My Church is So White   1 comment

Oh I love my church. I love it so much.

The church that I’ve attended most regularly for the past two years is a somewhat medium-sized church just barely across the border between the city of Chicago and the suburbs — technically it’s on the suburban side but it feels pretty urban; it’s conservative in a theological sense but has a pretty contemporary vibe and is very racially diverse. I like it quite a bit. I have learned from the teaching and have connected with God in serious ways there.

However, My Church, the church where my heart belongs, is a suburban megachurch in my hometown, which I attended with my family from seventh grade until I left for school. It’s a half-hour drive away and the sanctuary is always freezing cold. Yet I get so excited when I’m home on a break and I get to go to it, because something about that space, that music, that preaching, that congregation, impacts me deeply. Some of my family don’t like it as much because of the megachurch aspect; they want more personal connection and community. I never had that much of a problem with it, because I’ve always been blessed with close Christian friends and mentors through my social circles at school, so it has been all about the teaching and worship, for me. I come home for a vacation, and I know that the way the worship music is played is going to feel like home too — artistic and creative, mostly familiar songs but not the ones that feel uninspired and overplayed, free and melodic and rhythmic and just the type of music that lifts my heart up to God. I know that the teaching is going to be tough and challenging and exciting, profoundly intelligent and intellectual but never divorced from everyday life, and delivered in a highly engaging style. It all just meshes with the ways my brain and spirit work. I’ve learned that’s a pretty rare thing to find, and I treasure it.

But you guys, my church is so white.

It is SO. WHITE.

Obviously, I’ve always known it was white. It’s a megachurch in an affluent Upper Midwestern suburb. A large gathering that is Christian + affluent + suburban + Upper Midwestern = supersuperwhite, with very few exceptions. Yet somehow it had never really affected me before, except in a fleeting sort of way when we would have a visit from the pastor of one of our partner churches, a smaller younger church in a very urban area, with a congregation and staff mostly consisting of people of color. Even then, though race was clearly an issue with some part in the relationships — positive and negative — between and within our churches, I don’t ever recall it being discussed directly. It was all about class differences and urban vs. suburban culture differences and generational differences and whatnot, a tiptoe conversation.

This morning, however, the first time I’d been to my church since I really started wrestling with feminism (and all that it entails), I ran a sweeping gaze over the people as they slowly organized into clumpy lines and filed out of the sanctuary, and formed their little cliques in the large lobby. I believe I saw two Asian or Asian-American people — East Asian, seemingly, not from regions where darker skin is more typical. There were no black families or Latino families or Southeast Asian families… everyone else (in a crowd of seven or eight hundred people whose faces I noted as they moved up a slight incline toward the back of the sanctuary where I was) was white, as far as I could tell — I don’t mean to dismiss people who are biracial or Hispanic but look white; that’s just what I could see.

And I thought, you know, I don’t remember knowing a single person of color when I was in youth group here when I was younger, or taking care of a single baby who wasn’t white when I worked in various nursery/early childhood rooms. I’ve never seen someone who wasn’t white in a position of leadership or even in the worship band. I think it’s pretty sad that I’m really only thinking about this now, and that clearly the vast majority of people at the church have never really thought about it, and never concluded that it is a bad thing.

Is it a bad thing? many of you may be asking me, in your heads. And I, also in your head through the magic of the written word which your brain is probably transmitting to you as an internal voice, say yes. Yes, it is a bad thing.

I have such frustration with the Church in America over this issue right now. Having spent so much time over the last several months reading lots of social justice writing, blogs written from secular progressive perspectives, I am beginning to think “why for the love of heaven have nonbelievers figured this out before the Church?” Why has the body of Christ on Earth failed to pay attention to and truly wrestle with issues of privilege and oppression? Why have we let this go on for so long? Why have we rejected civil rights activists, feminists, all sorts of crusaders against bigotry who have so much to teach us about how to truly respect our fellow human beings?

Brace yourself for shocking news: The Church, as an institution in the West, has been a major force of oppression for several hundred years now.

Are you stunned? Do you need a fainting couch? I’ll get the smelling salts.

Honestly though, I think we Christians tend to imagine that the perpetrators of the Inquisition and the leaders of the Crusades and maybe whoever the Pilgrims were trying to escape as anomalies. We think of Christian history as a history of the persecuted, the underdog, the oppressed ones ourselves. I don’t mean to deny the Biblical truth that when we truly devote our lives to following Christ we will be persecuted by the world — living our faith is difficult. That’s not what I’m talking about. I”m talking about the historical reality that the Church has caused and participated in a lot of institutionalized and systematized hatred, marginalization, bigotry and oppression. Because you know, in religious wars all over Europe throughout the previous millennium, the Church was involved, hating foreigners. At the Salem Witch Trials, and plenty of other trials like it, the Church was hanging around, hating women. At the formation of America, through the tumultuous years leading up to the Civil War, during the Civil War itself, through Reconstruction, through the long terrible decades of segregation and the KKK and Jim Crow and sorts of other atrocities, the Church was always there, hating black people (in ways that differed between South and North, but were pretty much still hateful). Right now on the steps of government buildings and in the news and in private schools and family homes, the Church is present, hating gay people.

