As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
1. It Is Personal
I am angry, stressed, and tired. Although I managed to write about speaking out against racism, I have been getting stuck trying to write this article in the wake of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and the global Black Lives Matter protests. Canada also has its own police issues, anti-black racism and anti-Indigenous racism. I am getting stuck because I am angry, stressed, and tired.
My blood pressure rises every time I attempt to write this article. So forgive me if my “tone” in this article is not up to my typical standards. But writing angry is the only way I can finish this piece at this point.
As a Chinese Christian, I am angry at the detractions by fellow Christians that act as excuses to not stand in solidarity with the cries for racial justice. Cumulatively, whether intentional or not, these accusations serve to either distract or dismiss the call for racial justice in favor of the status quo.
I am stressed because I know it will cost me. I will probably get angry emails and comments from readers. I got them when I wrote my editorial about white privilege years ago. I will likely be accused of being divisive or political. As much as I try to be fair and irenic, there are times when the truth is divisive. Truth divides between true and false, right and wrong. And politics do intersect, at certain points, with ethics. As a pastor, I do have expertise and a responsibility to speak on ethical issues from a biblical Christian perspective. I can’t help it if those ethical issues overlap with politics.
I am stressed and angry because it is personal. As a person of color who has experienced racism, I do not have the privilege of treating this as a detached, intellectual observer. It is almost always personal for people of color. But this is often taken by detractors as a sign of our “lack of objectivity” and as a weakness. However, let me turn that around by quoting Eric Nykamp’s post on the CRCNA Network: “People of color have a Ph.D. in American Racism earned by being born and surviving in America, while for us white folks, this was at best an elective class.” And yet, so many detractors have the arrogance to think they know better.
Thank God for faith, hope, and God’s love, and the love of family and friends giving emotional reprieve and joy. Otherwise I might be in constant rage. But what I, as a Chinese immigrant, am feeling is probably only a small portion of what black and Indigenous people feel from all the detractions and resistance.
2. Racial Trauma
According to Sheila Wise Rowe, racial trauma is “the physical and psychological symptoms that people of color often experience after a stressful racist incident. These personal or vicarious incidents happen repeatedly, causing our racial trauma to accumulate, which contributes to a more insidious, chronic stress. … Our traumatic stress triggers a physical and emotional response that then feeds our traumatic stress” (Healing Racial Trauma, p. 10).
This trauma manifests itself in various ways, such as anxiety, depression, fear, anger, and aggression. Many people of color carry open wounds with us. Denials and detractions of our experiences of racism only add to the trauma, often re-traumatizing us. This is why, often, in debates about racism, the person of color gets emotional, angry, and frustrated when our viewpoints and experiences are not fully heard or welcomed. To me, it feels like an emotional erosion, a constant stream of grief, anger, and anxiety that slowly wears down my resilience and strength.
I am sure that detractors can find a minority of people of color who would align with their arguments. Some people of color have internalized racism as a subconscious coping mechanism. They engage in “defensive othering” where by “demonstrating that they share the same attitudes and disdain toward co-ethnics who fit with the stereotypes, they attempt to join the dominant group.” (Healing Racial Trauma, p. 9)
Soong-Chan Rah wrote of how some people of color strive for “honorary white people” status (The Next Evangelicalism, p. 139). I know that is true because I was one of them. Subconsciously, I sought to become an “honorary white Christian,” to be recognized, accepted and affirmed by white Christians. In the process, I neglected (maybe even despised) my God-given Asian heritage, ignoring its cultural gifts, even as I embraced the gifts from Western culture.
Such people of color are complicit in systemic racism. The model minority myth is actually enabling the systemic anti-black racism. We Asian Christians have to change and speak up more. Like the Asian police officer who stood by and did nothing to stop the white officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes, we have to reckon with our too-often failure to support blacks and Indigenous folks against racism.
3. Unhearing and Unwelcoming
Whenever egregious acts of injustice occur, people will cry out for justice. But often those cries are not fully heard. Various acts of unhearing often occur from the dominant group. I have already mentioned one—find the few persons of color that agree with you, and you can dismiss the majority crying for justice. Other acts of unhearing includes nit-picking minor faults and/or inaccuracies so you can ignore the forest for the trees. Or minimizing the severity of the situation—it is only a few bad apples, there are no systemic issues. Or going on the counter-attack with what about-ism—what about “black on black” crime?
