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It was ten years ago that my Christianity Today colleague, Mark Galli, and I moderated a forum based on issues raised by the then-new book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. That CT forum featured an illustrious panel of pastors and theologians, including Elward Ellis, Robert Franklin, Charles Lyons, John Ortberg, and J. I. Packer. We discussed the book’s central theme (that evangelical theology actually contributes to the race problem in America) and grappled with its implications for the church. It was an important moment and hopefully a helpful article for CT’s readers.

Well, in a stunning reminder of how quickly time flies (and how old I’m getting), we are now looking at the ten-year anniversary of that seminal book’s release. In commemoration of this event, Indiana Wesleyan University is hosting “Divided by Faith: A Decade Retrospective” next weekend (Oct. 15-16). This unique conference will use that 10th anniversary as an occasion to reflect on the progress and missteps made in the arena of racial reconciliation and diversity among evangelicals over the past decade, and will feature a variety of scholars and panel discussions. You can find out more here. I’ll have the honor of interviewing Michael Emerson during the Friday-evening session.

If you’re in the area (or can swing a quick flight to Indiana), please think about attending. I’d love to see you there.

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There’s a great conversation going on at David Swanson’s blog regarding something I said in my commentary on Shirley Sherrod that was published at UrbanFaith.com. At one point in that commentary, I suggest that, to the minds of some white people, being called a “racist” might feel like the equivalent of calling a black person a “nigger.” It was just one of those secondary thoughts that occurred to me while I was writing that I decided to include in the article, but it turned out to be the line that David, and I’m sure many others, got stuck on. So, the discussion at David’s blog revolves around whether that observation is true. Most of the participants over there disagree with my suggestion, but I think their thoughtful responses prove that it’s a worthwhile idea to ponder.

Anyway, my good friend Shlomo chimed in at David’s blog to defend me against some of the mild criticism I was getting there, which I thought was very generous on his part. Thanks, Shlomo. But, as I noted in a comment that I left there, I’m not offended by those who disagree with my statement. In fact, I love it when folks can wrestle honestly with this race stuff.

All that to say, I thought I’d post the response that I left at David’s blog here too, just in case you’d like to read it.

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I was a bit reluctant to comment here at first, because I don’t want to come across as sounding defensive. But I do want to thank David for getting this excellent discussion going, and my dear brother Shlomo for coming to my defense.

But, I must say, I was not offended by Tomi’s statement. Part of my purpose in writing the Sherrod post (and most of the race-related commentaries that I write) is to get people thinking about the issue from different perspectives. I’m black, but as I write I try to place myself in the shoes of the white or Asian or Latino or Native American persons whom I hope will read my stuff. With the Sherrod piece, in particular, I was trying to imagine the situation from the perspective of the white conservative who has heard the “racist” label pointed in his direction for too long, even as he observes in our culture what seems to him to be racist and hateful talk coming from the very black folk who would dare accuse him of prejudice and hate.

As I’ve listened to Breitbart, Glenn Beck, and other lesser-known but still outspoken conservatives, it occurred to me that, to their minds, the “racist” tag must hurt in the same way that they believe the n-word hurts black people. How else to explain the fervent expressions of anger and resentment that the r-word elicits from some white conservatives? In making that observation, I was not suggesting that the two words are truly equal in their historical power to hurt and humiliate. But in this current era of racial change and upheaval (some of us might call it progress), where many whites feel threatened by what they sense as a loss of their rights and privileges, that r-word may feel to them like an unassailable weapon that smears and dehumanizes them and, more or less, shuts down the possibility of any further discussion.

So, on the one hand, I agree with Tomi that it was a “ridiculous” comparison for me to make. But I suspect it doesn’t sound as far-fetched to some of our more conservative brothers and sisters.

Last week, after the Sherrod story blew up, NPR’s Tell Me More had playwright Anna Deavere Smith on to discuss how Americans talk about race in politics, media, and personal relationships. As she chatted with host Michel Martin, she said something that really stuck with me. She said:

“Everybody thinks they know about race because everybody has one. But knowing about race has less to do with the race you have; it has to do with the race you don’t have. It has to do with the extent to which you seek out that which is different from you to have knowledge and to create collaborations. And I think that’s what we don’t know enough about right now.”

I thought that was a brilliant assessment of where we are in America with race—and where we need to go.

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I’ve intentionally held off on commenting on the Shirley Sherrod story until now. I guess I didn’t want to make the same mistake as all the other folks who chimed in before all the facts were known. Of course, any story about race is a constantly moving target, so who knows what new wrinkles the saga will bring this week? In any event, you can now read my reflections on last week’s developments at UrbanFaith.com.

