Having Better Conversations About Race

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The best book about racial justice I’ve read this year isn’t about racial justice at all; it’s about climate change. More precisely, Saving Us is about how to talk about climate change with people who aren’t all that interested in talking about climate change.

Some of us are looking forward to visiting family and friends next week, maybe for the first time in a long time. As is often the case when people who don’t regularly see each other gather around a table piled high with food and drink, it’s likely that some interesting conversations may present themselves. In fact, one of the requests I most often hear made of white people by our friends of color is that we would show up to these tables ready for challenging conversations. After all, it’s one thing to speak up for racial justice when surrounded by like-minded friends but the real test of our solidarity shows up around Thanksgiving tables and Christmas trees.

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is a leading atmospheric scientist and the Chief Scientist for The Nature Conservancy. She’s also a Christian. In Saving Us she points out that “climate change used to be a respectably bipartisan issue.” It’s only been within the past ten years that polarization has set the tone for how we talk – or don’t – about climate change. This observation reminded me of some recent conversations with pastors. Many of these clergy feel as though the ground has shifted beneath their feet and that the biblical themes of unity and justice they could previously preach and teach about are now fraught with partisan tension. This isn’t to say that churches, white churches especially, have a good track record when it comes to these subjects, just that those who have been willing to engage are finding their task increasingly difficult.

Hayhoe wants us to look more closely at this polarization. While some paint the so-called climate deniers with a broad brush, she sees a more nuanced spectrum from the most concerned about climate change to the least. All of these groups, she points out, can be engaged with. For each there are effective ways to begin the conversation about what we can do about a changing climate. It’s only at the the farthest end of the spectrum that we find those who are totally dismissive of climate change. “A Dismissive is someone who will discount any and every thing that might show climate change is real, humans are responsible, the impacts are serious, and we need to act now. In pursuit of that goal, they will dismiss hundreds of scientific experts, thousands of peer-reviewed scientific studies, tens of thousands of pages of scientific reports, and two hundred years of science itself.” And while the Dismissives “dominate the comment section of online articles and the op-ed pages of the local newspaper,” they only make up 7% of the population. Hayhoe’s advice? Ignore the seven-percenters; they are purposefully antagonistic and derive core parts of their identity from their denials.

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The good news is that this leaves 93% of people available to talk with about climate change. That’s a lot of people! The connections for those of us pursuing racial justice are obvious. I sometimes get asked about how to engage with people who deny the existence of racism or who become hostile when the topic is raised. My advice: don’t waste your time trying to reach that person. Partly this has to do with how Dismissives are unlikely to change their minds, but mostly I’m thinking about the many people who are open. By refusing to get sucked into endless debates with a small percentage of people we can pay attention to all of the people who, while not actively advocating for justice, are at least open to learning and growing.

And how do we engage with all of those people? This is where Hayhoe is especially brilliant. Most of the book is packed with ideas and anecdotes about having good conversations about the polarizing topic of climate change. She begins by suggesting that difficult conversations should start with the values we share in common. These values might include the places we live, the things we love to do, the people we love, and what we believe. Take that last one for example. “If Christians truly believe,” writes Hayhoe, “we’ve been given responsibility – “dominion” – over every living thing on this planet, as it says at the very beginning of Genesis, then we won’t only objectively care about climate change. We will be at the front of the line demanding action because it’s our God-given responsibility to do so. Failing to care about climate change is a failure to love. What is more Christian than to be good stewards of the planet and love our global neighbor as ourselves?” Rather than starting with data and facts, the key is to move from “who we are to why we care.”

So, why do you care about racial justice? For some of us the answer is obvious- our lives are visibly devastated by racism and white supremacy. For others of us though, the answer is less blatant. If you are white, how do you talk about why justice and reconciliation matters to you? How do talk about justice so that it intersects with the values of your conversation partner?

If we’re not thoughtful about these shared values, our conversations can quickly tip toward fear and guilt. When our conversation partners begin to feel either of these emotions, they begin to suspect that we simply want to win a debate or are trying to prove our moral superiority. Whatever the response, the conversation is stopped cold in its tracks. Now people feel like they have to defend themselves, oftentimes by attacking your motives.

