On living counter to this racist culture assisted by the saints, including one or two white ones.

First published in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

What do you imagine when you hear racial segregation? I think many of us imagine the Civil Rights Movement. Maybe we think about a time when housing segregation was legal. But more than an ugly reality of a bygone era, we know that de-facto segregation is the lived experience for most Americans, especially white Americans.

For white Christians, one of the results of our contemporary segregation is that we have significantly limited the saints who went before us, whose lives are worthy of imitation. There are rosters of names and collections of testimonies we have never heard. While some of us argue over whether it’s appropriate to esteem giants of the faith who also enslaved people, there exists outside our view many Christian women and men whose faithfulness could shape our own discipleship.

I’ve written before about people like Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and Fred Shuttlesworth and how I’ve come to see the deep connections we share- despite my race; because of our faith. This has been, for me, one of the greatest gifts of the work and ministry of racial justice and reconciliation. It is an amazing thing to find that I belong to a company of saints whose lives, however imperfectly expressed, compel me more fully into the kingdom of God.

But are there any white role models for those of us on this pilgrimage? I think the answer matters for at least two reasons. For one, despite what I said above, in a racialized society, representation matters. In a similar way to people of color who look for their representatives in media, the arts, government, etc., white people are right to search for historical figures who share our race while also resisting its de-forming power. Second, any time we find one of those people we are made aware that the racism and racial terror of previous generations was not inevitable. The immorality was known if widely ignored.

Identifying a few white saints who lived counter to white supremacy in their day can inspire us to do the same in ours. Problem is, they can be hard to find.

I’m coming to the end of the new Dorothy Day biography by John Loughery and Blythe Randolph. I first encountered Day in graduate school when The Long Loneliness was assigned reading. I reread that autobiography again last summer along with the newly published memoir by Day’s granddaughter, Kate Hennessy. I mention these books to say that, until this most recent biography, I’d never noticed Day’s emphasis on racial equality. Yet it’s a theme that appears again and again throughout her life.

Her biographers tell us of her outrage at Emmet Till’s murder; she made sure her paper publicized it. She traveled south from the Catholic Worker’s headquarters in New York City to stay at the Koinonia Farm in southern Georgia. Led by Clarence Jordan, the farm was an intentionally interracial community located in the Jim Crow south. “During Easter week, Dorothy took a turn as one of the night sentries of the farm… A car sped by in the middle of the night and a shotgun was fired, hitting the vehicle but not [Dorothy].”

The Catholic Worker covered incidents of racial violence around the country as well as pointing out the fact that “most Catholic parishes were making no effort whatsoever to integrate their congregations.” Shining a discomforting spotlight on her own church’s racism was a hallmark of her work. In one incident, one of Day’s writers in Detroit confronted a group of Catholics who were protesting the racial integration of a housing project. The faithful “became enraged, almost to the point of violence, when she informed them that their church did not support segregation. They has certainly never heard their own priests utter a word about integration, nor did they think the Church as they knew it could have any business telling them they had to accept black people as equals.”

There’s more, but these give a sense of Day’s long-term commitment to racial justice. As a Christian. A white Christian. If she could see the inequity and violence of her own day, so could have many others.

I’m adding Dorothy Day to my wall of saints. She’s a reminder of faithful discipleship no matter the cost. No matter the loneliness. But she’s also a warning: The apathy about racial justice that is endemic to white Christianity has never been about a lack of knowledge. Not really. And so, if we’re to follow Saint Dorothy’s example in our own day, our commitment must be as deep and counter to this racist culture as was hers. It’s not a lack of knowledge we’re up against but something more wicked, more… spiritual.

Thank God for the saints who point the way forward.

How brave will we be?

First posted in early June in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

It’s Saturday evening. It’s been a hell of a week. A hellish week. From within a pandemic, the country has exploded, sparked by the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. Helicopters have hovered near our apartment most nights this week. Most of the groceries stores on this side of the city are boarded up. Earlier this week – I’ve lost track of the days – after putting the boys to bed, I walked five blocks from our home, drawn by the sounds of a protest. At an intersection I found a standoff: police in riot gear toe-to-toe with young women and men. I stood waiting and watching until, thankfully, the protesters turned away to continue their march.

I’m sitting on our back porch thinking about the many white people who reached out this week. They want to talked about what to do. This is new for me. For the past decade the white Christians I’ve talked to about racial justice have generally been politely – sometimes actively – disinterested. Maybe the truth is making itself impossible to ignore, save for those most actively committed to the lie.

It’s good that some white people have started to care about racist police brutality. I’m glad that some are finding their voices to speak against these brutal crimes.

