Michelle Higgins: The Idea of Racial Reconciliation Is Bankrupt

White supremacy, the Church and how to move forward

BY MICHELLE HIGGINS CURRENT August 29, 2017

Many in the activist community call this month Black August. It is used as a time to strategize for what we will do about the history of our people, to remember and reflect for the purpose of taking action. I thought I’d started out Black August with a bang. I helped strategize for a support system for people abused by the criminalization of poverty. I saw my son complete his first summer at a Freedom School. I remembered the grief of Michael Brown’s murder, the pain and determination of the Ferguson Uprising. But the Holy Spirit has disrupted my arrogance in presumed faithful action, and I’ve been grieving more than strategizing ever since.

I am grieved by the tendency of our well-meaning friends to repeat the phrases: “Racists are no representation of the United States of America …” and “Recent displays of hatred and fear are not a real picture of America, this is not what our country was built for.” As we attempt to respond to claims that “removing confederate monuments will re-write American history,” I am ill at ease with the assumption that “America the Beautiful” has dealt with all of her sinful stains.

I grieve the arrogance and presumption of “racial reconciliation” work among the diverse peoples of the United States. I believe that the terminology of racial reconciliation is bankrupt. When, in the history of this country, have racial relationships been conciliatory? We need racial righteousness, racial repentance. In this country and many others, we have worked harder to hide the truth about our history than we have to amplify the stories of people who’ve been wounded by historical lies. Above all, I am grieved by our churches and widespread hypocritical hesitation. We cry out and tell each other, “Call this evil what it is!!” or “The president’s flip-flopping is so disturbing!”

But I am no longer certain that the actions of the current president differ from those of our largest academic and religious institutions. Churches, ministries, Christian universities and training programs take pride in their commitment to shepherding and supporting new students of color. But who among them have anti-racism and racial unity training for white students and  leaders? So the Church wants to see healing in America? Let the Church repent of the wounds we have made.

In the 34th chapter of Ezekiel, The Lord tells Ezekiel the priest to prophesy against the spiritual leaders of his day. God says, “The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.” and so their fate is to lose the flocks they had used for profit: “Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.”

Jesus fulfills this promise and warning. He is intolerant of the self-centeredness and oppressive practices among the shepherds of his people. He is the Good Shepherd, the Word of Life and the True Vine. 

I fear the atrophy of the Church that does the outward work of prophetic boldness, but is hesitant to search itself. Only arrogance ignores how easy it is to denounce white supremacy in the community, in history, and even in the capital, while boldness breaks into silence as we look upon our own stained glass. Halfway free is still in chains. 

In order to fight faithfully against the oppressions of our day, we must reclaim the definition of freedom as evidenced by the life of Jesus.

Everyone of non-native descent who is capable of basic comprehension already knows the truth about the United States: This land is not our land. Racial terror in the U.S. must be traced to its roots, to the stories we are trying to silence. God’s truth frees us from guilt and shame. We no longer need to hide our failures because Jesus has sent his Holy Spirit to teach us how to live in repentance of them.

White supremacy and its covert corollaries of fragility, privilege, self-centeredness and hard-headedness have found a home in the our church pews. The people bound in these chains are not always wealthy, and they are not always white. We have to stop the cover up.

If we do not actively speak and live out God’s truth, we are participating in a lie.

Devastating proof of the deadliness of white supremacy surrounds us. If we cannot see it, it is past time to ask why. It is time to reckon with this selective sight that we play off as innocent, ignorant blindness. “Open the eyes of my heart Lord!” but not to the sins of my white-centered church. What will the saints who worship white Jesus do when they see a brown-skinned savior lifted up above creation. What will we do when He tells us His dwelling place was with the poor all this time, that His gospel—as He told us—was good news for them. When the last become first, what will we do? The time is now (and the time was a while ago) to grapple with chains that we have laid in gold, with the log we’ve set in our own eye. It is time to confess that America’s addiction to a seemingly comfortable deception is keeping us from the truth that would set us free. The church’s refusal to de-center whiteness is the primary reason we have failed to address its cultural impact. More plainly: American churches are often the benefactors of America’s sins.

I offer what I hope is some encouragement, some comfort and prayerfully some truth. It’s raw today and rarely easy, but by the Holy Spirit, it always nourishes the body.

***

Communal recovery is difficult when collective trauma is so long ignored. We’ve shared our pain, we’ve hosted and attended prayer meetings and vigils. Christians have been compelled to change our schedules, to speak boldly—or to continue to do so. My hope is that the repentance so many of us speak of and participate in will lead to a renewal of our collective consciousness. But the work will have to look different than it has in the past. We will have to display the boldness of God’s truth inside our homes and worship spaces as well as our political conversations and community ministries.

If we want anti-racism to impact on our children’s futures, we must discover the racist tendencies in the way we raise them. If we want to live in community with our impoverished neighbors, we will have to uncover the fears that keep us from drawing near to marginalized people that are so near and dear to the heart of God.

We cannot serve high-risk peoples without acknowledging that extended risk assessment (How much will this cost? What friends will I lose?) is often proof of our privilege.

In challenging the Church to teach confession for both personal and collective sins, many Christians are faced with questions for what feels like the umpteenth time in the past few years.

“Why can’t we just focus on the gospel? Why are you so convinced that racial justice is so important? Why is racial hatred still such a big issue? What are we supposed to do about it?”

