Stone Campbell Dialogues: Addressing Race and Racism Within the Church and Society

From the outset I sensed that a conversation about race and racism would be a tough conversation.  These sorts of topics are maddening in their personal and systemic reach and difficulty.  Replete with images and messages depicting Black and White Americans, our media highlights challenges on a regular basis.  So it was that a group of Christians committed to dialogue, conversation, and frankness convened to explore Black and White within the church in the United States.

 Mural by Ernest Shaw, Baltimore 401 East Lafayette Street    http://www.examiner.com/article/baltimore-artist-creates-images-to-uplift-communities  

Mural by Ernest Shaw, Baltimore 401 East Lafayette Street  http://www.examiner.com/article/baltimore-artist-creates-images-to-uplift-communities  

Logistics

Held November 13 and 14 - Our dialogue was sponsored by the Stone Campbell Dialogues, facilitated in partnership with the Racial Unity Leadership Summit, and hosted by Mountain Christian Church in Joppa, Maryland and West Side Church of Christ, Baltimore, Maryland.  

Affectionately called the Stone Campbell Dialogues, this annual gathering brings together representatives from the Christian Church, Churches of Christ, and Disciples of Christ  historically rooted in the Stone Campbell or Restoration Movement.  These conversations exist to develop relationship and trust. . . through worship and through charitable and frank dialogue."  I joined the National dialogue team in 2012 representing the Christian Church tradition - this is truly a highlight of my year.  I hold my co-dialogue partners in the highest regard!  

The Racial Unity Leadership Summit (RULS), founded by Dr. Jerry Taylor, Abilene Christian University, is a a national program of the Churches of Christ, focused upon inspiring unity among people of different races and cultures.  RULS emphasis on contemplation and transformation speaks to my commitment to creating transformative learning spaces:   

When blacks and whites become partners in a contemplative community, they can experience together the transformation of their conscious and subconscious minds. It is when people sit together in silence that they give their souls the opportunity to communicate with one another in a spiritual language that is not of this world. Authentic racial unity grows out of an authentic spiritual union between human souls that are jointly connected to the divine life of God. It is only when their attachment to the life of God has complete supremacy in their hearts that people find the strength to release their attachment to the color of skin.

Dr. Jerry Taylor of Abilene Christian University serves as the RULS director.    What follows are highlights from each presenter.  I should say a word about target audience for this dialogue is primarily Christians; therefore, I have intentionally used the vernacular of each presenter.  I realize that a downside of this may be a sort of "Christian-ese" language and vocabulary. 

Speakers and Notes

Newell Williams (President, Brite Divinity School) opened our time together highlighting our Stone Campbell Movement history saying that racism has been a part of the Stone Campbell tradition....."Since the beginning..."

Don McLaughlin, preaching minister of the North Atlanta Church of Christ in Atlanta, Georgia will serve as the program director for the Baltimore Stone-Campbell Dialogue/RULS.

“We don’t have the vocabulary” to discuss race relations currently or presently.  He then noted that while our conversation specifically focused on African American and White relations, this focus required attention to three parameters:  1)  To the females in the room, we are behind the game in addressing gender roles and issues; 2)  This conversation does not address other minorities and peoples for whom racial injustice occurs; and 3)  We must have an open hear to be educated.

Daryl Reed, Lead Pastor of DC Regional Christian Church - That the World May Believe

In referring to John 17, Daryl reminded of the focus:  “so that the world may believe.”  He noted relative to apologetics that love is the strongest defense, experiencing the love of Christ as embodied and enacted in His people.  He asked:  How did we get so much right and miss the big stuff?  “When we are completely connected to Jesus, we will do what it takes.  Citing Joshua 1:9, Daryl exhorted that it will take courage and leadership to begin to address race issues. 

~ Transition ~

After Daryl’s talk, Don questioned whether ‘color blindness’ is really what we’re after given that color blindness:

·        Requires that I see less of you

·        Possible creates less to deal with

·        Denies the fullness of a person’s being

“Do you have to know me less to love me more?"  Unity [in the John 17 sense] is the expression of how we live with difference.  