The cumulative effect of these acts of unhearing is to fail to take seriously the oppressed group’s pain, experience, and viewpoints. For people of color crying for justice, these acts of unhearing send the message, intentional or not, that “you are not welcomed.” When our ideas and experiences are consistently denied, challenged, or dismissed, we get the message that we are not welcome, no matter the lip service paid.
I am not denying that, thankfully, some positive changes do result from the cries, as enough people, or the right people, do hear them and act. However, history shows that the changes were not always implemented justly, nor were nearly enough changes made.
Black people have generations, centuries, of crying out for justice behind them, and they are constantly resisted every step of the way, even now. Can you imagine the pent-up collective frustrations, pain, and anger?
I do want to move away from this anger, stress, and exhaustion. But detractors do not make it easy. The constant unhearing contributes to unhealing.
One common act of unhearing among Christians right now is to take issue with the Black Lives Matter organization’s agenda or extremes. But let’s not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, shall we? Yes, BLM has problems. But so does every movement in history, including Christianity. Besides, not every BLM activist agrees with each other. For instance, they don’t even fully agree on solutions to police violence.
If we want to cancel supporting the good of any movement because of its flaws, everyone should abandon the Christian church by now! How many crimes and sins has the church committed, in the name of Christ, over the centuries? How many Christian leaders have spoken and done stupid or even harmful things? #ChurchToo and #MeToo, anyone? Has the church actively supported slavery in the past as part of a “biblical agenda”? Racial apartheid in South Africa? We can go on and on.
Can we not, likewise, stand in solidarity with our black brothers and sisters in support of anti-racism, despite our acknowledged disagreements with other aspects of BLM? If we can distance ourselves from the worst excesses of Christianity, we can, and should, distance ourselves from BLM’s excesses.
By the way, if we want to criticize something, make sure we are being intellectually just. So many Christians, for example, are creating “straw man” arguments about critical race theory to dismiss it and demonize it. Like any human theory, critical race theory has its strengths and weaknesses. I encourage you to read Nathan Luis Cartagena’s explanation of critical race theory online. I believe critical race theory can provide some useful tools to supplement, not replace, our Christian anti-racism work.
4. Jesus Rioted Too
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once described a riot as “the language of the unheard” (quoted in Healing Racial Trauma, p. 3). I am not condoning violence of any kind. It is lamentable, though understandable, that people whose traumatic frustrations and anger at being consistently unheard might boil over into rage and riots. Supporting the protests for racial justice does not mean we are lending support for rioting and looting. But we should not lump the vast majority of peaceful protestors with the small minority of rioters who may or may not even be associated with the protest.
However, focusing on the rioting and destruction of property has become another act of unhearing. Do we really want to emphasize the destruction of property over the killing and oppression of black lives? Rather, as someone who is pro-life “from the womb to the tomb,” I will emphasize people’s lives over property.
Even Jesus staged a one-man riot (Mark 11:15-19). A riot is defined as a violent disturbance of the peace. Jesus overturned the tables belonging to money changers and merchants in the Jerusalem temple, driving people out who were buying and selling. This was not a minor inconvenience. The money changers were necessary as people were forced to exchange Roman currency for the special temple currency. Without the money changers, people cannot buy or sell animals in the temple. Without animals, there can be no animal sacrifices. Without sacrifices, the temple’s reason for being was disrupted. A lot of people’s income, besides the money changers, were affected. It likely halted the entire temple activities for, at least, most of the day.
Race, or ethnicity, was part of Jesus’ protest riot, too. The merchants and money changers were in the Court of the Gentiles, the only place in the Herodian temple where non-Jews were allowed to enter. Gentiles could not go any further beyond this court, in danger of capital punishment. It is, therefore, no accident that Jesus quoted from Isaiah 56:7 in his teaching: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.” All the nations, of course, refer to the Gentiles, the non-Jews. The context of Isaiah 56 showed God promising to bring the “foreigners who join themselves to the LORD” into his holy mountain, accepting their sacrifices and worship. God, “who gathers the outcasts of Israel,” promised: “I will gather others to them besides those already gathered” (Isa. 56:6-8 NRSV).
