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We are the Powerful – Race and Power in the Church

It is in many ways unfair for me to speak about issues of race and power. I have a college degree. I practice Christianity. I have a thin body. I have white skin. In our culture, I am a woman of power. Power is a complicated and loaded word. Today I will define power in terms of personal privilege: I can assume that in most situations I will enter into a room knowing I will receive attention, respect, assistance, and to a varying degree, I can get what I want, because of the qualities I possess.

That said, I feel I must speak. The recent deaths of Eric Gardner, Michael Brown, John Crawford III and Tamir Rice have reminded our country of the lingering presence of racial inequality and I am challenged with how to respond. I am saddened by the loss of life, the perpetuation of racism, and I feel powerless. Especially because I practice a way of life modeled after Christ who proclaimed that love always conquers death.

I suppose I could join a protest, grab a microphone and speak out against the murders. I see many churches acting this way and I applaud their desire to speak out against violence and be witness to compassion. However, I worry that these actions risk missing the root of the problem in the way that they are addressing these flashpoints of violence rather than the underlying power dynamic that perpetuates this problem. Some may argue that something is better than nothing but in this case, I am not sure. I believe that the paltry “somethings” the church has done for years has actually allowed people of faith to perpetuate existing power structures.  The current violence cannot be addressed in isolation but must be a call to align our way of addressing power and race through the example of Christ.

Commission on Racial Understanding Leadership Team in the Diocese of Ohio - A Group Seeking to Address the Root Causes of Racism
Commission on Racial Understanding Leadership Team in the Diocese of Ohio – A Group Seeking to Address the Root Causes of Racism

Church’s Current Relationship with Race and Power

For years the Christian faith has promoted half-solutions that keep us, the (white) people of power, in power. We provide just enough food so black kids are fed but we don’t fully address the hunger problem by arguing for living wages. We take time to tutor one child that “had it rough” rather than using our collective voices to promote policies that develop healthy and vibrant schools in all neighborhoods. We donate old clothes to the poor, never stopping to ask ourselves why we need to make such a large income that allows us to accumulate extra but others to scrape by on with not enough. We, through our paltry attempts at charity, create a world in which we have power in the dominant systems.

As a result of these actions we have created a system in which a person of color is living in, as Dr. King described, a different America. In this America only 52% of black men graduate high school compared to 78% of white men, 66% of black families live in poverty compared to 26% of white families, 1/15 black men go to prison compared to 1/106 white men. Instead of looking at each shooting, each crime, each dropout as an instance to be solved independently, we must acknowledge that we live in two countries.

The presence of two Americas is in complete contrast to the way of Christ that promotes equality and through, raising the humble and humbling the powerful. I hate to break it to us white America but, we are the powerful. Christ actively addressed the problem of societal power by choosing to spend time with people rejected by the powerful. He partied with prostitutes, conversed with women, dined with the outcast, touched the untouchable and portrayed heaven as a feast to be attended by the most lowly. His life declared that our sin, our way of separating people for the sake of holding onto power, must go.

Sadly, our church is not following in the example of Christ. In mainline protestant churches 90% of attendees are white. The internal policies favor white communities, clergy salaries are directly tied to the monetary wealth of their constituents and the regional church offices require an assessment fee to be paid by all churches in their area and the inability to pay these fees often leads to churches of color being neglected. Rather than creating a beloved community of Christians that promotes equality and offers the world an alternative to their power structures we have created a community of faith that mirrors the sin of the world.

Sin is an uncomfortable word because we associate it with confession and guilt. However we must overcome this aversion because our current situation is directly linked to sin. Sin, as a noun can be thought of as any actions, thoughts, or choices that are contrary to the unifying love of God. I identify sin in my life by noticing actions that cause me to feel separate from myself, others, creation, or God.

Participants at Work during "Begin the Conversation" at the Diocese of Ohio
Participants at Work during “Begin the Conversation” at the Diocese of Ohio

The good news is that Christ, the incarnation of God’s love on earth, offers us an example of life in which good overcomes hatred, light overcomes darkness, and love overcomes sin. Over the past month I have been working in the Diocese of Ohio with their Commission on Racial Understanding (CRU) to support them in facilitating conversations within parishes across the Diocese around race. Together we put together a session at the Diocesan Convocation that offered people to talk about the racial inequality that is behind the recent deaths of Eric, Tamir, Michael and John. We looked at the way Christ interacted with the oppressed in his day and sought guidance in how we could move forward. These are the suggested outcomes that we got from the work together.