Doug Foster, Professor of Church History, Abilene Christian UniversityThe Great Deception: How Satan Created Our Perceptions of Race and Deprived Us of Christian Unity

Doug started with a reading of 2 Corinthians 3:12-18 – specifically:  6 But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. . . . .  And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory.” 

The United States story is perpetually filled with conflict and oppression of peoples.  If we look historically within the United States, race is seared into the US DNA (e.g., slavery, US Civil War, Jim Crow Laws, Civil Rights, incarceration, Black Lives Matter, etc.).  Using excerpts from the film:    Race – The Power of An Illusion  While we are founded on the ideal of All Men Are Created Equal, the US created a story around the idea of race, an idea that led to notions of that black and slave were synonymous.  In an 1846 debate of ‘species’ Samuel Morton put for a notion that blacks were inferior based on skull size.  Josiah Nott further argued that blacks are a different species.  These ideas served to naturalize a social structure where blacks were subhuman, inferior to whites.  Doug emphasized that this creation of a perception of blacks’ inferiority does not go away when Morton and Nott’s flawed science is debunked, does not go away when slavery is gone, and does not go away with civil rights.  The rationale does not disappear even if it is flawed once it becomes enculturated.   The film Ethnic Notions explored anti-black stereotypes highlighting how popular culture reinforces stereotypes:

·        Black is ugly – standards of beauty, comparatives, distortions of black images

·        Blacks are savage – African = primitivism, reversion to savagery

·        Blacks are happy servants – sambo, Uncle, etc.; dancing, singing, big smile

Project Implicit is a test that explores a person’s thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control.  https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/  

  Mural by Ernest Shaw, Baltimore 401 East Lafayette Street

Mural by Ernest Shaw, Baltimore 401 East Lafayette Street

~ Transition ~

Don discussed the challenge of systemic racism noting the difficulties of moving forward because trust is simply not present.  “It’s hard to face [that as a white male] I am complicit.”

Travis Stanley, Pastor of Norwalk Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Norwalk, Iowa - Disrupting White Supremacy from Within

Whiteness is often portrayed as the antithesis of blackness.  Whites created race as a construct.  Cone (2014) in the Cross and the Lynching Tree asserted that white theologians ignore race.  Racism is a white problem.  Disrupting White Supremacy notes the following:

  • ·Locating ourself in this life sucking system malforms us as white people. 
  • ·Acknowledge the oppressive system.  Name it.
  • · Uncouple white ‘maleness’ from the discussion.  This is not about feelings, it’s about systemized superiority.  Need to dismantle the system. 

The reconciliation paradigm has failed us – it is inadequate.  Travis referenced The Black Manifesto of 1969 which was written to white churches.  Relationship is not the problem.  Power is the problem.  He called for reparations. 

~Transition~

Don asked:  Why do some white people get offended by the notion of white supremacy?  White privilege is not solely about resources, it’s about access.  

Travis Hurley, Vice President of Development, Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri - The Next Generation Must Be Better

How did we get so far from the truth?  

David Fleer,  Professor of Bible and Communication, Lipscomb University -  How to Talk About Racism: The Art of Scapegoating

Truth telling is a prerequisite to reconciliation.  Scapegoating prohibits my seeing.    

Reflections

This was a day where childhood memories came flooding in from a life lived in a small town in the 1960s and 1970s.  'Diversity' where I was raised was often described in terms of Catholics and Protestants.   So many stories though... I don't recall any African Americans in our town or school.  Life revolved around work, school, church, and family - sporting events were popular.  It was told that African Americans could not be in town after sundown although an exception was made for athletic teams.  So many memories... As a young child in the mid-60s returning from family vacation we were driving through East Saint Louis when one of my brothers said the N-word.  Daddy pulled the car over and yelled at us to never ever say that word. Momma reflecting on working at an ammunition plan in Texas in the late 1940s/early 1950s where she supervised a crew of black men saying that when her boss asked if she was afraid of the blacks she said No! - she was a whole lot more afraid of the white male truckers - they weren't afraid of repercussion...hearing Mom describe the time when the Ku Klux Klan came down the center aisle of the church with a gift.  I recall a time in Sunday School when we were asked to describe what it meant to be unequally yoked in 2 Corinthians 6:14 - I said it was a discussion about belief and nonbelief but was informed that this was about interracial marriage - don't yoke yourself to someone who's not your kind.  ...so many images and stories.  I wonder about my unquestioned or unrecognized biases and assumptions.

