As I prepared to teach a Salt Lake Fellows class on racial solidarity, I feel inadequate to teach the subject. However, I am thankful for the opportunity to share my experience and to discuss resources that have been beneficial to me over the years. Today, I am re-reading chapters from Heal Us, Emmanuel: A Call for Racial Reconciliation, Representation, and Unity in the Church, a book to which I had the privilege of contributing a short chapter (Be on the lookout this year for a follow up book to Heal Us, Emmanuel written by leaders in the Presbyterian Church in America). Of course, there are so many great resources on the topic of racial solidarity or racial justice that are available that I could share with this class if I had more time. With limited time and feeling inadequate to teach on the topic, I thought maybe a good place to start would be to start with a bit of my own story. The following is the chapter I contributed to Heal Us, Emmanuel entitled Privileged to Serve.

Privileged to Serve

Rev. Mark Peach

Mark Peach is pastor of City Presbyterian Church, a downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, church that he began in 2012. He has degrees from the University of Nebraska (BA) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv). He and his wife, Melissa, have three children.

 

As an undergraduate student at Weber State University in Utah, I bumped into Dionne, a Black Christian friend I had gotten to know through a campus ministry. I will never forget her words.

“Mark, you need to come back,” she said. “You need to come back to taking Jesus’s work in your life seriously.”

I was caught off guard. How did she know I was struggling with a half-hearted devotion to Christ? At a time in my life when the quest to be accepted turned into an allegiance to many other things besides Jesus Christ, Dionne spoke into my life. Her prophetic voice changed everything as the Holy Spirit began to work to convince me of my great need for Jesus.

That conversation also shaped how I think about race relations. I look to it as an example of a time I would have missed the blessing of God if I had viewed someone with suspicion because of her skin color.

White privilege

In July 2015 when I saw the video of Sandra Bland, a Black woman, being forced from her car by a White police officer during a routine traffic stop, I was shaken. I was further disturbed to know that she died in a Texas jail cell three days after the arrest. I wondered who Sandra had influenced in her life. I wondered who she would never have the chance to influence.

In a system where White culture is at the center and all other cultures are pushed to the periphery, being a White male has allowed me to isolate myself from racial injustice that is a part of American culture and of many people’s experience. As a White person, I am much more prone to embrace the false reality that I have what I have because I worked hard for it. I also am prone to believe that, in general, those in authority treat people equally across the board. This is simply not true.

I think part of the reason the Sandra Bland incident gripped me so powerfully was because I thought: What if that were my friend Dionne? As a White person, I have found that having real relationships with those who are ethnic minorities significantly changes the way I perceive events in the news. In that framework, I see how Bland, a twenty-eight-year-old Black woman, was unjustly victimized by a system of White dominance.

I am increasingly troubled by the oppression and violence against ethnic minorities in our country and around the world. However, like many, I am at a loss as to what to do. While so much racial injustice happens far from my life context, I cannot close my ears to the penetrating words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”[1] I also hear the call from the Bible to do justice. In the words of the prophet Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24).

For too long the voices of minorities in Christian churches have been minimized and silenced. This may not have occurred as overt, violent force, but rather as a deadly silence, with the unwillingness of White people to give up privilege and power. Or it may be seen as the unwillingness of White people to use their privilege for the common good.

In the United States, White privilege has historically reinforced and perpetuated systemic racism. Many White people see no need for that to change. For many who are White, it is tempting to write off racial injustice, blame shift, or simply respond with, “It isn’t my problem.” Or we may congratulate ourselves on the few African Americans, or Asian Americans, or Hispanic Americans in our church and tell ourselves we are doing a great job toward racial solidarity.

In The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity, Soong-Chan Rah says Western culture has been dominated by White people throughout its history, and American Evangelicalism has been held captive by the culture rather than by that which is biblical. He also says, “While the demographics of Christianity are changing both globally and locally, the leadership of American Evangelicalism continues to be dominated by White Americans.”[2]

What is the reason for this? Rah says the “White captivity of the church” in the United States has been influenced by our culture of individualism, consumerism, materialism, and racism. As we look to the future of the American church, there is a tendency to believe that those who have wealth, power, and privilege will be the ones who will serve and lead those who do not have wealth, power, and privilege. Power and privilege entitle certain groups to exercise an authority over those who are without power and privilege. Rah then asks:

Is it possible we are so ensconced in the Western, White captivity of the church and its corresponding value of success and power that we are unable to see the dignity and worth of the marginalized and the very least of these?[3]

White privilege also has theological implications. The White cultural captivity of the American church has led to the perpetuation of a theology of celebration over and against a theology of suffering. It has led to an emphasis only on the blessings that come through a relationship with Jesus Christ at the expense of an emphasis on the reality of suffering or a clear understanding of the place of struggle in our relationship with Jesus Christ.

However, if we are to really understand the biblical idea of peace and unity, of shalom, we must hold to a theology of both celebration and suffering. But having privilege leads to a disconnect from those without privilege, from those who struggle particularly from oppression. This is problematic. Basically, to have privilege is to be one of the “haves” in a society of “haves” and “have-nots.” As a person with privilege, having includes having social mobility and power that does not seek unity, peace, or shalom. Rah states:

The power to choose mobility is real power. As individuals have an opportunity to move up, they often are moving away. As highly mobile individuals, therefore, there is limited opportunity to connect with those who are held in place by a system of survival and suffering…. Disconnection caused by mobility leads to a negative perception of those who dwell in a theology of suffering by those who dwell in a theology of celebration. The assumption of power and privilege means that those in our society who have the power of mobility assume a superior position over those who do not.[4]

To embrace a Christianity that leads to shalom, there must be an embrace of both a theology of celebration and a theology of suffering. Jesus Christ was not only resurrected from the dead, but in his incarnation, was willing to suffer and die on a cross. To serve God means to humbly step down, to give up social mobility for the sake of listening to, learning from, and being led by those without social mobility and power.

