Note: This article was adapted from a sermon preached by Beau Hughes at The Village Church on Sunday, January 13, 2017. Beau is a lead pastor of The Village Church Denton. You can watch or listen to the full sermon here.
When was the last time that you were offended or annoyed by a statement or conversation about race? My guess is that, for most of us, it wasn’t long ago. Headline after headline about political and cultural events reveal just how racialized our country—and our churches—still are.
Having a conversation about race is an extremely delicate thing to do in this day and age. And we live in a culture that no longer knows how to have a conversation. We have lost the ability to speak to one another and disagree with civility. Every time a new headline emerges, we see just how de-skilled and emptied of empathy we are. We are quick to speak, slow to listen and—far too often—quick to get angry.
As God’s people, we must walk in a manner worthy of the gospel in pursuit of racial harmony and justice. This is obviously a big topic, but I want to offer one practical suggestion: By cultivating a habit and lifestyle of considering one another more important than ourselves, our churches can become re-skilled in thinking about and speaking about race in light of the gospel.
Loving Without Limits
Jesus Christ taught things that were deeply subversive to the prevailing worldview of the day. In John 15, He says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12-13). Sacrificial love for God and neighbor is the narrow path that Jesus taught and then, through His own living and dying, blazed and called His people to follow Him down.
And from its earliest days, the Christian Church and its leaders considered such love to be the preeminent way of life, the chief virtue of the Church. One of the most beautiful examples of this love is found in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
By cultivating a habit and lifestyle of considering one another more important than ourselves, our churches can become re-skilled in thinking about and speaking about race in light of the gospel.
Amid the pressures and temptations to fall into the surrounding culture’s spirit of fragmentation, Paul exhorts the Philippians to keep in step with the Spirit of Jesus and follow after the pattern of His love (Phil. 1:27-2:16). This love does nothing from selfishness but, in humility, counts others and their interests more important than oneself. In doing so, it makes the Savior’s loving kindness and kingdom visible amid the dumpster fires of the kingdoms of this world. This is the way of love and unity we’re called to strive after as the people of God. This is the way of life a church must strive to walk in if it hopes to follow Jesus and keep in step with His Spirit.
In my experience shepherding a multi-ethnic church committed to working out our salvation by pursuing racial reconciliation and justice, I have found that it is impossible for members of the church to walk in this way of life—a lifestyle of habitually considering others in the family more important than we do ourselves—without humbly considering our own racial heritage and identity.
The Shape of Identity
Our racial heritage has shaped our perspective and preferences more than we realize. It is not the only thing that does so, but in deep, transformative, inevitable ways, our racial heritage and identity foundationally shapes our worldview. It has colored everything about the way we view and live our lives.
This can be a difficult reality for us to wrap our minds and hearts around—at least those of us who are white and have lived most of our lives in a majority white context. We don’t tend to really acknowledge or even have an awareness of our whiteness, but in order to pursue racial reconciliation, we must have an awareness not only of other races but of our own race.
Our racial heritage has shaped our perspective and preferences more than we realize.
For those of us who are white and who live in a majority white context, I have found a few sociological categories helpful to growing in awareness, and in turn, growing in serving others rather than “seeking our own advantage.” Those categories are white transparency, white normativity, and white structural advantage.
White brothers and sisters, when was the last time that you noticed you were white? Or just more generally, when was the last time you thought about your skin color at all? For the overwhelming majority of white people, our whiteness is not a part of our identity that we feel deeply connected to, that feels salient or relevant to us, unless we get lost in the wrong neighborhood or go on a mission trip somewhere overseas. Why? Because one of the advantages of being white in America is that many white people can live their entire lives and never think about being white.
You cannot actively lay your perspective and preferences aside if you’re not even aware of them.
Sociologists describe white transparency as “a lack of racial consciousness” (The Elusive Dream). According to Barbara Flagg, a professor at Washington University’s School of Law and an expert in constitutional law, white transparency is “the tendency of whites not to think...about norms, behaviors, experiences, or perspectives that are white-specific.” Only the members of the majority racial group of any given culture can lack such consciousness or identification with the color of their skin, and that leads to inequalities. As white people, it’s a good thing for us to become more in tune with the color of our skin, to be less colorblind, especially when we look in the mirror.
Specific perspectives and preferences arise from your racial heritage and identity, and if you’ve never considered and acknowledged (and celebrated!) these, your ability to lay down your life in love for others will be severely limited. You cannot actively lay your perspective and preferences aside if you’re not even aware of them. Colorblindness is an enemy of hospitality and love. White transparency is a cancer in a multi-ethnic church, and this cancer feeds and is fed by white normativity.
“White normativity reinforces the normalization of whites’ cultural practices...such that how whites do things; their understandings about life, society, and the world...are accepted as just ‘how things are’” (The Elusive Dream). In other words, our practices, preferences and perspectives aren’t considered uniquely white, but just the way “everyone” does or sees things—a universal norm. And thus, anything out of that universal norm is alien. Different. Other.