December 12

For a million reasons I didn't publish this blog post.  I guess I felt as though it were way too summative with little substance....I found myself fearful that it would seem to light brush a topic that is so vital and important.   This week, however, I am reeling in response to persistent hateful rhetoric stemming from what I perceive to be feelings of national boundary setting, fear of decreased security, and X-phobia (black, Hispanic, Muslim, homosexual, non-US citizen OR any other category).  The news and social media included a litany of calls to:  deny all Muslims access; prohibit refugee entry, monitor mosques, kick everyone out, build a wall, see entire groups as this or that (gross negative assertions about entire groups of people), blow 'em all to hell, arm yourself with guns and protect yourself from terrorists.. ....on and on it went.  Hateful.  Bigoted. Isolationist. Dangerous. Murderous language.  Rhetoric justified by its communicants as okay due to concerns about national boundaries, security, fear, otherness, and judgment.  

Clearly, I understand the fear that one could be in a movie theater and there be an attack - a fear of dire consequences related to being in the wrong place at the wrong time; a sense of shaken reality stemming from monitoring one's surroundings looking for things out of whack.  It's odd for my husband and I who both travel for work to talk about a contingency communication plan should there be a terrorist attack somewhere where we are or that prohibits our travel.  I understand that we are thinking differently, we are more cautious. Yet - in the face of possible horrors the call to love and be hospitable is ever present.  God's grace is never ending and in response we must strive to extend grace.  I don't know how we do this but I know we are called to do so - no exceptions.  I find myself praying for a time of silence and meditation - it feels like we are at a time in history of amped and intensifying communication, hatred, bigotry with accompanying negative actions.      Some Scriptures important to my understanding include:  John 17, Mark 12, and Hebrews 2. Jesus said his followers are in the world but not of the world.  Our national citizenry lessens in comparison to our identification with Jesus and his kingdom.  In Mark 12 and Hebrews 2 - Christians are called to love your neighbor and be hospitable to strangers.  These passages are swirling through my mind as I try to process this dialogue and discussion around race evoking the following thoughts:

  • Orientation - We are called to orient ourselves to others with love, hospitality, and with a focus on unity.  
  • Unity is NOT about agreement, e.g., agreeing to a specific interpretation or doctrine but again one of orientation one toward another. 
  • Citizenship - Believers' citizenship (God's Kingdom) ultimately transcends locational citizenry.
  • Love and hospitality are required...even to strangers...those not like us, we don't know.  There are no expressed boundaries to our call to love and be hospitable.  
  • Grace - this is a challenging concept to understand (God's grace, by God's grace) but also as in extending grace to others AS it has been extended to us.
  • Political correctness leaves little room for conversational grace where people seek understanding and revelation of thoughts and assumptions.  In digging deep, we likely are to say things that can be perceived as 'racist' - yet in the spirit of dialogue and grace we must talk with one another.  
  • 2D thinking and rhetoric (right/wrong; black/white, etc.) minimize the complexity of this conversation and are not that useful in their opposition and hierarchy.
  • Bridge building - there must be leaders committed to creating opportunities for dialogue and opportunities to discuss these issues, raise awareness, and seek restoration.

At the outset of this post, I said that the Dialogue I attended was a dialogue of fellow Christians trying to highlight issues of race as a way of fostering understanding and conversation. This week I have seen far too many instances of Christians joining in with the negative assertions and hateful language.  Sigh.  I'm reminded of my grad school ethics professor who said that the call to be a follower of Jesus is the most demanding call - one where a person transcends the tyranny of the day in response to grace through expressions of love and hospitality for others...even when those expressions are difficult and seemingly non-nonsensical.    

Resources

Foster, D. (2015).  Raising Consciousness—White Privilege & Creation of Race, Annotated Bibliography.  Download PDF  (Shared with permission from D. Foster, 11/2015).  

Taylor, M. (2015).  Moving Beyond Color Blind.  Retrieved from  http://christianstandard.com/2015/12/moving-beyond-color-blind/

Press Release. (2015).  http://christianstandard.com/2015/11/race-unity-topics-at-stone-campbell-dialogue/