Hidden in this week’s chaos was some reporting about the economic disparities between black and white communities. A study by the Sandford School of Public Policy at Duke University found that “black households with children had only one penny of wealth for every dollar held by their white counterparts.” An article in the Washington Post laid out the inequities with jaw-dropping detail:

  • The wealth gap between white and black households is greater now than it was in 1968.
  • ”…you would have to combine the net worth of 11.5 black households to get the net worth of a typical white U.S. household.”
  • “The typical black household headed by someone with an advanced degree has less wealth than a white household with only a high school diploma.”

The article goes on to show how COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted black people:

  • Currently, only 49% of black adults are employed.
  • ”…2 out of 5 black small businesses and self-employed workers have been forced to shutter during the pandemic — well over twice the rate of white businesses.”
  • “More than 1 in 5 black families now report they often or sometimes do not have enough food — more than three times the rate for white families. Black families are also almost four times as likely as whites to report they missed a mortgage payment during the crisis — numbers that do not bode well for the already low black homeownership rate.”
  • “On average, black households had $8,762 in cash or equivalent liquid assets compared with $49,529 for white households…”

Here’s what I’m wondering as I think about white pastors putting the finishing touches on the sermons which they wrestled hard with this week: What sort of a vision will we now proclaim for the future? Yes, racist police brutality is obviously antithetical to the kingdom of God. The public murder of unarmed black people, this nation’s ancient legacy, should be publicly denounced without qualification from every pulpit tomorrow. But what of this other reality, less visible but intimately connected to the videos that provoke our shame and anger? What will we say about that?

If we are only brave when the violence is undeniable to a nation build on white supremacy, then we are simply perpetuating the instincts of our deaf and mute ancestors. We betray, at best, a disinterest in the testimonies of our black neighbors about how this nation continues its plundering ways. Our refusal to believe what our fellow citizens and members of the same body of Christ have told us is a bracing indictment about the extent of our cowardice.

This is what we should listen for tomorrow. We need a repentance that takes us deep, even as it spreads our remorse as wide as our collective sins. We need a vision of flourishing that does not depend on our malevolent privilege. We need to be led to a solidarity with neighbor and kin which might cost us the world.

After all, our souls are at stake.

In Defense of the Multiracial Church. Sort of.

This post first appeared in my newsletter. You can subscribe here.

It was so good talking with Jemar Tisby, author of the essential The Color of Compromise, last week. We covered a lot of ground in an hour but I was especially interested in asking Jemar about how he thinks about multiracial churches. I’d picked up on a certain uneasiness about these kinds of churches while listening to the podcast he co-hosts and was curious to hear more.

As a historian, Jemar began by reflecting on the origins of black churches in the U.S.A. He said, “There would be no black church without racism in the white church.” This is the necessary starting point for any conversation about multiracial churches as it acknowledges the origins of the racial segregation we take for granted in our congregations. Our racial divisions are not a result of personal or cultural preference as so many would like to believe – We listen quietly to the preacher, they talk back. We like hymns, they like praise bands. Rather, as Jemar points out, our segregation originates and is sustained by white racism.

So even today, when most white people would repudiate the former racism found in our churches, because we’ve not honestly assessed its subtler forms today, there remains an essential place for churches of color, especially black churches. Listening to Jemar talk about this reminded me of an article Pastor Charlie Dates wrote a few years ago in which he too made the case for the urgent relevance of predominately black congregations. Of this tradition he wrote, “The witness of black preaching is that our submission to the authority of Scripture demands that we engage societal injustice. The black church has not historically engaged in social justice in lieu of the gospel. It does so because of the gospel.”

Sadly, our white churches have generally not seen the gospel in this way. We have seen a choice between the gospel and justice, a choice which black churches have historically rejected as theologically warped and pastorally harmful. And yet too many multiracial churches have not disturbed these dangerous assumptions. In our conversation, Jemar made the painful observation that, “even in a multiracial environment the culture is going to tend toward white, toward what is most comfortable for white people.” Thoughtful students of these churches like Korie Edwards, Chanequa Walker-Barnes, and Jennifer Harvey have all made similar points about the tendencies toward whiteness within many multiracial churches.

Not all of these churches default to white comfort. For example, I have friends who pastor incredibly diverse churches whose ethos is multicultural and whose priority is justice for the marginalized grounded in the gospel. It’s just that these churches have few, if any, white people. But for those of us whose diverse churches include white people, the question is uncomfortably relevant: Is the multiracial church a genuine expression of the gospel, or do we succumb to racial injustices and hierarchies that continue to plague white churches?

