By: Nate Mason
Holy smoke! February is almost over and I have no idea where it went. Do to my constant distraction from life in ministry, life with a young family, and just life in general I have missed out on most of this month, and that’s tragic because two very important things happen in February. The first is February is the annual stewardship campaign for Iowan United Methodist Camps Please, please, please take the time to go to their website and fill out a pledge form. Camping is one of the first ways kids experience faith outside their local setting. They have the opportunity to see that Christ is Lord everywhere, and not just within their home and church. Furthermore, it’s an outstanding way to help kids experience the glory of God’s creation. I grew up a free ranged kid in the middle of nowhere in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Unfortunately, my kids will be raised in civilization, so we need places like Okoboji and Wesley Woods to get our hiking in. We are still a long way from our goal so please take the time to give.
The second, and probably the more important thing going on in February is Black History Month.
A few months ago there was a great exchange between Nikole Hannah-Jones and Chuck Todd:
Todd: "Parents are saying 'hey don't make my kid feel guilty." And a parent of color is going...'I need to teach reality.'"
Hannah-Jones: "You should just think a little bit about your framing. You said 'parents.' And then you said 'parents of color.' So the 'white' is silent."
That is a powerful concept, "the 'white' is silent." It does a great job of explaining implicit bias. When people complain that there is a Black History Month but not a White History Month, they should realize that we always teach white history, it's just that the 'white' is silent. Think about all the historical figures we learn about outside of "Black History" lessons: all the presidents, but one, were white, all the heads on Mt. Rushmore are white, military history is the history of white men. When it isn't expressly about white people, we whitewash it. There wasn't a single European involved in Christian history for the first 200+ years of the religion, but for some reason they are all portrayed as white people. After the Disciples, most of the early church fathers were from Africa. Augustine was a Berber from modern day Algeria. Critics of Athanasius, the church father that gave us detailed notes from the First Council of Nicaea, would call him “the black dwarf.” Yet for some reason, if you google image search these men, most artistic depictions of them fail to capture their heritage. The truth is, Black History is Church History. We don't frame it like that, but it's still the truth. The 'white' is silent.
In honor of Black History month, in honor of our blessed church fathers that paved the way, in honor of the often overlooked men and women that made our country great, I want to just talk a little bit about racism and how we can better recognize this deep spiritual problem. It’s a lot more complicated than the use of hate speech, violence against minorities, and racial slurs. Racism goes deep to the very beginning.
I want to begin by making four things absolutely clear
1. This is not about shame. Do not feel like this is a personal attack, or that the purpose is to make you feel like a racist. I do not believe there is a single racist in our Conference. This isn't about politics. This isn't Trump's fault. This isn't Obama or Biden’s fault. This problem goes back hundreds of years before any of these Presidents was ever born. This is about learning, this is about listening. Nobody knows everything; nobody has the full experience to understand the racial conflict. The goal is to gain a deeper understanding
2. To gain a deeper understanding, we need to rely upon healthy, accurate sources. Facebook has always been a very sketchy source of information. So many posts begin with "Shared by <alleged expert> friend" but it never has a source citation. Ask any teacher member of our church how much we should trust unsourced material! I will be relying on religious experts, social scientists, and witness from people I personally know to help shed light on the subject. It's easy to find a clip video to reinforce what you would like to believe, but such simplified views rarely encompass a robust truth. Also, these clips tend to suffer from tokenism which we hope to discuss. I have hyper-linked several of my sources, if you are interested in more, or can’t access these ones, reach out and I will connect you.
3. This is about sharing what our Faith Tradition believes about racial conflicts. The United Methodist Church has played a huge roll in the global battle against racism. Nelson Mandela was a Methodist and credited his church with the inspiration that helped him endure the ugly struggles during Apartheid. The secular world is constantly buzzing in our ear on what we should believe and how we should act. The church needs to raise its voice so we can ground ourselves in Christ.
4. I am an imperfect messenger for this important message. I am a middle aged, middle class, cisgendered white man. I have absolutely zero personal experience on the receiving end of racism. I recognize this short coming, and you should too. However, addressing racism isn’t a burden for people of color to bear by themselves. I have been blessed with many friends and colleagues who have taken the time to share their experiences with me and educate me on the sins of racism. They did that out of love for me, but that’s not their job. We need to all work to help keep each other accountable. In that spirit, feel free to shoot me a note to correct my short comings and inaccuracies. We all have room for growth.
Systemic Racism, Original Sin, and Nudge
Let’s start with Systemic Racism, but before we get there, we need to go back. Way back. Back to the very beginning. As in “In the Beginning” Genesis kind of beginning. The roots of systemic racism begin with Original Sin.