These questions pain me in part because I know that so many voices have answered them, some a long time ago. I am nauseated by the seemingly endless loss of life and safety in the struggle to amplify the truth. But what frustrates me most is the assumption that social justice work might in any way evidence a lack of trust in Jesus, rather than total dependence upon His Gospel, thereby serving as a continuation of His own social justice work.

“The gospel is enough” is the response I’ve heard from people who despise the ministry of protest. And to this I say amen. The gospel is enough because the man who authored the Gospel looked upon hungry crowds and He fed them. He healed the infirm and raised the dead. He preached a gospel that harmonized body and soul. When He made the ultimate sacrifice He did so within a human body. When He conquered death He was not separated from humanity. He joined a human body to His divine spirit—the very spirit that created the cosmos and breathes life into us as we speak. Jesus chose to be perfected for eternity in the form of one of His own creations. Our bodies matter to God. The gospel is proof of that. So yes, it is enough.

The Apostle Paul lived this out. As a missionary, he freed a woman from the evil that wrecked her body. He healed her psyche and told her of the God who created and cared about her. He publicly defied common laws that protected her owners by keeping her in physical, mental and psychological bondage. He was abused for uncovering the truth about her chains. He was jailed and eventually executed for working to see the gospel set people free. He could not have acted so boldly if he were not aware of the chains that once bound him.

Do we desire to see freedom in America? We must commit to telling the truth about our chains.

The American Church should be first to tell the whole truth about white supremacy in America because it may be the idol we protect the most. If knowing truth means dwelling in Jesus, we will live out our liberation from deception by refusing to downplay violence, by confronting apathy toward people of color and by confessing participation in racial terror.

We will depend so desperately on God’s truth that we not fear to face the realities of our day.

In simply reading the Gospel writers themselves, this ought to become apparent. Were the kingdom of God fashioned after individualistic piety, our Savior would have given a great commission of contemplation and not disciple-making. The writer of the bulk of the New Testament would not have been a missionary.

If faith-rooted justice work means that the gospel is not enough, we have not read the gospel.

And perhaps worse, we cannot see the depths of evil in our heritage that God is calling us to confront. God’s truth seems painful because we don’t know how to drop the American demand for fabricated perfection.

Why should churches commit to fight against white supremacy? Because white supremacy is one of the most codified lifestyles in the church.

PRACTICAL STEPS

Ask yourself why.

Self-interrogate before (and during and after) seeking counsel of others.

Why the hesitant reasoning for discussing racism plainly?

Why does colorism shape theology?

Why does racial unity mean dinner dialogue and instagram pride, but not fair wages, displacement of the poor, and protest of police brutality?

We must ask why.

Reject the artifice of whiteness.

“White” is not an ethnicity. Race itself is a supremacist construct. Please read all about it.

Words are not enough. The current president has proved as much in a matter of days—however unsurprising it may be. It is important. So, too, is the response of the people who both support and condemn his attitudes.

Silence is a speech act, so your tweets do matter in some way. But what you say in person, how you live, what you do; this is the testimony of what you believe.

Rewrite history.

It is our responsibility as Christians to show God’s truth not only as superior to the minds of humankind, but as essential to the renewal of the same. There is no upright nation on the face of the earth. The United States is not so different from the Roman Empire, and the Lord has lived out the pattern of how we must live in the face of that reality.

Read the stories of marginalized Americans through history, learn as much as you can and then tell history like it is. Take your cues from the way God speaks the history of his peoples. Deuteronomy 8 and 29, Psalm 78, Acts 2.

“The secret things belong to the Lord,” but that which is revealed is for us and our children to remember, and to obey God’s commands forever.

Teach your people to delight in diversity.

If people do not regularly hear the truth that whiteness does not define the American norm, then it should come as no surprise when the sheep in our own flocks feel odd and even wrong to address racial sin as part of our reasonable acts of worship. Avoiding awkwardness has become more important than revealing truth. 

If our children do not regularly hear the truth that Jesus was man of color, we may be mortified to discover they believe Jesus was white. That’s our fault. 

If we can begin to speak truth, and strive for healing through the necessary dissonance, we might more humbly approach the history of this home we do not own.

Do not be afraid of suffering.

There is no time for sympathy without action. We are drowning in receipts. Yesterday I watched a friend of mine get lambasted on Facebook for telling a heart-wrenching and important story about the deep impact of racism. I thought to myself, “Welcome, bro, and I’m sorry.” then I thought about Jesus and his question, “Who is my family?”

I thought about his followers who lose their life to find it, those who have been taken from a cross to sit at his feasting table in paradise. I thought about those who find their heritage in the heart of God and not the plans and possessions of men.

I want everyone who suffers for the sake of righteousness to rejoice, and to remember that enduring words of hatred is still nothing compared to the reality of being beaten or lynched simply because your skin color is considered a threat.

Seek wisdom and direct action training; we cannot confront our failures alone.

None of us should attempt to lead a march or a movement until we have the decency to learn how to follow. This is the scariest part of faith-rooted activism for us: learning how to speak in spaces you’d prefer to be silent. And learning to be silent in spaces where you feel qualified to speak.

People of privilege have neither the authority or the expertise to speak on behalf of the oppressed. Perhaps by our presence among the people most at risk, we will learn a new definition of counting the cost.

Beyond asking what will happen if we support the cause of dismantling white supremacy (or what will happen if we don’t), we must interrogate the cultural blinders that disguise the stranglehold it has on our necks.

I can only hope that I have not caused you shame. I do believe in a godly grief that leads to repentance and salvation without regret.

MICHELLE HIGGINS

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