How could a blind man save a drowning mute? The blind man can’t see the mute’s arms flailing in the air seeking to grasps the wind in an effort to pull themselves out of the water. The blind man can’t hear the mute’s cries for help, because the mute has no voice in which he can use to utter such a cry. Even if the mute could cry out for help, and the blind man knew they were drowning, the blind man lacks the ability to navigate the waters and rescue the drowning soul. Therefore, the answer to this question is dreadfully simple, the blind man can’t, and the mute man will drown. For centuries, black and brown image bearers have been drowning in a raging river of racial antagonism and indifference. In this struggle, the church has often not been a life raft, but a current which has often sought to pull them under. They have flailed their arms hoping that those on shore would see their peril, but for generations, they have not been seen and have gone often ignored. The black community has cried out; but instead of being heard, their pleas have often been disregarded as noise, if heard at all.
But what happens when someone on the shore is given eyes to see? What happens when someone is compelled and transformed by love to such a degree that they can now see and no longer ignore others who are drowning? As a Christian counselor who has spent a significant amount of time counseling white Christians in ethnic reconciliation work, I have come to believe that the impact of this transformation comes with certain issues that are often neglected. As blind men who are given sight are in need of support in understanding their new reality, white Christians who come to see the plight of their black and brown brethren often need help navigating their new reality. Without such support, there are several dangers they can fall into.
Feeling guilty is not inherently wrong, it can actually be a gift. When we have failed to love well or have perpetuated pain in others through our insensitivity or ignorance; it is right to feel guilty. The issue is what one does with the guilt conviction brings. Guilt can either be brought to Christ and nailed to his cross. Or, it can become a yoke that weighs us down throughout our lives disabling us from pursuing faithfulness with zeal. When white Christians come to truly recognize the impact of their racial indifference and antagonism on people of color, it is right for them to feel a deep sense of remorse. In such a moment, it serves them to have people in their lives who can affirm their righteousness in Christ and not allow them to dwell on their past sin of lovelessness.
The Swift Burnout of a Reconciliation Flame
Jesus once gave what has been called the parable of the sower,
“A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still, other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
This parable also applies to how people receive the work for ethnic reconciliation. Some hear the call but refuse to embrace it. Some hear how ethnic reconciliation is a gospel issue and they receive it quickly and jump on the bandwagon because it seems to be the current fad. However, they lack knowledge and wisdom regarding the issues at hand, and so they leave the work as soon as their worldview is challenged. Likewise, there are many who embrace the cause but are choked out of perseverance by circumstance. Whether it be the racially insensitive parents who express anger towards their awakening, or a minority they sought to engage with who responded with distrust, suspicion, or disregard. There are a multitude of circumstances that can occur but all lead to the same outcome, the moment things get more challenging than they expected, or they are emotionally offended, they go back to what is comfortable and leave the work of reconciliation to those drowning in the river. Of course this parable is about the Gospel, and I am in no way trying to undermine that. I am simply seeking to draw parallels related to how the pattern of this parable can play out in reconciliation work.
People of Color are not the only people who experience racial trauma. I have had white counselees on my couch weeping over the racial indifference of their friends, family, and church. Love has the power to conform and transform us on a fundamental level. It conforms us into the thing we love or treasure. For white people, specifically white Christians, profound love for their minority brethren can lead them to experience racial pain with almost an out of body intensity. Though they know they will never experience what their minority brethren experience regularly; the longing of wanting to identify and share the burden with their minority brethren, alongside their inability to truly do so, can lead to deep grief. It can lead to a feeling of hopelessness as they desire to abound in love, but incapable of doing so due to their “whiteness”. The insensitivity, antagonism, or indifference they see other white people have towards minorities can be taken personally as they have come to identify ethnically marginalized people as truly their family. Extreme grief, anger, depression, disillusionment, and confusion can all weigh heavy on those that have truly sought to abound in love and identify with their minority brethren in their struggle for social conciliation and ecclesiological reconciliation. These challenges alone can lead to a form of trauma, and they don’t even include the onslaught of verbal abuse many white Christians can experience for standing with people of color against racism. The reality of racialization they themselves could have possibly experienced from growing up in predominate minority contexts. All I have described is often simply foundations in which verbal abuse (from friends, family, & church members) and relational abandonment are built upon.
Blinding Pride and White-Centering
Pride keeps white Christians apathetic towards issues of racism, white supremacy, and racial injustice. Likewise, pride leads white Christians with genuine concerns to center themselves and their voices in discussions revolving around ethnic reconciliation. White centering is what happens when white people make themselves the center of conversations about race.
Black person: Racism has led to the oppression and marginalization of people of color.
White person: Let me tell you about the time I experienced an act of racism.
Black Person: In majority culture spaces, I am often made to feel as if I do not belong and am inferior to those around me.
White person: I experienced racism too, in high school.
