A note to white/white-passing pastors & theologians: my reply to my friend C

So, a few days ago, the white theologian, Roger Olson, posted a strongly-worded message to Christian leadership everywhere:

“What that pastor did is what I am calling for here—from the pulpit, now with full legal freedom and no fear of the IRS—to specifically condemn 1) white supremacy and other forms of hate in all its forms including subtle ones, and 2) calls for violence against or government suppression of people with alternative social and political views. I am not calling for any form of violence or legal suppression; I am calling for church discipline of political and social extremists.”

So, I posted this statement to my Facebook page, and my friend C replied:

“My church did this. While I found it healing and somewhat reconciliatory, a part of me was thinking, “well duh. Of course I expect you not to support white supremacy or racism. What about so called “micro aggressions”? Racists and systematic institutions and actions that happen everyday in this church and out? Let’s repent from that.

“So, not that I don’t want the above, I do, especially if there are churches holding out, but it’s the “low key” racism that we all participate in daily that I’d like called out.”

And, she’s not alone. Following the Charlottesville protests and violence, many pastors throughout the US denounced racism from their pulpits. But, for C, other friends, and myself, we were astonished by the silence from the same pulpits a week later: especially since the current president aligned himself with white supremacists a few days earlier.

In other words, a once-off announcement to repudiate racism by pastors simply cannot be trusted to produce transformation in the lives of the congregation. The silence serves notice: “We dealt with racism last week. We won’t bring it up again.” But, the challenge of transformation cannot be reduced to repetitive proclamations from upfront. (Although it would demonstrate the importance of repentance from racism.) The real challenge lies behind microaggressions, systemic and structural racism, and, yes, white supremacists: addressing and overcoming white racial illiteracy.

I’ve started reading Robin DiAngelo’s What Does it Mean to be White: Developing White Racial Literacy, and this is a book designed for teacher education. But, I’d propose the reach is much wider: seminarians, graduate students, pastors, missionaries, and theologians. White racial illiteracy is hardly limited to prospective teachers. Here’s quick nugget:

When you hear/read the word, “racist”, what comes to mind? DiAngelo quickly identifies what is so true among white/white-passing people: “racist” = bad; “not racist” = good. Racists commit bad acts toward people ethnically different from themselves. What most white/white-passing people reason involves a quick process: “I don’t commit bad acts toward African/Asian/Latino/a people. Therefore,  I am not a racist.” I trust that little piece of gold illuminates how limited 99.9% of all white pastors and theologians understand racism.

I don’t doubt that an increasing number of pastors, missionaries, and theologians have had to fast track their understanding— and in some cases, their repentance— of racism. But, if what my friends and I report to each other since Charlottesville is a small sample of the larger trend, most pastors and theologians have left behind announcements about racism and the need to repent from racism.

Yes: we need more announcements to renounce racism: in all of its odious forms. But, the development of white racial literacy contributes to our “intellectual, psychic, and emotional growth.” (DiAngelo, 2016:18) I would hasten to add our spiritual growth. Such development will call upon our biblical resources, to be sure. But, those resources from God await our obedient trust in God’s word.

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