Outcries That Must, For The Love Of God, Be Heard

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In the sorrowful wake of two MORE shooting deaths involving police and African American men, I am re-posting this essay that I wrote as part of my contribution to a book called Heal Us, Emmanuel, a collaboration of several pastors and laypeople desiring to see the gospel heal all forms of racial injustice, inequality, ignorance and callousness. This essay, combined with a second about my African American mentor, represents my own sometimes humbling, yet also continually sanctifying, journey with race. If you are a man or woman of color, please continue to help people like me to see and serve you better. If you are part of the white majority, I pray you will join me in listening carefully and with compassion to our brothers and sisters. May we all continue learning as we limp along, that we may love better…

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A few years ago when I was serving as a preaching pastor at NYC’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, I gave a sermon on racial diversity. At the time, Redeemer was equally Caucasian and Asian…plus a smaller percentage of other races. In my sermon, I said something that I thought would connect with my non-white brothers and sisters and maybe even cause them to stand up and cheer. I said:

The kingdom of God is as diverse as humanity is diverse. God has called people to himself, and into his Church, from every nation, tribe and tongue. He has called us to be one body, with one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. Therefore, there should be no white church and no black church and no Asian church and no Latino church…because there is only one Church.

As I said these words, I had no idea how much hurt they would cause.

Afterwards, an African American friend approached me to give feedback. Looking at me with sorrow in his eyes, he said, “Brother, you don’t get it.” This felt jarring and left me wondering what I had done wrong. But sometimes, a simple and very direct statement of fact is what’s needed to get us listening.

Soon after this, an Asian friend approached me, also with an urgency to provide me with feedback. He humbly and courageously offered the following (this is a paraphrase):

Scott, since your sermon yesterday, I have heard from several friends who, like me, are ethnic minorities. All of them, to one degree or another, felt hurt by your words. Many of them grew up in minority-specific churches and felt that you de-legitimized those churches in your sermon. It felt like you were saying that those churches shouldn’t even exist. Scott, I really believe that you meant well, and that you sincerely value the diversity God desires for his Church. But I’m afraid your sermon moved us backward instead of forward. In a mostly white-led society, sometimes the only place that minorities can freely celebrate the beauty and uniqueness of their cultures, the only place that people of color are free to fully be themselves, is in churches where their culture is the majority. Your words about blended churches may be helpful for a white audience. But for minorities, your words reinforced the alienation that many of us feel in a white-led world and also in white-led churches. I’m afraid that your sermon added to, rather than taking away from, that feeling of alienation.

As this friend spoke these things, I felt thankful and sorrowful. I felt thankful because he had exposed a blind spot in me. He gave me a glimpse of my inability to understand the minority experience, and of how much growing I have to do in the area of race.

I felt sorrowful because, in an attempt to build some bridges, I burned them instead.

Not long ago, I was naïve enough to believe that electing a black president would be the tipping point that solved the race problem. And yet, fifty years post-civil rights era, it has now become clear that we are not yet ready to call ourselves a post-racial people. I was painfully reminded of this when I came across a New York Times essay over Christmas written by George Yancy, a black philosophy professor at Emory, called “Dear White America.”

In his essay, Dr. Yancy laments the state of things for people of color in Western society. As he sees it, because the history books, the evening news, entertainment, business, education, politics, theology and church cultures are shaped predominantly by the white perspective, people of color have little choice but to live under what he calls “the yoke of whiteness.”

To white Americans, Dr. Yancey’s phrase, “the yoke of whiteness,” may seem unfair. The word “yoke” feels inflammatory, because it hearkens back to the days of slavery. And we in the modern West are against slavery and the racism that supported it, right? The public schools are racially integrated now. Lynching and mobs and violence, these are all now punishable by law. White pastors like me quote black thinkers such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in our sermons (I will in fact be doing so this coming Sunday).

We read books and essays by John Perkins and Cornel West, and we speak out and tweet for racial equality. It is not uncommon for a white person to marry a person of color these days, or to adopt a child of another race. Most white people would say that they deplore racism and are sickened by the shedding of black blood by racists. Our hearts hurt over black casualties in Selma, Ferguson, Charleston, New York City, Tulsa, Charlotte and all other places where black casualties have occurred. Where there is injustice, most white Americans would say that they stand with the victims and against the perpetrators. But do people of color feel that these things are all true?

