Racism, the Church and the Path of Solidarity

When he was a high school student Drew Hart had begun to sense a call to ministry. For that reason, he decided to attend a private Christian college where we could major in biblical studies. Most students at the college where white. Hart was black. He had hoped that studying in a Christian context would be a positive experience. What he found, however, was that this Christian institution, like so many others, was a racialized space. The TV shows and music the majority students referenced were new to him. He sensed the discomfort of white students at his presence. He noticed their suspicion. The signs were subtle, but they were evident. White students would move to the edge of the sidewalk when he approached. Some of them referred to all black males as “thugs.” It was commonly suggested that most of the black men on campus where only there because they helped the basketball team.

Reflecting on his student days Hart writes, “Those experiences would forever change how I interacted with homogeneous white Christian spaces. The ongoing racial prejudice on campus was more persistent and life-draining than anything I had seen in my life” (41). However, at the same time, Hart was delving deeply into Christian scripture. His instructors encouraged him to notice how Jesus stood in solidarity with women, with ethnic outcasts and with the poor. He studied the Hebrew prophets and their calls for justice. He was challenged to read the Bible with an understanding that Jesus was the central figure. The biblical vision didn’t match his experience of Christian community.

In the summer after his third year of college, Hart and some friends took a road trip across the US. They started in Pennsylvania and headed to Washington, the state one of the students called home. That was where they were when Hart received a phone call from his mom. The situation was urgent; his older brother had been arrested. He was arrested because he fit the description of a guy the police were looking for: “black male with a black T-shirt and blue jeans.” His brother was locked up for four months. He had nothing to do with the situation the police were investigating. His real crime, Hart says, was “being a young black man in a white-controlled society” (15).

I first encountered the theological work of Drew G. I. Hart when someone sent me a link to his review of a book I had co-written on the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Hart is now a professor at Messiah College. It’s a pleasure for me now to read his more substantial work, the book titled Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism. This book, published by Herald Press, is significant for several reasons. This is most obviously true because the church’s response to racism is an urgent subject. Few organizations beyond communities of faith have the same potential to reshape the way so many people see race. What’s more, Hart’s deliberate, teacher-like tone is just right for an audience with little prior exposure to the subject. And finally, the project is significant because Hart approaches matters from his experience as a black man and as an Anabaptist theologian. There aren’t many others who would take on that challenge. The challenge is intimidating. Hart needs to (1) convince white readers that there is a problem, (2) make critical race theory comprehensible to a general audience, (3) demonstrate that the church is not immune racism, and (4) show that Christian scripture contains valuable wisdom for moving forward.

Hart tells the story of a time he sat across the table from a white pastor who had asked to talk. Searching for a practical way of validating the conversation, the pastor pointed to a cup between them and suggested that, while Hart knew what was on his own side of the cup, the pastor knew what was on his own side. What they needed to do, the pastor suggested, was to share with each other how things looked from their unique vantage point. Hart caught the pastor’s point, which seems reasonable enough, but he knew it wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t quite right because Hart already knew what the cup looked like from pastor’s perspective. The nature of American culture is such that minorities have to navigate the dominant white culture at almost every turn. Hart needed to understand white cultural references to make it through college and seminary and to enroll in PhD studies. To be considered “successful,” he had to meet white standards. One of the points Hart presses in his book is that pretending to be color-blind or thinking that we all just need to see things from the other’s point of view does not address the fundamentals of this disparity. The pastor was probably well-intended, but he did not understand that part of his privilege as a white man was the fact that he could ignore the experience of minorities.

When it comes to race and the church, Hart’s book is an important reminder of the way in which church leaders have often turned Jesus into an endorsement of our own cultural ideals. Many of us miss the fact that Jesus was a member of a people overrun by an empire. We miss the fact that he chose a life of relative poverty. We miss the fact that Jesus himself was not ‘white’. One of the important things Hart communicates to readers is that ‘whiteness’ is a social construction. What it means to be ‘white’ has changed throughout history. Instead of being a biological reference, as it would appear, Hart, says whiteness is actually a way to “centralize power among a certain portion of humanity . . . at the direct cost of people of color . . . (101).” Hart tells the story of leaving his house one day and, on the drive out of his neighborhood, seeing a large group of white people with matching yellow T-shirts randomly handing out bags of groceries. It was a church group working on the assumption that, since the neighborhood was mostly populated by black and brown folks, what was needed was bags of groceries. Hart suggests that this is just the sort of condescending thing white churches do to solidify their sense of superiority.

