Note: This Lent, Mount Olivet is doing a community-wide book read of A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota. Info on discussion groups and a reading schedule can be found here. Each week this blog will feature a reflection on one of the stories we're reading. It is our hope that by reading this book and engaging in conversation, we can build empathy for those whose race is different than our own, increase our commitment to racial equity, learn about ourselves and the role race has played in our lives, and listen for God speaking through the stories that are shared with us. Please contact Pastor Joel for more info (firstname.lastname@example.org).
These past five weeks reading and discussing A Good Time for the Truth have been laden with a whole rainbow of emotions for me: sadness, curiosity, guilt, anger, befuddlement, hope, and astonishment, to name a few.
But my primary feeling at the end of this Lenten study is gratitude. I am grateful for the authors of this book, who dared to show me their view of this world, a world that contains a myriad of dilemmas and problems and choices related to race that they wade through each day. Even though we share this same metro area, a lot of the dynamics present in the authors’ lives are invisible to me due to my skin color and the privilege that it carries. Because of my whiteness, I do not have to figure out how to respond when someone asks me “no, where are you really from?” I do not have to wonder how to raise a boy who will grow into a man who, because of his dark skin, others will grow to fear. I do not have to wonder if a look, a comment, a confrontation occurred because of my race. I do not have to grow exhausted and frustrated trying to prove that what just happened to me was discrimination, or bias, or bigotry. This knowledge is unsettling to me, but I’m grateful to know it, and I’m grateful that the authors found courage and resolve strong enough to articulate their deep hopes and wounds surrounding race in Minnesota.
And I am grateful to you, for daring to enter into these stories and participate in these conversations that can be difficult for so many reasons. You have been brave in your commitment, honest in your reactions, and compassionate in your relating to one another. If nothing else, I hope that you have experienced God’s grace changing you as you’ve listened to stories you otherwise might not listen to, spoken with people you otherwise might not speak to, and expressed thoughts you otherwise might not have expressed.
This is what church is for, after all. It’s not a place to attend, but a place to be changed. Church is a place where we surround ourselves with enough of God’s grace to be able to try things differently – to listen to new voices, start new relationships, admit when we have it wrong, and change our minds. God has been present among us in our Lenten book study on race, forgiving our sins, connecting us in community, and helping us to better understand ourselves, the world, and how we are to live in it.
Many of you now realize how you’ve been brought up to think about race and how those ways have helped and hindered you along the way. Many of you have confronted prejudices you’ve picked up along the way, or biases you didn’t know you held, and you thought critically about how you might learn to let them go. Many of you have been unable to get this book out of your mind when you’re at your workplace, or the grocery store, or your school – thinking about how this space might feel to someone of a different race than your own. This is what it feels like to be changed by God through the gift of entering a neighbor’s story.
I’ve spoken with many of you about how this book read has gone for you, and I’ve heard a similar theme – “This was good, but I feel like it’s not over. It was good to learn, and good to talk about in community, but I want to do more than talk. I want to take action. What can be done? What’s next? How can we fix this?”
This is a common impulse – we see a problem, and we want to solve it. But that’s not always simple, possible, or the best option. Sometimes, as strange as it seems, the best way forward is to do what my ethics professor in seminary used to quip: “don’t just do something – stand there!” I think as we move forward as a church to address our understandings of race and our desire for racism to end, we must commit to refrain from taking any action in the world that does not also involve our self-transformation, and the deepening of our community in honesty and trust.
Other people have made this point more eloquently than I have. Martin Luther King, Jr, less than a year before he was murdered, gave a speech called “Where Do We Go From Here?” (By the way, you should just read this speech – it’s WAY better than anything I write on this blog). The Civil Rights movement had won some significant legal victories, but it had not stopped American racism, and King was trying to figure out what the next move was. Ever the preacher, he turned to an example from the Gospel of John:
One day, one night, a juror came to Jesus and he wanted to know what he could do to be saved. Jesus didn't get bogged down on the kind of isolated approach of what you shouldn't do. Jesus didn't say, “Now Nicodemus, you must stop lying.” He didn't say, “Nicodemus, now you must not commit adultery.” He didn't say, “Now Nicodemus, you must stop cheating if you are doing that.” He didn't say, “Nicodemus, you must stop drinking liquor if you are doing that excessively.” He said something altogether different, because Jesus realized something basic: that if a man will lie, he will steal. And if a man will steal, he will kill. So instead of just getting bogged down on one thing, Jesus looked at him and said, “Nicodemus, you must be born again.” In other words, “Your whole structure must be changed.”
King said that our response to racism shouldn’t be to immediately rush about trying to fix everything, at least not at first. Rather, first we must be transformed by God’s love, and watch and witness and help God’s love transform the world. And he’s not talking about just individuals being changed, here. He later says “America, you must be born again.” Our God is a God not just of individual hearts and minds, but of all things, seen and unseen. Eliminating racism is going to take a lot of changes, to public policy, media, law enforcement, education, religious life, and so much more. This whole world must be born anew. But that doesn’t happen without us being born anew as well. And that’s what I want you to take with you as we move forward.
Paying attention to ourselves to combat racism in the world is counter-intuitive. We want to rush out and love others, and we should, but we will be so much better at doing so when we first tend to our own thoughts, assumptions, and actions. You can’t expect to solve racism in a day. Taking action against racism is more than an item on a checklist. It’s a constant, lifelong process of being converted by and to God’s love for this whole world and each person in it.
Figuring out how to name where prejudice, bias, and racism is showing up in our world and in your brain will change you as a person – it is part of the daily dying and rising we are called to in our baptisms. Each day we must die to all that draws us from true life with God, and each day we rise to the promise of God’s healing and reconciling presence among us. And as we walk this journey, it will feel sometimes like we are dying as we understand the pervasiveness of the problem and perhaps our own complicity in it – but ultimately, this is good news! Because what we are dying to is the subtle and crafty ways that racism shows up in our world. Racism tells us lies – and we as Christians are in the business of telling the truth. And as the book tells us, it’s a good time for the truth. And as the Bible tells us, the truth will set us free. May it be so for you.