Though many of these things are true, we still have a race problem. How do we know this? We know this because the subject of race still hurts for many people of color. Dr. Yancey writes:

Don’t tell me about how many black friends you have. Don’t tell me that you are married to someone of color. Don’t tell me that you voted for Obama. Don’t tell me that I’m the racist. Don’t tell me that you don’t see color. Don’t tell me that I’m blaming whites for everything. To do so is to hide yet again. You may have never used the N-word in your life, you may hate the KKK, but that does not mean that you don’t harbor racism and benefit from racism. After all, you are part of a system that allows you to walk into stores where you are not followed, where you get to go for a bank loan and your skin does not count against you, where you don’t need to engage in “the talk” that black people and people of color must tell their children…As you reap comfort from being white, we suffer for being black and people of color.

“…we suffer…”

That’s what he said. …we suffer… Whenever these two words are uttered, the gospel demands open ears and open hearts. The gospel demands careful, humble, non-defensive listening to the history and wounds beneath the words.

Can I make a confession to you? Ten years ago, Dr. Yancy’s words would have bothered me. I might have even dismissed them as unfair and unreasonable. I would have assumed, wrongly, that his chief goal was to make white people feel guilty for being white.

But over time, and because of the courage and truthfulness of friends whose skin hue is different than mine, my perspective has changed. These days, I find myself more sympathetic toward, and not at all provoked by, words like the ones written by Dr. Yancy. Largely through friendship and a lot of personal mistakes along the way, I hope that I am growing in my understanding of the minority experience in the modern West.

The love, patience, and candor offered by people of color in my life has given me a new set of ears for Dr. Yancy’s outcry. When I listen to him, I do not see a chip on the shoulder, unfounded anger, guilt mongering or some sort of “reverse racism” happening. Rather, I see a man representing the minority voice, appropriately fatigued from feeling unseen, unheard, misunderstood, misjudged, and injured by a world that is set up for some races to thrive and lead, and other races to languish and submit.

Recently, a friend who is black shared an insight with me about people who riot (which, by the way, is not something unique to people of color). He said that oftentimes, rioting comes from a place of feeling helpless in a system that dooms you, by virtue of your situation and the color of your skin, to be disadvantaged and overlooked.

“Rioting,” my friend said from a place of tenderness and concern, “is a terrible and destructive and hurtful thing. And? It is also a desperate cry. Rioting, as awful as it is, is helplessness acted out. It is trying to give a voice to something without a voice.

In describing rioting this way, my friend put his finger on a widely known truth: Hurting people hurt people. Ugly behavior can stem from a place of feeling treated as ugly. Destructive behavior can stem from a place of feeling destroyed. Dismissive behavior can stem from a place of feeling dismissed.

Pause here. Go back and re-read the statement from Dr. Yancy. Whether his words make you say “Yes!” or make you feel upset, can you hear the pain in them? Are you listening carefully to the alienation and “otherness” that he feels?

Am I?

RELATED POST: “Meet My African American Mentor”

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8 responses to “Outcries That Must, For The Love Of God, Be Heard”

  1. Chad says:

    Scott,

    Thanks for your challenging post. Here is my candid response.

    The sentiment expressed in Dr. Yancy’s quote does not necessarily bother me not do I feel him to be unfair or reasonable. And yes, I do hear his pain. I hear his feelings of otherness and alienation. That and more begs the question for me – as a white American, who desires to see racial reconciliation and love, “What do I do?” My answer up to this point is that I really don’t know. Statements like Dr. Yancy’s, in all honesty, make me feel frustrated and even defeated. That I, as a white American, will never get it right in his eyes. No matter how much I try to understand, listen, and reconcile it’s never enough. I’m white, and because of that I don’t “get it”. I am told that I need to change but that whatever attempts I am making toward that change is tainted by my whiteness. It’s not good enough. That’s the message that I keep hearing, over and over again, from black America. I suspect that I am not alone in feeling the way I do. Once again, just being honest.

    How does white America get it right? When do we get it right? What will it take for Dr. Yancy to write favorably about me…about white America? Yes, I am very frustrated, but hoping by God’s grace to always do better in my ambition to please my Lord first (2 Cor. 5:9) as well as those who are hurting. Peace to you.

