Review: Dear White Christians

Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, Jennifer Harvey. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014.

Summary: Argues that a reparations rather than reconciliation paradigm is what is necessary to heal the racial divides in the United States.

The author of this book describes an address by Brenda Salter-McNeil at Urbana 2000 speaking of that student generation as the “Reconciliation Generation.” I was in the hall when she spoke and I found myself praying, Lord, make it so. Sadly, that has not taken place, and the contention of this book is that I was asking for the wrong thing. Jennifer Harvey, who is white, contends that the reconciliation paradigm has failed and needs to be replaced by a reparations paradigm.

Perhaps a word of clarification is needed here. Speak of reparations, and the response of most is to think one is talking of massive amounts of money paid for past wrong. Strictly speaking, the idea of reparations comes from the word “repair” and what the author explores in this work is what is the harm done that needs repair. Her contention is that racial reconciliation approaches are inadequate to address the harm done.

How so? To explore this she first describes the history of the reconciliation paradigm and the critical problems with that paradigm. At the core is the problem of whiteness. Racial divides exist first of all because of the social construction of race that defined “whites” as a race superior to others, and then created systems and structures to maintain that superiority. She uses two exercises that illustrate the issue. One is to ask whites to identify racial qualities they can wholeheartedly celebrate. The second is to ask what reactions we would have to signs that say “Black is beautiful” versus “White is beautiful.” The discomfort that occurs for many of us almost immediately underscores the reality of our racialized society. Yet the reconciliation paradigm ignores this and takes a universalist approach that ignores the particular work whites need to do in addressing race. Inclusion and integration is not enough. Given the history of racism, asking blacks to trust is asking the victim of abuse to trust their abuser.

As Harvey turns to discussing reparations, she begins with the Black Manifesto, presented in 1968 by James Farmer during a service at Riverside Church in New York. This was the first demand for reparations, in this case it was monetary, for $500 million. She describes the reaction and how national church bodies side-stepped the demand. But for the first time, there was a call for repentance and for a redress for harms done. As she turns to what a contemporary pursuit of a reparation paradigm would mean, she contends it means addressing “race as a social construct, an emphasis on racial particularity, and the focus on the repair of unjust structures” (italics in the text). She then considers what might be learned from Vine Deloria’s reparation efforts for Tribal groups, and the examples of several church bodies in Maryland (still in process at the time of writing).

This book has me wrestling. I am convinced that healing our nation’s original sin of racism against both Black and Native peoples means more than inclusion, more even than reconciliation. I do not see that we have ever in any national sense acknowledged how we’ve not only committed wrong, but also embedded injustice into our systems and structures. Nor have we committed ourselves to a serious and persisting effort to root these out of our structures. The work advocated in this book is for churches to begin this effort, rather than for a public policy agenda. I could see this extending to national bodies and to church-related institutions–colleges and seminaries. What I wrestle with is whether the will is there, particularly in our present climate. Yet I hear the longing of many for spiritual revival in the church. Isaiah 58 tells me that there is no true revival without repentance and reparation, of concerted efforts to pursue justice and remove oppression. Isaiah 58:12 addresses the repair aspect of this:

Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

It seems to me that it would be good to be known as Repairers of Broken Walls and Restorers of Streets with Dwellings. Harvey remains hopeful. Amid the protests of this summer, a new edition of this book was published (the link is to the new edition, my review is of the first). She addresses in an introduction the changes that have happened since 2014, and also includes an appendix that gives more practical guidance of what a reparations paradigm might look like in practice. Hopefully, there will be White Christians who will read and listen, who will kneel in prayer and arise with their tool belts on to begin the work of repair.

Review: Race and Place

 

Race and Place

Race and PlaceDavid P. Leong (foreword by Soong-Chan Rah). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Looks at how geography and place serve to perpetuate racial divisions and injustice and how the church may begin to address itself to these geographic forces and structures.

