Written in February 2009. Still relevant.
When I am talking to a black person I see, well, a black person. He sees a white person. Many Christians attempt to deal with racism in the culture and their own personal biases and discomfort by working very hard to put on the air of color-blindness when they are in the presence of people of color. In fact, sometimes they insist that they are “colorblind” and use the term as if it is an ideal to be aspired to by all who hate racism. However, the very effort to be colorblind and the felt need to explain one’s self as colorblind is proof that they are, in fact, not colorblind.
I feel the same thing when I go to a predominately black church where the Gospel is preached. I feel love. I feel acceptance. I feel godly unity with the people. But I also feel a strong effort to ignore the fact that I am extremely white. I don’t sense that this is done out of prejudice as much as it is done out of discomfort. My brothers and sisters in Christ earnestly do not want to sin against me or offend me by any kind of racial tension whatsoever, so they’re just tense. That’s all. By popping into their world I have suddenly put them out of their comfort zone and their best efforts to cope are to feign colorblindness. It’s sincere. It’s in love. And it’s actually rooted in godliness. It’s just mistaken.
When I lived in Africa no feint was ever attempted. Kids pushed and shoved and lined up just to be able to feel my skin and run their hands through my hair. The adults tried to be more discreet, but even they couldn’t help but touch me. I was an oddity, a marvel, a unusual apparition, and stark raving white. Most of the time I never sensed hate, anger, racism, or condescension. Most of the time — even as an eight-year-old boy — I sensed that by merely arriving I had catapulted the entire little community into a sphere of experience that was far outside the parameters of their comfort zone. When a Black visits a White church or when a White visits a Black church his arrival catapults the entire community into a new experience.
As I child I began to develop a psychologically and experientially developed conviction that colorblindness is a myth. You simply cannot help but noticing and absorbing with interest the ethnicity of the person you are talking to. As I matured spiritually and theologically my conviction solidified. Not only is it impossible to look at a person and not notice his or her race, God doesn’t intend for us not to notice. He made color. He gave us eyes. And our eyes see color.
White Christians who are angry about the election of a liberal President with his horrific views on abortion and homosexuality do themselves very little good when they try to dismiss the matter of our President’s race by saying, “When I look at the President I don’t see a black man. I see a liberal” (or whatever). The question arises in the minds of thinking people, “Are you really that colorblind?”
Of course not. In fact, when I look at the President I see a black man. I can’t help it. He’s black and my eyes see that. I’m not judging him, positively or negatively, by the color of his skin, but I am quite happy to see a black man as President. I’m not colorblind. Now, I object to almost everything else the man stands for, but since I am not colorblind I can see that one good thing has come of this: a man of color can rise to the most powerful office in the land when only a few years ago he had to drink from a separate water fountain.
Our church has one black family in the membership. One. Other African-Americans are attending. When they, our members, first started visiting, having been here only a few weeks, I unwittingly surprised everybody one night at a church fellowship when I was joking about all the Swedes in our area and in our congregation. Somewhere in the impromptu pastor-gab that we all do from the pulpit from time to time at informal gatherings like these I jokingly commented that though most everybody was a Swede one thing was certain, Rick was definitely not Swede unless he was a black Swede. I thought nothing of it until I got feedback from an unexpected source: Rick. Several days later the man that I as of yet knew very little (and who was not yet a member of our church) thanked me for that comment! It meant something to him, he said, that I would feel free to make the kind of comment that I did. It showed that I was very aware of the obvious and was not even going to pretend that he was one of the white people.
Most blacks know what I’m talking about. They live everyday as a minority among sincere people trying to prove they are not racist by trying to pretend they don’t notice their race. I actually don’t think that they really are racists. They just don’t know how to act around different cultures. Christians often cite popular leaders like Ken Ham that there really is no such thing as multiple races and that we are all of one blood but it smacks of a desperate effort to theologize their feigned colorblindness.
I think Ken Ham is right, but that doesn’t preclude the reality of ethnic differences. It doesn’t preclude the reality that Asian, African, and Caucasian all have different features. Nor does it preclude the very undeniable reality that those features (yes, something as shallow as skin color) deeply affect our whole experience in life. Our culture is literally shaped and experienced by our color. In other words, I have never experienced life as a black man; and I never will. I can’t because Sovereign God has completely closed off that opportunity from me by making me pale white.