To avoid these common conversational pitfalls, Hayhoe makes three suggestions. First, we need to understand the reality we’re describing. It’s important to be able to describe why climate change – or systemic racism – should be deeply worrying to everyone. For example, what will you say when your uncle, wiping the crumbs from his lips after dinner on Thursday, opines that the verdict from Kenosha yesterday had nothing to do with race? Second, while accurate information is important, we also need to be ready to talk about how we can make a positive impact. We are wired for solutions and forward movement. Be ready to articulate to your conversation partners why we need their participation in the struggle against injustice. Finally, to counteract guilt and fear, we need to be able to offer a redemptive pathway forward. Here Hayhoe sounds a bit like a preacher. “So how do we move beyond fear or shame? By acting from love.” It is our love for those whose minds we hope to change which allows us to share a hopeful vision which includes them. And once a person can imagine themselves in that hopeful future – a future where the climate has stabilized, where justice rolls down – they might be willing to take steps toward that future.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of all this book has to offer those who regularly find themselves in difficult conversations. To those of us tempted to opt out, to surround ourselves with people who already agree with us about racial justice (or climate change), Saving Us is challenge and a roadmap. Don’t bail now! The stakes are too high. There are creative and productive ways to have these conversations. This is especially true for those of us who are white. Remember please, our friends and colleagues of color don’t have the option to step away from this stuff. Refusing to walk away can be an act of loving solidarity. And as long as we’re going to have them, lets learn to have these difficult conversations really well.

(Photo credit: cottonbro.)

Can You Lead Where You’ve Not Been? I Sure Hope So!

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I often find myself in conversations with ministry leaders who want to lead their (generally) white congregations toward greater solidarity with the wider Body of Christ. They’ve come to see how their non-engagement on issues of racial justice has been a tacit approval of the status quo and they’re ready to move in a different direction.

These leaders have already answered the why question about the Christian responsibility to pursue reconciliation and justice; now they’re asking how. How do we disciple people toward Christian solidarity? How do we address the partisan, ideological, and racial formation that has so thoroughly impacted us? How do we simultaneously engage the convinced and the skeptical, the justice warriors and the CRT-phobics?

These questions are so important, even if the answers will be highly contextual. How we answer the how questions should vary depending on the particularities of our communities and congregations. Accepting this, it’s still a struggle for many of us to imagine the answers to our questions. I think I know why.

My dad was a pilot-mechanic. Before ever getting into his small Cessna airplane he would always thoroughly check to make sure everything was as it should be. After every few hundred hours of service, he would take the airplane apart, examining closely every piece of the airframe and engine to be sure they were functioning properly. Finding any part slightly worn, my dad would promptly service it. He wanted to have complete confidence in his aircraft before taking to the skies.

In rather dramatic contrast to my dad’s meticulous precision, those of us engaged in the work of rediscipling white Christians are putting the plane together mid-flight. We don’t have the ability to get everything right and screwed down tight before taking off; we’ve been in the air for quite some time already!

And not only are we building as we fly, to set aside the metaphor for now, we’re building something we’ve not experienced ourselves. Leaders are often told not to lead people where they have not gone themselves. But in a way, this is what we’ve been forced to do. Because the places of congregational worship and theological education did not prepare us to disciple people away from worldly patterns of racism and supremacy, we find ourselves inviting people to follow us into a pretty dense fog.

This, I think, is why we struggle to answer our questions about how to move forward. We’re doing our best to imagine something we haven’t seen. We’ve not been discipled in these areas ourselves, even as we are convinced that discipleship is the essential way to reconciliation and justice.

