I have heard tell of white (like me) pastoral colleagues who weary of conversation, reading, study, and calls to action when it comes to anti-racism work. Some note that they are already hard-pressed by The Pandemic and all its related complications. Some note that they have their hands full already with partisan political posturing without adding conversations about race to the mix. Some even suggest that since they have no people of color in their neighborhood or township or county, for them the conversation is beside the point.
In the spirit of Christian charity, I hope and am willing to concede that these responses may be the results of frustration and fatigue. I know in my own case, however, that frustration and fatigue do not create new thoughts in my head. Instead, they tend to lower my inhibitions, unfilter my words, and render me unfit for decent human company.
I am not throwing the first stone of judgment since I am freed from the slings and arrows of parish ministry in my retirement. But it is painful to hear that such conversations are taking place in the white, mainline pastoral guild.
If we strip away the superficial aspects of the complaint, the basic question is simple. What’s in it for me? Issues of racial justice don’t impact me and my ministry directly. I’m doing fine as I am. Why should I bother with this stuff when I have so many other things demanding my energy and attention?
Few of us would admit to such a jaundiced view out loud. But I have asked that question on many occasions as a pastor. I’m not proud of that admission, but it is no less true because of that.
The problem is, of course, that it is the wrong question. It is not the wrong question merely because it is so damned arrogant and selfish. It is the wrong question because it tacitly assumes that there is nothing “in it” for me as a white person to engage in conversation with Black and Brown and Asian people and their faith practices and traditions.
With a few exceptional moments, I have lived and worked that way for a lifetime. I am ashamed by my ignorance and grieved by what I have missed. The question presumes that if I am a white person with no connection to Black, Brown, or Asian people, that I am not missing anything. The question presumes that my whiteness is sufficient and self-sufficient. In fact, we White Christians are deficient and incomplete on our own and by ourselves.
Seventy-five percent of white Americans have no connections to Black, Brown, or Asian people in their lives – me included. The percentage is actually higher for White Christians. We who try to live as if Whiteness is enough have hollowed out our humanity almost beyond recognition.
That’s not a judgment merely on our white identities. It is, rather, contrary to a description of God’s intention for Creation. It is not good for us to be alone. We cannot be fully and authentically human and Christian if we whittle ourselves down to mere Whiteness.
I forget that fact almost every day. I settle for the little nub of humanity left when I limit myself to Whiteness. So, I’m grateful for the reminders that human life is about so much more. I’m grateful for the reminders that people with other experiences and social locations can enrich my life and I can enrich theirs, if only I will engage in the conversation as a partner and be willing to listen and learn.
I need to engage in anti-racism work and relationships not only out of love for neighbor. I am not in the position of all-powerful giver here. I need to engage in that work and those relationships out of love for self. If my vocation is to be fully and authentically human, then I dare not cut myself off from the resources God provides.
My most recent reminder of this reality is Esau McCauley’s book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. McCauley is assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, a priest in the Anglican Church in North American, and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.
McCauley did his doctoral work with N. T. Wright, and it pleases me to hear echoes of that relationship in his writing. But his work is no mere echo of a giant in the field of New Testament studies. McCauley is a careful and close reader of Christian and Hebrew scriptures, a careful thinker about biblical theology, and a clear-eyed interpreter of texts from an historic and contemporary Black perspective.
I don’t take McCauley as a representative of “Black theology” as a whole. That’s not the point and would be insulting to McCauley and to Black theology – a variegated and complex field (just like White theology). I do experience him reading scripture texts from a social position I cannot occupy. I can’t read the texts that way myself, but I can listen and learn and have my eyes and ears opened to new (at least to me) insights.
This is one reason to engage in such studies. I cannot live, read, think, or act out of a social location other than my own. How can I know what the larger world is really like if I am limited to my own understanding and experience? How can I be fully and authentically human if all I know is a small, cramped, and often not very attractive slice of that human experience?
Without the voices of Black, Brown, and Asian theologians, I am stuck with, as McCauley describes it, “a certain reading of American history that downplayed injustice and a gentleman’s agreement to remain largely silent on current issues of racism and systemic injustice” (page 11). I will no longer be content with such an anemic view of Reality.
The question I want us white pastor types to ask is this? What do I need in order to be a better Christian and more fully human? And one answer I want us to give is that we need to listen to and learn from our Black, Brown, and Asian sisters and brothers. We need to do that for a very long time, especially we white males who have called the shots for too long.
We White Christians need to continue to learn that faith and politics are separated only to maintain the privileged, powerful, and propertied in their places. Black Christians have not been saddled with the social quietism that is assumed to be The Truth in most of our White congregations. “How might Jesus’ words inform a theology of political witness of the church?” McCauley asks in a chapter about political engagement in the church. “Jesus shows that those Christians who have called out injustice are following,” he concludes, “in the footsteps of Jesus” (page 57).
We White Christians need to continue to hear and practice a vital and passionate engagement with Scriptural texts for our lives here and now. We need to remember that from our social location, we are going to hear things in the texts that will convict us and demand conversion. We need to remember that others will hear words of liberation and life in the same texts. If we do not listen to the other voices, we will end up with a “slaveholder’s canon” designed to underwrite our White supremacy. And we will continue to be God-awful boring.
In particular, we benefit from the constant reminder that God is not only a forgiver but a liberator. We benefit from the constant reminder that Jesus not only welcomes the little children but challenges the powers that be. We benefit from the constant reminder that salvation is not merely about individuals but is about systems and the restoration of all of Creation.
The topics McCauley addresses in his work are, by and large, areas I have not addressed in my preaching and study over the last forty years. My ministry, education, and understanding have been impoverished as a result. He outlines, for example, a New Testament theology of policing based on an examination of Romans 13 and Luke 3. This is a deep and sophisticated discussion that opened my eyes to new possibilities in the text.
As he comments on the Magnificat in Luke 1, he asks, “Is this not the hope of every Black Christian, that God might hear and save? That he might look upon those who deny us loans for houses or charge exorbitant interest rates in order to cordon us off into little pockets of poverty and say to them your oppression has been met with the advent of God?” (page 87).
As I read that, I was wishing that someone might have preached such a gospel to my father who loved farming so dearly but was forced by federal and state policies to leave the farm and work “in town.” McCauley, as a side effect of his comments, reminds us that poverty and injustice easily cross the Color Line. We need our Black, Brown, and Asian sisters and brothers to keep rubbing or White noses in that truth until we get it.
We desperately need other witnesses to remind us that racialized “colorblindness” (even of the Christian variety) is, after all, just blindness. “God’s vision for his people is not the elimination of ethnicity to form a colorblind uniformity of sanctified blandness,” McCauley writes (page 106). A colorblind uniformity of sanctified blandness – White colleagues, that’s what we have now.
“Instead,” he continues, “God sees the creation of a community of different cultures united by faith in his Son as a manifestation of the expansive nature of his grace. This expansiveness is unfilled unless the differences are seen and celebrated,” McCauley concludes, “not as ends unto themselves, but as particular manifestations of the power of the Spirit to bring forth the same holiness among different peoples and cultures for the glory of God” (pages 106-107).
I am certain that McCauley and I would disagree about any number of textual, theological, and social issues. That’s the good news. My education is deficient, and my training is incomplete without such conversation. “What I have in mind then,” McCauley writes, “is a unified mission in which our varied cultures turn to the text in dialogue with one another to discern the mind of Christ” (page 22).
That’s one reason why we White Christians need to do this work. I thank God for the chance to be a partner in such a convicting and generative conversation.