In many discussions about the continuing legacy of racial divisions and injustices in our country we focus on structural problems in our justice system, our political life, and in our economic life that perpetuate divisions. What is often less obvious is that place and geography places an important role in these structural divisions and in the perpetuation of racial discord in our society.

David P. Leong writes this book to open our eyes to the ways that our geography, particularly our urban geography helps perpetuate structures of racial division. The book is divided into three parts. In the first, Leong lays out terms, including a discussion of place and colorblindness. What I find him arguing here as much as anything is that we are “place blind” and we do not see how place and race interact. He traces this in part to a docetic theology that spiritualizes life and doesn’t recognize physical places as an essential aspect of life–that our embodied existence is lived in a place.

Part two looks at how patterns of exclusion work in our geography and how this plays out in education, housing, and our transportation patterns. He talks about our freeway systems as facilitating a suburban exodus. I was surprised that he did not talk about how freeways changed our urban landscapes, isolated neighborhoods and reinforced racial separation in many cities. This was surprising to me because he writes about Detroit, including the wall at Eight Mile Road, yet does not talk about how freeways also changed the urban geography of the city. He also addresses what he calls “return flight” and the resulting phenomenon of gentrification which perpetuates geographic isolation as poorer (and often racially distinct) populations are often displaced when an urban area gentrifies.

Part three addresses the phenomenon of relocation often advocated by the Christian Community Development Association. The author is part of one such community in the Rainier Valley area of Seattle. He explores the postures and practices involved in avoiding a kind of imperialism by sinking roots into a community, by practicing radical hospitality, and engaging in neighborhood renewal through a ministry of presence.

I think the strengths of this book are its analysis of the ways place and geography perpetuate racial divisions and inequities, and in the author’s story of the hard work of nurturing a racially diverse church community in urban Seattle. At the same time it seems that its primary solution to these problems of place is relocation and incarnational ministry. Perhaps in the very long term such communities can transform an urban environment. Yet I wonder if this is only a very small part of addressing the structural problems that sustain racism, even in terms of urban geography. It seems that there are issues related to law enforcement and the justice system, banking and financial services, business and commerce, the location of employment opportunities, fostering quality educational opportunities and more that this book leaves unaddressed, apart from acknowledging them.

Perhaps this calls for a much longer book, but even more an aware presence in these communities. It seems that this is what the author wants as he writes:

“As you witness these oppressive systems at work in your own neighborhood and reflect on these personal tendencies in your own life, I hope you’ll never look at another freeway, public school, or suburban home the same way again. Beyond those new ways of seeing, I also pray that you’ll be disturbed with our complicity in these problematic walls of hostility, to the point of further study, research, and lament.”

Leong’s book does this and something more. It shares the story of a community that has started looking at these things, not clinically from the outside, but as a hospitable and learning community from the inside. Over time, that may be far more significant than one more grandiose solution imposed from the outside.

 

Review: The Post-Racial Church

The Post Racial Church

The Post-Racial Church, Kenneth A. Mathews & M. Sydney Park. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2011.

Summary: A survey of the teaching of the Bible that concludes that racial reconciliation and multi-ethnic Christian communities are integral to the message of the gospel.

The election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States marked both how far the nation had come and the work yet to be done to come to terms with the issues of race in our society. The election just past underscored that there is a significant journey yet to occur in the life of an evangelical church that split radically along racial lines in its choice of candidates.

Might it be that the church is listening more to political discourse than to the teaching of its scriptures which serve as its rule of faith and practice (at least in theory). For those who wish to redress that balance, this is a good introductory survey written by a multi-ethnic pair of authors, a Caucasian male (Mathews) and a Korean-American female (Park). What these authors do is survey the scriptures from Genesis to Revelation showing successively that God is the creator of diverse peoples (Babel was God’s way of saving diverse nations from themselves by dispersing them), that God chose a particular people to bless all peoples, that even then, inter-marriage did occur (just look at the lineage on the human side of Jesus), that Jesus’ ministry was one that cared for the prodigal, that held up the Samaritan and that anticipated the gospel to the nations. From there the authors show how the gospel preached was one of reconciliation not only to God but between Jew and Gentile. The confrontation between Paul and Peter confirms that the ideal was table fellowship, not just some “spiritual” reconciliation but real hospitality. All this anticipates the worship of the Lamb by every tribe, race, people, and tongue.

