This blog is part of an ongoing series by the speakers for Fuller’s 2017 Missiology Lectures: “Race, Theology, and Mission” Learn more about the lectures and register here.
“Racial reconciliation” is all the rage. Increasingly, younger white Christians are professing their desire for unity across ethnic lines. Christianity Today recently ran a piece noting the growing tendency of white evangelicals to recognize the systemic nature of racism and to desire to do something about it. However, for white folks, racial reconciliation is often treated as one more “add-on” to self-identity, a means to “presenting” a favorable public persona. Being “for” racial reconciliation becomes one more proverbial “feather in the cap.” White folks often don’t engage in the hard, humbling work required to pursue a just reconciliation, but instead we engage with others on our own terms, which is not reconciliation at all. When we recognize the need for the decentering of white identity, we grow uncomfortable and revert to familiar patterns that reinforce mechanisms of social control and white privilege.
Pursuing reconciliation requires the peripheralization of whiteness. This does not mean that having white skin is inherently sinful or that appreciating historically “white” cultural particularities is necessarily problematic. However, this is not the way white identity has functioned in modernity. Since at least the days of colonization, whiteness has been presented as the universal “good.” In this sense, “whiteness” names a way of being in the world, a sociopolitical order that is best understood as idolatry. Pursuing reconciliation demands that the altars of whiteness be cast down and its high places laid low.
Here are 5 practices in which white folks must engage if we are to seriously pursue reconciliation:
- We must repent for complicity in systemic sin.
White folks must repent for histories of slavery, subjugation, segregation, and a racialized criminal justice system. While the structural nature of racism has long been recognized, the way that white theological presuppositions marginalize others is not often explored. This means that white folks must also repent for viewing our own traditions as universal. We must recognize that our own theological convictions are particular appropriations of faith in another people’s God: the Father of Abraham revealed in Jesus Christ.
- We must learn from cultural and theological resources, not our own.
Rather than gravitating toward books and sermons from “white” sources, white folks must listen to other interpretive trajectories on those tradition’s terms. We have to approach texts in a non-defensive manner, seeking to read “with” and “under” non-white modes of thought rather than “apart from” or “over” them.
- We must locate our lives in places and structures in which we are necessarily guests.
Christian theology and ecclesial practice has often understood itself as being “host” to the world. White Christians often enter unfamiliar places not as guests, but as self-appointed arbiters of divine hospitality. How different it would be if white folks practiced withholding judgment about what is “needed” in specific places and structures. White Christians can no longer lament that there is “no diversity” in their own contexts when they have chosen where they live and work based on market factors and cultural comfort.
- We must tangibly submit to non-white church leadership.
White folks often retain positions of power and control for themselves and then lament the non-inclusion of people of color in their activities. White Christians desiring to practice reconciliation must not unilaterally start churches, plan worship services, design cultural events, and organize community activities and then invite “others” to them. Rather, white folks must join churches or ministry associations in which they are a minority and which are led by non-white folks.
- We must learn to hear and speak the glory of God in unfamiliar cadences.
If white folks practice being guests and submitting to non-white leadership, we will begin to hear God spoken about in ways with which we are not familiar. Rather than jumping to evaluation of previously unfamiliar modes of discourse, white folks must learn to “sit with it” for a while, to join in and experience the praises of Jesus in ways that may be initially uncomfortable. As with any other practice, it is only through participation over a sustained period of time that humans can begin to appreciate previously unfamiliar aesthetic experiences. Unfortunately, white Christians often casually assess other cultural experiences as “fun” or “interesting” but not worthy of sustained involvement. It is only within mutuality and vulnerability that we will learn to hear and speak the diverse tongues of the Spirit.
Andrew T. Draper is assistant professor of theology and director of the Honors Guild at Taylor University. He is senior pastor of Urban Light Community Church and author of A Theology of Race and Place.