How should we deal with identity politics and racial issues in the church?
I have a question regarding how Christians are supposed to solve the identity politics problem that seems to have seeped into our societies. Almost every day a celebrity or politician makes a comment about race and politics. How can we solve this issue as Christians, and leave a positive legacy for our children? I disagree with some of the things people in the “Black Live Matter” do and some of their assumptions are wrong, but I also believe that the fear and anger isn’t born from just nothing. I understand shy many black Americans feel that American society is against them in many ways. I believe the roots of this problem go back to the relation of history and genetics. This hits close to home for me since I am from Alabama which was the starting point for the civil rights movement. I understand for many that it is an uncomfortable topic to talk about but I believe it is one that needs to be addressed. How can people resolve ethnic differences as Christians but still leave a legacy for their descendants that has a lasting effect positive effect on the country’s history as a whole? It also seems to me that white or black majority churches rarely associate with each other. I understand that people desire to be near those that look and act like them. After all I don’t think anyone would deny that people’s lineages come from different places and those different places affect their physical traits over time by small evolutionary changes to adapt to a certain environment. Also I don’t necessarily think it’s bad that some people wish to marry within their own ethnic group to preserve their heritage as long as it’s not because of some sort of hatred for others but many seem to deem it as such. How do we as Christians overcome this?
You are really asking a bit too much of me here. This question deserves a 30 page manifesto and it really can only be addressed in two- or multi-way communication, not by a talking head spouting his or her opinion. Please accept from me a very limited response of a vague and general sort.
1. This is a societal, not a Christian problem, per se. Of course, this problem does enter the Church and these discussions absolutely do need to happen in the Church, but the problem you are discussing is a whole-society problem and therefore, if it is to be solved, the entire society needs to be involved. So, what I say here about the Church can only have a somewhat limited impact on the overall problem in our societies. This does not make the comments or the question unimportant, but you should bear in mind that the “solution” is bigger than anything the Church can do, although we as Christians can definitely have an impact.
2. From within the church, what needs to happen is open and frank discussion of the issues around race. We have done this in my local church here in San Diego, including having public lectures, bringing in experts in the field to our church, having conferences on this topic and so forth, but more needs to happen. I believe that these problems ultimately involve people who are in a position of relative power treating those with less power badly. This is what the black lives matter movement is about. It is what the woman’s movement is about. To some extent, it is what the LGBTQ movement is about. Those in a position of privilege use that privilege to take advantage of those who do not have the position of power. Men abuse their power over women. Whites abuse their power over non-whites. The rich abuse their power over those without money. And we need to be honest about it. This happens in the church. This is a fact. We need to have discussions about this in church. Specifically those who are in the privileged position in the church need to hear from those who are not. Men need to listen to the grievances of women and white people need to hear the grievances of people of color and the rich need to get input from the poor about how they are taken advantage of as well. If we say that this is not happening, then we are wrong and foolish. In my local church if you ask the average white person if we have race issues in our church they will give you a look like you are crazy (by the way my particular church is extremely diverse, which would explain why some are naive on this topic). If you ask an African American in my church if we have race issues they will give you a similar look, only in the opposite direction. Yeahhhh!!! The same can be said for the relationship between male and female disciples in my church.
James dealt with this kind of issue, but specifically with regard to the rich and the poor. In James 2:1-13 he speaks in the strongest possible terms condemning as law breaking and as making one liable to hell if the rich take advantage of their position over the poor. And I would bet that if you had asked the rich in that situation if they were taking advantage of the poor they would be shocked that you even asked. Surely not us, they would have said. We have great programs for the poor. Our church is mostly poor people, they would have said. Yet, James roundly condemns them for treating the poor as second class Christians.
By the way, let me get it out there and make it crystal clear. The difference and the problem is not genetic. It is a matter of culture and it is a matter of the politics of power. The genetic diversity within a single race is massively greater than the tiny genetic difference between the races. This is a scientific fact. It is not about genetics, and do not let it be about genetics. It is about sin and power (and culture and language as well, of course). If everyone had the same color skin and the same kind of hair, the church would still have these kinds of problems, but dressed up differently. I want to encourage you in the strongest possible terms to not make excuses for people choosing to marry within ethnic group. The Church of Jesus Christ should be on the cutting edge in creating harmony and unity between different cultures, races and ethnicities. We should have zero tolerance for people who choose to associate only with people of their own ethnicity, and that includes in dating and marriage. If a latino ends up marrying a latina, that is fine, and if a black person marries a black person that is fine, but the Church needs to be on the cutting edge in this area.
If you are part of a single-ethnicity church or a single-race church, I suggest you leave that church and find one that is setting the example of Christ. Possibly you could stay in that church and help to change it, but experience tells us that it is difficult for a single member who is not the leader of a church to change this kind of thing. In Galatians 3:28 Paul tells us that all cultures, languages and genders are one in Christ. We need to exhibit this or we need to not pretend we are the church that Jesus died for.
I want to recommend a book on this topic which I believe can be very helpful. It is by a good friend of mine Michael Burns. It is Crossing the Line: Culture, Race and the Kingdom and is available at www.ipibooks.com