Decades ago, Mortimer Adler wrote his classic, How to Read a Book. One of the seminal pieces of information he provides is that in reading, we need to “come to terms” with an author. Some of the frustrations we can have when reading anything occurs when authors use words we are familiar with, but they have a different meaning. If you are a person of color living in the US, it doesn’t take long before you realize that although we are saying similar things in the nation and in the church, we have very different meanings.
One of my favorite quotes is from Winston Churchill who said, “The history books will be kind to me, for I intend to write them.” It is a perfect depiction of how history is told—namely, by the victors. Whoever is in power dictates how the story is told, who the heroes and villains are, and what is successful.
In America, we are taught the nation was founded on principles like truth, justice, equality, and diversity. The Statue of Liberty has that wonderful quote:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
It is an incredible idea, perhaps the ideal of America, but it is not one that we have lived out well. If we listen to the cries and tombs of the margins of society, we will hear a different tale from First Nations, Africans, Mexican, Chinese, and other people groups who were the victims of unspeakable atrocities that both remain unknown and unacknowledged by American history.
If you doubt this, ask people of differing ethnicities over the age of 50 to describe the United States. The answers will vary completely. Sam Houston, whom with the city of Houston is named after, is regarded as a pioneer and hero in the south. However, whenever we pass his statue on the freeway, my mother always remarks, “Biggest liar of them all.”
States seceded from the Union for “states rights” (namely, the right to maintain slavery), and while they lost the Civil War, there are Confederate Statues and streets named after Confederate soldiers throughout the South. They are heroes and symbols of history to some and to others ghosts of racism, oppression, and murder that remain to this day.
Alternatively, take the September 11th attacks. Men and women lost their lives during that terrorist attack and its ripple effects are still felt today—from families who still grieve to heightened airport security, the change in the New York Skyline to the undercurrent of fear many Americans have to this day that another attack is only a matter of time. What happens on September 11th? Social media is flooded with images of the American flag and the hashtag, #NeverForget. We choose to remember this atrocity because it happened to us, but we don’t hold in humility the same atrocities America has committed against over peoples.
Same people, same cities, same dates, different interpretation. We must come to terms with our history if we are to have a future.
Because we have different interpretations of history, we also have different interpretations of justice. I won’t drive home this point. Hopefully, it is clear. There has yet to be a conviction of a police officer in any case involving the unarmed shooting of a Black person in the U.S. I recently learned that Berkeley in California built its stadium on a First Nations burial ground, excavated the remains, and has yet to turn them over to their respective tribes for burial. It is a miscarriage of justice, but one that is unknown and unresolved to this day. For people of color, the blood of Abel across generations cries out from the ground to this very day—only the blood has multiplied along with the silence.
The reverse is not true, and I can prove it. I will give one example: Orenthal James “OJ” Simpson. Have you paid attention to late night comedians references to OJ? Stephen Colbert, Seth Myers, and John Oliver (all white men) quickly reference the guilt of OJ and the wound it inflicted on the dominant culture. It is commonly referred to as one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in America.
O.J. Not (fill in the blank of the case that still breaks your heart). On during the documentary, 30 for 30: O.J. Made in America, one black pastor commented on why Black people were so happy O.J. was found not guilty. He stated that Black people were not angry at white people. They remembered the Watts Riots. They remembered Rodney King three years before. They remembered case after case where blood was shed without consequence. “Black people had to cheer in that moment, as tragic as the circumstances were [because we knew it was a small victory in a losing war]. If you are Black in America, joy has to endure for a night, because weeping will come in the morning.”
Because we have different interpretations of history and justice, the American evangelical church has and will continue to struggle in its calls for reconciliation for a number of reasons.
First, reconciliation implies that there was first an ethnically unified church in America. (In my broken Baptist preacher voice, “When we call for reconciliation, that assumes there at some point a conciliation.” Bad English, yes, but good sociology.) The church and the ethnic groups of America have never been unified. We are asking people to re-commit to something that has never been done.
Second, because the church has yet to acknowledge and therefore repent of its oppressive actions, we repeat the same mistakes. (I count repentance as when the church leads in acknowledging injustice and oppression of marginalized peoples first, and not in response to laws that have changed in America.) It is no secret that America is predominantly white. It is no secret that people in power in the country and in the church are white and male. It is also no secret that awareness of privilege and power is limited in white circles because of a lack of displacement—spaces where white people what to submit to leaders and decisions made by people of color. It is no secret that most of the books written in American evangelism have white male authors, and the selectors of the books and teachers of the classes are white and male. The pastors who study the classes and are transformed by the theology taught are also largely white and male.
What does this translate to? A generation of men and women in the dominant culture that have not been prepared to lead cross-culturally and therefore will inadvertently be cultural colonizers while being on mission or will have what psychologists call “fight, flight, or freeze” responses when they experience displacement for the first time (read election of Mr. Trump after 8 years of a Black president). For people of color, it results in either assimilation to the dominant culture, rejecting their heritage or what I will call a “limited partnership” where evangelical networks are used for relationships but the theology is rejected overall because it does not fit our context.
There is a woman who lives in Austin, Texas. She is white. A few years ago, she decided to adopt a two-year old Black boy. She didn’t see color and didn’t see the need to. Then the shootings started hitting the news and social media. Before they didn’t have an impact on her life and so she simply avoided the issues. Well, now, the little son she is raising that has captured her heart that falls asleep in her arms every night—he looks like the unarmed Black people who have been killed in America. She waited for her pastor to say something. Anything. A sermon, a prayer, a statement. All Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter, anything. But he never said anything. She noticed her neighbors in the suburbs also were unaware and didn’t know how to help her. This white mom suddenly had a crisis of faith: her theology and cultural context had not prepared her to raise her Black son in America. She has since sold her house, moved into an apartment in the inner city, and attends a predominately Black church. She told me, “I didn’t even realize there was another world out there. I didn’t have eyes to see it or the language to address it, but now, all I want to do is protect my son. I needed to be in a place where people understood my child and would help me prepare him for a world that didn’t validate his dignity. I came here to learn, and by gollie, I am going back to my family to help them wake up.”
As long as we break into speeches, prepared rebuttals, retreat to political ideologies corners, progress will never be made. I often hear people quote Paul when we talk issues of racial inequality. That in the New Testament because of Jesus, “There is neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female.” Who do we think Paul is speaking to? Those in power of the powerless? When have the powerless ever dictated divisions in society? It is always the powerful who decide what version of history will be told. It is the powerful that determine what laws will protect whom in order to promote justice. It is far too often the oppressor who attempts to tell the oppressed when their healing is complete.
If we are to advance the mission of the kingdom of God, we have to come to a mutual agreement about the world in which we live. That means not always listening to those in power who are unaware of the problems in the world, but rather, we must listen to the least of these among us.
Only then will justice flow like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.