Tuesday, October 25, 2016

How Might the White Church "Die to 'Whiteness'"?

"White" Christians, "white" congregations, the "white" church -- these words don't make any sense. But how do we change them?

Edvard Munch, Two Women on the Shore

At University Lutheran Chapel in Berkeley, we've been reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Among other things, the book is a wake-up call for "people who think themselves white." And once awake, it's impossible for those people not to ask, "How might I think of myself?"

Three days ago, I attended a panel discussion featuring four ministers from the Bay Area. The discussion took place at the Oakland Museum of California, during a multi-day symposium on the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party, and the topic of the panel was "Liberation Theology - The Black Panther Party and the Church." In response from a question from an audience member about what the white church needs to do, Rev. Michael McBride said,

"The white church needs to die to 'whiteness'."

And I thought, "Of course."

How might the white church "die to 'whiteness'"?

For the past three days, I've been thinking a lot about what Pastor Mike said.

I certainly like the sound of it.

I'm not sure I know how to do it.

My first impulse is to say: we need to quash symbols of white ethnicity -- Bach hymns and Norwegian sweaters and Swedish coffee cake -- and open ourselves up to other cultural referents.

Pretty soon I'm off and running with visions of different ways to adorn the church, different ways to do worship, different ways to do fellowship . . . .

But something brings me up short.

I think there is valuable conversation to be had about music and attire and food -- about the signals we send to ourselves and others about who we are and where we seek our comfort -- but I also think it can obscure the heart of the matter.

The heart of the matter, at least as I understand it, is that race is a social construct, and it's concerned with power. "Whiteness" is a condition of power over and against people who get defined as "not white." "Dying to 'whiteness'," then, will involved giving up power, I think.

It may be difficult to understand how to give up power, particularly in a church context, in which (we may think) we aren't exercising any power. (At least not in the sense of physical power.)

But several possibilities come to mind.

In the church context, a lot of our power comes from our prerogative to interpret and re-interpret . . .

What might happen if we devoted ourselves to ("merely") listening to the experiences of those who have been defined as "not white" -- and check our habit of explaining what the "real" meaning of what we are hearing is?

In the church context, a lot of our power comes from our position as mediators . . .

What might happen if we took upon ourselves the demands of those who have been defined as "not white" -- and forgo our habit of watering down those demands to make them more "palatable" or "realistic"?

In the church context, a lot of our power comes from our role as managers . . .

What might happen if we went to work in the service of the solutions devised by those who have been defined as "not white" -- even solutions that we don't get to direct and control?

These are just a few thoughts that have occurred to me.

The real value, of course, will come as large numbers of people who "think themselves white" devote themselves to this question: How might I -- how might this Church -- "die to 'whiteness'"? (And: What lies on the other side?)

Related posts

Maybe a good next step is to read Coates' book and sit with it . . . listening to what comes up . . . but not jumping immediately into "solving."

(See On Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates (A Confession))

"I am convinced that we are in denial about the racism that saturates our society and from which we directly benefit. That denial produces predictable twin reactions from white people: either silence about the racism that plainly reinforces our way of living or surprise at the frustration and outrage African Americans and others express at how they are treated."

(See Can "Lutheran" Be a #BlackLivesMatter Denomination?)

How will the organized power of 4 million Lutherans in the US be brought to bear on the fact that we are living on occupied land.

(See DECOLONIZE THIS: The ELCA's Doctrine of Discovery Challenge)

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