Isaiah 56’s message of inclusion is clear; God, through faith, will draw in previously excluded groups—Gentiles and eunuchs. Jesus’ protest of the temple, then, condemns not only fusing religion with unjust economic practices but also fusing religion with ethnic exclusion/segregation, a precursor of our modern racism. Given this biblical context, do you think Jesus would more likely support the protests for racial justice or complain about the destruction of property?
5. Systemic Racism
I will be writing a follow-up article on systemic racism. But for now, I will say this:
For most people of color, systemic racism, or sometimes called institutional or structural racism, is an undeniable reality. Pew Research’s 2019 survey shows that black and white Americans have very different views about racism. For example, 84% of black Americans say the legacy of slavery affects the position of black people in America today, but only 58% of white Americans concur. Again, 84% of black Americans believe that racial discrimination is a major obstacle for black people getting ahead in life, while only 54% of white people think so.
Sadly, among practicing Christians, the disparity is worse. In a 2019 Barna survey, twice as many black practicing Christians (78%) said they believe the U.S. has a race problem compared to only 38% of white practicing Christians. And 66% of black practicing Christians said they believe racism is historically built into society and institutions. In contrast, 61% of white practicing Christians said they think racism is only an individual matter. White and black Christians are not even close to being on the same page here.
To deny systemic racism is a denial of the reality of people of color, not just of an intellectual theory. To believe systemic racism does not mean we deny individual accountability and responsibility. But denying this basic truth of systemic racism is yet another form of unhearing and unwelcoming.
As angry as I am at Christian detractors, I must caution myself and all of us. We cannot demonize each other. Already I have seen a meme suggesting that the political left is following the whispers of the devil. I have also read a blog that mimics The Screwtape Letters, mocking the Christian right as falling prey to demonic schemes. These are dangerous acts. These are demonizing acts.
How much of all these are due to the political tribalism in the U.S.? Anti-racism should be a non-partisan ethical movement, and yet, like almost everything currently, it has been shamelessly politicized and polarized. Why is this? As a non-partisan Canadian Christian, I am very frustrated with what is going on in the U.S. I shake my head at the ideological tribalism that has taken over Christians’ abilities to intellectually dialogue and find common ground. We seem more concerned with winning arguments, scoring verbal punches, and attacking the other tribe than seeking truth, understanding, and wisdom. In such a climate, democracy will be in danger of crumbling.
The apostle Paul warned us that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12 NRSV). White people are not evil. Black people are not evil. The line between good and evil cuts through each and every one of us.
Even as we seek to pursue justice, we cannot forget that we are also called to love mercy and to walk humbly with God while doing both (Micah 6:8). I find grace and humility sorely lacking these days in the pursuits of justice and truth by both sides of the ideological divide.
Having said all that, we cannot ignore the prophet Amos and his warning from God:
I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fundraising schemes, your public relations and image making. I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want. —Amos 5:21-24, The Message
What do I hope to accomplish from writing this? I hope for some understanding, for some genuine empathy, grace, and humility from Christian detractors. Is that hoping for too much? Is it too much to hope that Christian detractors will humbly and seriously learn from Christian black voices like Austin Channing Brown, Jemar Tisby, and Willie James Jennings, to name a few?
I do have to remind myself of the signs of hope. I see a global anti-racism movement that is overwhelmingly peaceful. I see some police officers joining in the protests. I see a growing Asian Christian movement to stand in solidarity with black and Indigenous people’s fight for racial justice. I see overall majorities of support across racial lines in the U.S. for the Black Lives Matter movement. There are signs of positive change.
Ultimately, my hope rests not in these human signs but in Christ my Lord. His resurrection power and life assures me that God will right all wrongs in due time. The God who heard the cries of oppressed Israel and delivered them from Egypt also will do the same for those who cry out to him today. As the lyrics of the hymn, “My Soul Cries Out (Canticle of the Turning)” said:
Though the nations rage from age to age, we remember who holds us fast: God's mercy must deliver us from the conqueror's crushing grasp. This saving word that our forbears heard is the promise that holds us bound, 'Til the spear and rod be crushed by God, who is turning the world around.
Refrain: My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, For the dawn draws near, And the world is about to turn.
Amen, let it be so.