To quickly recap, our Doctrine of Original Sin states that Adam and Eve cursed us all to have a sinful nature since they committed the first sin. But not only were people cursed by sin, EVERYTHING was corrupted by sin. People, animals, even the Earth itself suffers because of sin. For those of us who take a more allegorical look at Genesis, we understand Original Sin to mean that we are born into a world with sin in it, we will be affected by that sin, and that will cause us to be sinful. Think of sin as a contagious act. I don’t get enough sleep, so I yell at my kids. My kids are hurt and scared, so they act out at daycare. The teacher at daycare has the worst day ever, so she goes home and yells at her husband. That one act spreads out and wrecks the days/lives of many other people. Through the Grace of Christ, we have the power to resist sin. Through Christ, we can put a stop to the spread of harm, but so often we don’t. Because sin is present, it will corrupt all of us and the institutions we create, thus perpetuating that sin over and over again.
Systemic Racism is the result of humanity’s sin creeping into our modern social, economic, and political systems
Look at Flint, Michigan. The city failed to provide clean drinkable water to its people. Over 9,000 children have suffered from lead poisoning because of this these kids will have lifelong learning and academic challenges. Those children did nothing to endanger themselves. They didn’t deserve this treatment; they were just the victims of a sinful system. We sin, that sin corrupts, that sin spreads.
There’s a reason why “corrupt government” is a universal truism through all of human history. Given enough time, humanity will find a way to corrupt everything we make. This was true in Biblical times. In the beginning of Exodus, we see how the descendants of Abraham were first welcomed visitors in Egypt, then they became enslaved for 400 years. Then God established the Holy Land and gave every tribe their own place, but one by one the tribes fell into systems of corruption. After the tribes, God established the Davidic monarchy. That system too was corrupted by sin, so God sent the prophets to guide them back to righteousness. At every turn, humanity found a way to corrupt the system. To quote the prophet Micah “Her leaders pronounce judgment for a bribe, Her priests instruct for a price And her prophets divine for money. Yet they lean on the Lord saying, ‘Is not the Lord in our midst. Calamity will not come upon us.” (Micah 3:11) The monarchy was corrupt. The priests were corrupt. Even the prophets were corrupt. This corruption didn’t end with the death and resurrection of Christ. The Reformation lead by Martin Luther was an attempt to free the church of the corruption caused by humanity’s sinful nature. You see, due to our sinful nature, sin will always find a way to creep into the systems and institutions we build. Like all sin, if we do not name it, confess it, and repent from it, it will lead to death as all sin does.
Little nudges over time have a huge impact
We need to understand that it doesn’t take much effort to have a huge impact. There’s a great book called Nudge by the economist Richard Thaler. This book is all about little adjustments that radically change the quality of life for the masses. For example, they ran a study with a power company on the best way to encourage their customers to conserve energy. Simply by sending out a letter to each house comparing their energy usage to that of their neighbors, they saw that neighborhoods energy consumption go down by 25%! A simple letter lead to megawatts of savings. They did another study where a company automatically enrolled all of their employees into their retirement savings plan and gave them the choice to opt. Before the standard practice was for the employee to opt in of their own volition. The result was millions of dollars of savings per employee over the course of their lifetime.
If a little nudge can do a lot of good, it can also cause catastrophic harm
It’s important to remember that systemic sins compound over generations, and it takes generations to heal those harms as well. Take for example one of the biggest challenges in educating Black children: having Black teachers. Brown v Board of Education was the landmark case that desegregated public schools. This has done massive amounts of good and went a long way in healing our country, but there was one major nudge that has caused us massive harm in the nearly 70 years since the ruling. You see, that ruling focused on integrating the children, but forgot about integrating the staff. While consolidating black and white schools, school districts realized they didn’t need as much staff. Cutbacks had to be made, but does anybody really think these cuts would happen fairly across the board? Of course not. Because of this, nearly 40,000 Black educators lost their jobs in the years directly following Brown v The Board of Education.
The costs get worse. There is a massive benefit to having Black teachers. Black boys who have at least one black teacher before the fifth grade are 39% less likely to drop out of high school. Black students who have two Black teachers by the fifth grade are 32% more likely to go to college. Test scores, admission into gifted programs, verbal and emotional control skills, almost every area that can be tested, Black students see huge benefits. Additionally, this integration has no negative impact on white students. Quite the opposite! Students who attend integrated schools see overall benefits as well
By making this mistake almost 70 years ago, we set ourselves back immeasurably. Even if we started today, if somehow we magically created a fully funded program to educate, train, and hire more Black teachers to meet this need, it would take years to implement, and decades to see the benefits. Systems are very slow to respond. They move over generations, not over days. Linda Brown-Thomas, the little girl at the center of Brown v Board of Education, died just four years ago. This is still fresh. We want to feel like we have solved the issues of racism, but this issue is still deeply engrained in our systems, and it will take decades of intentional effort to dig out those roots so we can truly heal.
