Lena Dunham, creator of HBO’s Girls (Photo Credit: All Access Photo/Newscom)
First, let me apologize.
I formed an opinion about you without really examining your work. All I’ve been able to see from your critically-acclaimed comedy Girls is clips from YouTube. Since I didn’t exactly know what to make of them, I mostly ignored and moved on. But since hearing of your casting Donald Glover as a black Republican boyfriend – even for just two episodes — I thought to myself, “maybe I should give her another chance.”
So looking for an entry point, I watched your feature film debut, Tiny Furniture. And I was impressed by its emotional honesty. While I’m glad that it helped me to get a broader sense of your cinematic voice, I can now say with certainty that many of my initial instincts were correct.
You and your costars, the progeny of successful, famous people, have inspired quite the backlash from critics and bystanders – a potent combination of curiosity, incredulity, and let’s be honest, plain ol’ Haterade. There are many reasons for this, but one stands out:
Lena Dunham, you are, quite literally, a living embodiment of white privilege. (By the way, that “literally” was spoken in Rob-Lowe-as-Chris-Traeger-voice.)
Now I realize that in 2013, privilege is no longer the exclusive domain of white people – just ask Rashida Jones – but yours is a situation that specifically illustrates the advantages in the entertainment business that are granted by growing up amongst the liberal, hypereducated upper class.
And none of this is your fault, really. None of us asked to be born into our families. But I say this only so that you can understand how grating it can sound to struggling artists and filmmakers – of any race, really, but especially of color – when you say, as you did in last year’s NPR interview, that you “wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me, and only later did I realize it was four white girls.” You should take plenty of credit for the freedom and boldness that it takes to write from such a gut-level place. However, the ability to express those gut-level fears and anxieties in the context of a commercially successful television program on a premium cable network? As President Obama put it, you didn’t build that. That ability came straight from your invisible knapsack.
I’m sure none of this is news to you, so don’t think of this letter as an indictment, but an encouragement. Your fledgling success actually gives me a measure of hope, because I see parallels in your story to another writer whose work I really respect. For now, we’ll call him Paulie.
This guy Paulie also came from a Jewish background. His upbringing was also steeped in privilege – a privilege that he understood and fully owned, even though he eventually grew disenchanted with it. And even though he could be intellectual and systematic, he wasn’t afraid of showing his real self, warts and all. He wrote with a raw, visceral intensity. He once implied that vegetables are for weak people, he referred to his enemies as dogs, and once sarcastically told some of his critics to cut off their own junk.
But as far as I can tell, there’s one important difference between Paulie’s story and yours. Paulie had an amazing encounter with the Christ, one that quite literally opened his eyes to the world around him (after being temporarily blinded), and eventually transformed his entire worldview.
And you know what the kicker is? All the stuff that I just mentioned… he wrote all of that after he became a Christian, not before. Though he hated Christians and actively tried to undermine everything they stood for, after having really encountered Christ, he went just as hardcore in the other direction.
Now if you’ve made it this far, you might be wondering – how is this relevant, exactly? I’m not a Christian. Well, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to change that. I want everyone to experience the forgiveness and freedom that comes from having a relationship with Christ.
But that’s not my main objective here. I want to call your attention to a specific aspect of my man Paulie’s story (okay fine, nobody calls him that, I’ll just call him Paul). See, when Paul became a Christian, he didn’t run away from the privilege afforded by his upbringing; instead he leveraged it. He wrote and spoke with firsthand knowledge and experience of the cost of following Christ as one of the Hebrew elite, and his resulting message was credible and resonant. As an apostle, someone who traveled to various churches in various places, Paul understood that God had given him a unique platform. By writing from a dual perspective, both inside and outside of his culture, and by doing his best to be all things to all people, he reached many with his writing.
(I would apologize for the cliché, but Paul’s the one who started it.)
My guess, Lena Dunham, is that with Girls, you’re trying to use your story to speak resonantly to people beyond your core demographic of disaffected, upper-middle class, twentysomething women. In my opinion, that goal, admirable as it is, only happens if you can demonstrate enough grace and humility to reach out and learn from others beyond the scope of your upbringing. And it starts with realizing that you need other people to help you get there.
In Paul’s case, the love of Christ compelled him to do so; in yours, perhaps Nielsen numbers would suffice? Either way, I hope you learn how to cross those cultural boundaries. Your professional output will be better for it. If you do, could you share some of that grace and humility with Cathryn Sloane? She’s probably ready now. You can reach her on social media.
Adam Lanza murdered 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.
My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word. –Psalm 119:28
When the soul is crushed with the weight of unanswerable questions, how do we begin to bind up our wounds? How many times have we gone through this? How many more can we endure?