    • James says:

      That’s the same challenge I’m coming across, Chad. While I know I can always do more to understand, to listen, and to love people of other races, I end up feeling like my best efforts are ineffectual and sometimes even outright despised or unwelcome. I can never understand what life is like for a person of color, but I would like to think my willingness to try, my desire to truly love all people as they are, counts for something. The alternative is giving up and just letting things be as they are, and that’s not acceptable.

      Maybe one day, we can get to that dream Dr. King longed for, the one where “the jangling discords of our nation [are transformed] into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood,” the one where we get “to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”

      • Chad says:

        James,
        Thank you for your thoughts. Your comment about the alternative of giving up and just allowing things to be as they are is what I fear is happening in much of the white community, not that we want this, but because we simply don’t know what else to do; what truly is expected of us. May God help us. Peace to you.

    • Jason K says:

      Chad,

      First, I want to say that I learned this truth from listening to two extremely brilliant black men, NFL legend Calvin Hill and his son, NBA great Grant Hill. And I say that because although you may have already realized this, I feel compelled–I don’t think it can be said too often how important it is for us as white men to continually learn our understanding of racism from people of color.

      Of course, it makes perfect sense for you in feeling a frustration that seems uniquely white to put out feelers to other like-minded white people who might have experienced the same thing. I’ve found that helpful as well, but my biggest help in understanding my own problem came from listening to two black men speak on it.*

      Here’s what I learned:

      If I focus all my concerns about racism on what is happening ‘out there,’ then I will be perpetually frustrated, forever feel defeated. Not that I should ignore external expressions of the problem, but they do not represent the the heart of the problem. They are merely symptomatic.

      And focusing on the symptoms, armed with little more than your own remorse, WILL feel, as Elaine Rees notes below, like you’re really only stirring up white guilt to make people think better about you. That would be harmful, to you and to others, really harmful.

      But consider another perspective. Consider how good it feels to have just a little bit of advantage, to be the first around the board on Monopoly, to win the coin toss in a football game, to find the last free parking spot downtown. It’s so nice, and it feels really good. Life is frustrating enough already, so any little bit can, for one small moment, feel like a huge relief, a release, a tiny little rush of comfort. It feels good, and you want that feeling again and again.

      It’s addictive. But those things aren’t like drugs really, because they’re just normal, good things, right? It’s just your lucky moment. It’d be stupid to waste it, and stupid to treat it like a bad thing. Like an addiction.

      But what about when those advantages come at the expense of someone else? Like finding a $100 bill in a busy lobby. What? Are you gonna turn it in? The person at counter is just going to look at you like you’re stupid, then end up taking it for themselves. Better you than them, after all it was YOUR luck to find it.

      But someone else IS missing that $100. Wouldn’t you at least look around? See if you notice anyone frantically checking their pockets? Anyone would do that much.

      The reward of seeing their relief may not line your pockets like a c-note would, but it’s real and good and right. It really does help heal a constantly broken world and they feel that and you feel that. It does do some good.

      White privilege is exactly that–well, a little more really, but it feels just like that–it’s harmless. Innocuous. It only really hurts me if I dwell on it, so why dwell on it? Other people WILL think I’m stupid for feeling bad about what’s really the product of my own hard work. Well, hard work and a little luck, but that just means it’s my turn.

      And that’s what it feels like, but it really is more. It’s not just finally getting a job opportunity, if someone else who’s equally or even more deserving is unfairly denied so that you can have that opportunity.

      It’s not just getting lucky to get a warning instead of a ticket when someone else is getting dragged out of their car, proned out and probed instead of getting a warning.

      It’s not just getting lucky when your kids get to go to the best schools in the district when other people’s kids get subpar facilities, outdated books, and teachers who are burned out and dialing it in. Ignoring the class until they get out of hand and they have to call in campus police to throw a girl across the room (Are we there yet?).

      White privelege feels lucky. It feels good. And it IS addictive, and worst of all it really seems like it can’t be wrong. Like no one else is getting hurt.

      It’s easy because we’re not taking from someone else. We’re just staying silent while we pocket their $100, while someone else looks at them like they’re a liar trying to pull a con asking if anyone has found what they lost (well, to be fair, a lot of “what they lost” is what our parents and grandparents took from them). Get lost, thug!

