This week, we continue our series Ask Mission Central, where we tackle real questions on spiritual life from emerging Christian leaders. Subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!
Ask Mission Central: Question Fifteen
“How should Christians respond to the rift between those who believe racism is a problem embedded in systems and those who don’t?”
A response to this thoughtful question turns on another, more basic one: “Is racism a problem embedded in systems?” That question has received more attention than ever before over the fifteen months that have passed since the murder of George Floyd. To put my cards on the table (and to share a conviction that I think will surprise few readers), I am more than convinced that the answer is “yes.” But wiser and clearer voices than mine have spoken to the dynamics of race, and rather than attempting to write a persuasive post here, I would instead point readers to their words. I particularly commend the work of Bryan Stevenson for thinking about race in the United States in general and of Korie Little Edwards for thinking about race in the church.
Your question cuts to another tension: It’s not just the disagreement, but that there is a disagreement which is difficult for us as believers. There is anything but a consensus among U.S. Christians about how to think, speak, and act about race. There is, as you say, a rift. Having grown up in largely white evangelical communities, I have friends and family members who would answer “no” to the question, “Is racism systematic?” It can feel emotionally exhausting and disorienting to wade into a conversation on the topic. (Granted, if I think it’s taxing to talk about racism, I must remember how much more taxing it is for our brothers and sisters who experience it.) There are dear ones with whom I share so much—family history, fond memories, a faith in Jesus Christ, commitment to the church—yet who do not see eye to eye with me about the injustices faced by our spiritual family and others who are Black, Latino, Asian, and Native here in the United States.
I confess that I’m not sure, at the level of larger social and denominational structures, what can be done about this disagreement. Bonnie Kristian has spoken to the possibility of division in sobering terms; for many of our institutions we may have to say “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” But I do know that at the scale of interpersonal relationships and local congregations, Scripture calls for us to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3 NIV) and to “bear with each other and forgive one another” (Colossians 3:13 NIV). To that end, I recommend four difficult steps for conversations about race.
1. Practice a Posture of Prayer
Our souls suffer when controversial dialogue becomes disconnected from our life of abiding in the presence of God. Consider this: For any given controversy, how many minutes do you spend reading and writing social media posts about it, and how many do you spend listening to and speaking to the Lord about it? I don’t mean to say that private piety should displace appropriate forms of prophetic witness in public settings. But all of our words and deeds need to be grounded in the soil of prayer. Have you prayed for the people with whom you disagree? Have you invited the Holy Spirit to confront any false motive in you that may skew how you talk about these things? If you are in a position to speak publicly or formally, have you sought the intercession of trusted friends, so that your words might be “seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6 NIV) rather than spoiled by your own capacity for sin and error?
Talking is never “just talking”; words convey spiritual power to harm or to bless. Even a brief comment on a friend’s post is an opportunity to practice grace—or to provoke strife. If ever a verse has convicted me, it is Matthew 12:36, from the lips of Jesus: “But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken” (NIV). To protect ourselves and our hearers, we need to encompass all our conversations, especially the “loaded” ones, with the words and inward posture of prayer.
2. Have Humility
If prayer is the soil for conversations about race, then humility is the lattice that gives them the space they need to grow into something fruitful. Without humility, our words devolve into a tangled mess that does more harm than good. There are many dimensions to “the virtue of smallness,” but one that deserves special attention for conversations about race is intellectual humility.
I wrote above that I am more than convinced that racism is systematic. In light of the available evidence, the testimony of brothers and sisters of color about their own experiences, and my conviction that past evils in every culture continue to infect the present, I am firmly persuaded that mistreatment and oppression of people of color is not just a matter of private or individual prejudice, but also of patterns embedded in broader cultural and social structures. For all that, though, it would be a grave error for me to assume I “have figured out” racism. I still have so much to learn, and not just from those who agree with me. More skeptical friends have asked difficult and intelligent questions to which I do not have ready answers. I need to be willing to concede fair points that others make, to keep an open mind, and to move beyond sloganeering to seek genuine understanding of admittedly complex topics. If we head into conversations expecting to learn nothing, how can we expect our conversation partners to grasp what we are trying to communicate?