Naming Systemic Racism, identifying it, and calling it out is not an accusation that the people in that system are racists. In other words, just because there is systemic racism present in our communities, we are not individually racist.
It’s important to note, that nobody intended for this education gap to happen. We want to think of racism as something only racists do. It wasn’t evil men in white robes that designed this system flaw. This was entirely the opposite! As a society we worked very hard to tear down the institutions of segregation, but in those good intentions we built another system that was nudged by racial bias. This is just one example of how a nudge in the wrong direction sets generations of people off track. The Black Community has been the victim of countless hostile systems. Even though most of systems were dismantled decades ago, their long-lasting impacts have compounded over time. Red lining, employment discrimination, denial of GI benefits, and so many other systemic problems have made it so each generation leaves little to build the next generation on. But that is how the sinful nature of humanity works its ways into our systems. It’s not one person’s fault. The people who implemented it had good intentions. There isn’t one specific moment where we can point to and say “That’s when we oppressed that specific person.” It’s subtle, it’s delayed, it’s diffused, but it IS sinful. As Christians, it is our duty to dig out the roots of systemic evil and to repent of the public sin we’ve participated in simply by being here. I have no idea how to fix these problems that have been building over centuries, but I do know that the first step to repentance is confession. If we confess the existence of systemic racism, then we can open our hearts to the Grace of God, and then the Spirit will guide us from there.
One quick note on Tokenism
As I talk about these issues, I am going to take a “big picture” perspective. As you read earlier it’s all about percentages, trends, and sociological observations. This is a more helpful way of understanding the problem, but there will always be the “outlier.” Even if 99% of a group has a common trait or experience, 1% does not. There is always a case that doesn’t follow the general rule. For example, we discussed the education gap in the Black community, but I’m sure we all know highly educated Black people. I’ve seen many people share on social media videos of Black people proclaiming racism doesn’t exist. While everyone’s personal witness has value, their witness might not be common or reflective of even a significant portion of their community. Even worse, many of these videos are shared with the express purpose of minimizing the plight of others. I encourage everyone to really listen to all voices in this discussion, but those voices should be put in a bigger context of what is happening in society. Context is best understood by first understanding the big picture before we engage in individual witness.
To complicate the issue, there is the concept of tokenism. Often people shift their attitudes when they are different from the people who hold power. Have you ever worked in a predominantly male workplace? The lone women who comes into those circumstances feel pressure to be “one of the boys” otherwise they are perceived as “emotional” or as more derogatory words I refuse to use. To avoid judgment, they have to adapt to the norms of the group, and often feel the need to say things like “yeah, I don’t like typical women either.” This token affect forces the power minority to express beliefs they don’t actually hold, or in some cases, they actually do change their beliefs to gain acceptance. Again, their personal witness is important, and it is important to accept them for what they say. Casting judgment on the “token” is to cause terrible harm, but to accept their witness as the common experience would be misleading. The author Malcom Gladwell does an amazing job of describing this experience in his podcast Revisionist History (Season 3 episode 6 “The Hug Heard Round the World”). He talks about why Sammy Davis Jr., a Black man who was Jewish, would publicly support and embrace President Nixon, a man who was famously racist and anti-Semitic. I encourage you to listen to this podcast as you go about your day to get a better understanding of the pressure to fit in minorities of all kinds experience. You will gain a new love and appreciation for Sammy. Malcom Gladwell is a master storyteller. CAUTION: There is strong racial language in this podcast.
In closing, I want to share good news and hope. Discussing Racial Justice is hard. On one hand people lash out from a place of guilt and shame, other’s lash out from a position of frustration. We see large scale protests, we hear about violence committed to and by law enforcement, and there is a problematic public discussion on how we even talk about these issues in public spaces, but things are getting better. In this spirit of Nudge, look at the generational change of the past 3 generations. My father went to school in a time where most schools were still segregated. In all of my years of formal education, I was never taught by a person of color. My daughter isn’t even in kindergarten yet and she’s already had 5 minority teachers and care providers. We lament and experience conflict every time the unjust death of a Black person enters the news, but it makes the news! In the past, such tragic acts would be justified without question or just swept under the rug, but now we are in a place where these stories are shared. That empowers us to take action and participate in the healing process.
The current sense of racial awareness is an opportunity for the church. Within the sacred and safe walls of the church we can hold each other accountable in love, to encourage our mutual growth and understanding, to help give voice to those who have been ignored. May you be blessed with knowledge, wisdom, and motivation this Black History Month.