      So why would being bothered by it do any better? Because once we start to view white privelege —an elevated status in a social construct that treats us as supreme, not that we think of ourselves as white supremacists, no, supremacy is just our good luck, and they probably don’t work as hard as we do, I mean they’re… lazy?… entitled? …just whining? …black. They would get lucky eventually if they just worked harder and stopped blaming me (for having their $100). Can we see yet that despite what it seems, it’s really indidious?— Once we view this power as an addiction, then we can actually do something to overcome it.

      That’s not wallowing in guilt. It’s just the first step in a 12 step program to stop relishing in the pleasure and power to take without blame, and the power to turn that blame back on those we take from.

      We need that first step. We need the other steps, too. We need to recognize we’re not biggest most worthy power in our own universe. We need to seek help. We need accountability.

      We need to make amends. We need to stop enabling. We need to recognize and tough-lovingly confront other’s with the same problem. We need to offer them help when they’re ready.

      Whether Trump wins or loses, a lot of white power addicts are going to hit rock bottom in the foreseeable future. We need to be ready when the tide rolls in. We can do that one small deed each day. We can turn the tide.

      So yes, when you’re talking about overcoming addiction, admitting every day that you have a problem really does do some good.

      *The interview of the Messrs. Hill was from the Bill Rhoden show. I’ll look for the link or at least a quote.

      • Chad says:

        Thank you for your thoughtful response. I agree that it is very important for white America to continually learn our understanding of racism from people of color. If we don’t then we can’t honestly say that we understand the problem. I should say however that it is my belief that the black community itself does not always understand the problem. Because they are so close to the problem of racism they often lack objectivity. That belief is in no way intended to downplay the integrity of their perspective but rather to keep some balance.

        I grew up in a predominantly black area of our city and most of my co-workers for much of my career were black. I have always enjoyed hearing their perspective and feel as if I have learned much though I have not always agreed with their take on the problem. These relationships have been very helpful at the personal level but how that translates into success with respect to the larger discussion still creates a great deal of confusion in my mind and emotions. Peace.

  2. Elaine Rees says:

    I appreciate your honesty, your concern about this problem. It is helpful in understanding the race problems more.
    I see people who feel guilty for being white. Some of them have been taken advantage of. They do all sorts of verbal gymnastics to “prove” their guilt and how unracist they are. Their main concern seems to be what others think of them, not what is happening.
    It is important to keep in mind that 70% of the people arrested in the Charolette riots were not from there. They were imported and funded by George Soros (he funds Black Lives Matters) in order to “stir the pot” and intensify the racial problems with the intent to destabilize our country.

  3. Dottie says:

    I, like Chad, have the same question. What do we do? Thank you Scott for pointing out the problem. Truth is, I believe most of us already know this exist … but walking on eggshells is not the cure. Without a direction toward what we “white” people can do … well, I, personally, am feeling frustrated.
    I may be coming across as defensive now … but I must ask: Wasn’t “I” crucified with Christ? Is life about me? I mean this is the most real sense. When I see the posts of people of color who are “Christian” … well, I wonder if they also died with Christ and it is no longer about them, but Him.
    I am a 63-year-old (partially retired) single white mother. So many people have no clue of what it’s like to walk in my skin and to be a white woman in a “mans” world, or in a world who sees me, because of my age and gender, as a “liablilty”. I am getting old, lonely, etc. etc. etc. But that’s a whole another blog.
    But as a Christian, I have to remember (renew my mind) who I am In-Christ and Who I am living for. Yes, I am to Love my neighbor… and Love them as myself. But thank God that since I am unable to do even that (one of the greatest commandments) … Jesus did, yes even that, for me perfectly … and continues to.
    I truly believe we have gone 10 steps backwards in the past 8 years.
    I’m wondering what Christ would say or do about this situation.
    I’ll stop rambling. But I refuse to feel guilty (for too long) about being white.
    “Not I, But Christ”

  4. Namphuyo says:

    I was truly inspired by your words . The first step to understanding the problem is to understand that you don’t understand. We need to be honest with each other about what is going on and speak up when we see injustice . Even if we are afraid we must stand up for what is right. I feel that is what you are doing . Keep spreading tbe good word.

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