Let me suggest two potentially helpful responses to the sobering situation we find ourselves in. First, simply noticing what we’re up against and what we lack to do this work is important. There are good reasons we get confused and turned around. Second, just because we’ve never seen this sort of discipleship before doesn’t mean it hasn’t existed for a very long time. It’s just existed beyond the interest of most white Christians. For myself, the majority of my imagination for this work has come from spending time in African American ministry contexts. This is where I’ve seen women and men spiritually formed to resist racial injustice – systemically and personally – as followers of Jesus. Granted, the application of what we learn in these communities will have to be thought through carefully as we bring these lessons to bear in majority white spaces. Thankfully, though, the Holy Spirit seems more than willing to animate what has been life giving in what part of the Body in a different part.

I’m curious about what you think. Does my analysis of what we’re up against – building as we fly, a tremendous lack of imagination – ring true? And what about the helpfulness of these two responses, understanding why this work is so difficult and learning from those who’ve been at it far longer than many of us have? Are there others you’d suggest to us?

(Photo credit: Alexandr Podvalny.)

Know Your Divisions

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Yesterday afternoon I was talking with a couple of friends who both serve churches in small Midwestern towns. They are thoughtful and humble leaders in their communities and I learn something every time we catch up. This conversation turned to divisions- the ones within congregations and the larger cultural ones which isolate Christians from one another. I can’t say we figured anything out – we’re working on it! – but I found myself encouraged just to hear other clergy, in contexts quite different from my own, wondering about similar difficult things.

These days it’s rare to go very long without hearing about divisions. They come in some predictable flavors: political, regional, cultural, and so one. Some of us have experienced these divides in our own families; we’ve been pushed apart by ugly partisanship. For my part, not surprisingly, I’m interested in how racism and white supremacy have long divided American Christians.

As I listen to these conversations and commentaries, I’ve come to think that there are different types of divisions. They are not all cut from the same cloth. When we lump them together though, we end up engaging these distinct forms with the same tools. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but here are the three types of divisions I’ve observed along with the different tools we might consider engaging them with.

Let’s call the first type of division the good faith disagreement. This one shows up between Christians who’ve come to their convictions through biblical and theological reflection, rooted in particular traditions. Take for example the Christian who hears in Scripture an emphasis on individual responsibility, repentance, and salvation. In discussion with a different Christian who prioritizes biblical themes of community and solidarity, we could reasonably expect some strong disagreement. While that disagreement could lead to division, it certainly doesn’t have to. Picking up the tool of humble discussion could lead both of our hypothetical Christians to read the Bible more holistically. (Full disclosure: I’m the second person – “The Bible is written to a community!” – who’s been helped over the years by conversations with friends who remind me not to lose sight of the unique value of each individual.)

I think the second type of division results from a lack of spiritual formation. In our conversation yesterday, I shared that I get discouraged when Christians don’t seem interested in God’s gift of reconciliation across cultural hostilities and divisions. Many of us simply don’t want it. And while there might be lots of reasons for this lack of desire, one of them is certainly the lack of spiritual formation.

I’m convinced that many Christians, white Christians especially, have been discipled in congregations where there was no expectation at all for reconciliation. There was nothing strange or troubling about cultural and ideological homogeneity. These Christians bring this lack of formation with them to the difficult conversations of our day. And we can look for this lack of formation if we’re paying attention. Take, for example, the debates about immigration reform. I’ve observed the work of friends at World Relief for close to fifteen years and I’ve seen how much of the push-back they receive comes from Christians who aren’t familiar with how God commanded his people to treat the stranger and the foreigner.

Once we notice this formation gap, we can engage this type of division more intentionally. If the first type invites discussion, this second kind requires discipleship. To stick with immigration as our example, we could invite the Christian friend who is unfamiliar with the relevant biblical passages to study some of those with us. We could ask them to read a book like Welcoming the Stranger, Christians at the Border, or Detained and Deported. The key is to remember that this person hasn’t had the opportunity to understand how Scripture speaks to certain difficult issues, much less how Christians over the generations have wrestled with these things. If a lack of spiritual formation led to the division, then discipleship is the way to engage it.