When I talk to an Asian, I see his or her distinct features. When I talk to an African I see his or her distinct features. When I talk to a Native American I see his or her features. Their features tell me a lot about their life experience. When the Asian, African, and Native American talk to me they see white. Talking together we see red, yellow, black, and white. We see a beautiful array of color and instead of pretending to honor God by claiming colorblindness, we should instead enjoy what we see!
Obviously, I’m talking about more than just the skin. But the skin is often symbolic of the whole person and the person’s whole experience. When I go to a congregation of God’s children where my skin color stands out I’m refreshed when the believers don’t pretend to be colorblind. Because feigned colorblindness, though often meant sincerely, actually has an unmistakeable potential (Note that I said “potential.” I assume the best in everyone.) of veiled racism. It’s like talking to a person with a monster zit on his nose. You attempt to ignore it; you pretend that he is a zit-less person (and you should, it’s a blemish). But to do the same thing to a person whose skin color is different than yours is potentially tantamount to saying, “You have a blemish, but I love you in Christ anyway. Don’t worry. We won’t talk about it.”
I recently asked a pastor of an African-American church if our city was doomed to having segregated churches. He sighed (his church has no white families) and said something to the effect that on the leadership level there is a real desire to see integrated churches, but on the community level people just don’t seem to be able to move outside of their comfort zone. In fact, he commented that if our church as a congregation under 300 had two African-American families that were not inter-racially married we would be one of the most unique small churches in town!
There are plenty of reasons, but where there are godly, regenerate people who celebrate their identity in the Last Adam the problem is often neither racial or spiritual. It’s not ethnic necessarily. Ethnicity is purely the symbol of the problem. The problem is much more practical: it’s cultural.
Recently, while visiting a black church in which I was the only white person I realized that I simply could never be happy in that church. It had nothing to do with the doctrine. It had everything to do with a culture that I could love, but in which I could not see myself ever being fully acclimated. The music, the preliminaries, the announcements, everything was so different. I realized that it had nothing to do with the ethnicity of the church even though some of the things they did were distinctly ethnic (i.e. music) because I have had the exact feeling, as a white person, in all-white churches. It had something to do with the reality of every church in the world: every church has a culture.
But when the pastor got up to preach I suddenly felt at home. My spiritual reality suddenly eclipsed my white, male, fundamentalist, MK, American, bi-lingual reality. My union with Christ surged to the forefront of my emotional and psychological experience and while the pastor preached there was no other place in the world where I wanted to be but there. The Word of God overcame all cultural periphery. As a saved sinner that instinctively wants to be fed, I was at home.
I realized then what I have thought for many years. The local church must strive hard to develop a culture where the dominating influence is what is universally cherished by Christians of all ethnicities. Christians of all ethnicities have the same appetite for God, the same appetite for the Word, the same hunger for righteousness, and the same satisfaction in the means of grace. Therefore, the local church and its pastor must ask themselves if it is possible to pursue a practice of the means that God has appointed for the benefit of all believers without limiting those means (i.e. preaching, music, prayer, etc.) with cultural configurations that are so parochial that it is exclusive except to the most stubborn seekers.
This is not only a Mid-Western White problem. This is a Mid-Western Black problem as well. The solution is not colorblindness. The solution is to open our eyes and enjoy the color! Most churches will always stay basically one color. But there are some smaller churches who are daring to forge a new culture, one where people of varying ethnicities can comfortably unite around that which unites all of God’s people everywhere.
This effort is not easy and it requires the conscientious abandonment of favored cultural configurations that have been enjoyed and experienced by all, but it results in the gradual stretching of the congregation’s comfort zone until all they delight in as a church is only that which God intended for His people to delight in. Then, and only then, does God begin to bring people from all kinds of ethnicities and backgrounds who are congregating on the basis of a miraculously-granted appetite for God that transcends the restrictions of their parochial mindset.
One very small but practical step to consider during Black History Month is the abandonment of the effort to be colorblind. Colorblindness is a myth. Instead, enjoy all the color! And when a color that symbolizes a different background, a different culture, and a different life experience arrives at your church let the eyes of your soul drink it in. And if they, sensing that you are making a real effort to make them feel welcome despite their obvious ethnic difference ask if you love them just because they are White American (if you are in a Black church) or just because they are Black American (if you are in a White church) say, “No. I don’t love you just because you are white (or black), but your ethnicity is something I definitely do love about you. And I hope that my love for you and your love for me will show that the God of the Gospel is not colorblind, but is, in fact, so good to us through the Gospel of Jesus Christ that the most colorful place in town is the Gospel-centered church on Sunday morning because He has given us the grace and the courage to open our eyes and see the color!”
Filed under: Culture |