Less Arguments, More Empathy: Hear people of color on Charlottesville, white supremacy, church, and hope

photo by Vision Planet Media

photo by Vision Planet Media

As I’ve talked with people throughout my social circles, I’ve noticed very different responses to the events of Charlottesville’s protests over Confederate memorials, white nationalist violence that killed an innocent person, and the larger conversation about racism in America.

This is not just a political thing.

It’s not just a spiritual “sin issue.”

It’s far more complex and ingrained in the fabrics of America and Christianity.

[Related: After Charlottesville’s Racism and Responses, Will More Evangelicals Listen and Learn? via Huffington Post]

Instead of another well-meaning white person theorizing, why don’t we listen to non-white voices whose experiences are different than ours?

Let’s pause our arguments and default reactions long enough to hear others’ stories and develop empathy at the very least, and better faith in action as we learn together.

Non-white voices I wish more white Americans would listen to after Charlottesville

What thoughts and feelings did you experience as you heard details of the events in Charlottesville?

Samara: I never endorse violence. I was encouraged by the peaceful protesters I saw, especially the clergy. And I am encouraged by the many people, especially whites who came to counter-protest and state that this does not represent them or America. It is sad that these people feel more emboldened by our current government and that they can march and pretty much do whatever they want without fear of police retaliation. It’s sad and infuriating and pitiable (given their misguided feelings that they are suddenly in the minority).

Kaitlin Curtice: The clergy at Charlottesville gave me a lot of hope for the church. Locally I don’t see a lot of that, but I’m not engaged at a lot of local level churches to know what exactly they are doing. But on a national level, the people who showed up in a really scary place to be the church—that was really important.

What runs through your mind when you see Confederate memorials, flags, and statues in public?

Samara: I used to get angry about these symbols, but it has transitioned to sadness overall. I am a little apprehensive and uncomfortable when I see the symbol, and depending on the situation, sometimes fearful. Mainly because it does not represent “just history” but is often and intentionally a symbol meant to recall a time where persons of color were denigrated and looked down upon. Its original intent in resurfacing is to intimidate people of color and remind them that this history of slavery and violence toward Blacks and other persons of color is a time that is still revered and celebrated in America. We continue to deny the ugliness and hatred of our history and pretend that these symbols and these figures are something innocuous and righteous, rather than admitting and repenting of the crimes committed against persons of color. There has never been any real repentance and attempts to make the slavery and further segregation and abuse of Blacks right. A lot of these statues and memorials belong in museums. We cannot erase our history with the removal of these memorials; but we could incorporate more truthful memorials in their place or add to them so that we acknowledge the darkness that accompanies these points of history.

You wrote about some of your experiences of people treating you differently because of your skin color. Are your experiences unique to you, rare occurrences, or part of a broader pattern of cultural and/or systemic issue?

Ricky Ortiz: I would say my experiences are a microcosm of a much broader issue at large. All you have to do is look at my post on Facebook and read the responses from people of color and see that they too have had similar experiences. Anytime I’ve shared those experiences with other minority friends, I actually end up finding that my experiences are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to personal experiences.

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Sunday, August 13th, 2017 in Charlottesville, VA, the day after a car plowed into counter-protestors. Photo by blakeschultz.org / @blakesch_

What does your spiritual tradition compel you to do—in response to white nationalism, to people defending Confederate memorials, to your family and friends and spiritual community?

Samara: I used to get very angry and retaliatory towards people when dealing with racism. I’ve learned I cannot control these people and experiences and events. I am responsible for my own thoughts and actions and feelings and how I choose to live. I always start with prayer; it is difficult to hate someone and pray for them. It helps me to allow God to remember that we are all His image bearers, no matter how dirty or disfigured we are. I try to speak in love and truth. Sometimes it means holding my tongue. I’ve been trying to discover what it means to be a peacemaker, carefully choosing how I can best engage people and help bring better understanding, as well as improve my own listening and knowledge of the situation. I happen to know that a lot of people who have been friends at some point in my life, or have crossed paths with me during our SBC days, know or endorse these policies, whether directly or indirectly. They share insensitive and racist posts and like posts that support these topics. There’s such a shallow and contradictory view of our faith that is expressed. They are quick to say they are not racist but fail to prove it with their actions and in their social media posts…when possible, I try to gently confront these views. I am grateful for our current church and community, who makes a point to pray corporately and try to wrestle with these issues. I am working bit by bit within my own sphere of influence, trying to bring reconciliation.