We experience such shock each time we hear the news. But at what point do we refuse to dismiss such instances as “random” and “unheard of”? When do as a society begin to take collective responsibly for the lives that have been lost? How many will it take before we examine the “cultural pathology” of mass shooting?
There is a double standard that exists around the explanation of such events. It would not take very many mass shootings in which the perpetrators were black, Muslim, or Latino before we would hear comments about “violent cultures” and the ‘moral bankruptcy‘ of an entire group.
Think that race should have nothing to do with it? Maybe not. Yet when the perpetrator isn’t white, race is routinely injected into the narrative. And no matter how many white male mass-shooter we’ve had, we still live in a society that fervently fears Black men.
Jared Lee Loughner shot former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in Tucson, AZ. on Jan. 8, 2011. Six of those shot died.
This is the danger of maintaining cultural white male default. We are blind to the ugly aspects of a culture that is perpetually considered ‘normal.’ If these shooters were black men, there would be a collective shaking-of-heads at their ‘inherit violent nature‘. If Latina women were committing mass shootings at a similar rate, the media would certainly be asking what the cause of it might be. But after the Newton shootings, we will see no law enforcement policy changes that will increase the racial profiling of white men.
It is a chilling aspect of white privilege to be able “to kill, maim, commit wanton acts of violence, and to be anti-social (as well as pathological) without having your actions reflect on your own racial group” (Chauncey DeVega). Time and again, the white men who commit these mass shooting are framed as “lone wolves” and “outliers,” with little examination or reflection on a broader cultural responsibility.
On July 20, 2012, James Eagan Holmes shot multiple guns into the audience at a midnight screening of ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ killing 12 people and injuring 58.
Abagond also notes the trend:
“When white people do something bad it is due to circumstances, a bad upbringing, a psychological disorder or something. Because, apart from a few bad apples, white people are Basically Good. Everyone knows it. But when black people do something bad it is because they were born that way.”
When the shooter is white, we dig into school and psychiatric records in search for explanations as to why someone so “normal” would do such a thing. The shooter is often perceived as the quite, unremarkable “boy next door” that no on ever dreamed would suddenly snap.
Charles Carl Roberts murdered five girls and injured five others at an Amish school in Lancaster County, PA., on Oct. 2, 2006.
When violence is perpetrated by a person of color, we are quicker to be satisfied with broad explanations of terrorism, religion, or turf wars. Indeed, “after Maj. Nidal Hasan carried out the Fort Hood shootings, his Muslim faith became all the public needed to know about his motive.” The news media routinely “pathologize people of color as naturally criminal and violent.” Urban is used as shorthand for immorality.
As sensationalized as inner-city violence is, mass shootings of strangers in public settings like schools and shopping malls are virtually non-existent in urban neighborhoods. And despite gun-blazing stereotypes, the majority of people of color are pro-gun control, in stark contrast to the white voting public.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold committed the Columbine High School massacre on April 20, 1999, killing 13 people and injuring 24.
Finally, the understandable horror that is felt after each mass shooting is in stark contrast to the silence and apathy with regard to the children that are dying on the streets everyday. There are daily cries for change and regulation coming from the mouths of mourning mothers that are never heard. The shock expressed after the events like those in Newton subtly sends the message that “this shouldn’t happen here, in our idyllic white suburban community. We’re not like those neighborhoods where you expect random violence.” These attitudes are reflected in the difference in public attention span depending on the race of the victim, whether it’s a shooting at a Sikh temple, or a missing child report.
When white is seen as the default, any deviant behavior can be excused as the exception to the rule. Conversely, when we limit our interactions with those of other races, we are forced to rely on heuristics to generalize about the “other.” If Adam Lanza were black, it would reaffirm stereotypes of a violent culture. If he were Muslim, the shooting would be a “clear act of terrorism.” But as a white male, he is characterized as a disturbed individual, wholly distinct from the race and culture to which he belongs.
Rev. DeForest "Buster" Soaries
Rev. Dr. DeForest B. Soaries Jr. is pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, New Jersey, and author of dfree: Breaking Free from Financial Slavery. He served as New Jersey Secretary of State under Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman and twice served as a political appointee of President George W. Bush. UrbanFaith last talked to Soaries in December 2010 about his book and the personal debt crisis among African Americans. As President Obama and Congress moved closer to resolving the federal budget debate, we asked Rev. Soaries to share his thoughts on the debt-ceiling controversy, the role of race and class in the debate, and reasons for the bitter polarization in Washington. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
URBAN FAITH: What are your thoughts on the federal budget debate?