Many white people have a significant challenge when it comes to decentering themselves in conversations. Within the Christian community, this is most often seen when well meaning white saints insist black people don’t value their voices simply because black saints ask them to listen more and talk less. To put it simply, many black people have a better grasp of the reality of racialization than white people. Having knowledge regarding racialization has been a means of survival for people of color. For those who belong to the majority culture, studies in racialization have been more of a recent undertaking. This has led to many minorities having a more in depth understanding of the collective consciousness of “whiteness” than many white people. This is an important issue; Since the days of slavery, black people have had to study white people and their ideologies. Black people have spent centuries studying white culture and religion as well. We have had to for survival. Meanwhile, many white people do not even realize they have a culture until they become awakened to the realities of race, privilege, and white supremacy. Still, despite being new to the discussions and issues; many white Christians seek to posture themselves as the teachers and authority on the subject. What ends up happening is that these white people begin policing the language that black brethren use. They begin to enforce their own standards and expectations into the dialogues act actions taking place. You see this take place when those in the majority culture insist that minorities don’t use certain words or phrases (like white people, white supremacy, or white privilege) or avoid doing certain things (like kneeling during an anthem or speaking out via social media). Though well-meaning, they often elevate black voices who agree with their narrative rather than challenge it. If they do not elevate themselves to the place of teacher, they will give the illusion of power and authority to those who are black, but will massage their conscience with their words. This reality serves no one. The simple truth is, most white people who become awakened to these issues are students, not teachers. Yes, teachers can learn from students and so I am not saying that these individuals have nothing to contribute. I am simply saying that humility should lead the majority of white people to a posture of learning and listening rather than seeking to dominate conversations and educate minorities on their own experiences and reality.
Much more could be said about these things and the many other challenges white Christians face as they pursue ethnic reconciliation in the world, and the church. These, however, are some of the most common challenges many face. To persevere through these obstacles, white Christians need to be deeply grounded in the reality that ethnic reconciliation is a gospel issue. Relationships with people of color are critical for white Christians who seek to be allies in reconciliation work. For people of color, we have to be sensitive to the challenges and burdens our allies can struggle with and be there to encourage them as they seek to grow with new eyes. What is most important in all of this is that we cannot lose sight of the Gospel. It is the Gospel that carries with it the power to open eyes. It is the gospel that transforms sinners into lovers, and makes new creatures who can love those who are different than them. The Gospel demonstrates the glory of God by displaying the manifold wisdom of God in building a church in which unity is most expressed through diversity. Finally, it is the gospel that informs accountability. People of color, will likely be sinned against and hurt as white Christians seek to grow in knowledge, wisdom, and love. It is up to people of color to ask themselves whether or not they provide a safe environment for white Christians to screw up. If white Christians are dismissed, disregarded, or devalued every time they do or say something sinful/ignorant/foolish; we will miss an opportunity to witness and behold God do a transformational work in peoples lives. The testimony of every white Christian I have encountered who is pursuing this work, is a testimony of, “I was blind, but now I see”. People of color, want to be those who have entered into the privilege of helping others see more clearly, even when doing so is personally costly. I have personally come to the point where I have chosen to no longer spend my energy trying to open people’s eyes to this issue. I have personally chosen to invest my time in equipping those whose eyes have already been open, and being an encouragement to them as they struggle through a new reality.
*It’s important to say, there is a difference between struggling with these pitfalls and them being characteristic of your life. If these pitfalls characterize your interaction with racial reconciliation, you are likely not an ally. It is very important for minorities to discern who is a genuine ally and who is not. Misdiagnosing where white people truly are on this issue can lead to very hard circumstances. Often, majority culture Christians will call themselves allies when in reality they are not, and are actually against or indifferent to minority struggles. They will call themselves allies, but they are actually in deep disagreement about the concerns people of color raise. Some times, they will claim to be for minorities in order to get minorities to lay their guards down and say something they can later use to discredit (“they are race baiters”, “they are racists”). To my minority brethren, it is very important that you examine the fruit of of individuals who claim to be allies alongside minorities in reconciliation work. From my experience, there are Christians who will claim to be “woke” only in order to gain info about you for the purposes of slander and misrepresentation. It is always risky to love, an the dangers shouldn’t prevent minorities from taking risks. The risks should lead minorities to simply be discerning and careful in their partnerships.
You can follow me on Twitter @KyleJamesHoward. Also, check out my podcast “Coram Deo Podcast” which focuses on issues concerning Biblical Counseling and Practical Theology. You can search for podcast on any major podcast catcher, listen on the web here, follow updates @CoramDeoPodcast, or just click the artwork below.
Kyle J. Howard currently serves the church as a Christian counselor. He is a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he received his associate degree in biblical/theological studies and a bachelor’s degree in biblical counseling. He currently lives in Atlanta & is finishing an advanced M. Divinity in Historical Theology and ultimately desires to pastor.