What spiritual and practical wisdom have you found when it comes to reconciling America’s history with current events and how to best help society move forward together?

Kaitlin: I think the term “de-colonizing” faith helps me look at what it means to step away from American evangelicalism, which is so connected to colonialism. “De-colonizing” faith for me is knowing that my native identity can and should be a part of my identity in Christ. I think it’s a good tool for the church moving forward.

What does it take for people to actually see or understand other races and ethnicities instead of carrying the assumptions or biases they’re familiar with?

Ricky: We avoid these types of matter because they are, by nature, confronting. So I think we must be confronted, sometimes by our own awareness, sometimes by God’s Holy Spirit, sometimes by other people, and sometimes by all of the above. Assumptions are made when we skip over conversations. Good conversations take place when we ask questions AND listen. Period.

What have you done to guard against your own assumptions of other races/ethnicities?

Ricky: The most beneficial thing I’ve done is connect with other people and try to partake in their lives. Then I just shut up and evaluate if my assumptions are contrary to my actually observations and experiences with human beings.

What has your experience been like in talking with people of different races and ethnicities about (or avoiding talking about) race and political and spiritual leaders who do not speak decisively about racism?

Samara: Varied. Often frustrating – the problem is that we don’t have a mutual understanding or agreement with semantics and definitions. Many people still feel racism is an internal individual issue rather than a systemic one, which immediately brings up a lot of defensive conversation. Also, I feel as if our social media and technology has robbed us of empathy and the ability to speak tactfully in order to foster civil discourse. So there’s a lot of reactive speech and little listening and name calling and labeling and little chance or motivation for personal change. It’s also very frustrating when a lot of spiritual leaders just boil racism down to a “sin problem” (which is true) because it’s a bit of a cop out and pretty lazy. A lot of white leaders and congregations are okay with quick mission trips into Black/Latinx/etc areas but don’t want to start churches there and share spaces with them. And when we venture into their churches, we are likely not going to feel welcome unless we look and sound like the other whites. It’s difficult to understand and advocate for change and for racism when you avoid situations where you understand what it is like to be the minority. I think a lot of people do recognize that they do benefit from the systems in place but don’t care enough to sacrifice the benefits of their own privilege for the sake of equality.

[Related: “Shut up about Charlottesville” — a poem]

Have you seen churches and Christians acting/speaking in helpful or unhelpful ways about race and faith? Can you share some examples?

Samara: I enjoy Sojourners – they have a lot of great articles and personal stories about people who use their faith to be an advocate for racial and social injustices. Personally, I can’t think of a whole lot but appreciate the pastors of my former church, who regularly preach and encourage their congregations to acknowledge and stand against the sin of racism (Julie Pennington Russell, now with FBC Washington DC and David Gushee, FBC Decatur), as well as Jerome Stockert who leads the ASU BCM. The most unhelpful examples are the many people who just stay silent, especially when they are so vocal about conservative politics and Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter, etc.

RELEVANT Magazine hosted a podcast conversation about Charlottesville and racism:

Propaganda: I would’ve loved to have seen white evangelicalism be like, “This was on our watch. Our bad. That’s not what we meant.” …I feel like for the Church and our government, this was a layup. This was literally the easiest thing you could’ve come out against. It was a no-brainer.

Lecrae: Unfortunately it’s too late though. To some degree, it’s too late because it was a layup for us with Trayvon. It was a layup with Mike Brown, it was a layup with Philando Castile, it was a layup for Eric Garner it was a layup for Sandra Bland. You know, it’s been a layup for the Church to say something since 2014. So unfortunately, as far as people of color, Evangelical people of color, they’ve already decided we have no advocate or ally here, so we’ve moved on. There’s an old African-American proverb and it goes, ‘We tried to tell y’all.’ So that’s what I think people are experiencing right now in the Church.