Rediscipling the White Church is available today and in it I try to take seriously the legitimate criticisms leveled at multiracial churches by focusing on the deforming discipleship of white churches. If, as Jemar and other argue, many multiracial churches default to cultural whiteness, then it’s possible that those churches could benefit from considering how we’ve watered down the New Testament’s radical vision of reconciliation for something more palatable to the dominant culture.

Now, to be honest, the multiracial church is not the main character in Rediscipling; the title makes that plain. But here’s my confession: Despite all of its real failures and many important critiques, I remain deeply committed to the multiracial church. I believe that it is a reflection of the reconciliation accomplished by Jesus. I believe that it retains the potential to bear powerful witness in a world of hostility, injustice, and segregation.

I don’t argue that all white churches should become racially and ethnically diverse in Rediscipling. There are many reasons for this: I wanted to push against the tendency to add racial diversity to whiteness and call it reconciliation; I didn’t want to let those pastors and churches off the hook who don’t believe there is enough diversity in their context to pursue reconciliation. But, while I didn’t say this in the book, I believe that if white churches take seriously the call to disciple their people toward solidarity with the diverse body of Christ, at least some of those churches will make the slow, intentional, and sacrificial move toward becoming multiracial.

I suppose, on the release day about a book so focused on white Christians and their churches, I want to plant my personal stake in the ground. For all of its flaws, my commitment to the multiracial church remains unwavering. May we take our place alongside the black congregations esteemed by Jemar and Pastor Charlie in expressing the justice of our Savior.

Whose liberation?

I first published this in my weekly newsletter. You can subscribe here.

This week saw a weird development in our collective stay-at-home reality. The president, encouraged I assume by conservative media, has begun calling for states to be liberated from the lock-downs that are in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

LIBERATE MINNESOTA!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 17, 2020

How many of those who urged our govt to help liberate the Iraqis, Syrians, Kurds, Afghanis, etc., are as committed now to liberating Virginia, Minnesota, California, etc?— Laura Ingraham (@IngrahamAngle) April 17, 2020

I’ll leave the debates about when we can safely loosen our new quarantined lifestyles to the experts; it’s the language of liberation that caught my attention.

If the recent protest in Michigan is indicative, it would seem that those who most want to be liberated right now are white supporters of the president. At the same time, it’s obvious to anyone paying even a little bit of attention that those most at risk from the virus are people of color, especially Native Americans, African Americans, and Latino/as. The impact of poverty on underlying health conditions along with the inability to shelter in place have made certain communities of people way more susceptible than others.

So the call for liberation is also – intentionally or not – a call for more sickness and death.

The ugly irony here is that the people calling for liberation are co-opting language and imagery from those who are suffering the worst of this virus. The African American communities who are being devastated are heirs to a long tradition composed of those who called, worked, and died for their own freedom. By appropriating the language of liberation in this moment, the president and his supporters are aligning themselves with the same stream of racial oppression that led to the fight for liberation in the first place.

Resisting the demand for liberation in previous generations led to Black suffering and death. Co-opting it today will lead to the same.

Accepting the Unacceptable

I first published this in my weekly newsletter. You can subscribe here.

Earlier this week I joined a conference call for the purpose of holding vigil and praying for a man who was lying, near death, in an ICU in the Chicago suburbs. Each of us on the call had gotten to know this man within the confines of a maximum-security prison; he was a student in a graduate-level degree program preparing incarcerated men for ministry. Now, having contracted COVID-19, he was facing death alone; the virus and his incarcerated status kept his community at a distance.

At the time I’m writing this the man is still alive. Pray for him, please.

In addition to the grief I felt on that call I also felt anger. After all, it’s been known that this virus would be especially devastating to those confined to prisons. Social distancing and additional anti-bacterial cleaning are not options in these places. We knew, in other words, that barring a change in policy, many incarcerated people would become sick and die.

In a way, our willingness to allow these men and women to risk death is emblematic of our criminal justice system. As authors like Michelle Alexander and Dominique Gilliard have shown, this is a system that disproportionately prosecutes, imprisons, and surveils people of color, and especially African American and Latino men. We know this – and if we don’t, it’s a purposeful ignorance – and we accept it as a reasonable cost paid for a certain way of life.

I recently heard someone say that a time of trial, of the sort we’re in the middle of now, reveals what we’d previously worked to hide. Perhaps another way of saying this is that we can no longer hide the inhumanity to which we’d grown accustomed. I pray my incarcerated brother lives. I pray that the many others who have become sick get well. But can we also pray that the cruelties we’ve accepted would, in these pressing days, become unacceptable to us?