Along the way the authors dispel the flawed treatments of scripture used to justify racial separation such as the “mark of Cain” and the “curse of Ham.” They deal with the question of intermarriage, and the flawed construct–even from a biblical point of view–of race. They uphold the ideal of multi-ethnic worship in multi-ethnic churches while not insisting every church must be this way. They talk of Christ’s self-sacrificing work, and how this calls for similar servanthood in entering into the hard work of reconciliation.Toward the end of the book, M. Sydney Park shares her own narrative, which reflects a conversion not only to Christ, but from her own racism that was a product of the racism she experienced as a Korean-American.

The book includes “Thought Provokers” at the end of each chapter that encourage readers and groups to apply the chapter content to their lives and congregations. This makes the book a good resource for ministry teams, leadership teams or others within a church who are asking how their church might reflect the multi-ethnic people of God which the gospel both heralds and creates. The combination of biblical content, challenge, and space to consider makes this an ideal resource for those taking the first, perhaps uncertain, steps toward trying to think and act biblically around questions of race and ethnicity.

Review: Under Our Skin

Under Our Skin

Under Our Skin, Benjamin Watson with Ken Petersen. Carol Stream: Tyndale Momentum, 2015.

Summary: Watson posted a series of thoughts on his Facebook page after the grand jury decision in the Ferguson case. As a result of the viral response, he wrote this book to expand on his reactions as a black man to this decision.

Benjamin Watson is a tight end who plays for the New Orleans Saints and participates on the executive committee of the NFL Players Association. He is an African American and also deeply committed Christian. On Monday, November 24, 2014, he was playing against the Baltimore Ravens in a Monday night game when the grand jury decision was announced that found no probable cause to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown.

The following day, he wrote a post on his Facebook account headed by the following “I’m…” statements (you can read the full post here):

  • I’M ANGRY
  • I’M FRUSTRATED
  • I’M FEARFUL
  • I’M EMBARRASSED
  • I’M SAD
  • I’M SYMPATHETIC
  • I’M OFFENDED
  • I’M CONFUSED
  • I’M INTROSPECTIVE
  • I’M HOPELESS
  • I’M HOPEFUL
  • I’M ENCOURAGED

It went viral and was “liked” more than 800,000 times and opened conversation on his team, in churches, and the media. As a result, Watson wrote this book to expand on this post and promote a wider dialogue, rooted in honesty. The book follows the outline of the original post with a concluding chapter titled “I’m Empowered.”

What impressed me about this book was both Watson’s candor and his willingness to wade into the complexities and tensions that often get lost in sound bites. He speaks bluntly about how angry he is with continuing segregation in society and in the church. Yet in the same chapter he argues for a both-and approach to the complexities of Ferguson. For example he says, “I believe that Michael Brown committed a theft and ran away from Darren Wilson. And I believe that if a white man had committed the same theft and acted in the same way, he’d probably still be alive today.” He goes on to say, “That’s why the problem of black and white in our world is not a black-and-white issue.” (pp. 16-17).

He talks about his own estrangement from a white friend when told he had no hope with a white girl he had a crush on, because he was not white. He talks with admiration of the heroes and heroines of Selma and his embarrassment at violence, however justified the anger behind it is. He expresses his frustration with hip-hop, at once a music of anger and protest and urban poetry that also celebrates drugs, violence and misogyny.