At the core of Hart’s response to this sort of thing is his claim that the way of Jesus subverts all this. Jesus challenged the script of how the people of his day understood their relationship with God (63ff). “Where the old order structured life by wielding its coercive power to take life, intimidating the masses into subjugation, Jesus’ kingdom reconfigured life around the authority of God . . . . Where the old order dominated and violently lorded over others, the kingdom of God arose from the bottom, margins, and cracks of society, freely inviting people to share in the peace and justice of God made available in the presence of Jesus” (66). The ministry of Jesus challenges what we think we know. It invites us to let go of our negative assumptions about others and work in solidarity with those oppressed by the violence of the older order. . . . I think Hart gets this exactly right.

If I had the chance to talk with Hart, I would want to discuss a few things. I have absolutely no reason to question his experience of America or of the church. And I wouldn’t want my questions to blunt the power of his message. However, I would want to pursue three relatively interconnected issues. First, in Hart’s presentation, one gets the impression that the ills of the West are due most fundamentally to racism and hierarchical ideology. It seems clear to me that racism is both nonsensical and destructive, so one can’t help but wonder if there might not be something deeper and more intimate to the human condition that has regularly driven those in power to adopt a racist strategy. What lies at the root of colonialism? Is it fundamentally about an imagined racial superiority or is it fundamentally about lust for power and wealth? Is history mostly moved by the ebb and flow of hierarchical ideologies or more fundamentally by avarice and the desire of power? If it is the former, the way forward is primarily marked out by social analysis. If it is the latter, Christian virtues like love and generosity have something to offer. This matter links to a second.

Most of the pages in Trouble I’ve Seen do critical work. Hart does gesture positively in in his chapter on Jesus and in the final chapter where he outlines seven “Jesus-shaped practices for an antiracist church.” Given the book’s pitch toward a general audience, an audience I anticipate being interested in practical matters, I would ask Hart to say more about this. Even so, it is impossible to miss the fact that Hart believes the way forward is the path of solidarity—where those with more power endeavor to see the world through the eyes of those with less. This is the center of Hart’s constructive vision and one of the things I find most inspiring about the book. For white churches to make progress, they must be willing to learn to see how the world looks from the perspective of black and brown folks. After that, must come a willingness to join the struggle. This is convincing, yet for pastoral reasons I would want Hart to situate this within a broader vision of the life well-lived. Our list of potential moral failings is long, so it may well be the case that we would be better able to combat these problems if our notion of the good life were clarified.

The third issue I would want to explore with Hart would be the broad way in which he rejects hierarchies. I take it for granted the he is right about the need to abandon every hierarchy that suggests anyone is worth more than another, or has more dignity than another, or that anyone should, for some innate reason, have privileges that others do not. Hart is right to remind us of the way Jesus turns the kingdom upside down (167). Yet, what I would want to hear Hart say more about is what Jesus does with the request for status and power in Matthew 20. Hart, I think rightly, points out that in this passage Jesus forbids his followers from “lording” over others (157-160). Yet Hart’s emphasis rests on the negative. In my reading of the passage, Jesus does not just forbid, but also commends. Jesus says that leadership implies service. Without affirming the importance of leadership that serves others, I worry that Hart is in danger of baptizing the romantic notion that structure (or power) is the central problem. The problem, in Jesus view, seems to lie in the way we use structures and use power. Do we use them for our own status and for acquiring more power, or do we use them for service?

I would want to explore these threads with Hart, but that does not mean I question the book as a whole. I certainly think Trouble I’ve Seen is worth our attention. It is timely, thoughtful and very readable. Hart does an excellent job opening up the topic of the church and racism. He ably educates those of us who are not as familiar with the experience of black women and men as we should be. Trouble I’ve Seen is a helpful introduction to weighty matters and a discussion that is as urgent as it is sprawling.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s