The problem comes when what we consider normal is actually a “white-norm” and not a universal norm. At that point, what we’ve done, in many cases because of our white transparency, is essentially make what is “white” or “middle class” or “American” normative and everything that is not “white” alien. Different. Other.
Have you ever heard of left-handed scissors? Left-handed scissors are simply scissors for left-handers. But why don’t we call right-handed scissors “right-handed scissors”? We just call those “scissors” because being right-handed is the assumed norm in our culture. Right-handers are the majority in our culture, and so we live in a world of right-handed normativity.
In the same way, U.S. culture is one of white majority and normativity. If you don’t believe me, just swing by the bookstore this week and try to find a book that has a dark-skinned princess with a 4C curl pattern.
Again, we don’t need to feel sinfully guilty about being born white into a culture of white normativity any more than we do about being born right-handed into a culture of right-handed normativity. But we must recognize it. On a bad day, or maybe just a normal day for most of us, anything that is different than our norm is not only different in our minds but “less than.” Less beautiful. Less intelligent. Less compelling. Worse. Gross. Foolish. Immature.
To keep in step with the Spirit, a church must be ruled by a normativity that is distinctively Christian, not distinctively white.
Isn’t this what we see in our culture—in our Twitter wars and knee-jerk reactions? We see it even in the church. Different perspectives, philosophies or even preferences among Christians aren’t just different: they’re naive, foolish or evil. I’ve often wondered just how grieved God must be by our blindness to the glorious differences He’s created in one another and our inability to celebrate and be properly shaped by them.
To keep in step with the Spirit, a church must be ruled by a normativity that is distinctively Christian, not distinctively white. For that to happen, we must first recognize and admit where white, or any other, normativity is ruling our perspectives and preferences in ways that hinder us from the rule of Christ and His love.
White Structural Advantage
Those in the dominant position of power naturally institutionalize their own norms. This is known as “structural advantage,” the various unearned advantages that effortlessly come to people due to the fact that they are part of the majority.
For example, right-handed normativity and right-handed transparency are created by and create a host of right-handed structural advantages (in right-handed scissors, the way desks are designed or where silverware is placed at the table). In the same way, white normativity and white transparency have been created by and have, in turn, created a host of white structural advantages in the United States for white people.
From the beginning of our nation’s history, white people have established and held the location of dominance in our country’s racial hierarchy. And this has meant, among other things, political, economic and numerical dominance. History, stats and experiences tell us that whites have disproportionately controlled or influenced political parties, the legal system, government agencies, industry and business. And this has gifted white people in this country, generally and comparatively speaking, certain structural advantages that have not been afforded for racial minorities. These structural advantages are expressed in our white transparency and white normativity and have been institutionalized in innumerable ways throughout history. Just a few examples include:
- Possessing the power to define who is and is not a part of your racial group.
- The capacity to pass housing laws that favor your housing group (creating “the ghetto”).
- Developing educational curriculum that emphasizes your racial group’s history and norms.
- Having Band-Aids or superheroes that match the color of your skin.
Awareness Is Not Enough
Besides acknowledging and remembering our advantages, what else can we do with them? I can’t give you the specific and nuanced answers this question deserves. Those conversations must be led by the elders of the church in continuing to think through and pursue racial reconciliation together, not as an initiative on MLK Day or whenever the next headline comes, but as a lifestyle.
I sincerely hope that you are more aware of your whiteness now than when you first began reading this article, but awareness alone is not enough. In your pursuit to lovingly consider others more important than yourself, consider your unique racial heritage and identity—your whiteness—so that:
- You can understand and, where appropriate, identify with, celebrate and leave behind certain aspects of the unique racial heritage you have inherited.
- You can recognize how your advantages, perspectives and preferences have been inevitably shaped by your whiteness.
- You can continue to humbly and lovingly steward your advantage, challenge your perspective and lay aside your preferences to pursue racial harmony and justice.
These are just a few thoughts about what I believe a local church can begin to do to strive to keep in step with the Spirit and work out its salvation in fear and trembling about matters of race. We must be deeply subversive and countercultural in our sacrificial love for each other in such a way that presents God’s kingdom and love as a visible alternative to the chaos of our culture.
We must be deeply subversive and countercultural in our sacrificial love for each other in such a way that presents God’s kingdom and love as a visible alternative to the chaos of our culture.
That’s, ultimately, the hope that Paul articulated. When the church is keeping in step with the Spirit by laying down our lives for one another, we provide our neighbors a glimpse, however dim, of the coming day when Jesus, the one who uniquely laid down His life, will be worshiped as Lord by the Church that He laid it down to ransom—a Church made up of every tribe and tongue and language.
That’s the gospel, the hope that we set our minds and hearts on that keeps us going. It is a hope and mindset that was first in Jesus, as Paul wrote in Philippians 2:5-11:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.