A related dimension of humility is refusing to conflate “correct” views with moral character. Although our convictions and our character are connected, it does not follow that anyone who disagrees with me on a matter of substance is a basically bad person. Without watering down the moral importance of what we believe, we also need to extend the benefit of the doubt to those who are making a good faith effort to understand reality, but who have drawn the lines in different places than we have.
3. Hold Your Ground, Gently
Even while we engage others with the charitable assumption that they are people of goodwill, we should not be quick to concede moral ground. Especially among fellow believers, frankness about our beliefs can be a form of love. The counsel of Proverbs reminds us: “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses” (27:5-6 NIV). But we also need to pay attention to what form our “open rebuke” takes. Keen cultural observers have noted that social media has become an environment in which honor/shame dynamics often play a stronger role than measured discourse. We show that we are “in the right camp” by shaming the ignorance and backwardness of the other party. Needless to say, this approach does little to foster mutual understanding or genuine persuasion! But the response of shaming has become so automatic that we may no longer even recognize it in ourselves.
For example, consider the following (invented) conversation:
Mother: I’m not racist. I’m friends with Latryce!
Daughter: Ugh, Mom! Even saying that is racist!
The mother here is operating under the false notion that having Black friends is incompatible with having racist views or behaviors. This is a great example of something to push back on, to point out. But the daughter’s “that’s racist” response is not so much a response as an act of shaming. When we grow impatient with someone else’s views, lashing out with a shaming response comes much more naturally than continuing to give the benefit of the doubt.
In contrast, practicing gentleness even in such fraught moments is more likely to open the door to someone entertaining a new idea or perspective. It is not evil to remain calm in the face of someone else saying something that is morally foolish. We can even practice reflective listening, stating the other person’s (problematic) views back to them, to make sure we understand where they’re coming from. Then, we can ask for permission to share our views, and explain, gently, why we think theirs leave something to be desired.
4. Champion Cultural Change
Conversations like this can happen not just with family and friends, but also with brothers and sisters in our local congregations, or with coworkers and colleagues. Consider the measure of influence you have at church and at work. Even if you’re not in a position of formal leadership, the relationships that you form and the conversations you initiate can influence where the lines are drawn in your communities.
When it comes to race, you may find yourself on a different page than more senior leaders. This brings up the difficult question of whether to remain in a community where your convictions are out of sync with the surrounding culture. Before making a decision, consider what’s possible if you stay. To what extent do senior leaders show an openness to change? Have you raised this matter with them? Rather than making a quick exit, you could find a way to speak up.
If you do speak up, do it with charity and gentleness. In advocating for a right view of justice, we can still be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19 NIV). There is a place for righteous anger in prophetically challenging power that has become complicit in evil. But there is never a place for self-righteous anger in the kingdom of God, where each of us must minister as a sinner saved by grace even as we challenge all forms of oppression. We shouldn’t rush to condemn any community as beyond redemption.
At the same time, if you stay, know what you’re signing up for. Working as an agent of change can be punishing. Even those who are invited to advocate for organizational change can find themselves sidelined and treated as outsiders. The weight of others’ misunderstanding takes a toll, even when it is not compounded by vitriol and character assassination. In communities where the suggestion of change is unwelcome, speaking up can carry social costs. Your loyalty to the organization or maturity may be questioned. Even so, in many circumstances, these may simply be the costs of discipleship. If you take on the labor of advocacy, you’ll need the prayers and support of friends you can trust. The only way to stay in the ring is to turn again and again to the strength and care of Jesus.
Jesus is the one who understands, who knows our trouble, and who can bring real change in our hearts, in his church, and in the world. If we ask him in humility, he will help us to keep learning, listening, and speaking about race in a “manner worthy of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27 NIV).
Source images for illustration from Arkadi Bojaršinov on Dreamstime / Henry & Co. on Pexels