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Sunday, August 13th, 2017 in Charlottesville, VA, the day after a car plowed into counter-protestors. Photo by blakeschultz.org / @blakesch_

Is it enough for Christians to briefly say “racism is wrong” and move on?

Kaitlin: I think saying it is a really good first step. It’s important because it creates spaces for sharing on all sides. But to briefly say so? No, it’s not okay. If we want to be the church, we should be honest about the church’s past, especially the American church’s past, in treatment of indigenous people and African Americans. And if those kinds of honest conversations happen, they will lead to more than just talking about it. I believe they will lead to actions and justice in communities and in churches, including actions of repentance and reconciliation.

Samara: How do your actions and your silence reconcile with your faith or fulfill the command to share the good news of freedom, grace, and redemption when you are content to watch people suffer under oppression, injustice, and indignity?

Boye: First and foremost, Christians should make sure they are having these discussions in their congregations and small groups and making sure they are aligning with the Bible. Then I think it’s important for every Christian to use their voice.

Writer, mentor, podcast host on white privilege and responsibility:

Layla Saad: You did not create white supremacy. But you benefit from it every day because of the white skin you were born in. Even if you don’t want your privilege, you still have it, because white supremacy exists and is the dominant paradigm of places like the US, the UK, Europe and Australia. As a white person, you have the privilege of being able to say, ‘high vibes only’ and ‘I don’t follow the news because it’s too political’ and ‘I just want to focus on love and light’. This is not okay. And it’s up to you to do your part to dismantle white supremacy. Because it is literally destroying black lives.

What do you want white Christians to understand and do if they want to help?

Kaitlin: Speaking from a Native perspective, we have hardly been part of the conversations the church has regarding race. If the church wants to have honest conversations, we need to acknowledge the wrongs done to native people in the name of Jesus. If our churches aren’t willing to have conversations and make native people a part of them, the church cannot begin to heal the racial tensions of the faith or this nation.

Ricky: Simple: (1) that this is a real problem. (2) Silence is compliance. (3) Your level of care and concern paints a picture for us of how much (or how little) your God cares about us… Evaluate yourself, connect with other people, and become active.

Boye: I think some sort of localized events or donation to something would be good. Some churches have media budgets, they could create content that can be shareable online.

Samara: Live in accordance with your faith. Read the Gospels and Micah. Learn how God has always shown dislike for unjust systems (like in the story of Abraham and Sarah, Egypt, etc). Share Christ’s love for the foreigner and for all people. You are called to be a light and spread a Gospel of hope, renewal, redemption, grace….you need to be these things in the world, and that means taking a stand against the injustices and sins that have taken root in our world. When you hear a cry for help or hear someone say they are being oppressed, you are called to listen and pray and act and stand for what is right. Work for justice, act in love, show mercy, be peacemakers, and grow in humility.

***

Further reading/listening if you sincerely want to learn:

*Conversations have been edited for length and clarity.

What other questions would you ask? What resources would you add to help more people gain clarity and empathy in our exploration of race, justice, and faith?

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One response to “Less Arguments, More Empathy: Hear people of color on Charlottesville, white supremacy, church, and hope

  1. We just saw a good documentary last night on the Oklahoma City bombing, and right-wing extremism in general. Notable is the fact that most white separatist groups flaunt a supposed Christianity, and attack anyone they hate as being non-Christian. I don’t consider myself an orthodox Christian (although I believe in many Christian principles), but sincere Christians really should be making more of an effort to distance themselves from these wackos, who smear Christianity as much as Muslim terrorists smear the Muslim faith. Too often I see “Christian” being linked with conservative, right-wing politics, which (in my opinion) is just halfway down the road to racist hate organizations.

    I’m one who believes that, if Jesus Christ were physically with us today, he would be a Liberal on most issues.

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