For some Christians, crisis situations like Ferguson stir in us a sense that we should take some sort of action. Should we talk about this at church on Sunday? At least say a prayer? We don’t want to take sides or get too political, but maybe acknowledge what’s happening? But once the crisis is over, what ongoing action is taken? And more importantly, how is the value being walked out, lived in, taught on, trained, and integrated into the community? How is it being addressed systemically and organizationally when there isn’t a crisis?
Typically is is not being addressed at all.
HOLDING A VALUE
We love to hold a value for multi-ethnicity, but we don’t actually want to do much more than that. We look around and feel good because we can count a few ethnic minorities in the room. We have a few “social justice” types and “race minded” types and feel good. Essentially we do just enough to alleviate guilt so that we can stroke our egos and say “Yes! We are not like those ignorant Christians over there. We hold the value.”
Holding a value for multi-ethnicity is the equivalent of being willing to do something “in your heart”. Whenever I teach the section of Scripture where Jesus says “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” Almost everyone comes back with, “He doesn’t mean actually do it. You just have to be willing to in your heart. You just have to be willing to, if he asks you.”
This argument is weak sauce.
Imagine if I saw my husband hooking up with some other woman in a bar. Of course I’m pissed and so I confront him. “What do you think you’re doing? Are you cheating on me?” And he answers, “Erna, don’t get so excited. I am cheating on you, but in my heart I would be willing to be faithful, if you asked. So it’s cool. I totally hold a value for fidelity, in my heart.”
Obviously this response would not work. I don’t care what values he holds or can articulate. I am interested in him living out these values in practical actions that I can see EVERYDAY. I don’t give a crap about what is “in his heart” if he doesn’t keep it “in his pants.”
So lets loop it back to all of us multi-ethnicity value holding people. What are we doing to actually live the value? Are we addressing systemic issues? I work for a para-church organization and everyone who works here has to raise their own financial support. There is a great post that elaborates on the ethnic bias of this model.
Working with Black Campus Ministries I can attest to this reality both anecdotally and through the sum of 15 years of watching the majority of potential African American staff fail to make it into the ministry. It is not for lack of gifting, passion, character, or sense of call. It’s the pool of donors that they have to draw from. It’s the financial resources of their networks and home church. When I came on staff I could lean into my parents to cover me in emergencies while I lived on my $800 a month salary. But what if I hadn’t had that? Not all our African American students come from lower income families- but some do. Like me, many are first generation college graduates. Our model exhausts them. This year I supervised a young White woman who got fully funded for ministry in 6 months of fundraising. I know veteran Black staff that haven’t been fully funded after 8 years in this ministry.
Throwing more money at it can help, but it isn’t enough. There is an entire system that needs to be addressed. But there is no crisis to draw attention to these issues, just the slow ongoing attrition of potentially amazing spiritual leaders that couldn’t raise their budget. There is no crisis that addresses who is not in the room. There is no front page headline that forces us to see the ethnic minorities who tried to be a part of our communities, but grew exhausted from being isolated, or by being everybody’s “first Black friend,” or disheartened that they were the only ones ringing the bell for change. There is no news camera for rooms of Christian leaders that stay painfully mono-ethnic. There is no march for Christians that are painfully uninterested in the systemic dehumanizing of those who bear the image of Christ in the form of young Black men. There is just heart and soul numbing comfort in being able to say- we hold the value.
ANGER IN THE FAMILY
The only crisis that does happen in our circles is that sometimes someone gets angry. Sometimes an ethnic minority person gets fed up with the pace of change, gets tired of being token. They get tired of being the reason everybody feels good about themselves. And one of two things happens. All the nice Christians panic- “Ahhhh someone is angry at me. Let me sooth them as quickly as possible. Not because I really hear what they are saying. It’s just that my ego is terribly uncomfortable with this anger. So lets make it stop.” Or they get dismissed. “ You’re just an angry ethnic person. You are irrational, reactive, not mature in Christ and lacking in self control. I don’t have to listen to you.”
This response makes me crazy.
Here’s another scenario from my marriage. I can speak with a pretty harsh tone when I’m angry. And this really bothers my husband, understandably. When I’m hurt or bothered I don’t speak vulnerable, my voice gets very focused and intense. So after several fights that didn’t go that well, I agreed that I would try to use a more gentle tone of voice in certain situations.
So I tried to implement the new model. I used a gentle voice asking him to change something that was frustrating me. Over the course of a couple days I asked nicely three times. And then I got pissed. And so I asked in my anger voice. And then he got mad… hadn’t I agreed not to use that tone of voice? Yes. But he wasn’t keeping his end of the bargain- to respond when I used my nice voice. He can’t demand nice voice and then take no action. If he only responds to anger voice, then that’s the one I’m going to use.
Back to multi-ethnic community. When someone gets angry, it gets read back onto them. That person is at fault for being angry. But what if another tone of voice hasn’t worked or brought change? Then maybe anger is the appropriate response. My friend Terrance wrote a great post on the appropriate place of rage in Christian spirituality and reconciliation. We have narrowed the scope of Christianity to one that is about niceness, and hence anger always seems inappropriate. Sorry- that’s not my Jesus and that’s not my Christianity. Sometimes anger is the only response that makes any sense.
Real reconciliation responds to crisis but isn’t driven by it. Real racial reconciliation goes beyond just assuaging guilt- it is proactive, prophetic, and well-led change. It does not depend on the anger of Black people, or the pain of Latino people to drive it. There is a commitment that does not require that minorities stoke the flame by being the ongoing agitators or voice of descent. Many nice Christian leaders “value muti-ethnicity” but are mostly concerned that nobody is mad at them.
When I speak about this issue, most leaders dismiss me by saying that I don’t understand the complexity of ministry. I understand that people leading communities and churches are juggling a lot of values. I’m not saying multi-ethnicity should be the sole value. I’m saying that it should be an integrated value. When we plan outreach events, evangelism, church retreats, leadership trainings- do we bring a lens to multi-ethnicity?
The Kingdom of God is a complex place. Jesus manages to express multiple values at the same time. He didn’t compartmentalize the Kingdom the way that we do. Somehow Jesus managed to combine racial reconciliation, evangelism, gender reconciliation, inner healing, leadership development, and mission into a single relationship- his interaction with the Samaritan woman in John 4.
We have to take initiative even without crisis. We settle for having people in the room or bodies on the margins. Should someone actually voice anger and frustration we try to quiet and sooth as quickly as possible without any real self -examination, and without any real change.
It has been six weeks since the murder of Michael Brown. What are you doing to proactively lead your Christian community into engaging real change? What are you settling for now that the crisis is over? Will it take another murder, another round of protests, for you to look around in surprise wondering- “Oh, is that still happening?”
It matters as much, if not more, what we do now.