call myself a Christian when I look at myself in the mirror in no small part, because when I consider all the crappy stuff in this world, I at least believe God knows what we have to deal with on this mortal coil.

I know, I know, I know, for some of my folks the whole divine/human thing just doesn't make sense.  I agree.  It doesn't make sense, but all I can say is it just doesn't bother me.  I've thought about it a lot.  I recognize it as a paradox, but for me, something that is paradoxical can also still be true.  I know that the resurrection in whatever form one wants to think about it--bodily, spiritual, whatever--is something that just doesn't make sense to people who don't see much evidence of the laws of physics being suspended in their own lives.  I'm just as turned off as they are when some Christians act like believing in the resurrection is no big deal.  It's a lot easier to explain it away as ancient superstition than it is to believe in its reality.  Yet, I do.  I've made a choice to believe in it, because it seems to match up with my interpretation of reality (at least so far).  

I've had a pretty good life, and I don't pretend to have experienced some of the grief and pain my church members and friends outside the church have known in their lives.  If I had a baby still-born, a parent die at an early age, an excruciatingly painful and fatal disease, a direct experience of war, a life of poverty, etc. etc. etc., then perhaps my beliefs would be totally different.  Yet, this is where I am, so far. . . 

My beliefs have changed a lot in my life.  If the last 43 years are any indication, if I get to live so long, my beliefs will change a lot in 43 more years.  I try to stay humble about what I believe and acknowledge that I've chosen my beliefs--at least as much as any of us chooses such things based on our life experiences, cultural conditioning, family of origin, etc.  If I expect others to respect my choices of belief, then I have to offer them the same respect regarding their choices, especially when we choose to believe different things about God.  My main concern is how do those beliefs about God manifest themselves in how a person treats others.

Recently I shared an image on Facebook that one of my Facebook friends had on their page.  It has the words, "They will know we are Christians by our doctrine." except the word "doctrine" is crossed out and replaced with the word "love."  Ultimately, I'm less concerned with my doctrine or anyone else's than I am with whether or not how I or they live is a compassionate way of life.  My concept of "Christ" has everything to do with God being compassionate--far more compassionate than I am--so in the name of divine compassion, I'm going to do my best to hold religious beliefs that privilage compassion over doctrinal rigidity.

If what I've written doesn't do it for you, then just know, I'm okay with that.  Furthermore, I welcome your questions.      

Grace and Peace
Chase
    

Recent Sermons are Online

Here's a description of the 7/19 sermon: "This is a sermon about what the church is supposed to be but so often isn't.  According to the letter to the Ephesians, the church is a community where the "dividing wall of hostility" has been broken down by God.  Yet, churches more often than not are hostile to newcomers and strangers.  Their memberships are homogeneous rather than diverse, because the walls of hostility in our culture remain active in our congregations.  God asks us to do better.Also, here's the link to the great KC Star article on the multi-racial church in KC--Covenant Presbyterian Church, which I mention in the sermon. 
Here's a description of the 7/12 sermon: "This is a sermon about living a life of thankfulness.  We all know people who choose to lead lives filled with complaints and negativity; they are hard to be around.  Choosing to be a thankful person doesn't mean ignoring the pain and difficulty in our lives, rather it means making a choice not to be defined by them.  Thanksgiving is more than just offering shallow platitudes, rather it is a way to deal with pain, grief and difficulty rather than as a way to deny them."

 

Recommended Reading, Listening and Watching 7-24-15 edition

Each week (more or less) I send out an e-mail to my congregation with my thoughts including stuff I've read over the past week that I want to pass along. 
Same Gender Marriage Stuff
Racism
More on the United Church of Christ Decision to Divest from Companies profiting from the Israeli Occupation of Palestinian Lands
Christians Behaving Badly
Confederate Flag Stuff
  • I don't know this minister so I don't know if I would agree with other things he's written or not, but I find this blog post to be a powerful testimony of how one's Christian's faith can change a person's mind. His change f heart about the Confederate flag is profound. 
Economic Justice
More stuff

My Church in the News

It's been a summer of local TV interviews re: LGBT equality for me and my church.

Two weeks after KCTV-5 interviewed me and CCCUCC members, Paul Osgood and Jerry Cundiff, Channel 41 showed up.  This time we were interviewed about the state of Kansas's (now failed) effort to not allow same gender married couples to file their taxes as married.