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I know that most folks are tired of hearing about the whole LeBron James saga. For the past few weeks, it’s been nonstop speculation and rumors. Then, finally, last week James shocked the world, especially Northeast Ohio, with his decision to bolt to Miami for better weather—and presumably a better chance to win an NBA championship. I reflect on the drama in a commentary at UrbanFaith.com, where I explore the various messianic monikers that have been attached to James by his marketers and himself (e.g., the King, the Chosen One) and I wonder whether now a more appropriate biblical metaphor might be “the Prodigal Son.”

I know there are more important things happening in the world, and that when it comes down to it LeBron is only a basketball player. But, as Washington Post columnist and ESPN analyst Michael Wilbon says in this great piece, the LeBron story touches on so many other cultural flashpoints beyond simply sports. We’re talking issues of money and power, family and friendship, civic pride and loyalty, manhood and responsibility, and, of course, race.

You’ve got Dan Gilbert, the bitter owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, posting a scathing anti-James screed at the team’s website, accusing his former employee of betraying the team as well as his hometown. You’ve got folks in Ohio burning jerseys and scrambling to dismantle the gigantic downtown murals of LeBron that, to the outsider, always appeared just a little bit too excessive (like a shrine to a Greek deity, or like the Jackson brothers strolling triumphantly over the earth). And now you’ve got Jesse Jackson accusing Gilbert of viewing James as a runaway slave.

You knew the race angle was coming. It’s never too far away when you’re talking about professional sports in America, especially in the NBA, where 99 percent of the ballplayers are black and 99 percent of the franchise owners are white. William Rhoden’s controversial 2006 book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is just one of many commentaries linking pro sports in modern America to the slave trade of yesteryear. 

I wish Rev. Jackson wouldn’t have been the one to verbalize the obvious pachyderm in the room (“There he goes again, injecting race into everything!” folks will say), but there it is.

Personally, while I think it’s probably impossible to completely extract race from the issue of power relationships in pro sports, I believe Gilbert should be allowed to rant, rage, and generally come across as an emotional jerk without being accused of racism. He simply reacted like any scorned human being whose business just lost an estimated $100 million in value probably would. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. That said, I think it would’ve been wise for him to wait a few days before issuing a statement. The unintentional damage that he caused his franchise through his outburst could be worse in the long term than losing LeBron James.

Still, it’s unfair to imply that Gilbert is acting out of a “slave master mentality” just because he happens to be white and LeBron is black. That doesn’t excuse the fact that Gilbert might be a mean, arrogant, and impulsive billionaire who was trying to save face. But why add “racist” to the equation without sufficient proof?

But back to LeBron James. As long as he’s still able to do the things that LeBron James does on the basketball court, his reputation as a superstar player, though tarnished, will recover. The real tragedy, in my view, is the way James made his announcement. He had every right to leave Cleveland, but why do it in such a … ahem … cavalier manner? He was apparently so disconnected from the reality of his decision—and focused on his own self-interest—that he could not grasp the full implications of rejecting his former team and his devoted fans in Northeast Ohio on national TV in an overblown ESPN special. Or, as some have speculated, maybe he did it that way to inflict maximum pain on Gilbert and his franchise for some behind-the-scenes reason.

Either way, I hope James will someday grow into a more mature understanding of humility and compassion. Come to think of it, in an odd way, maybe that’s why he’s going to a place with two other elite stars in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (not to mention team president Pat Riley). Maybe he’s leaving the comfort, security, and adoration found in Cleveland because in his home state he’ll always be venerated as “the Chosen One.” Maybe he needs to escape to Miami to become human again.

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I’ve kind of avoided the topic of Black History Month this year until now, almost the end of the month. The reason is, I’ve been kicking around in my mind this notion of “Black History Month Syndrome.” Now, stay with me a minute.

What is Black History Month Syndrome? I’ll define it roughly as “the national, institutional, or personal tendency to reduce the value of racial, ethnic, or cultural awareness and celebration to a designated day, week, or month of the year.” That is, we do our annual observance of the thing for that set period of time, and then we don’t think about it seriously again until that same time next year. This could pertain to our current national Black History Month in general, or any similar type of annual heritage observance. Think of the annual Diversity Sunday at your church, or the great PBS documentaries on race that you have be on the lookout for during that elusive 28-day window in February, or that special issue of Time, Newsweek, or Christianity Today that trots out the usual ethnic or female voices for the annual “special issue” on African Americans or Asians or Hispanics or women.

