April 5, 2012 1 Comment
The church small group I am a part of has been studying William Stringfellow’s Imposters of God: Inquiries Into Favorite Idols. This past Sunday we talked about Stringfellow’s claim that a very common idol in the U.S. is race; specifically, whiteness.
In the course of our conversation I brought up the Trayvon Martin case as an example of the ways U.S. society separates people based on race (through the creation of ethnic suburbs and various other methods of ordering social space), and pointed out that our churches often reflect that separation. You know, the whole, “Ten o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week” thing. One way this has found expression in contemporary churches is the “seeker-sensitive church” model of church planting that has resulted in the birth of many megachurches. Very broadly and in not-so-sympathetic terms, this model of church growth, encouraged by Rick Warren (see his account of “Saddleback Sam”) and others, encourages churches to be homogeneous so that they create a comfortable and inviting environment to a targeted group of people. When churches are this way they grow quickly because the whole life of the church is structured to meet the needs of a certain sub-group of people.
Of course, in the United States this leads, more often than not, to racial homogeneity as well as the expected socio-economic and geographical sameness. This is because our cities are often quite segregated. So, this is an example of Christian churches simply accepting the social order and, thus, reinscribing certain of its injustices.
Ever since that conversation I’ve been thinking about writing this post. Well, today I heard an interview with Duke theologian J. Kameron Carter, author of Race: A Theological Account, make a similar point in reflecting on Trayvon Martin. He made the point that part of the reason the case has played out how it has is because our society is structured in such a way as to make it seem “natural” for George Zimmerman to assume a young black male didn’t belong in a gated community and was thus “suspicious.” Carter also made the point that churches perpetuate this ordering. (As a fun side note, Carter also said, “The logic of race is a logic of violence.” Hmmm, where have you heard something like that before?)
So, what should be done to combat this? I suggest that my white Christian sisters and brothers seriously consider attending a nonwhite church for an extended period of time (probably years). To overcome the racial ordering of American society Christians must go out of their way to live differently. There is no way to avoid it by “just doing what we always do.” Our society is structured in such a way as to separate people based on race and income. Thus, if you are white and relatively wealthy it is quite easy to avoid interacting, especially as equals, with nonwhite or poor persons. However, reconciliation is impossible when living within such a social ordering.
Why should whites attend nonwhite churches rather than nonwhite persons attend white churches to achieve this end? Because nonwhite persons are already, at least, “bicultural.” By virtue of living in the U.S. nonwhite persons have no choice but to interact with white persons. To survive in a white world nonwhite persons must learn to speak and act in “white ways” to survive. Nonwhite persons, generally speaking, already know quite a lot about white folks. However, white folks can, if they want, avoid any significant interaction with nonwhite persons and are, thus, only “monocultural.” This is why white persons need to go out of their way to become “bicultural.”
So, white Christians – if you take seriously the gospel call to pursue racial reconciliation – I encourage you to attend a nonwhite church for an extended period of time. Drive through unfamiliar neighborhoods until they become familiar. Worship in spaces that, and with people who, sing different songs than the churches you are familiar with. Listen to sermons from preachers who interpret passages in ways you may have never heard before. And live with people who look very different than you and have quite different experiences of life in America than you. Don’t pursue a position of leadership. You are not there to teach. You are there to learn. Hear the stories of people. Live life with them.
After a few years you may, finally, begin to learn some things about race, America, God, Church, justice, and reconciliation. It is a long and hard process, but it is one that is necessary to truly be able to live as a brother or sister in Christ with persons who are not the same race or class as you.
And, if taken seriously, I suggest that you will come to interpret what life in America is really like. But more importantly, I am sure that you will also discover that what it means to be faithful to the God of and revealed in Jesus can be quite different than what is usually preached in those comfortable, segregated churches you’ve spent your whole life in.