April 20, 2009
Urban Exile: The Silence of the Lambs
Why isn't the church talking about issues of race?
Stephen Colbert doesn't know his own race. The host of The Colbert Report, a satirical television news program on Comedy Central, claims to be colorblind, unable to discern his skin color. "People tell me I'm white," he said during one episode, "because I own a lot of Jimmy Buffet albums." The colorblind approach to race and racism makes for amusing television but is the height of na?vet? in real life. Yet for many churches this seems to be the preferred method of talking - or not talking - about all things related to race.
The beauty and peril of our diverse culture is impossible to miss. A quick snapshot reveals a president who shares a heritage with both Kenya and Kansas, a New York Post cartoon of a dead chimpanzee that stirs up memories of racist stereotypes, and teenage pop star Miley Cyrus photographed pulling back her eyes in an attempt to "look Asian." Stephen Colbert isn't the only TV personality who finds comedy in this racially charged atmosphere. Michael Scott, the hilariously insensitive manager of The Office, manages to repeatedly offend each of his diverse staff - no one is safe from his absurd stereotypes. A more nuanced primetime treatment of race can be seen on Lost where the island's castaways epitomize the global, ethnic, and class diversity and divisions of our day. In a society increasingly conscious of race and ethnicity, the silence of our churches grows more notable by the day.
Whatever the reason for our silence when it comes to race, the result is the same: increasing irrelevance in a culture schooled in diversity. How strange this must seem to a nation whose multi-ethnic population will soon eliminate any one racial majority. What does our ambivalence say when ethnic and class injustice appear in our neighborhoods or local news? The ability to speak to a generation raised within this milieu is compromised by our ongoing silence. In a culture that laughs at buffoons like Stephen Colbert and Michael Scott and sympathizes with the fantastically diverse cast of Lost, our silence may be the loudest voice of all.
With so much media and entertainment chatter around issues of race and racism, why do our churches struggle to join the conversation? (To be clear, there are churches - many African American congregations among them - whose contributions to racial awareness and justice have been many. I'm writing here about the mostly white churches of the evangelical tradition; churches that, in my experience, say very little about these issues.) It can't be that we don't care about issues of justice. The faithful care for the unborn has more recently been joined by an active concern for those suffering from extreme poverty and the AIDS pandemic. "Too heavenly minded to be any earthly good," is an accusation that rings hollow for most of us. So why the ambivalence about race and the ongoing racism experienced by many Americans?
For some the answer may simply be fear. Those of us who are white may be particularly afraid that in our attempts to talk about race we'll accidentally say something ignorant or even racist. This is the dilemma of Alec Baldwin's character in the sitcom 30 Rock, who asks what ethnicity to call his Puerto Rican girlfriend.
"Puerto Rican," she replies.
"No," replies Baldwin, "I know you can say that but what do I call you?"
Silly perhaps, but can you relate to his angst? This anxiety is heightened for preachers and teachers who often say nothing at all rather than risk an unintentionally offensive comment. To a culture that expects a level of sensitivity and nuance about issues of race and ethnicity, our cautious silence looks a lot like indifference.
While it's appropriate to approach these matters with care, it's also not rocket science. Personal experience and our diverse culture provide us plenty of opportunities to move past fear and begin engaging issues of race. For example, it was recently reported that in my city of Chicago a person of color is twice as likely as a white person to be stopped by the police. The same study showed that of all those stopped, white people were twice as likely to have actually committed a crime. When citing this grim statistic in a recent sermon I paused and asked, "White folks, do you understand what this is saying? Apparently we're committing the most crimes in this city, we're just not getting caught!" Our multi-racial congregation laughed at my lame joke, grateful for a moment of levity after another reminder of our city's inequities.
In addition to fear, our silence might be traced to our relationships. Without diverse friendships how can we expect to understand the individual and systemic racism that many experience? While serving at a suburban church, an African American friend would sarcastically joke about how often the police pulled him over in our mostly-white town. His crime? DWB: driving while black. Without this man's friendship I wouldn't have realized how he experienced our seemingly idyllic and peaceful town. In the weeks before Halloween a couple years ago, one of the homes in this same suburban town featured a dummy hanging from a tree. While I doubt it was the intention, to many it was a horribly accurate depiction of a lynching. Surely this family would have thought twice about their Halloween decor if they had friends whose personal histories of slavery and oppression were known to them. Perhaps some of us simply need to make friends whose lives and stories look different than our own.
But of all the reasons our churches must begin acknowledging racism, none is more significant than the good message we bear. The gospel we preach is, after all, one of reconciliation. And while it is right to focus on humanity's reconciliation to God, we have too long neglected the radical implications of the cross on divisions of race, ethnicity, and class. Our silence regarding racism is a distressing blow to the gospel we claim as the world's ultimate hope. But that same gospel, along with all of its sweeping repercussions, is the only true reconciliation for those affected by the sins of racism. This is not the time for silence.