Adjusting Our Relationship to Race and Power

Begin With Conversation in Our Congregations

The first desire that came out of our small groups was for conversations within their home parishes/congregations. The first and foremost creating a space where we can learn more about racial inequality and begin to name our part in racial inequality. There are so many of us who know we need to change, we just don’t know how to heal the divide. There are also Christians that are unaware of the desperate need to address racial inequality. We must begin by owning acknowledging our questions, naming our sin and seeking grace as a people. In doing so our broken places will be met with the healing love of Christ and we can be the church, Christ’s redeemed body here on earth today.

Build Relationships with the Oppressed

Christ strove to connect with people whose experiences were different than his: the Samaritan, the lepers, the Roman soldiers.  Christians can mirror this commitment by seeking to be in relationship, rather than ‘fix,’ people living in oppression. At the convocation a few participants suggested ideas for how these relationships could begin: arranging storytelling workshops, hosting potluck suppers, identifying sister parishes. These forums allow for us to bear witness to the difference and similarities in our lives and our hopes for the world. While it can be uncomfortable to hear about the struggle experienced by one another it is an essential step in building relationships of respect, mutuality, and equality in our world today. It can be helpful to remember that hearing stories is about bearing witness to the truth of some one’s experience, not removing or erasing pain.

Work Together for Justice

Finally, we talked about addressing the root causes of racial inequality by working to create a just and equal society. This work can develop in the context of the relationships built with our brothers and sisters who are facing oppression. Rather than trying to accomplish his mission of reconciliation alone Christ worked with twelve people, from all walks of life, to build a team who could change the world. He believed in the power of the collective and built a diverse community of friends committed to his way.

We can follow Christ by building leadership teams that are not made up solely of our own church members but are diverse and inclusive of people inside and outside of our church congregation. Specifically, we can look for ways to work alongside people of color rather than trying to help people of color. Instead of using our power to solve a problem we can share our power by hosting leadership development training and engaging our community as co-creators of a solution.

Celebrating the close of the session with Charles, one of the co-facilitators and a member of CRU.
Celebrating the close of the session with Charles, one of the co-facilitators and a member of CRU.

Join Us in Creating a Community of Reconciliation

I lift up the work of the Diocese of Ohio as an example of a Diocese seeking to part of lasting healing. They are currently developing a more detailed path that gets us from conversation to relationship and finally, to action.

The church is not a building, it is the mystical and corporal body of Christ. It is not defined by a steeple but rather people reaching out to one another in love. I yearn for a church that so deeply loves this world that they will do the work required for justice. I yearn for a church that has conversation that matters, strives to work in partnership rather than isolation and acknowledges our sin for the sake of love.

Almighty God, who created us in your image: Grant us
grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace
with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom,
help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our
communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy
Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with
you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen

 

Thank you to Sarah Dropek and Dylan Sellars for your contributions to this piece.

Featured Image from: From – http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2267/2503232332_7491c708d1.jpg

4 thoughts on “We are the Powerful – Race and Power in the Church

  1. Wow, fantastic piece! Glad to read what you have to say about the issue.
    In retro, perhaps we might have given more input for their discussion. But perhaps it was good to let them express their own thoughts first.
    Anyway, congratulations on this page and the work you have done for us.
    Fr. Mac

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    • Fr Mac, thank you! Let’s keep thinking about how to adapt that material to highlight these issues but it was our work that helped see some of what I write about in the piece … That’s how the spirit works I guess, always revealing more if we are willing.

      Like

  2. […] This Sunday I had the joy of being their guest preacher and shared a short reflection on the importance of what it means to maintain and respond to spiritual perspective in our lives.  It’s tempting to focus our lives on how others should respond to God’s presence without thinking about how we need to change our personal or institutional to address separation from God. This reflection focused on the importance of seeking out how we were called to change in order to offer a holy witness to the world:  https://nataliefinstad.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/seeing-the-presence-of-god.m4a The reflection specifically refers to the Church’s need to address the institutional challenge… […]

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  3. […] In the current context of Christianity in the United States, these aspects of following Jesus feel distant. Following Jesus has often become synonymous with participation in  institutions that legitimize the power of unjust structures rather than movements that challenge the very fiber of this world. We assume that those who earned their religious authority through academic degrees are the ones through whom God will speak. And, rather than stand on the side of the oppressed, all too often the church (especially the white church) avoids suffering and stays comfortable in our seat of power. […]

    Like

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