In the chapter “I am fearful and confused” he describes yet another incident of a black being stopped by police, in this case himself and his wife as he is driving her to the hospital at 3 a.m. to give birth. No explanations, nor offers of assistance. And no probable cause. Yet he calls on blacks to obey, even when police do what they think unjust, to live another day.

He speaks bluntly of the offensiveness of the N-word and the Confederate flag and of the feelings of hopelessness in the continued presence of racialization and outright hate groups. Yet he also speaks of the hope he finds in his faith, in the realization that all that differentiates him from others is a skin pigment, but that underneath, we all deal with a common condition called “sin” and have the hope of a common redemption. He concludes with the empowerment that may come as the people of God turn to prayer, and as black and white take intentional steps toward each other.

What was striking to me in this book is that this is someone who is athletically and financially successful, educated, and articulate. And yet he speaks of experiences that are an enduring part of his world that are painful, and only the consequence of the pigment of his skin, hence the title of his book. My hunch is that some whites will be repulsed by the anger and bluntness. And some blacks might think he concedes too much. What stands out to me is that this is someone, who out of his Christian faith, wants an honest dialogue, and honest dialogue partners.

I could see this book being used in a discussion group of whites and blacks in a college or athletes fellowship or multi-ethnic Bible study. There is a credibility and winsomeness in the way Watson raises issues that lays the groundwork for the whites to re-examine their preconceptions and ask their black conversation partners, “tell me more.” Likewise, Watson’s personal stories open the door to share other stories. There is a willingness to acknowledge the complexities of the issues that models not settling for easy, and often polarizing, answers but encourages us to sit with the complexity, to struggle and question and pray. And when we do this together, as black and white, perhaps then there is hope that we might begin to heal the deep wounds between us.

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Review: Racial Conflict and Healing: An Asian-American Theological Perspective

Racial Conflict and Healing: An Asian-American Theological Perspective
Racial Conflict and Healing: An Asian-American Theological Perspective by Andrew Sung Park
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Black and White voices are not the only voices that need to be heard in facing the realities of race in America. Latino-Americans, Asian-Americans and First or Native Americans also need to be heard. This older work (1996) from Andrew Sung Park offers a distinctively Korean-American perspective on both racial conflict and the healing that is needed.

Park begins with a cultural anthropology of the Korean-American community centered around the concept of Han which he describes as the unbearable pain, resentment, and bitterness resulting from intense suffering, particularly from oppression and injustice. The first part explores the experience of Han during the Korean war and the division of the country, the abandonment of wives in mixed marriages with servicemen, the experience of “comfort women” and experiences of discrimination in the US context with the white church and with other racial groups, particularly in the South L.A. context. He also looks at the distinctive sins he sees in Korean communities including racism, sexism and the exploitation of labor.

Part Two explores what he sees as the need of a common vision to bridge the racial divides in our society. He speaks particularly here of an “inmost vision” rooted in the parable of the lost sheep where none are considered dispensable. He extends this inmost vision to the church which brings its expectation of the return of Christ into the present through dealing with injustices and through reconciliation with our ethnic neighbors. Before moving on, Park also looks at Western and Eastern views of the self and the difference of individualism versus one’s relation within family.

Part Three then turns to sociological analysis of models of interracial relationships, looking at assimilation, amalgamation, cultural pluralist, “triple melting pot”, and newly synthesized ethnic identities. He then applies these to the Korean-American church, suggesting that none of these are adequate. He proposes instead a “transcendent, transmutational” model where the work of Christ transcends unity and diversity polarities holding these together in paradoxical tension while transmutation speaks to internal changes in prejudice and external changes in discriminatory practice that overcome racism. The aim is the formation of a “Christic” community, one characterized by paradoxical inclusiveness (hahn), affectionate attachment (jung), and graceful gusto (mut). He believes the filial piety of Korean extended families can be a place where this community is embodied in an American culture where family is in decline.

