Thursday, December 19, 2013

"Listen Up White America"

I'm going to quote and comment on a few statements by Leon Brown:

Why doesn’t it seem to matter to you that your neighborhood is culturally and ethnically diverse, but your church isn’t? I feel like you’re staring at me when I walk into your church; will you stop? I guess you didn’t realize you were racist until your daughter got engaged to a black man—thanks for being transparent, pastor. I feel like I’m only welcome if I conform to your culture. Is that true? These are the types of questions I had to ask and the issues with which I had to deal once I became Presbyterian. For just a moment, will you walk in my shoes?Many people of color, according to a title of a recently published book, feel like aliens in the promise land. We look around and don’t see anyone like us. Yes, in Christ, we are all brothers and sisters, but we are not color blind. When my friends tell me they feel like an ink spot on a white sheet when they walk into your church, the color of one’s skin becomes even more apparent.If the Lord tarries and grants me life, I want to open a conversation--one-way initially--that highlights some of the difficulties that I, as in Presbyterian and Reformed circles. I am not alone regarding my concerns. I have had numerous conversations with "black" Presbyterian pastors about the current state (or lack thereof) of ethnic and cultural diversity in Presbyterian and Reformed churches. These conversations normally expand to a host of other issues.

i) Although he raises some legitimate issues, both in what I quoted and what I didn't, I'm struck by how oblivious he is to the one-sided nature of his complaint. For instance, how is the experience of a black man walking into a white church different than the experience of a white man walking into a black church?

ii) He views it all through a racial prism, but surely this has as much or more to do with social class. To great extent, your cultural trappings are keyed to your socioeconomic status. To the extent that white Presbyterian churches have a certain cultural affect, that's because they mirror the social demographics of their membership. 

To take a comparison, in my observation the cultural affect of many black churches is quite similar to the cultural affect of blue color white Pentecostal churches. So it's less about race than social class and traditional cultural trappings thereof. 

iii) It doesn't occur to him that it's extremely disrespectful to other Christian ethnicities when he frames the conversation in terms of a black/white dialogue. Why aren't other Christian ethnicities part of the conversation? Are they just supposed to sit quietly and listen in polite silence while blacks and whites have an exclusive dialogue about race relations in Presbyterian churches? Are they just irrelevant bystanders? Why does he marginalize other Christian ethnicities? Why does he sideline other minorities? To take one counterexample, I believe Koreans have a big footprint in contemporary Presbyterianism. 

iv) There's a circular quality to his complaint. Blacks don't attend Presbyterian churches because Presbyterian churches are too white; Presbyterian churches are too white because blacks don't attend Presbyterian churches. 

The racial composition of churches is self-selected. Churches are as racially homogeneous or heterogenous as Christians make them by what churches they choose to attend. If you think they need to be more diverse, the way to diversity them is to attend them. It's as direct and simple as that. 

v) We need to distinguish between Christian ethics and self-esteem. From the standpoint of Christian ethics, Christian churches ought to treat all ethnic groups as social and spiritual peers.

But from a self-esteem perspective, Rev. Brown shouldn't care what whites think of him. He's subconsciously making white approval the standard of comparison. Using whites as the frame of reference. But that ironically betrays an inferiority complex. Whether or not he measures up to a white yardstick should be irrelevant to his self-image or self-worth. You are important because you are important to God, not because you are important or unimportant to the dominant ethnic group. 

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