The last type of division, I’ll call it entrenched ideology, is the most difficult one for me. Unlike the previous type, this person knows the Bible (and maybe a bunch of theology), but their commitments are ideological. Their allegiance to a partisan clique outweighs any commitment to the Christians outside of it. They are aware that many of their Christian kin do not share their privilege or perspective, yet their adherence to ideological orthodoxy keeps them from expressing curiosity or care for those sisters and brothers.

In here recent book about climate change, Saving Us, Katharine Hayhoe writes about the different kinds of people who aren’t actively working to cool our warming planet. Most of these, Hayhoe believes, can be convinced to join the fight by finding places where our values overlap. But there is one group, the Dismissives, whose arguments she thinks can safely be ignored. She writes, “For a Dismissive, disagreeing with the science of climate change is one of their strongest frames. It’s so integral to who they are that it renders them literally incapable of considering something they think would threaten their identity.”

It’s the identity part that makes this type of division so difficult. And while I can’t quite write this group off, I agree with Dr. Hayhoe that it requires a pretty direct response: evangelism. I don’t mean to say that these Christian ideologues aren’t actually Christian, but at some point we have to take seriously the allegiances they so publicly display. We have to believe them when they reveal the sources of their identities. When we engage this type of division, perhaps we ought to do so as evangelists, alerting our interlocutors to the good news of the God who gives each of us a new identity… and a new family.

Those are the three common divisions I’ve been noticing: good faith disagreement, lack of spiritual formation, and entrenched ideology. Discussion, discipleship, and evangelism are some of the tools that might allow us to engage more effectively. What about you? What are the types of division you’ve experienced? Have you found helpful ways to engage with those on the other side of the divide?

(Photo: Markus Spiske)

Deliver Me From Fear of Their Fear

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“I’ve made the decision that I would rather be on the journey with others, problematic as they may be, than be utterly alone yet content in my righteousness.” I saw myself when I read this sentence in Justin Phillip’s new book, Know Your Place. Maybe I should say that I saw in Phillip’s commitment one of the pervasive tensions I experience in the ministry of reconciliation. It has felt especially taut lately.

I spent a long weekend this summer as the speaker at a Christian camp here in the Midwest. I knew little ahead of time about those who attend this camp though I assumed, given the context, that for many of these women and men racial reconciliation and justice might be more of an abstraction than a regular experience. I wanted to encourage the campers to see Christian unity across cultural and racial lines of division as a gift God intends for all of us, no matter how diverse or homogeneous our settings.

While there were some that weekend who seemed encouraged by this theme and others who, despite their wariness about my motives, enthusiastically engaged with me between sessions, my impression was that many of those in attendance were disappointed by my choice of topic. That might be putting it mildly.

In hindsight I can see some of my missteps that weekend. I had assumed, for example, a generally positive disposition toward the church’s identity as a reconciling people even if the more specific edges of that mission might be debated or even resisted. And I missed the extent to which current cultural arguments about Critical Race Theory have made their way into local congregations. For some at this camp, any mention of justice or race provoked concerns about creeping partisan ideologies. I should have done my research!

In spite these blunders, my time with these three hundred white Christians was a blunt reminder about the deeply held and, from my vantage point, unhelpful assumptions many white Christians have about racial justice and reconciliation. Thought I might have mitigated it slightly, it’s not as though the push-back I experienced would have been eliminated if I had simply chosen my words more carefully or piled up more biblical references. I’ve learned this lesson from Dr. Brenda Salter-McNeil who, as she has written about, discovered that no amount of good exegesis or phenomenal preaching will move those who are content with the racial status quo. Rather than holding to the possibility of a counter-cultural witness to the gospel via a more racially reconciled church, these suggestions appear as a threat requiring a forceful defense.

About halfway through the long weekend, I was reporting by phone to my wife about some of the more animated feedback I’d received. “I guess you won’t be going back there,” she chuckled. Leaving aside the unlikelihood of a return invitation, the truth is that I would return. Though they might squirm at the characterization, I saw myself in my weekend detractors. It was easy to imagine how, given different circumstances, I might express the same suspicious and instincts.

