Urban Exile: The Silence of the Lambs
Why isn't the church talking about issues of race?

Stephen Colbert doesn't know his own race. The host of The Colbert Report, a satirical television news program on Comedy Central, claims to be colorblind, unable to discern his skin color. "People tell me I'm white," he said during one episode, "because I own a lot of Jimmy Buffet albums." The colorblind approach to race and racism makes for amusing television but is the height of na?vet? in real life. Yet for many churches this seems to be the preferred method of talking - or not talking - about all things related to race.

The beauty and peril of our diverse culture is impossible to miss. A quick snapshot reveals a president who shares a heritage with both Kenya and Kansas, a New York Post cartoon of a dead chimpanzee that stirs up memories of racist stereotypes, and teenage pop star Miley Cyrus photographed pulling back her eyes in an attempt to "look Asian." Stephen Colbert isn't the only TV personality who finds comedy in this racially charged atmosphere. Michael Scott, the hilariously insensitive manager of The Office, manages to repeatedly offend each of his diverse staff - no one is safe from his absurd stereotypes. A more nuanced primetime treatment of race can be seen on Lost where the island's castaways epitomize the global, ethnic, and class diversity and divisions of our day. In a society increasingly conscious of race and ethnicity, the silence of our churches grows more notable by the day.

Whatever the reason for our silence when it comes to race, the result is the same: increasing irrelevance in a culture schooled in diversity. How strange this must seem to a nation whose multi-ethnic population will soon eliminate any one racial majority. What does our ambivalence say when ethnic and class injustice appear in our neighborhoods or local news? The ability to speak to a generation raised within this milieu is compromised by our ongoing silence. In a culture that laughs at buffoons like Stephen Colbert and Michael Scott and sympathizes with the fantastically diverse cast of Lost, our silence may be the loudest voice of all.

With so much media and entertainment chatter around issues of race and racism, why do our churches struggle to join the conversation? (To be clear, there are churches - many African American congregations among them - whose contributions to racial awareness and justice have been many. I'm writing here about the mostly white churches of the evangelical tradition; churches that, in my experience, say very little about these issues.) It can't be that we don't care about issues of justice. The faithful care for the unborn has more recently been joined by an active concern for those suffering from extreme poverty and the AIDS pandemic. "Too heavenly minded to be any earthly good," is an accusation that rings hollow for most of us. So why the ambivalence about race and the ongoing racism experienced by many Americans?

April 20, 2009

Displaying 1–10 of 13 comments

Kim Whetstone

April 29, 2009  11:35pm

I believe what David is speaking of, correct me if I'm wrong, is conversation or "talk" that is real and leads to a deeper knowledge of God, one another, and our identity and purpose in and through Him as recipients and bearers of the Gospel. Talk is tiresome at times. It is exhausting and painful at times. However, when sinful Christians who are reconciled to God and learning to receive His grace and truth in all areas of their lives, including their brokenness, "talk" authentically and deeply, there is a chance for talk to become action. When this talking is done as an act of worship to God and out of love for one another, there is a chance for transformational action that is fueled by the Holy Spirit. Men and women or social agendas do not invent this authentic transforming action, but rather it is the act of God's creation (us) entering into God's work of redemption and reconciliation in the world around us-us seeking Shalom. It is here that we see justice as truly as we can on this side of heaven. These conversations do matter. Recently, my husband and I were invited to speak at a reputable Christian college about interracial relationships and the support of the body of Christ. Recalling our five-year journey to find a welcoming and theologically sound church was painful, but we found hope in company with people who were wiling to "talk." I think sometimes we can be so afraid of the title "racist" that we run away from the conversations, people, and places that God uses to uproot such sin from our souls. There is high value in acknowledging our sin, confessing, and repenting. Though I am reconciled to God through Christ, I am a sinner who needs God's grace daily, and I am still susceptible to all kinds of "–isms". These "-isms" can be uprooted if I am willing to listen to the voices of others and seek God's voice of truth and hope in the midst of all the pain and injustice.

Report Abuse

Chris (Jesdisciple)

April 27, 2009  2:31pm

*blushes* Sorry for the double post. I confused my self with the CAPTCHA.

Report Abuse

Chris (Jesdisciple)

April 27, 2009  1:35pm

Gregg's original comment resonates strongly with me. Talking about racism, or at least doing so the way it's usually done, mainly stirs up prejudice. The usual scenario is something like this: 1. Black person brings up the issue, often in a racist way. 2. White person responds by either promoting white supremacist ethics or calling out black person's racism. 3. Black person gets mad and summons political correctness, so any racism he might exhibit is taboo to mention. Between people who don't perform this dance, such discussion might be productive. Everyone else needs time to calm down.

Report Abuse

Chris (Jesdisciple)

April 27, 2009  1:34pm

Gregg's original comment resonates strongly with me. Talking about racism, or at least doing so the way it's usually done, mainly stirs up prejudice. The usual scenario is something like this: 1. Black person brings up the issue, often in a racist way. 2. White person responds by either promoting white supremacist ethics or calling out black person's racism. 3. Black person gets mad and summons political correctness, so any racism he might exhibit is taboo to mention. Between people who don't perform this dance, such discussion might be productive. Everyone else needs time to calm down.

Report Abuse

RDM

April 27, 2009  8:33am

This human desire to fix everything, racism for example, is the epitome of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the American religion. MTD is described elsewhere on the CT website. It is a false Christianity. Whatever the societal ill we are trying to fix, it's like taking aspirin for a brain tumor. It's treating the symptom while ignoring the disease. If you want to eradicate racism or end hunger or free the oppressed, PREACH THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST. All truly good and God-driven change will flow from that.

