Healing the wounds of racism through Jesus and His Church: Notes from the Church Ministries Conference

Last weekend I attended the annual Church Ministries Conference and Calvary Baptist Church in Grand Rapids. One of the workshops I attended was called “Healing the wounds of racism through Jesus and His Church.” Here are the notes that I took:

The Problem

Our culture is divided by race. This division is fueled by a politicization of racial issues. There are people on the Left and on the Right that profit from this exploiting this tension and from perpetuating false narratives that feed their followers already entrenched views of the world. The result is that divisions along racial and political lines only deepen. We begin to view race through a political lens and, in doing so, adopt all the false narratives from those who profit off of the anger that is stirred up.

The church should be well situated to bring peace and reconciliation to this issue but is itself divided by race. Sunday mornings are still one of the most segregated times of the week. We are not immune from the cultural and political divide facing our nation. We are also more likely to view racial issues through the lens of politics rather than through the lens of the reconciling gospel of Jesus Christ.

Definitions: Racism and White Privilege

These were the definitions provided by the presenters:

Racism (older definition): A belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race: racial prejudice or discrimination.

Racism (newer definition): Ethnic prejudice plus Power.

The strength of the older definition is that it describes racism on personal terms. Racism is an issue of the heart. The problem is that it doesn’t address the “systematic” nature of racism.

The strength of the newer definition is that is gets at the systematic/power dynamics involved in racism though it might excuse the wrong heart attitude of the “weak.” This newer definition does not mean that minority groups could not exhibit racism. “Power” can come from different sources. It could come from political power, economic power, or physical violence, none of which are necessarily exclusive to a “majority” group.

Systematic/structural racism is often something ignored particularly by White America. This has something to do with our highly individualistic view of sin.  We tend to view sin only at the individual level. But sin can become entrenched in culture in a way that is more than a mere heart problem. Abortion is an example of systematic sin. It has become embedded in our culture as something acceptable and is protected by a series of laws and court rulings. Those who defend it have a whole new language which serves to gloss over the reality of what it really is.

In some places racism still exists at this structural and systematic level. The presenter described two different police forces to illustrate the role of power in racism. In both police forces about 1% of the police officers were actively discriminatory. In city A those “bad apples” were disciplined by those in power. In city B those police officers were protected by those in power. That power dynamic made the minority residents of city B feel the effects of racism far more acutely since those officers who harassed them were able to continue to do so without impunity.

We need to understand the dynamics between people and systems as it relates to the totality of the Fall. Racism is a condition that exists within a person. People inhabit “systems” (politics, business, religious organization, etc.). Those people affect systems and systems, in turn, affect people.

All this brings me to the next definition: White Privilege

“White Privilege” is one of those loaded terms. It means different things to different people and it carries a lot of baggage. Here is the definition provided at the workshop:

“White privilege is a measureable thing. It’s far too easy to dismiss the perceived experiences of a person of color so studies have demonstrated that it is an objective, measureable reality as much as it is a subjective reality. Numerous examples abound. A white man at a used car dealer will be offered a price that is an average of $200 lower than the black man who checked it out earlier that morning. White children aged 12-17 are more likely to use and sell drugs than black children 12-17, yet black children are about twice as likely to be prosecuted for it. When identical resumes are sent to business with the only difference being one has a stereotypically white sounding name and the other has a stereotypically black sounding name, the white resume is far more likely to get a call back than the black sounding name…”

White privilege doesn’t mean that “a white man was hired because he was white.” It doesn’t mean that all white people are privileged. There are many factors that cross racial bounds (class, family structure, education, etc.) that give or take privilege. Nor (in the view of the presenters) is white privilege a problem. The problem is that people of color are not given the same privileges, statistically speaking.

Solution

The presenters provided three steps for healing the wounds of racism:

Admit that there is a problem. For whites this means admitting systematic and cultural racism as well as personal fears. For minorities this means being aware that anger, misplaced blame (not every issue is a racial issue), and self-doubt need to be addressed.

Submit to God and to one another. For whites this means actively listening and empowering minorities. For minorities this means demonstrating love, forgiveness, and patience with whites who find this hard to understand.

Commit to building bridges across racial boundaries. This means building relationships, being sensitive to one another, recognizing our interdependence, sacrificing preferences for the sake of the other, and embracing the God-given ministry of reconciliation.

The Power of the Gospel

All of this is possible through the power of the gospel. In Christ God has formed one new body of people, the Church. He has made those who were previously enemies into friends through the cross. He has broken down the dividing wall. I pray that the church will be willing to see racial issues through this theological lens, and not just adopt the lens of whatever political party they are affiliated with.

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