On the trip home I found myself, like Phillips, wanting the possibility of companionship with these men and women more than the isolation that comes with caressing my own self righteousness. But this desire quickly gets complicated when I read something like this in Zadie Smith’s collection of essays written in the early days of the pandemic.

Patient zero of this particular virus stood on a slave ship four hundred years ago, looked down at the sweating, bleeding, moaning mass below deck and reverse-engineered an emotion – contempt – from a situation that he, the patient himself, had created. He looked at the human beings he had chained up and noted that they seemed to be the type of people who wore chains. So unlike other people. Frighteningly unlike! Later, in his cotton fields, he had them whipped and then made them go back to work and thought, They can’t possible feel as we do. You can whip them and they go back to work. And having thus placed them in a category similar to the one in which we place animals, he experienced the same fear and contempt we have for animals. Animals being both subject to man and a threat to him simultaneously.

Using the language of contagion we’ve grown accustomed to as of late, Smith describes racism as a virus which infects white people with a sense of superiority while causing others to appear unlike us, animal-like and threatening. And it’s here, when the evil we’re up against is articulated so plainly, that the tension snaps. After all, what does it mean to journey with those who not only deny this candid history and our active role in it, but who will deny the harm inflicted on our sisters and brothers by this history and its tentacle-like reach into the present?

I too want to choose companionship with “problematic” people over smug righteousness. (Of course, many of these same people view me as the problematic one.) I wonder though, can such a thing be done without agreeing to the lies – about history, ourselves, and those we’ve imagined as unlike ourselves – which scaffold white assumptions and imaginations? Is there any scenario in which I could show up at that weekend camp, having better prepared myself, with a message of reconciliation and justice and told these Christian sisters and brothers the whole truth? Without their retreat to defensiveness? Without my retreat to deception? I’m confessing to you that I’m having a hard time imagining such a scenario. The tension stretches past the point my imagination can bear.

I recently finished a collection of Dorothy Day’s writings. In one essay she reflects on the fear she felt while visiting Koinonia Farm, an interracial community in Georgia which suffered regular attacks during that Jim Crow era. One night a car she and another member of the community were sitting in while on sentry duty was shot at. About this racist violence and the fear it inspired, Day shared her simple prayer. “Deliver me from fear of their fear,” I prayed as I listened, using the words of St. Peter which had been part of the Epistle of last Sunday’s Mass, thinking of the hysterical fear of guilty whites, fear of the past, of the future.”

Day was writing at a time when white southerners were violently acting on their fears of racial integration and equality. We don’t have to compare our day to hers in order to apply her prayer to our own experiences. Today white fear is expressed with claims of reverse racism, beliefs that critical race theory is more threatening than white supremacy, and appeals to a nostalgic national memory. In any case, I’ve come to believe that behind much of antagonism expressed by my would-be companions lies this old fear.

This week a friend reminded me of a passage about white fear in Eddie Glaude’s Begin Again, a book-length reflection on how James Baldwin remains essential to understanding our racialized society. Glaude writes,

In critical moments of transition, when it seems as if old ways of living and established norms are fading, deep-seated fears emerge over loss of standing and privilege… In these moments, the country reaches the edge of fundamental transformation and pulls back out of a fear that a genuine democracy will mean white people will have to lose something- that they will have to give up their particular material and symbolic standing in the country. That fear, Baldwin understood, is at the heart of the moral psychology of the nation and of the white people who have it by the throat. That fear, not the demand for freedom, arrests significant change and organizes American life.

Would my white sisters and brothers, the ones who are suspicious of and at times antagonistic toward attempts at racial justice, admit to this fear? Would they agree that the heat produced by many of the partisan and ideological battles reveal what is actually at stake? That the fight is less about school board policies, federal legislation, and which party is in power today and more about an existential sense of loss?

I don’t know, but I’m curious. Can we imagine spaces where we’re invited to speak to the experience of loss? To trace the line between grief and fear? If these hidden emotions could be spoken, might the space grow to include empathy for those who’ve known far more loss and fear in this country? Or curiosity for how those neighbors have held back despair so that resistance and hope might take root?