Report Abuse

Gregg

April 25, 2009  2:08pm

For David's information I live in a multiracial community and minister in a multiracial zip code and my daughter is in a great Christian bi-racial marriage. He is right, he doesn't know my experiences. I see racism and more important, the results of it every day. In my perspective well meaning white folks in the church talking about it hasn't done diddly squat since the 60's. It is time to stop focusing on race and start focusing on relationships and proclaiming Jesus.

Report Abuse

David Swanson

April 24, 2009  11:46am

Where to begin? I suppose the perspectives behind the first three comments are one of the reasons many churches remain silent on issues of race and racism. How representative of the evangelical world is SallyB's comment that discussions about race are equivalent to "hitting myself in the head with a hammer"? Or, as Greg states, do we just find the whole conversation "tiresome" and pointless since we supposedly live in a "post racial society"? I believe RDM represents the perspective of many white Christians when he writes, "All individual manifestations of righteousness, all positive changes to society will occur because people are reconciled to God." One one hand I completely agree: the hope of the world lies in the reconciling work of Christ's death and resurrection. However, history seems to indicate that Jesus-believing, Gospel-preaching, church-going people have often acted in ways unbecoming of those reconciled to God. In my view, racism in America is another one of those places where Christian people often don't live up to our identity as new creations in Christ. It would be terrific if those who confess Christ as Lord were at the forefront of racial reconciliation. Because this isn't the case, I'm not sure RDM's view adequately addresses the scope of the problem nor the immensity of the Gospel. I don't mean to demean any of those who have left comments. There are clearly stories and experiences that cause us to come at this conversation with vastly different opinions. My hope is that we- even the tired among us- will be willing to frankly address the ongoing divisions of race and class in our country and our churches and allow the Gospel of Jesus to radically change how we live. I remain convinced that the ongoing segregation of the American church will only increase our unattractiveness to an increasingly multi-ethnic culture.

Report Abuse

Shea

April 23, 2009  8:32pm

Every day, I am reminded that we are not living in a "post racial society". If you board a southbound train in downtown Chicago, about 90% of the riders are Black. If you board a northbound train, the proportion is reversed. This segregation is the result of careful planning by those with power. But the problem goes beyond the racial division, to the unequal distribution of benefits across these racial boundaries. These discrepancies extend to safety and education, the very things that we want to believe enable people to "pull themselves up by the bootstraps." Someone commented that "when we see racism [we should] speak to it," and this is exactly the reason that race must be a frequent topic of discussion. As long as systems exist that continue to deny people rights and privileges based on race, speaking to it must be a continuous conversation. Is this a painful process? Of course. We are confronting years of orchestrated, systemic abuse. But in avoiding the pain of this discussion, we would be ignoring oppression and pain. God calls us to "loose the chains of injustice" and "set the oppressed free." I agree that one of the best ways to begin this process of reconciliation is through friendship with people of other races. These relationships also provide an opportunity to discover the beauty of different heritages and cultures that extends beyond the oppression associated with race.

Report Abuse

Linda

April 23, 2009  6:01pm

The reason we keep talking about Race is there is still so much more to learn–some of it very basic! Recently, I was waiting for an IT tech to come and rescue me from my computer disaster. When he walked in, and fixed the mess, I said, "Thank you! You're the man!" I immediately felt embarrassed. I'm white, he is black. I think I would have made the same remark to anyone who would have saved me in that situation–but I wondered if I was influenced in my choice of words because of his skin color. I wish I would have stopped the conversation at that moment and asked if that was offensive to him. Did he hear it differently because it came from me to him than a white IT tech would have heard it? I don't know the answers 'cause we didn't talk! The odd thing about race relations–they are often like other relationships where we unthinkingly say and do things without considering the other person's perspective, history, or experience and we cause hurt or division. As people who want to love as Jesus loves, to pass on the Good News to those around us, we have to talk to everyone–parents, siblings, spouses, friends, co-workers, neighbors about our relationships so we can grow in understanding and unity in our uniquenesses. Is it tiresome? Or hard work? Yes! Do we always know our own hearts let alone others hearts? No! But, being in good, healthy families, marriages, friendships is worth it–we'd all agree. Being good co-workers is a high value. Learning to live well with others of different cultures and skin colors is just as important. I have a very dear friend who I really respect. Wise and courageous, she is a federal prosecuting attorney. Her long, beautiful hair is styled carefully in dread locks. I've heard her patiently answer her white friends puzzled questions–"How do you do your hair that way? What does it take to keep it so nice?" I don't know if inside she is rolling her eyes at us, but on the outside, she is talking–letting us in on a personal matter so we can better understand something as basic as how she does her hair. She is so gracious–I'm glad she is willing to answer questions from friends who are curious and who love her. I'm glad we're talking. How does this help the Gospel? As barriers come down, as misconceptions are addressed, as poor communication is acknowledged we are better able to love as Christ loved–not from a distance, but from up close, personal and real.

Report Abuse

Mark

April 22, 2009  8:58pm

I attended our local ministerial association recently. The topic was race relations, and as usual, the discussion was strictly black and white. To me, that wonversation was about 30 years too late. If the discussion doesn't include our Asian and Hispanic brethren, to me, it's irrelevant.

Report Abuse