Tuesday, January 12, 2016

My Racist Personal Relationship with God

Michelle Higgins speaks at Urbana. Source: Five ways you can back InterVarsity after #BlackLivesMatter stance.

I highly recommend reading these posts by the Slacktivist (Fred Clark): InterVarsity takes a firehose to Pentecost in a rush to quench the spirit and Toddlers on a treadmill: Why evangelicals can’t even take baby steps toward justice. It's about InterVarsity's statement explaining why they "addressed" #BlackLivesMatter at Urbana 15, their massive missions conference for college students.

"Addressed" isn't really the right word though. Listen to Michelle Higgins's talk here. She says- very clearly- that the evangelical church in America worships a false god of white supremacy and must repent, and she calls on us to support #BlackLivesMatter.

Clark says this about InterVarsity's statement after the fact: "Every paragraph, every line, every sentence, every word was written based on the assumption that the reader is a white Christian." He's absolutely right. Though it never says so explicitly, IV's statement was written to address the question, "But how can a Christian organization support #BlackLivesMatter? I thought it was just some extreme liberal group." (And in this culture, "liberal" means "evil.")

It's a statement addressed to white American evangelicals, bewildered at the idea that Christianity could have anything to do with race. The statement stresses IV's evangelical credentials ("Scripture and the gospel are non-negotiables for us") and invites the reader to believe that support for #BlackLivesMatter is compatible with Christianity.

As Clark says, "That doesn’t mean they’ll be allowed to say “Do justice.” But — provided the anti-gay and anti-abortion stuff remains in good order — they may be allowed to suggest that doing justice is one possible optional extra that some Christians might optionally be permitted to consider as a hobby, just so long as they get their homework done first and it doesn’t otherwise interfere with their support for TAOTS [The Authority Of The Scriptures] or their opposition to gay baby-killing."

So here's the question: Why is it that white Christians would be confused about the possibility of a connection between #BlackLivesMatter- or any issues about race, really- and Christianity?

Because the white evangelical church does not teach that being a Christian is about "doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly before God." Nope. It's about "having a personal relationship with God."

And I believe there is great danger in the concept of closeness with God. I don't see any way you can believe that you know God intimately without also believing God shares your opinions and prejudices. Without believing "God agrees with me."

Because, here's a black woman preaching about the idol of white supremacy. And the white evangelical thinks to themself, "well, I get up early every morning and spend half an hour reading the bible and listening to God, and God has never said a word to me about white supremacy. This speaker says it's a sin I need to face and repent of, but, if it was so important, why hasn't God mentioned it?"

Or, here's an example from my life. Right now I'm disappointed with IV for backing down from their endorsement of #BlackLivesMatter, but in general, I really admire the work IV does in the area of race and racial reconciliation. That's one of the most valuable things I got out of my experience with IV in college. But I remember the first time I went to an IV meeting and the topic was race- and I was surprised. I had never heard anyone in church talk about race before. The speaker showed us Ephesians 2:14-16, and talked about how, through Jesus, Jews and Gentiles were reconciled. And how racial reconciliation is right there at the core of the gospel. And I was like, how on earth have I never noticed this before?

I went back to my dorm room and I wondered about my own racist biases. I thought about how I kind of thought black people were a little scary, and I was pretty sure it was just a feeling and I had never treated any black people badly because of it, but I wondered if maybe I should pray that God would help me not to have racist thoughts like that. But I didn't want to. I thought, "I'm not really racist, just a little bit uncomfortable, and God completely knows and understands me- God understands that I'm not really racist."

The whole "personal relationship with God" thing provided a way out of admitting my sin of racism. Because if all that matters is me and God, well, then it's all right. God understands how I feel a little scared of black people. Fortunately I then realized, black people are totally God's children too, equal to me, and God must be really upset with me for thinking those kinds of things about people made in God's image.

Again, another example about my time in IV: Every year, a leadership selection team was put together to choose the student leaders for the next year. I remember one year, I heard a black student in IV was unhappy that very few people of color had been chosen for leadership. But I didn't take her concerns seriously at all, because I knew that the leadership selection team had prayed about it a lot, so the choices they made were the ones God wanted.

Because when you pray about something a lot, and you "feel peace" about it, as Christians always say you should, then how can you be open to hearing valuable feedback about the mistakes you made in that decision?

And if you believe God speaks to you and guides you every day, but God has never said anything about how you benefit from centuries of white supremacy and you need to repent... well then, it must not matter to God, huh? Must not be true.

And if you ask all your friends to pray about your job interview, and then you credit God with getting you the job, then how can you acknowledge the reality of employment discrimination- that people with black-sounding names are significantly less likely to get called for job interviews? You believe God helped you get the job as part of his perfect plan- that God controlled every part of the process and blessed you with a new job. If you believe that, you can't believe in systemic racism, can you?

Overall, white evangelicalism's obsession with "having a personal relationship with God" is a convenient way to ignore our sinful complicity in society-wide injustice. It's all about your own relationship with God. Everyone is equal spiritually- and that's all that matters. Sin is bad because it breaks your own personal relationship with God. Maybe your sin hurts people too, but that's not really the point. Completely absent is the idea that the sins of the privileged disproportionately affect those in marginalized groups.

And then somebody comes along and says, American culture trains white people to have subconscious racial biases. It's not white people's fault, but they have the responsibility to fight back against the casual racism and to challenge their own prejudices. And when a white evangelical hears this for the first time, it doesn't sound anything like what they've been taught about sin. "No, that's not what sin is. How can it be a sin if it's not my fault? How can it be a sin if I've never felt guilty about it? How can it be a sin if I've never noticed it causing damage to my personal relationship with God?"

In that context, of course it would be baffling that InterVarsity would take a stand in support of #BlackLivesMatter. Of course Christians would be confused about the connection between racial justice in this world- right here, right now- and the gospel.

And so of course, InterVarsity published a statement defending the idea that it is possible to be a Christian and support #BlackLivesMatter. When you don't challenge the assumption that a "personal relationship with God" is the most important thing, all you can ever do is defensively, nervously make a case that it's possible to be a Christian and do justice.

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