Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Race--Black and White in America
Black v White Racism in the US is a problem that perplexes many in the church. It has been said that 11:00 on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. That is less true today than in the past, but is still a fact. I want to share a perspective on why churches have not integrated nearly to the extent that other venues of American life have. It is not "race" per se, but a cultural difference that lies at the heart of it. Racism in America, between white and black people is unique in that it relates to the two groups vastly different "stories." Every culture, ever "group"--racial, ethnic, national, even denominational, has a "story." That is there is a past, somtimes with a "defining moment" that determines how the group as a whole views themselves and how they view life in general. For Jewish people the defining story is the Exodus--and today, the Holocaust as well. For the people of New Orleans hurricaine Katrina will define them for decades, even centuries to come. White and Black Americans have, each, a "story" about their past that fuels their view of the world, of life and what it is about, and even affects the way we read the Bible. "White" America lives out of a past built on the idea of "starting over in the New World" of "conquering the vast wilderness" of "finding opportunity and prosperity in 'a new nation, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.'" The "pilgrim fathers" came to this land to find a new life, in the new Eden, to provide a better life for themselves and their posterity. The struggle was hard, but they succeeded! Each generation has had new struggles to face, but generally each generation has been even more prosperous and happy than the previous one. This is a story of triumph, of victory, of overcoming (overcoming the wilderness, overcoming the British, overcoming the "wild Indians" and the hard prairie sod, etc. etc.etc.). It is a story of success built on success and of enjoying "the blessings of prosperity and freedom." The African-American "story" is different. Their ancestors did not come to this country seeking a new life. This is not about "opportunity and prosperity. They live out of a past built on the reality of being torn from their homes, and brought to a place not of their choosing. It is the story of struggle, of bare existence, of defeat and servitude. Whatever the realities of today, for both groups, these are the stories that determine what is "normal"--not for every member, obviously, but for these groups as a whole. To this day, every white kid in America grows up hearing the pioneer story as "his" story. He expects, in his own life, to conquer the wilderness, to triumph (perhaps to conquer just a quarter acre in suburbia, but there has to be some reason for all the lawn fertilizer sold in suburban garden centers!). He expects victory and success. He expects his life to be prosperous and satisfying. This is why so many white folks are malcontent if, by the time they are forty-five, they have not achieved certain career goals, or are not happy in their jobs, home life, etc. The "story" for them is supposed to be about success and victory. To this day, every black kid in America grows up hearing that same story of the "pilgrim fathers" and the "bold pioneers." But he hears it not as "his" story but as "their story." His story is very different He expects life to be about "struggle" and about "hardship," and about "survival," not about "conquest" and "victory" and "triumph." It is a story of opportunity cut short, of privilege denied, of dependency and servitude. (This is broadly overdrawn, and there are a million exceptions out there on both sides, I know, but these are general trends). This is why Sunday morning is the most "segregated hour." The Gospel in a black church often focuses on the suffering of the cross. In a white church it focuses on "Triumph o'er the grave." In a Black Church, we experience "the fellowship of his sufferings." In a white church--Jesus conquered death--in a black church--Jesus suffered for us. In a white church we are "more than conquerors" and "soldiers of the cross" but in a black church we are "fellow strugglers in the cause." All of us, when we sing Amazing Grace, there is a point where the key changes and we all get louder .In a white church this happens on the verse that says "When we've been there ten thousand years!" In a black church this happens on "Through many dangers toils and snares I have already come!" In a white church, they sing "Victory in Jesus!" In a black church it is "We Shall Overcome--Someday!" Again this is broadly overdrawn and a million exception exist, but the general trend/perspective here is accurate, I believe. It also points to one more reason we need to listen to one another and hear the gospel through the ears of "the other." Our vastly different cultural backgrounds cause us to hear the gospel differently in many respects--we need to hear the gospel TOGETHER, and learn from one another "the whole counsel of God." Each group brings its assumptions about the possibilities, opportunities, and challenges that the Christian life presents--and in these days when so much in America is changing, economically, politically and every way, American Christians, of all kinds, can profit from sharing their experiences, their way of reading the gospel, and their way of relating it to life.