“Minnesota Nice” and Anger

I internally debated whether to bother putting my thoughts in writing or not. Why add to the mountain of blog posts that are filling my own social media feed in the last week or so? Ultimately I decided I needed to write for my own benefit even if few others read it, and/or agree with it. What follows is not necessarily polished prose but I just need to vent. I also don’t want to come off as self-righteous or “holier-than-thou.” What I am angry about is the kind of Christianity that I was content to live with until about 20 years ago. I have no desire to condemn anyone who still holds to ideas I used to, specifically ideas related to race, yet at the same time I cannot simply be a nice guy about this issue. I’m certainly angry about our American white power culture that still treats black lives as less than, but I am more angry at the American Church for its long standing complicity in the evil of racism.

I suppose a relatively brief intro would be helpful. For most of my adult life I have been a “nice guy.” Most people like me. I don’t like conflict and I tend to be a peacemaker, helping others to appreciate other views and understand why people think the way they do. I rarely speak in anger and attempt to control my tongue. In fact I’m not sure if anyone other than my wife and kids have ever seen me angry, and even then in a pretty controlled way. However, I have to admit it I am angry, frustrated, and truth be told it has been brewing in me for many years. My anger is primarily focused on White Christianity, specifically the Evangelical Church that I grew up in and am still on the fringes of. (“Oh boy, here we go, another angry ex-evangelical!) Although there are African-Americans in Evangelicalism, it is still a white movement.

Evangelicalism along with the rest of White Christianity is racist, not racist in the White Supremacy type of racism. But the very nature of growing up in America determined that I breathed in racist air and drank racist water. Racist ideas are not about despising black people but about holding racially prejudiced ideas and exhibiting racially prejudiced acts or speech. You/I can have black friends and still think, act and speak in racially prejudiced ways. Why did I grow up thinking jokes with black stereotypes were funny? Why did I grow up and even though I can’t tell you where I learned it, the most memorable things about Martin Luther King Jr. were that he was probably a Communist and an adulterer? Why did I think blacks, especially men, tended to be lazy or dangerous? Why did I think “urban problems” were simply the result of black people making poor choices? As I was in seminary, why did we not read black theologians and why did we regard them with such suspicion? Why were white Christian athletes held up as Christian role models but black athletes not so much? How did I learn that although black preachers may be entertaining orators, they did not use proper exegesis and they played fast and loose with the biblical text? Who taught me that hip-hop or rap was not real music and all it did was glorify misogyny, drugs and alcohol? Why did I think that black men from the “hood” were most likely “thugs?” I could ramble on with more but you get the idea.  I absorbed these ideas from living not just in a racist culture but a racist Christianity.

So what sparked change in me? It started as a seed idea when I was attending Dallas Seminary in the late 80’s, early 90’s. A black seminary student was responding to several white seminarians who were dissecting the “urban issues” in Dallas and using all the critiques and proposing all the solutions that I was very familiar with. He told them, and I’m paraphrasing, “shut up because you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Over the next several years, because I’m a reader I started to devour books on black history, particularly the Civil Rights era. I began to more fully understand the weight of injustice the black community has endured in its long tortured history in colonial England and America. Even though I had read that evangelical white Christianity would not get involved in the civil rights movement it made sense to me because I was raised to believe justice was not part of the gospel and we needed to focus on converting people so they would go to heaven when they died. We were complicit because of our silence but I would have argued otherwise at the time. However in 2003 I was prepping to teach a class on the prophetic books when it dawned on me for the first time that the hope of the kingdom promised in the prophets and Jesus’ message of the kingdom were one and the same. The message of the kingdom from an OT perspective is that when God restores Israel, he forgives their sin but he also brings a kingdom of justice and righteousness. Restored Israel was to image God as they pursued a culture of justice and righteousness. Reading the gospels, Jesus preaches that his message or good news of the kingdom means repent, your sins will be forgiven, and you begin living as though the kingdom has arrived, pursuing justice and righteousness. I was over forty years old and how had I never heard a sermon about pursuing justice in all my years in church? Bruce Springsteen, in his speech before Bob Dylan was put in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, said listening to Bob Dylan’s music made him feel irresponsibly innocent. That is similar to how I felt. How could I have ignored the injustice in front of me and been satisfied with the conservative White Evangelical (racist) answers for why black folks were so much worse off than most white folk? Why didn’t the Church care about justice, especially justice for black people?

