A Damaged People

Legacy Museum in Montgomery Alabama
This verse of a Maya Angelou poem is on the outside of the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery, Alabama

I am an aging white male Protestant minister. From the inception of colonial America through the first one-hundred years of the United States, my kind ruled the roost.[i] We established schools and universities, advised governors and presidents, and held the reins of power. We were at the vanguard of the nation’s spiritual and moral development.[ii] Even after much of American society became increasingly secularized and more pluralistic, we white men of the cloth wielded a great deal of influence. We still hold respect (albeit less respected than earlier times in American history) and are typically given the benefit of the doubt in most situations.

For all the good we have done throughout American history, we also turned a blind eye to the slave trade and even championed slavery as a good for black Africans throughout most of the United States. Even in the North, where abolitionists could be found, far too many of us preached against slavery not for the inherent evil it is but because of fear that blacks might integrate with the more enlightened white society. Using their influence, ministers got behind efforts to send blacks back to Africa. Hence, the modern-day country of Liberia.[iii] Although today’s white male ministers are more diverse than ever in their theology and practice, there yet remains for us all a collective wound, a putrid abscess of a racialized society.

Something else to know about me: I have two academic degrees in history and did my graduate thesis on slaveholder religion in the antebellum South. I continue to keep abreast of historical research pertaining to my own expertise.[iv] I am both a church pastor and a hospital chaplain. Spiritual and pastoral care of parishioners, patients, and their families are the stuff of my workaday world. I exist in the lived world of people’s struggles, joys, hopes, and desires – bearing witness to all their myriad experiences of heartbreak, miracle, and everything in between.[v]

As both an historian and ordained minister, I agree with religion and social history professor, D.G. Hart, when he said, “There is a long history going all the way back to slavery, of white Americans not trusting black perspectives as truthful.”[vi] Indeed, this has been my own experience in discussing racism. I have come to expect that if I am in a room full of white male ministers, the subject of racism will not be broached – unless I bring it up. I am usually met with defensiveness and an insistence about not being racist; and, a rebuke of bringing up politics in the august clerical group. The assumptions in the room are that we, ministers, are color-blind (“I don’t see a person’s color when I preach.”); and, that racism means a specific political agenda (“All lives matter, not only black ones….”).[vii]

It would be untenable and unethical if I entered a patient room as a chaplain and spent my time providing for the nurse’s emotional and spiritual well-being. Yes, she has needs, too, and a good chunk of my job involves care of staff. Yet, in this scenario, it is the sick person we are both attending to. It will not do for me to argue, “I don’t see a person’s health when I look at them – I am health-blind.” And it would be ludicrous for me to insist that “all lives matter, not just sick ones,” and nonsense to say, “healthy lives matter.”

Yet, this is happening every day. It is as if a person is struck by a car and lies bleeding in the street while the ambulance and first responders rush to the driver who hit the person saying, “Are you okay? That must have been traumatic running over a person!” Yes, the driver is in shock and will likely need therapy to deal with what happened. However, this is not the primary need and focus of the moment.

Black men die in our streets and we focus on the unruly aspects of demonstrations and riots. Black women disproportionately lose their lives in maternity wards, along with an infant mortality rate more than twice that of whites.[viii] Black families on average have ten times less the annual income than white families, with little to no inherited property or wealth (due in large degree to widespread twentieth century zoning laws which excluded blacks from certain geographic areas and neighborhoods).[ix]

We need not look to other nations of the world for human rights violations. “Physician, heal thyself,” comes from the Gospel of Luke. Immediately after Jesus proclaimed that the poor, the prisoner, the blind, and the oppressed matter, he received pushback from the establishment to maintain the status quo. The good news of freedom and recovery is still subversive and scandalous today as it was all those centuries ago. The gospel still elicits anger from the privileged when resources are focused toward the underprivileged.[x]

I once had a fellow old white Protestant minister throw up his hands in exasperation after speaking with him about race saying, “Well, what do you want me to do about it!?” Indeed, what shall you do? How then shall we live?

