Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Deep in my Heart, I do Believe

You must imagine me sitting in church in the heart of America in 1963. The particular day or occasion is irrelevant. It might have been a Sunday morning or Sunday evening service. It might have been a Sunday morning or Wednesday evening Bible class. It might have been the Tuesday night of a week-long Gospel Meeting in the summer. (I spent a lot of time in church in those days.)

It might even have been a time when the preacher or Bible class teacher was discussing the narrative in Acts about Peter and the Gentiles, where Peter, a Jew, learns the hard lesson that God is no respecter of persons.

But here's what I've come to realize, and what I've been turning over in my head and heart since shortly before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2015. It's a reality I find both ironic and sad:

In all those worship services and in all those Bible classes, I don't remember hearing about racism. Not even once. I don't ever remember anyone referring to the racial tensions in our country and addressing them in light of scripture. Not even when the story in the biblical text (e.g., Peter preaching to the Gentiles) would seem to demand it.

Why was this the case, I wonder? I don't think it was because there were no racial tensions and no social injustice in my town. It was 1963, after all, the height of the Civil Rights movement, the year that Dr. King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.

I can think of at least two reasons why racism and social injustice were not discussed in my church. First, we were all white. We were vaguely aware that black Christians were worshiping in their own (black) churches on the other side of town, but we seldom encountered them and did not worship with them. My town was as segregated as my church. There were no black kids in my elementary school. Even in Junior High, there were few students who did not look like me. Only in high school would I go to school in an integrated environment.

Second, my church's approach to the Bible and theology, promoted, in direct and indirect ways, a dichotomy between the spiritual and the secular. Religious acts like Bible study, worship, and baptism were part of the sacred world; concerns of poverty and racism and gender equality were consigned to the secular realm.

So rather than learning about the damaging effects of racism on society in church, I learned about it in school. In my junior year of high school, Philip Rhea (bless his heart), my honors English teacher, led the class through a selection of literature written by African Americans. We read W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folks; we read John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me; we even read Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice.

And slowly through the reading and discussion of these and other books, a new reality began to open up to me, and I realized two things: that my black classmates came from people who were the victims of institutional and systemic racism, and that I was white, privileged, and middle class, and through no fault of my own, I was part of the problem. Finally, thanks to Mr. Rhea's reading list and the fact that some of the literature we read was recent, I learned that racism was not simply part of an embarrassing past but was active in my town and my nation in 1970.

I wonder to this day how Mr. Rhea got approval from the administration and school board to teach these books in his class, but I'm thankful he did. In college, I would commute to another campus to take a class in Black Literature because my university did not offer one. Later still, I would decide to make teaching writing and literature my life's work, due in large part to my life-changing reading experience in that high school English class. If books could open up a whole new window on the world for me, I figured they were worth it.

I just wish we would have talked about some of this in church.

I wish someone at church had told me about the racial injustice in my town.

I wish someone at church had named racism as a sin that stands as an affront to the Christian faith.

I wish someone at church had told me that Christians are theologically bound to seek the elimination of racism.

Some might wonder why I'm dredging up the distant past and claim that such blind spots no longer exist in the church. However, I've heard similar sacred/secular dichotomies expressed by my students at  an evangelical Christian university. On a trip to the Iona Community in Scotland, we visited a service that focused on environmentalism and what we as Christians could do to reduce the carbon footprint and demonstrate care for the health of the earth. Several students commented afterwards that they enjoyed meeting in the ancient church but that the service "hadn't seemed like church," presumably because it focused not on praise to Jesus but on non-spiritual and earthly concerns.

A few weeks ago, on the day before the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I sat in another church service, and we talked about, of all things, racism.

The pastor's text that morning was the calling of Samuel and the word he heard from the Lord to confront Eli about the sins of his family. She noted the events in the story could parallel what Christians need to do with reference to racism. For example, we should listen. We must listen to the stories of those whose lives are negatively affected by racism. We must listen to the stories from Detroit, and Staten Island, and Ferguson, for example. This listening, the pastor noted, will likely make us uncomfortable, just as the message Samuel was told to communicate to Eli was hard and made him uncomfortable.

At some point during the service, we sang James Weldon Johnson's poem set to music, Lift Every Voice and Sing, a song that has come to be called the African American National Anthem. It's the hymn that Maya Angelou writes about so movingly in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the song that brought hope to her and her fellow African American high school graduating students after a white speaker had told them they should never expect to rise above the level of being hired hands and domestic servants in society. Here's the second verse of that song:

Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet, come to the place for which our people sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last,
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

We have few people of color in our church, but as I sang this anthem with my predominately white congregation, I couldn't help but feel there was something healing and healthy about it. I felt I was in some small way lamenting and abiding with my African American brothers and sisters, past and present. And I had a strong sense that as a Christian, that's something I need to do, even something I must do.

The following Sunday we talked more about what it would look like to lament and abide in humility with people of color. And we talked about some practical ways we could respond to the institutional and systemic racism still at work in our society. We talked about how this is not just optional but part and parcel of what we should be up to as people of faith. And we closed the service singing

We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome some day;/ Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day.

Singing these words moved me and gave me hope.

I don't know how many predominately white churches sing these songs in their services, but it might not be a bad idea to do so occasionally. It's a small thing, I know, and some might see the act as merely symbolic or insignificant in addressing the larger problem. But it's a place to start.

Perhaps social action begins when our hearts are moved and we empathize and identify with the plight of people whose experience differs radically from ours. Perhaps singing the songs of freedom in our churches could be a first step toward seeking just treatment and equity for people of color. A small step, to be sure, but a step nonetheless.

I'm reminded of what Allan Johnson says in his excellent book, Power, Privilege, and Difference:     

If dominant groups really saw privilege and oppression as unacceptable--if white people saw race as their issue, if men saw gender as a men's issue, if heterosexuals saw heterosexism as their problem--privilege and oppression wouldn't have much of a future.
Singing the songs of freedom moved me a step closer to seeing racism as my issue. And, given my background, I'm grateful to be in a church where I no longer have to check my concerns for social justice at the door.

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