We Need to Talk
This opinion piece by Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Jennifer Brooks really got me thinking the other morning. I suppose that was the point, so good on her for keeping the dialogue going. What follows is my contribution to it. First off, I should say that generally I agree with her, and even specifically I agree with her regarding probably most of the points I hear her wanting to make. I do think that:
We need to talk about Derek Chauvin.
We need to talk about the life he stole and the people he terrorized and the institutions that trained him and armed him and sent him out on our streets.
We need to talk about Black Lives Matter. About Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirits. About Minneapolis children gunned down as they bounce on trampolines or ride to grandma’s house. We need to talk about the bigots who punch elderly Asian Americans on the sidewalks and the lawmakers who bully transgender kids in the middle of Pride month.
I think Brooks is spot on here. Police brutality, institutional racism, gun violence, and homophobia are not just worthy topics of discussion though. They’re not mere “issues,” either.
European-Americans Must Not Trade in Abstractions About Others’ Lived Experience of Suffering
For the victims of police brutality, the conversation about it is about lives lost, funerals to plan, and empty bedrooms.
For non-“white” Americans, the conversation about BLM is about living in a country whose institutions continue to act as if their lives don’t matter. The truth of this is indisputable to those who truly care to pay attention.
For indigenous Americans, the conversation about their missing and murdered women, girls, and two-spirits is likewise a heartbreaking one about dinner tables with empty chairs, about lost potential and an aching lack of closure.
The conversation about gun violence is arguably the hardest one to have of all, because it has to do all too often with the lives of children cut short, with parents left forever to wonder if they could have done something more to protect their children, and who all too often are left to spend the remainder of their lives tirelessly working to reform and redeem a culture gone mad for its actual, dumbfounding love of guns.
The conversation about anti-Asian violence and hate is often about proud Americans who contribute in disproportionate ways to the common good of this country, while receiving disproportionate exclusion, vitriol, and oppression in return.
Likewise, the conversation about homophobia and transphobia is one that in many ways many of us are just beginning to have, and none too early, but like the others, for LGBTQIA2S+ Americans, it’s a conversation about the many ways they are hated, feared, excluded, and oppressed.
Missing from Brooks’ laundry list of whole swaths of American society that are oppressed by whiteness are Hispanic Americans and Middle Eastern Americans, among others, I’m sure. Our neighbors to the global south have long been exploited for their labor and scapegoated when it suited the “white” majority in the U.S., and our neighbors from the Middle East are usually vilified by many Americans who misread and misunderstand the Bible and use it as a tool to support not only the legacy of colonialism in North America, but its continued expression in Zionist Israel.
So, while all these conversations desperately need to be had, we must always remember that what we’re talking about are people’s lives. Likewise, we must bear in mind the privilege and power differential of the conversation partners. When “white” people, people like me, engage in any of these conversations what we usually have at stake is our wealth and privilege and the ways in which we’re centered by society. To put it bluntly, as Bob Dylan sang, “you gotta serve somebody,” and society’s institutions are meant to serve European-Americans, especially cishet European-Americans like myself. So what’s at stake for people like me in conversations about the marginalization and oppression of others is the fearsome possibility of being treated like everyone else, of not being centered and served by society as a matter of course. It’s a terrible thing to confess.
Notice that difference, though. Again in conversations about marginalization and oppression, regardless of where my heart and my intentions might be, my social location places me on the side of the oppressor and among those that force others to the margins. For everyone else, the conversation is about education and opportunity, about livelihoods, about health and mental health outcomes, about life and death itself. In other words, conversations about such matters for people like me are often about abstractions based on the lived experience of others. Because of such a great power differential, one cannot in good faith argue that there are two sides to be considered equally. As Brooks writes:
Sometimes there’s no neutral ground. You stand with your neighbors or you stand against them. The opposite of Black Lives Matter isn’t “all lives matter” — it’s Black Lives Don’t Matter.
