A Thicker Understanding of Racism in the Church

At last week’s SBLAAR meetings, I was glad to see Drew Hart, now assistant professor in theology at Messiah College who also blogs for The Christian Century. We were both on our way to meet other people, so our exchange outside the Exhibit Hall was brief–so brief that I totally forgot to tell him how much I appreciated reading his book published earlier this year.

I can’t say that it’s a book to enjoy since it’s focused on racism in the church, but this is an important, powerful, and practical book. It gave me a better understanding of the church and racism in the U.S., and a lot to ponder for my own context in Canada. I highly recommend Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism by Drew G.I. Hart (Herald Press, 2016).

Trouble I've Seen book cover

The book begins with the racial trouble he’s seen:

** His brother’s arrest for “fitting the description” of someone who had committed a crime. But the description itself was vague as a “black male with a black T-shirt and blue jeans,” and while his brother was eventually cleared in a line-up, his release came only after he had spent four months in a correctional facility.

** A long list of race-based violence, including the 1991 brutal beating of Rodney King by police officers, the shooting and death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in his own neighbourhood in 2012, the 2013 death of Renisha McBride who was shot and killed after knocking on the door of a house where she had hoped to get help after a car accident.

** Anti-black stereotyping; avoidance, denial, or defensiveness when faced with conversations about race; a “thin” understanding that defines racism as a horizontal divide between people and fails to recognize the vertical issues of power and hierarchy.

This makes for compelling reading–and all of that is just in the first chapter! The book goes on to develop what Hart calls a “thicker” understanding of racism that challenges assumptions and challenges the church. Instead of focusing on a thin view of racism as individual acts of prejudice, his thicker view considers racialized society with its police brutality, mass incarceration, poverty, and more.

Most importantly, he says,

Beyond changing how we view racism, we must live differently. We must be transformed. And we must be transformed not only for our own sake but because, every day, people are dying. Millions are dying slowly in our bloated prison system. Millions are dying while stuck in our ghettos, which are mostly death traps for poor and nonwhite people. . . . Right now justice is needed. Right now your own self-transformation is needed. Right now, your community can find deliverance by living into the birth, life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We have lost sight of the reality that Jesus began a subversive and revolutionary movement in the midst of a troubled world. (page 180)

As you can tell from this quote, Hart is part preacher, with a clear call to follow Jesus who reached out in solidarity with those who were marginalized in his own time and place. In Jesus, we can be transformed, we can learn a new way to live that resists injustice, hierarchy, and racism. The book’s final chapter outlines some practical strategies, including sharing life together, practicing solidarity, and renewing social imagination by turning to Scripture and yielding to the Spirit.

A study guide by Katelin Hansen is available from the publisher–Trouble I’ve Seen Study Guide–and you can also download a free chapter. Please note though that this book is definitely written in and for the U.S. context, and contains some specialized concepts and language, e.g., white fragility, racialized hierarchy, counterintuitive solidarity. But don’t let that stop you from reading this excellent book on faith and race. I’ve already read parts of it several times, and my copy is heavily underlined, so it’s definitely a keeper.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of Trouble I’ve Seen from Herald Press, and the opinions expressed in this review are my own.

Writing/Reflection Prompt: “When Jesus is depicted in your church, what race is he? What does this imply about the church’s theology?” (Study Guide, page 3)

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7 thoughts on “A Thicker Understanding of Racism in the Church

  1. I am just finishing up a set of open community discussions (moderated) using this book and the study guide.

    It is overall an interesting experience for me as the moderator for what I’m learning about how to get people to think and talk about these issues, as well as hearing what they say.

    There is simply an enormous chasm, and in many cases good people are struggling to find the bridge to get them from their place of comfort and silence to a place of joy and interaction.

    Were I to offer this type of discussion again, I know how I would run it differently, but I’m very glad for all the hard work these attendees have done, in the reading of the book and thinking about the questions in the study guide, and in making tentative steps to “what do I do next, then?”

    1. I can imagine that this book would generate a lot of good discussion, and to act as moderator could be challenging in some settings. It sounds as if your experience was quite positive, and that you learned a lot. I hope that you might offer it once again to widen the conversation and keep on learning.

      1. You know, I learned a lot myself. I would do it again, maybe adjust how I do it and how I moderate it.

        And I would adjust my expectations radically. I honestly thought that a 12 week discussion group centered around an author sharing his journey would lead to insights and questions and aha! moments.

        That was completely wrong. I’m not being cynical.

        I am simply saying, that *I* did that work doesn’t mean anyone else would, and that is just literally how life is.