Bigotry is not an anomaly for the Church in the West. Just because mainstream church leaders will no longer openly make overtly racist and misogynist statements does not mean that we are practicing loving equality. We have not solved this problem yet.

For so long, simply claiming membership in the institution of the Church — Catholic in some eras and places, Protestant in others, whichever dominated really — was a way of claiming privilege. Most mainstream churches silenced, dehumanized, infantilized or outright rejected women, people of color, people with disabilities and poor people. Black churches were segregated; the poor and disabled were seen as defective and pitiable and less-than; women weren’t listened to or respected or allowed to teach or lead anyone but other women and children. Society only valued people who were valued by the Church. The Church gave enormous privilege to straight wealthy able white males. Obviously there have been exceptions, but they are just that: exceptions to a rule. Society at large and the Church worked together in tangled and reprehensible ways to keep oppressed groups down.

And yet, as I said, claiming church membership has been a way of claiming privilege. It’s happened throughout history — oppressed and marginalized people do everything they can to try to meet the standards of the privileged oppressors, hoping that will make them more acceptable and less targeted. In the process they often actively work or speak against other members of their group or class. This happens when women slut-shame rape victims, when educated black people revile other black people for speaking and dressing in certain ways, when gay people hate other gay people for being too effeminate for men or too butch for women.

The Church in America is all about a mess of privilege, is what I’m saying. Churches are largely segregated. Women are not valued as leaders (see my addendum to the dancing post). Class issues, especially as they are so tied up with race in this country, make less-affluent people feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in megachurches like mine with budgets of millions. We pretend that we have overcome these things, right along with the pretending of the rest of the country, but we are even more completely blind to our privilege, because we have these comforting ideas about spiritual equality and unity.

These ideas are important. As Christians, work toward social justice must be based on a shared love for God and desire to glorify Him. But we’re human, we live in a fallen world and a severely messed-up culture, and we’re not going to overcome prejudice and bigotry or even begin to see past our own privilege without hard work and the disciplines that progressive thinkers have puzzled out in secular academia. When we insist that we’re all the same, all Christian, all equal at the foot of the cross, we are speaking truth — but it is not a whole truth, it is not a truth that will draw the rest of our culture to the light that flickers at the heart of the Church. We need to learn to acknowledge — fully, openly, brokenheartedly — the role that we have played in so much oppression and marginalization over the last 1,500ish years. We need to understand that that oppression and marginalization continue at our hands: because when systems of oppression have been so firmly established, so deeply rooted for so long, they perpetuate themselves.

Sure, many believers, especially educated, affluent, pleasant, relatively thoughtful ones like those in my church, have renounced open racism and misogyny. But the systems of oppression self-propagate if we simply sit back and let the status quo do its thing. Women have been considered the lesser sex for so long that simply ceasing to say that they are the lesser sex is not going to make any women feel stronger, more confident, more valued or more welcome. Same goes for people of color, poor people, disabled people, LGBTQ people. Unless we, believers, churches, take active steps to seek out and promote the voices and perspectives of marginalized people, declaring their validity and worth for the body of Christ as a whole, the marginalization will never end.

It’s not a problem that will solve itself. It takes people who are willing to give up the automatic authority and centrality that is bestowed on them at their privileged births, who are willing to re-examine expectations and standards, who are willing to reach out to people who make them uncomfortable, who are willing to truly deeply consider why other people make them uncomfortable and whose responsibility that is.

To quote the always-amazing Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown,

Privilege causes ignorance of the lived realities of non-privileged individuals, and a corresponding insensitivity to them; it grants the privileged individual the luxury of assuming that his own viewpoints and experiences are “authoritative” and “universal.”

Also please read this post by Harriet J of Fugitivus, about the problems inherent to all-white spaces.

It’s a problem. The Church keeps allowing this to go on, sitting pretty with our privilege. The rest of the country needs to deal with it too, but we are the Church. We’re supposed to be a major way God gets work done and shows Himself to people here in the world. We’re supposed to be the very ones who care for the lost and broken and hurt and abandoned and marginalized and hated and feared. This is our job. And when we reject the methodology and thinking of progressive scholarship on social justice, we reject some of the best tools anybody has to help us figure out how to break down the privilege and stop the oppression and draw people to us.

Let’s start taking active steps to break free of our privilege and fight oppression and welcome the marginalized. Let’s start doing the actual work to pour love and joy and peace and hope out on everyone in our hurting messed-up culture, not just the ones we see all the time or the ones who look and act like us. Let’s love our neighbors.


One response to “My Church is So White

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  1. For one so young, you are such a good observer of mankind. I really enjoy your posts.

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