Or, as I keep saying, when we say “Black lives matter,” we mean they matter too. We mean society’s institutions so preference and center “white” male cisgender heterosexual lives it’s as if no other lives matter. So we must take a side, and if we stand with Jesus, we stand with the marginalized and oppressed. My pastor Jonny has something to say about this. He writes:
…Paul consistently undoes the patterns of this world in his ordering of Christian households. How he talks about Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and free people showcases a New Humanity and a new way of doing things. Our church’s work of antiracism isn’t a movement following the world, we are following the spirit. We are renewing our minds, transforming our hearts, resisting conforming to the patterns of this world. We are motivated to find our oneness and identity in Christ. That doesn’t mean we merely transcend the worldly racial order that has separated us and oppressed people of color. We are called to repent of how it has infected us and change our behavior. There is no such thing as an identity in Christ without divestment of worldly power. An identity in Christ that is not antiracist is a white Christian Nationalist identity that is a perversion of the Gospel. It is a false teaching led by false prophets (italics added).
I Cannot Get to the Whole Cloth of Life in Christ Without Removing the Wholly Racist Clothes I Grew Up In
This reminds me of one of our Circle of Hope proverbs. These are sayings of our church, wisdom we’ve collected over the years that help us continue the dialogue about who we are in Christ. The one I’m thinking of, as I’m paraphrasing it here, goes: “Life in Christ is one whole cloth…Jesus is lord of all, so we have repented of separating ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’.” I see this saying as a response to the ways in which European-American Christians have crafted a so-called Christianity in which they could worship God on Sunday, occasionally even in the presence of BIPOC and other marginalized people, sometimes even sharing a common cup of communion, and then turn around the next day and continue actively participating in the oppression and marginalization of their so-called siblings in Christ. In a recent Resist and Restore podcast episode, Melissa Florer-Bixler talks about her upcoming book, How to Have An Enemy, and suggests that such disingenuous and really anti-Christ actions might be grounds for withholding such table fellowship. Again as a cishet European-American male who so often is placed in positions of power and is able to deny others entry to privileged spaces, I’m hesitant to support any further exclusionary act, but I do think Melissa is probably right.
So when we say that “life in Christ is one whole cloth,” we mean that following Jesus is something we do with our whole selves, with our whole lives. Florer-Bixler gives an example of hearing about a church that proudly proclaimed it had ICE agents and undocumented immigrants in their congregation, extolling some sort of false “unity.” If life in Christ is one whole cloth, you cannot worship God with someone one day and then kidnap them from their family and deport them the next. Following Jesus may require that you follow him right out of your job. The same probably applies to Wall Street bankers and others, if I may be so bold. Again, we must choose sides.
I might also say that declaring that life in Christ is one whole cloth as a response to racist, oppressive compartmentalization of faith leads to the realization that life itself is simply one whole cloth. I think this is probably just common sense, when we really think about it. And this, then, leads to a further realization. As Jonny said, “…find(ing) our oneness and identity in Christ…doesn’t mean we merely transcend the worldly racial order that has separated us and oppressed people of color. We are called to repent of how it has infected us and change our behavior.” If life itself is one whole cloth just as life in Christ is, European-Americans have grown up wearing racist clothes. The racist rot in American society goes to the core. America is a bad tree, and we risk living as bad fruit if we do not repent and put on our new selves in Christ, if you don’t mind the mixed metaphor.
Galatians 3 speaks to this:
26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Churches like the one Florer-Bixler spoke of that celebrate the intermingling of oppressors and oppressed in their midst like to rush to their supposed oneness in Christ without doing the work of clothing themselves with Christ. Such dressing necessarily leads to repentance and the changed behavior Jonny spoke of. For those living a life in the whole cloth of Christ, racism leads to antiracism or we have discarded our holy garb. My church, Circle of Hope, is undergoing a painful moment in which we reckon with the ways we have yet to fully put on Christ, with ways in which we continue to work at removing our worldly racist garb. We want to put on Christ and we are, but we must not rush it. Some sackloth and ashes are probably in order for a while as we repent of the ways we have often unwittingly but sometimes wittingly, no doubt, participated in the racism that is all around us. We must change our ways, and I have hope that we will.
I must change my ways, and I cling to the hope that I will. I know, of course, that I cannot do it alone though. I did not get into the mess of white supremacy culture by myself, and I will not get out of it that way either. BIPOC members of our church have expressed that they view their participation in our community as being missional. In other words, we European-Americans make up a mission field that the love of Christ compels them to minister to. We need to be saved in more ways than one, and they’re here to help. Let us humbly receive the good news they have brought, that life does not revolve around us, that we can feel loved, affirmed, and valued for who we are without the crutch of false hierarchies, and that there is enough for all if we share with all freely and equitably. Now that’s a gospel word if ever there was one.