When I was with Christianity Today, I often felt conflicted about this phenomenon. On the one hand, I rejoiced at the idea of being able to profile a significant nonwhite figure or highlight dynamic things happening in other parts of the church besides the white evangelical majority. However, on the other hand, I disliked the idea that we could only do it in a significant way usually one issue per year. I always felt our ethnic, nonwhite, and female readers could see right through our shtick. They knew we were just paying our annual homage to diversity and that it wasn’t a real living and breathing part of who we were. My argument always was that we should strive to incorporate those diverse voices into the magazine on a more regular basis, not just in annual splashes. We needed to let nonwhite and female readers know that they were a valued part of the evangelical community and not just some exotic oddity that we turned the spotlight on once or twice a year. (To its credit, I think CT does a better job nowadays of being more diverse and multicultural year-round, though I know some critics would still beg to differ.)

Over the years, I’ve struggled mightily with this phenomenon. While I appreciate Black History Month (as well as Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, Native American Heritage Month, and Women’s History Month) and value the opportunity to highlight special achievements and honor an important part of our national history, I also long for a time when we’ll no longer have to consign the recognition of that history to a particular week, month, or magazine issue.

That brings me to my main reason for doing this post. I’ve been kicking around this theme of “the myth of post-racial America” for a possible book project, and as part of that I’ve entertained the admittedly outrageous (and possibly heretical) idea that perhaps we should set an actual date in the distant future for the official dissolution of Black History Month, sort of like President Obama setting a withdrawal timetable for our troops in Iraq. For instance, let’s say we resolve that in 2020 we’ll officially discontinue all celebrations of specific heritage months (African American, Hispanic, Polish, etc.) and begin to incorporate a recognition and appreciation of those various heritages into the regular and daily flow of our national calendar and lives. This will mean that we study black history and American Indian history and Hispanic history regularly in our school curricula, that on July 4th we include Native American, black, Hispanic, and Asian historical figures in the mix along with the other great American patriots that we commemorate on Independence Day. (This may also necessitate an immediate abolishment of Kwanzaa and a renewed national effort to remind Americans that Christ did not enter the world as a blonde, blue-eyed European infant.) 

Alright, I know I’m sounding loony now. But my point is, when does it end? Will we always need Black History Month-type observances? Does authentic racial and cultural reconciliation in our country require that we observe our various annual heritage events in perpetuity? Or would true progress in reconciliation suggest that as a church or community or nation we should decide that, at some point down the road, we’ll need to grow out of the necessity of our Black History Months and move on toward a more natural and genuine embrace of the diversity of our nation?

I understand that part of the reasoning behind these various heritage months is that the United States has not always been kind to those on the margins of society. The full benefits of citizenship were not always available to those of a certain race or gender. And to this day, the majority culture still tends to divide the nation based on what it has historically deemed to be the “real Americans.” Therefore, we’ve needed to designate a special time to acknowledge, teach, honor, and celebrate the value and contributions of those groups that have been forgotten, oppressed, or systematically excluded from the national canon of history. But does our nation’s sinful and dysfunctional record on matters of race and diversity mean that we will always need to manufacture these annual days and weeks and months as a reminder of what we’re really supposed to be—as a nation and as human beings?

The apostle Paul said, “For we now know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Cor. 9-12). Might this principle of “growing up” also apply to our annual heritage celebrations and observances?

A few years ago, a friend of mine told me a story that has stuck with me ever since. My friend, who is white, is a strong believer in racial reconciliation and justice ministries. A talented musician, he leads a multiracial community gospel choir. He shared an experience that he had as a seminary student interning at an African American church. Leading special music during a Black History Month program at the church, he introduced a song by saying, “This month we celebrate Black History, but our prayer is that, one day, we will no longer have a need for a special month like this.” His point, of course, was that ideally someday our nation would progress to the place where a special heritage month was no longer the only time that we would acknowledge and value the importance of black history. However, in an awkward moment, the pastor pulled him aside after the service and politely advised him, “Don’t ever say something like that again.” My friend was very apologetic, and after a brief moment he was able to recognize why what he said was problematic. For that black church leader, the suggestion that we should strive toward no longer needing a Black History Month was tantamount to saying we should work to get rid of Christmas or Easter.

That pastor’s reaction leads me back to my original concern. The question again: If Black History Month and our other annual cultural heritage observances are really accomplishing what they’re intended to, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect that the day will come when we will no longer need them?

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Time magazine’s January 11 issue hit newsstands last week with a compelling teaser on its cover: “How Megachurches Are Helping Bridge America’s Racial Divide.” Soon, emails and Facebook updates from friends alerted me to the article and urged me to check it out. A Time report on Christians and the racial divide? This was a big deal.

Racial reconciliation among evangelicals is one of those topics that come and go based on who’s currently talking it up. Back in the mid-1990s, when groups like the Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, and the Promise Keepers men’s ministry were on the reconciliation bandwagon, it was all the rage. But Christians who are engaged in race and justice issues on a daily basis know that these periods of heightened interest typically fade after people lose that initial “we are one” buzz.

