Dear White People: Repent!

On Facebook & Twitter I recently made the following statement: “To my white brothers & sisters: our participation in the ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬ movement begins with our repentance & confession.” A friend read this and asked if I could suggest any resources for repentance. I’ll suggest one such resources at the end of this post, but I want to start by filling in my original statement just a bit.

During the past few weeks I’ve wondered about how white people can participate in protests, marches, and movements for justice on behalf of black and brown people. This is worth thinking carefully about since the white protestors, like myself, are complicit in and beneficiaries of the very systems responsible for the injustices targeted by the protests. A white person presents at least two challenges in these settings: his presence is a reminder of the privilege and prejudice that makes the protest necessary and his formation within a white supremacist system makes his participation in a movement to dismantle such a system… complicated.

Despite these very significant challenges, there are good reasons for white people to join the struggle for justice for black and brown people. James Baldwin saw this in the early 1960’s:

White people cannot, in generality, be taken as models of how t live. Rather, the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being. And I repeat: The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks- the total liberation , in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind.

Black Lives Matter Protest in Bronzeville (photo credit: Esther Kang)
Black Lives Matter Protest in Bronzeville (photo credit: Esther Kang)

Here’s what I take from Baldwin about white protestors participating in BlackLivesMatter: We must begin by acknowledging our own profound need, by the way our privilege and unacknowledged power has corrupted our hearts. We come to this justice movement not as innocent bystanders or righteous saviors. We come as desperately needy persons, not to assuage our guilt but to confess our sin and need. For many of us, the act of protesting is a quite literal repentance- we are turning away from our sins of commission and especially our sins of omission and we are turning back to our Savior and the priorities of his Kingdom.

In my original statement I wrote that a white person’s participation in the movement begins with repentance. And while it does, repentance must also be ongoing. In our discipleship to Jesus we are regularly being shown new (to us) habits and assumptions that require our turning away. This will be especially true for those of us whose society has affirmed our assumptions, desires, and fears. As we continue to follow Jesus it becomes clear that the affirmation we received as members of a dominant culture is no longer so quick in coming. The ethic and assumptions of the Kingdom of Heaven are often greatly at odds with those of our country and its privileged citizens.

Though it is ongoing, this repentance will also be specific. White Christians who are becoming aware of the destructiveness of whiteness as a social construct can feel ashamed of being a white person. This person wants to apologize in general terms for being white. But such general shame and vague repentance isn’t helpful. After all, no one chooses their race or ethnicity. Neither do we choose the history and social realities associated with them. And while the social construct of whiteness continues to wreak havoc in America, there is nothing inherently wrong with a person’s white skin.

So our ongoing repentance must avoid vague generalities. We must instead repent like Zacchaeus who, when made aware of his sin by his proximity to Jesus, repented of particular sins: “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” The history of race in America – a history so many white people are ignorant of – provides many specific reasons to repent: economies and institutions built on slavery; discriminatory housing policies; stolen wealth and land; education inequities; mass incarceration; cultural stereotypes promoted by the media. These are barely the tip of the iceberg and the connections to these large themes and one’s own complicit privilege are not immediately obvious to many white people. But follow Jesus long enough with an eye to reality and the connections will come and along with them the need for particular repentance.

Black Lives Matter protest in Bronzeville (photo credit: Esther Kang)
Black Lives Matter protest in Bronzeville (photo credit: Esther Kang)

To be fair, many white people have been Christians for a long time and are as blind to the need to repent as are many of their non-Christian peers. Without going too deeply into it here I attribute this blindness to church structures that are more determined by our country’s racialized assumptions than by any Biblical ecclesiology. In too many cases our churches exacerbate our privilege and prejudice rather than calling them out and calling us to repentance. Segregated white churches eliminate the possibility of reconciliation across cultural divides, one of the bitter fruits being white people who never submit relationally to people of color whose experiences and perspectives would provide new rationale for specific moments of repentance.

Intrinsic to Christian faith is dependance on God’s grace and mercy. Confession, repentance, and forgiveness are not exceptional or occasional practices for Christians; these are the very basic practices of our faith. I point this out to say that, in theological theory at least, white people ought to welcome the opportunity for ongoing repentances as a normal and natural characteristic of their faith development. I don’t mean that it’s easy, but no one who reads the Gospels closely expects discipleship to be easy. Good, but never easy.

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As for resources for repentance, I think the Psalms are always the starting point. In recent weeks our church has turned to those psalms that were written during times of exile. These often speak to both the need for deliverance and the need for forgiveness.

