What’s Missing Most in the Race Conversation is EMPATHY
Among other things, the year 2020 has been a year of reckoning on the subject of race. As conversations continue nation-wide, and as our Christ Presbyterian community prepares to plant a new congregation in the Bordeaux neighborhood of Northwest Nashville called “CPC Koinonia” under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Mika Edmondson, I am posting the essay below. This is based on a chapter I contributed to a project called Heal Us, Emmanuel, a collaboration of pastors and laypeople desiring to see the gospel heal all forms of race-related tension, pain, inequality, and injustice.
I do not write as a woke revolutionary or critical theorist. Like Tim Keller, I do not believe that politicized and/or secular forms of social justice provide sufficient solutions to broken systems. Instead, I write from the perspective of a Jesus-follower who (a) is still very much in a posture of learning on these matters, and (b) believes that as with the Jews and Gentiles of old, the answer to social breakdown must be nothing more than, and nothing less than, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Through this Gospel alone, all people groups can tear down dividing walls of hostility between them, and through shared union with him, can nurture kindness, understanding, and EMPATHY toward one another as they lean into their shared reality of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is above all, through all, and in all” (Ephesians 4:5-6).
The Savior who tore down the dividing walls between heaven and earth is alone able — and also eager — to tear down “dividing walls of hostility” between the races (Ephesians 2:114-16). Not only this, but he is also determined to make us one, just as Jesus and the Father are one (John 17:21).
The following essay, among a handful of others, represents my own sometimes humbling, yet continually sanctifying, journey with race.
If you are a person of color, thank you for your patience as we, your brothers and sisters, endeavor imperfectly, but sincerely, to see and love you better. If you are not a person of color, I pray you will join me in listening carefully and empathetically to our black and brown skinned brothers and sisters. May we all continue learning as we limp along, that we may love and forgive in the same manner that Christ loves and forgives us.
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, a black brother in Christ 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-American friend approached me, also with an urgency to provide me with feedback. He humbly and courageously offered the following (this is a paraphrase):
“Scott, ever 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 any society with a black President is also a post-racial society. 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 Christian 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 feel jarring and even unfair. To some “the yoke of whiteness” will feel inflammatory and derogatory along with other, similar phrases, 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 racially motivated violence, these are all now punishable by law. White pastors like me quote black thinkers such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sojourner Truth in our sermons.
We read books and essays by John Perkins and Jackie Hill Perry and Anthony Ray Hinton and Bryan Stevenson, 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, and all other places where racial violence has 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 also feel that these things are all true?
Though many of these things are true, we clearly still have a ways to go in the race conversation. How do we know this? We know this because the subject of race still hurts for many people of color, and to deny the expression of other people’s hurt is to resist the Lord’s call to empathy. As one Drew Holcomb lyric puts it, “Everyone’s got their own set of troubles. Everyone’s got their own set of blues. Everyone’s got their own set of troubles. Walk a mile in another man’s shoes.”
As a black evangelical, Dr. Yancey wrote these words:
“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.”
Whenever these two words are uttered, the gospel calls for open ears and open hearts. The gospel calls for 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 slowly changed. These days, I find myself more sympathetic toward, and no longer provoked to defensiveness 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 and those it represents. 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 in many ways enables some races to thrive and lead, and other races to fall behind and submit.
Recently, a friend who is black shared an insight with me about people who protest (which, by the way, is not something unique to people of color). He said that protesting 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.
“Protesting for the minority,” my friend said from a place of tenderness and concern, “is often a desperate cry. It is helplessness acted out. It is trying to give a voice to those who feel that they have no voice.”
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?
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