Almost a decade ago (yikes!), when I worked at Christianity Today, we convened a forum of Christian leaders to discuss the then-controversial findings of the just-released book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. The book’s thesis, as we summarized it then: Most white evangelicals deny the existence of any ongoing racial problem in the U.S., and many blame the media and African Americans who refuse to forget the past for any lingering racial conflict. And then the whopper: Evangelical theology, with its individualized worldview, actually hinders our progress toward racial reconciliation and social justice in America. Emerson and Smith’s work arguably did more to elevate the conversation about race among white evangelicals than any other book over the last 40 years.

In my own book on Christians and race, I wrote about the significance of Divided by Faith and how it challenged and inspired countless Christian leaders, including, most famously, Willow Creek Community Church’s founding pastor Bill Hybels. That a book on race could actually transform the thinking of one of the nation’s most influential evangelical pastors says a lot, so it wasn’t surprising to see Time magazine pick up on the story too.

David Van Biema

I was a bit taken aback when Time‘s religion writer David Van Biema called me out of the blue last year to pick my brain on the “desegregation of evangelical megachurch” theme around which his article was taking shape. I initially pushed him to consider the many smaller churches and ministries that had been intentionally pursuing racial reconciliation and diversity long before the ideas showed up on Willow Creek’s radar screen. I suggested that any increase in racial diversity at megachurches like Willow is probably due more to the changing demographics of the suburbs, with their growing numbers of middle-class African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans. My theory was that it’s not so much that the megachurches are becoming more intentional about race but that they just naturally offer large, neutral settings for middle-class minorities who don’t feel entirely comfortable in ethnic-specific churches, but who would feel out of place in smaller, all-white congregations as well. The size and seeker-friendly nature of megachurches make them ideal places for minority Christians to just become a part of the scenery (i.e. community) without any pressure to be that church’s representative “black family” or “Latino family.” While I think this is still a large part of what’s happening with the increasing racial diversity in big evangelical churches, I realize that there are many other factors at play as well. And I applaud David for taking on the huge task of exploring this phenomenon.   

With the Time article reviving the race conversation among evangelicals (at least for another week or so), I thought it would be interesting to chat with David about his article and what he learned, as an impartial observer, about the evangelical community and race. Check out my interview with him at UrbanFaith.com, then come on back and let me know what you think about some of the issues David’s article raises.

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Just wanted to call attention to my friend Amanda Long’s two-part series at UrbanFaith.com. She writes about the Justice Journey taken by members of her church and several other Christian leaders in Omaha, Nebraska. The Justice Journey is based on the Sankofa event that was birthed in the Evangelical Covenant Church. It involves a usually multiracial group of folks taking a bus trip to historic civil rights sites in Southern cities and reflecting on that history and what it should mean for us today. The goal is to give participants a more personal and informed understanding of what may be required of us for true racial reconciliation and social justice in our churches, communities, and nation. Amanda’s two articles explore the “event” of the Justice Journey and look at how the experience is transforming the churches in her Omaha community.

Amanda Long

Amanda and her husband, Jeremy, are very dear friends who used to reside around the corner from us in the Chicagoland area but returned home to Nebraska a few years ago. Looking at Omaha through her “Chicago eyes,” Amanda was startled to discover that there are a lot of similarities between her new town and the big “urban” city that she left behind. She writes:

Omaha is routinely rated as one of the best mid-sized cities in the U.S., and we enjoy all it has to offer. However, soon after moving here I was surprised to discover some stark realities.

Omaha is a wealthy city, but it has the highest black child poverty rate in the entire United States. In the midst of our current recession, Omaha’s unemployment rate is still under 5 percent. However, in parts of North Omaha, which is a primarily black community, the unemployment rate is 20 percent overall, with census tracts that chronically experience a 30 to 40 percent unemployment rate. When friends from Chicago visit, it is not unusual for them to be disturbed by our local newscasts — they thought Omaha, Nebraska, would be different from Chicago — but we too hear regular reports of almost nightly shootings and homicides. We’ve also realized how segregated the city is, even compared to Chicago. So, while Omaha is a great place for some, others in my city have a different experience.

 This is Amanda’s first foray into journalism, and she does a wonderful job covering the Justice Journey event and interviewing the various leaders of the Omaha movement. Please check out her articles, then chime in with your comments. Have you ever participated in a Sankofa or Justice Journey? How effective do you think experiences like these are for bringing about genuine racial healing and reconciliation? Would the churches in your community benefit from a joint “Justice Journey” experience?

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