Do not hold against us the sins of past generations; may your mercy come quickly to meet us, deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake. [Psalm 79]

Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us, for we have endured no end of contempt. We have endured no end of ridicule from the arrogant, of contempt from the proud. [Psalm 123]

The beginning of Nehemiah also is a great example of a man with cultural privilege repenting of a previous generation’s sins. This is tough for people who know too little of our history and value too much our individuality, but Nehemiah shows us why such wide repentance is necessary and good.

Couldn’t join the #BlackLivesMatter protest? Support those who did!

Warning: shameless financial request ahead…

I’ve been so encouraged by the online support to my blog posts and social media updates about our church’s engagement with the justice issues raised by the recent non-indictments in Ferguson and New York. Of course there have been a handful of dissenters – “stick to talking about god instead of race relations” – but these have been a drop in the bucket compared with the positive and thoughtful comments. Thank you!

Pastor Michael Neal and his wife Dee of Glorious Light Church in Bronzeville. (Photo by Esther Kang.)

One thing I’ve picked up on from some comments is that many of you want to support things like Sunday’s #BlackLivesMatter protest but you don’t attend a church or live in a community where this is possible. Some of you may even feel a bit guilty because it doesn’t seem like there is more that you can do besides showing your support on social media. To those of you in that camp I have one suggestions and two requests.

First, though places like the south side of Chicago get much of the attention when it comes to issues of injustice it’s safe to assume that these same issues are at play wherever you live. They may not be as obvious or destructive, but there are undoubtedly ways in which injustice is at work in your zip code. And there are certainly people around you who care about these things. Find them and jump into whatever small efforts are already in place. Don’t become so distracted with what’s happening over there that you miss the opportunity right where you are.

Now to the requests. Pray for us. That’s the first thing.  It’s easy to think about justice issues through partisan lenses, but our church is very aware of the spiritual nature of this fight. We have to think theologically about the issues, Christologically about the solutions, and, in all things, act with courage and humility. See why we need your prayers?

Pastor Chris Harris of Bright Star Church in Bronzeville. (Photo by Esther Kang.)

Here’s the second request: Would you consider a financial gift to one of the churches in our Bronzeville community? One of the churches that has been involved in this work of justice faithfully? One the churches with the courage to protest on Sunday and the focus to continue once many others have moved on? Urban ministry is wonderful work and also very hard. Many of the financial resources that are available elsewhere are scarce in our neighborhoods, though we celebrate the many ways God provides for us.

There are many churches I could point you to who would benefit from your generosity; I’m choosing these three because they are located in Bronzeville. Pastor Chris Harris of Bright Star Church was the first pastor to welcome me to Bronzeville years ago. He has opened many doors of opportunity to our church as we seek to serve and love our neighbors. His church is often at the lead of community development and I’m honored to be a part of several initiatives that have been started by Pastor Harris. Pastor Michael Neal of Glorious Light Church has become a close friend. He opened his church’s space to us earlier this year for a justice conference we hosted. Our churches also worship together every six months. Pastor Neal has initiated a literacy program in the neighborhood among many other initiatives focused on education and health. Both of these pastors and their churches are faithfully proclaiming and demonstrating the gospel of Jesus in our little corner of Chicago. I’m very happy to urge your financial support of their ministries.

The third church? You can probably guess that our young congregation, New Community Covenant Church, would also welcome your generosity. We’re still at the early stages of this journey to justice, but in our less-than-five years we’ve taken some important steps, especially in the area of racial reconciliation. We will continue to give ourselves to loving our neighbors and building a diverse community that can only be understood through the lens of the gospel.

Would you consider a financial gift to one or more of these churches? Give to Bright Star Church here. Give to Glorious Light Church here. Give to New Community Covenant Church here. I’m spending today with representatives from these churches and other organizations as we continue our long-term work on trauma prevention and intervention in our neighborhood. Long after the media attention has moved on, we’ll continue to be praying and working for God’s kingdom to come in Bronzeville as it is in heaven.

Standing with Bronzeville clergy and leaders at the front of the protest on Sunday. (Photo by Esther Kang.)

Regardless of how you do it, please know how valuable your support and encouragement are to those of us in the thick of this work. Thank you!

The View From Here

Yesterday, after our worship service and monthly potluck lunch, our church joined a few other congregations in Bronzeville for a #BlackLivesMatter Protest in our neighborhood. The first photo shows the churches just as we began to march, we eventually filled in both lanes of the street. The second shows a line of clergy leading the march. I’m on the far left with two of my ministry colleagues, Michelle Dodson and Ramelia Williams.

Photo credit: @CWJ_Consultant
Photo credit: @CWJ_Consultant
BLMBronzeville 2
Photo credit: @skbaer

The march went very, very well even as we all acknowledged that it was simply a small step. You can read more in the Chicago Tribune.