Part Four expands on the elements in Parts Two and Three that have to do with a “theology of seeing”. This is a “seeing” that both understands the han or pain of the oppressed and also that envisions a new community through visual, intellectual, spiritual and soul seeing that contribute hermeneutics of questioning, construction, affection, and celebration that bring healing.

I have to admit that I struggled as I read this book between appreciating the sociological and cultural anthropology that explored the character of Korean-American community and its experience of race in America and what I felt were at best preliminary theological formulations that seemed to me a synthesis of Christian language with Korean and Taoist conceptions. It seemed to mean to illustrate the fine line between contextualization and syncretism and I’m not sure which side of the line this fell on. My caution comes as a result of being an “outsider” to Korean culture on the one hand, and on the other to a cursory connection between Christian theological concepts and biblical texts and ideas like han, hahn, jung, and mut. I would have liked to seen further work in “connecting the dots”. I feel that a more honest subtitle might have been “toward an Asian-American theological perspective”. Nevertheless, there is value in this work in both the description and analysis of Korean-American experience and the awareness and exploration of how cultural conceptions native to Korean-Americans might shape a theology of racial conflict and healing.

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Color Blind

As a parent, I remember when our son was first tested for color blindness. We were holding our breath, hoping he would be able to see all the colors shown him. Thankfully he did. Physical color blindness is not usually considered a good thing. The inability to distinguish colors means a person with red-green color blindness has to make certain adjustments when driving, for example. And color perception is essential in some jobs, such as mixing paint colors.

Ishihara color test. Those with red-green color blindness cannot see the number 74.

Ishihara color test. Those with red-green color blindness cannot see the number 74.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve become aware of another kind of “color blindness”. It is the effort to act as if racial and ethnic distinctions do not exist and do not have an impact on relations between different groups. I have to admit that for a time, I thought this was a good thing. It seemed consistent with Dr. King’s statement that we do not want to ” judge a person by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” This is a great statement of the ideal just society. Unfortunately, this ideal has three problems at least when it comes to my relationships with a person of another race or ethnicity that as a white male I’ve become increasingly aware of. I don’t think these are particular problems of white people alone although I do think we are often the most unaware that we suffer from them.

One is that I am not color blind. I can no more not notice skin color than I cannot notice gender distinctions as they present themselves.

Two is that to try to be ‘color blind’ is to ignore the associated attitudes and experiences I have toward those whose skin color is not my own. I find I most hurt others when I lack self-awareness of these things. As a Christ follower, I believe my false and prejudicial attitudes are connected to my sinfulness–the rebellion against God that leads to estrangement not only from God but from other people. But the hope I have is that as I become aware of these prejudices, I can confess them. The truth is that I am racially prejudiced, and more than I know. Yet I find that the acceptance of Christ gives me courage to face this about myself, and the desire to become more like Christ challenges me to repent of these things and to pray that I can see “color” increasingly with the eyes of Christ.

And this leads to the third problem of being ‘color blind’. To think “mono-chromatically” about others is to miss the beautiful differences that exist among us and the unique gifts people of every race and ethnicity bring to the body of Christ–and to our multi-ethnic society. Recently I wrote about the loss to church and society of not appreciating the difference of “introversion”, and indeed our prejudices against introverts. Speaking as a white, our failure to see the gifts Blacks, Asians, Latino/as and others bring to us is likewise both a deep affront and a terrible loss.

Revelation 7:9-10 describes the future of God’s people in these terms:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (New International Version)

I have to confess that this is the scene I look forward to more than anything in my life. It is the place where the dream of a “beloved community” will be fulfilled in all its splendor and beauty. For me to live toward that day is not to strive for some “color blind” ideal but rather to ask for the vision and courage to face the ways I see those of color wrongly and repent.  It is to ask for the vision to see those of color in all of their God-given beauty that I might affirm and celebrate the good gifts of God in his multi-ethnic family. I’m not there yet, but one thing I know, color blindness won’t get me there.