Deliver me from fear of their fear. As of today, it’s the best I can do with the tension. I’m a Christian which means that the option to lie to white people, even a little, isn’t available to me. For those who share this faith, it also means that when the invitations to difficult conversations are extended – from a camp, a church, the Thanksgiving holiday with extended family – we will accept them with a stubborn hope that from this unresolved tension comes the occasional step toward the truth.

(Photo credit: Pexels.)

Do You Know Your Trees?

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I finished reading a new book about trees on a day this week when the news around the world was once again overwhelming and terrible. In Afghanistan people were trying to escape with a desperation I can barely imagine much less, if I’m honest, consider for more than a few minutes at a time. Then it got worse: a suicide bomber. And here I was reading about trees.

Over the course of the summer, as our congregation has been able to gather together again, I’ve been listening to how we’re talking about the true and terrible reports being dispatched from all corners. It seems we have all been overpowered by the consistency of upheaval and heartbreak. There have been wildfires and earthquakes, a high-rise collapse, an insurrection to begin the year. Our emotions slide to despair as our attention lurches from one breaking tragedy to the next.

Maybe this is why I picked up Peter Wohlleben’s The Heartbeat of Trees. In it, the German forester describes a long relationship with trees. He is a careful observer and an earnest evangelist for the endless benefits experienced by those spending time beneath and among trees wherever they can be found. More to the point, Wohlleben is enraptured by the forests in his small corner of Germany. He knows these trees- the traits of soil and climate which make his forest unique, the history of logging and conservation which has shaped the forests into what they are today, the ways his neighbors appreciate – or don’t – the groves and stands which can only hint at the ancient forests which were once common in that region.

Which isn’t to say that the author isn’t concerned with the plight of trees around the world. There are chapters about climate change and some specific challenges facing forests around the world. He writes, though, rooted in his particular place among his unique trees. And this is what I noticed during a week which seemed to bring only more bad news.

The solution to our overwhelmed situation is not to turn away from the heartbreak over there but, rather, to turn toward our lives and all of the ways we are interdependent with other life, right here, wherever your here is. This ends up being simpler said than done. It can seem easier these days to catalogue a list of calamities across the globe than to see the smaller, quieter moments that make our own communities what they are.

I think, for example, about different responses to public instances of racial injustice in recent years. There are some who, learning about patterns of racial trauma and abuse by those in power, freeze in response. Their eyes have opened to widespread truths which they had previously overlooked and now they cannot not see them. As their eyes adjust to these harsh truths, they are beginning to understand that racism expresses itself not solely – or even primarily – in individual experiences but through long-standing patterns of oppression and marginalization. However, because these newly aware have not been supporting racial justice in their own neighborhoods, because they’ve ignored the local expressions of injustice and justice, what they feel is mostly a creeping despair.

On the other hand, we can imagine a person who, like Wohlleben and the trees he knows so well, has come to see her place carefully. She understands its history of racial malice, how forces of segregation and prejudice shaped what it is today; she knows the names and stories of the women and men of previous generations who labored for justice. This person isn’t ignorant of the repeated expressions of systemic racism which sometimes break into our national headlines. Like the rest of us, she grieves and is enraged. But unlike others, her connection and commitment to her place mean that her exposure to these headlines leads to discernment rather than despair. These sort of people can see the commonalities and differences between her community and others. They can show you where the momentum toward justice is that others miss. And, frankly, these are the people who are so deeply enmeshed in communities seeking peace and doing justice that the capacity to be overwhelmed in that vague, throw-up-your-hands, what-can-I-do sort of way is greatly diminished.

Finishing The Heartbeat of Trees didn’t so much make me want to learn more about German forests as it kindled my interest in the trees shading our Chicago neighborhood this hot and muggy August. I suspect this was the author’s goal. If more of us began to see the trees and vanishing forests around us, we might be less overcome by headlines about wildfires, drought, and climate change and more inclined to live gently in our own communities in ways that would address these global realities. Might the same be true about many of the other overwhelming realities we’re facing these days?

(Photo credit: Mali Maeder.)