The Strangeness of Being a Pastor

Being a pastor isn’t the hardest job – not by a long shot. I can think of many, many jobs that seem far more demanding. Even so, it is a strange vocation without much cultural equivalency. It’s only after ten years in the ministry (as we pastors call it) that I don’t dread the What do you do? question. I’ve come to expect the awkward silences and unpredictable follow-up questions. (But what do you actually do? So, that’s a real job?) I kind of like the questions now; telling people what I do seems to give people who don’t often get to talk about such things permission to share their opinions and questions about spiritual things.

IMG_0015_2So being a pastor isn’t the hardest job but there is a strangeness to it that is hard for people outside vocational ministry to relate to. And that’s OK, but it does mean many pastors feel lonely and isolated.  A quick internet search of “lonely  pastor” makes it plain how widespread this is. There are a few reasons I don’t typically feel this: a supportive family, friends who don’t care all that much what I do and remain interested in me for other reasons, and a kind and gracious church.

There is another reason I don’t experience the isolating effects so common to this work: other pastors. This might seem obvious but I’ve come to appreciate the camaraderie of other women and men in the pastoral guild only recently. In my earlier years in ministry I found it difficult to relate to most other pastors. And to some extent I still do: rooms full of pastors can be strange places filled with high-sounding jargon and not-so-subtle comparisons; many pastors seem unable to talk about anything other than their churches. But in more recent years I’ve noticed that people I highly respect share this pastoral work: my dad, my aunt, and my great friend and neighbor, Michael, for a start. These are all good, admirable, and normal people- normal in the sort of way close friends must be.

In his memoirs Eugene Peterson devotes a chapter to his friendship with a group of clergy in the Baltimore area. The Company of Pastors, as they called themselves, were diverse in many ways: age, theology, and the locations of their many different churches.

This diversity did not divide us. This is a rare thing among pastors, maybe a rare thing in general. But it came from our common assumptions of our common vocation – not temperaments, not politics, not theology, not reputation. We were pastors, a Company of Pastors. And we were pastors in a culture that “did not know Joseph.” Our identity out of which we lived was unrecognized by virtually everybody, in and out of church.

This group of pastors proved indispensable as Peterson worked to be a pastor in culture with little memory of what such a vocation looks like or why it might be important. Such a cultural location “meant that we were lonely, and sometimes angry that we were lonely.” If that collection of pastors felt that way so many decades ago, how much deeper are those emotional shadows today?

But Peterson found his companions and thus not only lessened the loneliness – some of it is probably unavoidable and also good – but also found a living compass that pointed him toward a vocation that had become fuzzy and open to endless interpretations. Peterson was beginning to pastor at the time when churches were adopting the language of business and markets in order to grow congregations. The pressure was strong to set aside older assumptions about pastoring and to pick up new, more legitimate-seeming personas: entrepreneur, CEO, specialist. The Company worked as an anchor that kept them against the constantly changing tides of new methods, strategies, and programs. (Any of Peterson’s readers will know this didn’t mean isolation from the world of ideas or cultural engagement.)

The three men in the picture above are pastors and we have become a version of Peterson’s Company. Last year we gathered from around the country – Minnesota, Washington, Chicago – for a retreat. I knew one of the men well and the others not at all. We spent our days describing our churches and our neighborhoods and, to the best of our abilities, our sense of the Spirit’s work among the people to whom we’ve been called. We talked about what was good and what was hard. We asked one another many, many questions. Some about tactical concerns. Others about the shape of our spiritual life. We went on some walks, told stories, and ate well. I took notes of the many new and fresh thoughts that came to me during those days. When the retreat ended we committed to stay in touch and we have- quarterly conference calls lessen the distances and allow the good questions to continue.

Like Peterson’s group we come with our diversities: three have planted churches; three are pastoring larger churches; two of us lean to the city, two toward the country; personalities and perspectives are as different as could be expected. We belong to the same denomination which provides a nice starting point and the familiarity of history.

A few months ago we agreed that it was time for another retreat. Frequent flyer miles and a borrowed vacation home made it possible to spend another four days together. As before our conversation topics ranged widely – ministry dilemmas, questions about the future, preaching challenges, family – but circled back to our shared vocation. For those few days we got to be pastors with other normal pastors. My temptation to justify the vocation faded; the loneliness around the fringes dissipated. I have pastor friends – good friends – in my neighborhood, but schedules are hard to coordinate and time unhinged from tasks is almost impossible to find. So these times away take on added meaning, special in part because of their rarity.

It’s a strange thing, being a pastor. I thank God for the friends who have been called to this strange vocation and who so willing share themselves with me.