        People approach books and information and discussions differently. Many of the people who came to the discussions week after week came to comment without ever reading the book. I’m afraid I allowed that because I wasn’t really thinking that through.

        I would change that, so that no one who failed to read the book could comment or answer any question. (I did shift my questions to open them up for general discussion, but I think that was a mistake, because there can be no discussion that leads to growth if people don’t do their homework and just base their discussions on their existing opinions.)

        I would *eliminate* my expectations for change, of any kind. It has taken me a long, long time to learn and think and *try* to change my actions. I expected way too much of a 12-week discussion group. (And frankly, I thought that well-presented data and congenial teaching methods would bridge the gap. This is entirely wrong when participants are unmotivated to consider the data and the presentations other than as interesting slides.

        This might sound bitter and cynical, but *it is not*. It is simply the honest reflection of an optimist who will always try again, but who will learn from what didn’t work the last time when he tries again the next time.

        1. Wow – I’m so impressed by how much you learned from this, and thank you for taking the time to come back and share. I’ve also been in groups where people wanted to engage in discussion without doing the reading, so I usually plan on starting with a re-cap/highlights before going to discussion. It’s better for everyone to do the reading, but I’ve found that expectation isn’t always met, and those who have done it generally appreciate a review and/or the opportunity to share a highlight. Managing expectations as a leader can be tricky – without optimism, there would be no energy to lead a group, and without realism, disappointment would become overwhelming. All the best to you in living with both!

          1. I’m following up here — again — because I’m still processing this event.

            I have had the ups and the downs, the feelings of bewilderment of “These nice people aren’t really listening” and “Maybe I got to them but boy howdy does it seem hard.”

            I think for *today* I am thinking “I did my part to work as hard as I could to make a relevant, engaging, *safe* place to listen,” but I am also thinking “change happens when the individual is ready, not when the teacher wants it.”

            I get impatient, thinking “I have digested all this for eight years! I have data! Photos! Music! Videos! Texts! Books! (SO MANY BOOKS!) I have built connection diagrams and timelines and names/dates/places! I have written essays and posts and short homilies and longer books! I have been working on this *for myself* as hard as I can, on my own, and I have gotten all these great materials for you! Y U NO READ DIS?”

            But you know, just getting to where I am today, a *slightly* more aware white male American Christian (WMAC) took me 60 years–50 to create my outlook and 10 to attempt to unwind that outlook and re-form it. I am overconfident when I think I’ve turned some corner, because good people I respect give me the look when I say that kind of stuff. (It really seems hard-coded in me to have my WMAC stay at the center of my being and only lessen in intensity for a very short while; when I let my guard down, it comes right back.)

            So yeah, *today* I am a little more patient when thinking of the people I talk to, that I expected rightly that they *should* work on it, but expected wrongly that they were capable of it. (We should all do the right thing at all times, but not everyone can even think about it, let alone do it.)

            I have good moments where my toil is rewarded. Standing up for the rights of refugees and Muslims in my hometown generated a LOT of pushback this last weekend, with a LOT of unhappy people telling me I was making them mad and uncomfortable. I was upset by that, but kept my positive outward appearance.

            And then some people contacted me privately to say that they appreciated my calm, reasonable, data-driven, factual rebuttals, and that they wanted to hear more of this, and would I mind becoming a point-person for our community to discuss what actions we can take to be a community that embraces the refugees and the Muslims? These are good people who feel lost in the anger and don’t have the tools or knowledge on what to do next. I HAVE IDEAS, I told them.

            I have had more and more people reach out to me from my past–high school, college, early 20s and 30s–to say that they were so pleased to hear my strong voice pushing back as well as leading to a better place.

            That wasn’t my intention–to get attention. My intention all along was to encourage my own people–my church, my family, my town–to simply be kinder and more connected with each other and more empathetic with those with whom we are not connected.

            But there are some who look for the strong confident voices, and by gosh, I can do that. I am capable of speaking, and I will do that as much as I can.

            *I know* I am not the perfect person for this. I know that WMAC like me barge in to help.

            But I also know that for my own situation, no one else is speaking up and speaking out, and I am willing to be the guy who does that while I identify and ally with the people who can own this and become my mentors and teachers.

            I am the worst witness and leader. But until someone better comes along (and lordy, let me tell you this is my *prayer*!), I’ll stand on the streetcorner with sign if I have to.

            I can do that.

  2. Thanks for sharing your ongoing process – it’s challenging to navigate the various responses and to do one’s own inner work too. I pray that you have good conversation partners and God’s wisdom to know when to step up and when to refrain, when to speak and when to hold silence.

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