Ongoing/continual change: I began to read more and more on the issue of Jesus preaching the kingdom of God, more and more on history of America that I had never learned in school.  Specifically I read more and more about not only the Church’s complicity in racism but that in fact racism was “invented” not just by white people but by white Christianity, beginning with the Catholic Church, to justify slavery of Africans and later by English/American Christians to justify genocide of the native peoples in the colonies or at best pushing them out of their native lands further west. After all European Americans needed their living space! However all this learning was still theoretical; I lived in white suburbia and attended a white suburban church. I began to have a desire to live in more diversity and get personally involved.

That desire became a reality when we moved to the Church Hill neighborhood in Richmond VA in 2016. We had moved to Richmond in the fall of 2014 so Linda could help take care of her parents. We specifically chose Church Hill because, although gentrification is occurring, it is still a racially and economic diverse neighborhood. We attend a church that at least to some extent reflects the neighborhood we live in. We have discovered that although there are joys of being in this community there is plenty of pain and anger as well. All my book learning was being reinforced and expanded by my experiential learning. Besides my book author mentors, I have been privileged to establish relationships with wonderful black members of our faith community. However, this is not some utopia of diversity; there are tensions that exist that we must wrestle with. However the pain, suffering and anger of the black brothers and sisters of our congregation compels me to add my voice in some way to their pain, pain that I can at best only imagine, and will never experience because of my white skin. So why am I so angry?

Here is a partial list of the “grievances” that come most quickly to mind. Please read these, not as condemnation but as a plea to become involved in some way, to not stay silent, to educate yourself about your white privilege and the evil of racism that was established in our nation’s founding documents and continues to plague our systems of justice.

  1.  White Christianity tends to have a short attention span, even for those who feel they are concerned for justice. We may get energized to jump on a hashtag campaign but where are we one, two, three years later? For instance it is hard to believe that it has already been almost six years since Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson, MO. It has already been almost three years since the White Supremacists marched in Charlottesville, VA and Heather Heyer was slain. Members of my fellowship, part of a singing group, were in Charlottesville the evening of the night march and the church they were singing at was surrounded by the angry white marchers. In the aftermath of that weekend, Richmond pastors and religious leaders, hundreds of them, signed a document declaring they were committed to change and to speak out about racism. Three years later, how many of those primarily white suburban churches and para-church organizations whose leaders signed that document have continued to follow through on that pledge? It is easy to lose one’s attention when the issues of racism that briefly capture our attention don’t truly impact our lives or the communities in which we live. Most people still attend homogenous churches, even if they have a sprinkling of diversity they would still be recognized as white evangelical churches. If you are upset about what happened to George Floyd, don’t let this be another one of those short bursts of righteous indignation that eventually flames out. Black people don’t have the privilege of a short attention span; find some way to get in their shoes and stay committed.
  2. Even more angering to me are those of us who continue to remain silent. This feels like a time similar to the Civil Rights era when with very few exceptions, White Christianity, and in particular, White Evangelicalism was silent. Silence is complicity; complicity is sin. Read the OT prophets and how they castigated both Israel and Judah for their oppressive and unjust society. The prophets certainly targeted the wealthy, but all Israelites who simply put up with the way things were was guilty as well. Many of us detest conflict (I’m looking at myself in the mirror) but we need to start calling out racist or ignorant comments from people we know, including our online “community.” We can debate the value of having serious discussion online but I am going to make my stance on racial justice clear.
  3. It angers me when Christians counteract #blacklivesmatter with #alllivesmatter or #bluelivesmatter. It angers me when Christians attack Colin Kapernick and other athletes who knelt during the national anthem and totally discounted what it was in our American culture and legal/justice system that they were protesting.
  4. Finally, it angers me when white Christians say they desire racial reconciliation but are offended when their racist attitudes, comments, or behaviors are pointed out. If white Christians truly desire racial reconciliation they must be able to endure hard, painful, and perhaps even angry conversations with black people. For instance, and this blows my mind, some white Christians claim to be horrified at the murder of George Floyd by police officers but are more horrified by the angry uprisings that are occurring across the U.S. We are more than 50 years removed from the Civil Rights Act and black people still recognize they don’t have equal protection under the law. Several of the black theologians I have read admit that White Christianity tends to have a soft view of reconciliation. They want diverse prayer services where everybody holds hands and white Christians repent and ask for forgiveness but they are unwilling to do the hard work of reconciliation. When confronted with black anger over racism, their racism; they exit. My pastor who is African-American and has spent his whole life in Church Hill told me that most pastors of black churches are not interested in conversations about reconciliation anymore because white churches don’t really want true reconciliation. Repentance and reconciliation require more than words.

So, there is my rant–If you have taken the time to read this and would like to begin or further educate yourself there are many books and several videos I could recommend.  Here is a link to a pastor’s message after the killing of George Floyd. Dr. Otis Moss is the pastor of a church on the southside of Chicago. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J_dNzYifsow).


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