Listening to, learning from, and being led by

To move forward in peace and unity, we must have a robust understanding of the Gospel and the trajectory of the story the Bible tells. In Aliens in the Promised Land, the editor, Dr. Anthony Bradley states:

The challenge with this book is to get readers to listen to someone outside their tribe.… I am afraid that if we do not, we will not see our blind spots, will repeat the same mistakes, will waste time and resources reinventing the wheel, and will not make much progress. In fact, in the discussion of race, for those of us born after the Civil Rights Movement, the discussion is focused, not so much on reconciling past oppression, pain, tensions, and grievances, as on moving forward—putting on display before a watching world how the Gospel creates the platform for racial solidarity (Gal. 3:28).[5]

Bradley acknowledges the progress made by those who have promoted racial reconciliation and those who have desired to see a new era of unity and peace after the Civil Rights Movement, but he says the dreams of those who have sought racial reconciliation have not been fulfilled. He offers a way forward that is rooted in the biblical concept that all people are created in the image of God. He says:

But I am convinced that the church will be able to lead society on race only if it moves beyond racial reconciliation and pursues racial solidarity, which means embracing our common human dignity (Gen. 1:26–28), as a human family in ways that celebrate and respect differences between ethnic communities for the common good. If we look to the story that the Bible tells, we see a story unfold in which racial diversity and racial unity are valued by God because all are made in the image of God.[6]

How might change begin to happen, and how might we move forward in race relations? While it is right for White Christians to ask, “What is my role in seeking justice for all?” there is a temptation to believe there is an easy fix. History reveals there is no simple solution to an embedded racial problem. Instead, we must be willing to humble ourselves before those for whom injustice is an everyday reality.

To honor God is not disconnected from honoring the beauty of God’s image found in a range of cultural expressions and in the whole spectrum of human races. This certainly includes the marginalized! We must seek a seat for all ethnicities at the table. To achieve this, White Christians must be willing to take a backseat by listening to, learning from, and being led by minority leaders. Until this happens at a significant level, we will continue to have disunity in the very institution that God has called to be one under the Lord Jesus Christ.

A few years after meeting Dionne, I left Weber State and went to the University of Nebraska, where I had more friends who were ethnic minorities. At Nebraska, I struggled academically, with homesickness, and with depression. In the midst of feeling alone, like an outsider, I began to observe, from afar, how groups of people were isolated or simply interacting among their own ethnic group. I read African American authors in my sociology classes, including The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois. This statement caught my attention:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.[7]

If my sense of being on the outside was painful, as a person with privilege, how unbearable the pain for a person who has been consistently marginalized in our society?

I began to gravitate toward ethnic minorities, especially African American students. While I read about double-consciousness, I also witnessed it. I began to see glimpses of the pain and anxiety of the African American experience brought down through history and exhibited as I heard about incidents of racial profiling that friends described to me. This raised the question that I continue to ask more than twenty years later: What is the role of White people in the quest for racial justice?

The more I have wrestled with this question, the more I have arrived at the conclusion that nothing less than seeking to submit to the leadership of minorities will do. So I began seeking to place myself under Black leaders. I sought to become a member of a church that was led by a Black pastor. As I looked to his leadership, I found myself being challenged to think about God and his world from a new perspective. Most of all, as I was pastored by a man who had gone through and was experiencing significant challenges that I have never experienced as a White man, I saw real genuine faith in Christ expressed by him in a way that I had not seen faith expressed before.

For the first time, I was experiencing not simply a theology of celebration and resurrection, but a theology of suffering that led to an even greater experience of Jesus’s resurrection. Through it all, I saw a man of tremendous faith in Jesus, a man who gave a reason for the hope that he had, and I knew that his hope was found in Christ alone. Perhaps it is the weariness that comes from experiencing racial injustice that God used in his life to lead him to find and experience such joy and hope in Christ. I wanted to experience that kind of joy and hope, too.

During graduate school I sought an internship where I could be mentored by someone who was a racial minority. As an intern, I grew in my love for God as I experienced unconditional love through my supervisor who was Black and had experienced discrimination to which he had every reason to be skeptical and cynical toward White people.

God has used Black leaders in my life in significant ways. I see God differently, not because of my White privilege, but because of the privilege of being led by someone who knows more of what Jesus knew about being forced to the margins. As Christians, we are called to give up our privilege, to lay down our rights, to give up seeking meaning and significance in our own power, and to follow after the Man of Sorrows, the one marginalized and crucified outside of Jerusalem.

As I pastor a church that is mostly White, I regularly ask: What is my role as a White person in seeking racial justice in America? Recently I have had opportunities to participate in decisions that affect the future of my city, such as serving on the advisory team for the city’s downtown, twenty-five year master plan. I look around at such meetings, and in a city where 35 percent of the population is non-White, I see almost zero non-White people in positions to make decisions that affect the future. This must change! But how?

For one, I can speak up and say, “I think we need to have ethnic minorities at this table.” For another, I could honestly consider whether God is asking me to give up any of my positions of influence—including as pastor—to an equally capable person of color so he or she can have a prominent voice.

What are other ways those with privilege and power could humbly take steps toward listening to, learning from, and being led by those who society has relegated to the margins? What might God be asking you to do?

 

[1] Martin Luther King Jr. Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Accessed April 12, 2016. http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf.

[2] Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism: Releasing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 18.

[3] Ibid., 145.

[4] Ibid., 149–151.

[5] Anthony B. Bradley, Aliens in the Promised Land: Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions(Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 151.

[6] Ibid., 152.

[7] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: New American Library, 1969 [1903]), 45.