The short answer: care. The following are a potpourri of practices I have personally engaged over the past few decades. Perhaps and hopefully you will find some ways to put a voice and some hands and feet to the caring:

  • Seek first to understand rather than be understood. Be informed. Read. Listen to another, without mentally arming yourself with a response. If you cannot state to a person you disagree with their position in a way they would say, “Yep, that’s it, that’s my position,” then you have not done your due diligence in listening well. The bibliography below are just a few books I have found helpful for me as a white person seeking to understand.
  • Engage in self-awareness. Explore what implicit bias and microaggressions are and take a fierce moral inventory of your own life regarding them.
  • Find out what the needs are in your local community. Projecting what you think the needs are of a place or a people is not the same as discovering what the needs really are. Many of my fellow whites cannot see past the demonstrations of black folk on the streets to the needs behind those demonstrations. People demonstrate because they have legitimate needs which are not being fulfilled and they possess little power to change the system which keeps those needs unfulfilled.
  • Exercise humility and repentance. Have a teachable spirit. Be willing to say when you are wrong without beating up yourself. True repentance is not shame – it is changing course when you see your previous path was down a damaging road. More than once I have stuck my foot in my mouth and said something racist that, at the time, I did not realize.
  • Embrace your power, position, or privilege. Use what you have for the benefit of those without. And, more difficult to do for most of my white brothers and sisters, share your power. If a round table discussion of all nice old white male Protestant ministers talk about what to do about race, we will only get a nice old white male Protestant minister answer about how to deal with it. Furthermore, token procedures and policies, as well as token representation will do diddly squat.
  • Keep the main thing the main thing. There are many things which require our (white) attention, including talking to our kids about race, common decency, etc. Yet, when black lynching continues in more modern and sophisticated forms, this requires our immediate attention. The white lady in the car is not bleeding in the street, so keep focused on the main thing.
  • Dedicate effort and resources to dismantling systemic and structural racism. We white folk built it. We can destroy it. The only assumptions we ought to be making is that racism exists everywhere and in every institution in some way, shape, or form. I define racism as vastly more than overt individual discriminatory words or actions – racism primarily exists as covert inequities which maintain white control of institutional power and decision-making, thus, making it more difficult for people of color to have access and opportunity to quality education, jobs, housing, healthcare, and equal treatment in the criminal justice system.

When one of us is wounded, we are all wounded. It is unacceptable we would ever refuse to weep with our brothers and sisters of color who weep. Until we, whites, can individually and collectively find it within ourselves to grieve and lament the loss of human life beside people of color, then we shall continue to be damaged together as one people. Pastors and faith leaders can play a special role in healing our wounds if we find within ourselves a commitment to such a worthy task.

Bibliography of Selected Works

Brown, Austin Channing I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Colorado Springs, CO: Convergent Books, 2018.

Carter, J. Kameron Race: A Theological Account, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Coates, Ta-Nehesi Between the World and Me, New York: One World Press, 2015.

Cone, James H. The Cross and the Lynching Tree, New York: Orbis Press, 2013.

DiAngelo, Robin White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Boston: Beacon Press, 2018.

Douglass, Frederick The Complete Works of Frederick Douglass, Madison & Adams Press, 2018.

DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.

Glaude, Eddie S. Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, New York: Broadway Books, 2017.

Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist, New York: One World Books, 2019.

Rah, Soong-Chan Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church, Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2010.

Swanson, David W. Rediscipling the White Church: From Cheap Diversity to True Solidarity, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Tisby, Jemar The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 2019.

Endnotes

[i] E. Brooks Holifield, Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003): 1-4.

[ii] Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972): xiii-xvi.

[iii] Edwin S. Gaustad, ed. A Documentary History of Religion in America to the Civil War (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1982): 485-490.

[iv] I have a B.A. in history from the University of Northern Iowa and an M.A. in 19th Century American Religious History from Western Michigan University – as well as an M.Div. from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.  For a survey of recent historical research approaches, see Jay D. Green, Christian Historiography: Five Rival Trends (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2015).

[v] I am the Staff Chaplain at Aurora St. Luke’s South Shore Medical Center and the Pastor of the New Life Community Church, both in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

[vi] D.G. Hart, The Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2016): 46.

[vii] These statements have been said to me by several white ministers in the past ten years from various denominations, theological traditions, and geographical locales – enough for me to form anecdotal evidence regarding common presuppositions of race.

[viii] Cigna Health and Life Insurance Co., Report on African American Health Disparities, 2016.

[ix] Kriston McIntosh, Emily Moss, Ryan Nunn, and Jay Shambaugh, Examining the Black-White Wealth Gap (The Brookings Institute, 2020).

[x] Luke 4:14-30 in The Holy Bible.

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