REV. SOARIES: Having worked in Washington, it did not surprise me that Congress would have such difficulty coming to an agreement. Most of the legislation that’s passed in Washington goes through similar trauma and drama. It’s just that this one, like few others, was under the spotlight and we were able to see all of the challenges. It didn’t surprise me that it came down to the wire. It didn’t surprise me that there was division on both sides of the aisle. The process is not unusual. This is the way Congress operates.
I’ve read critiques saying there is a lot of unnecessary hype surrounding this debate. What do you think is the cause?
The Tea Party has made the national debt a very serious issue and their success in the mid-term elections put them front and center. When you have single issue type zealotry in the legislative process, the word compromise is a bad word and the legislative processes require compromise. No one ever gets all of what they want. That wouldn’t be democracy; that would be a dictatorship.
The national debt is a very serious issue, but the underlying issue in Washington is not so much how much money we owe. It’s more: what is the proper role of government? The Democrats generally feel that it is appropriate for government to sponsor programs that address human needs and the Republicans generally assume that the primary role of the federal government is defense, to protect the country, and that most other activities should be left to the market and private sector. Conservatism and Liberalism have two very different views of the role of government. Once you establish what your view is on the role of government, you then have a perspective on how government should spend money.
When President Bush borrowed over $6 trillion mainly to subsidize and pay for war, the Republicans did not mind that because they believe that war, defense, and security are appropriate roles and responsibilities for federal government. Over the last 40 to 50 years, the debt ceiling has been raised twice as often under Republicans as it has been raised under Democrats. Republicans don’t mind debt as long as the debt is paying for something that they deem appropriate, and Democrats don’t mind debt as long as it’s paying for something they deem appropriate.
You were an appointee of the Bush administration, but it sounds like you don’t share Republican opinions on this issue.
I’ve never shared most of the opinions of George W. Bush. I was appointed twice by President Bush. The first time I was appointed was to serve on the board of the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York. That bank is a part of a system that provides more money for affordable housing than any other source in the country. That’s why I agreed to serve. My second appointment was to chair the Election Assistance Commission that was supposed to correct the voting problems that were revealed in the 2000 election. I was appointed by Bush to chair a bipartisan commission of two Democrats and two Republicans. From the time I was there, every decision was unanimous. I went to Washington for a very specific task, and that was to help states repair their voting systems so that when people vote, we know that the voting has integrity.
You were also New Jersey’s Secretary of State under Governor Christine Todd Whitman.
I was, and compared to the Tea Party, Gov. Whitman was a Democrat. I had no philosophical or ideological conflict working with the Republicans in New Jersey because, prior to Chris Christie, the Republicans in New Jersey were very moderate.
We just published a roundup of potential consequences of the federal budget crisis on the African American community. What do you think the consequences will be?
African Americans are in a very difficult situation. Pew Research just revealed last week that 35 percent of blacks have no net worth or negative net worth. That’s one-out-of-three. The FDIC reported last year that 54 percent of blacks either have no bank account or they don’t use their bank account regularly. That’s half. Our unemployment rate is sky high; it’s over 20 percent in most black neighborhoods. Our savings rate is just about zero. The majority of our people are living marginal lives economically.
Couple that with the fact that over the last two decades, the majority of us who have had good jobs have had them in the public sector. This is what’s so devastating. The majority of blacks work in the public sector and the majority of whites work in the private sector.
When you talk about reducing the size of government, you’re really talking about a disproportionate impact on African Americans. If you talk about reducing and changing the pension construct, you’re talking about a disproportionately high percentage of African Americans whose pensions come from the public sector. Even when you talk about Medicaid, Medicare, or Social Security, a disproportionate number of African Americans use those resources to survive.
Philosophically, I don’t think anyone would disagree that government should not be big and taxes should not be high just for the purpose of big government and high taxes, but there is a very explicit racial impact from the fact that, historically, African Americans were denied access to the private sector. Good jobs for black people when I was coming up were teachers and post office employees, or the military. When you consider Washington, D.C., the federal government is basically run by black people. I’m sure that the fiscal conservatives are not all racists, but I’m also sure that they have not sat down and really considered the racial implications of what they say.
Is the reason so many African Americans have public sector jobs because of racism in the private sector, especially in hiring?
Yes, but it’s not just racist acts, it’s the legacy of racism. It’s the private sector basically being owned, controlled, and operated by whites. As government laws to protect the civil rights of blacks were passed, the government held itself more accountable than the private sector. It was easier to document and monitor the behavior of institutions in the public sector than it was in the private sector. So in the military, in the postal system, and in education, government was able to hold its own employees more accountable to equal opportunity and civil rights.
It became culturally accepted among African Americans that a good job, a stable job, is in the public sector where you are protected by civil service laws. If you could get a good job at the post office, you didn’t need much education, you could work there for 40 years and retire and live a comfortable life. That’s the old model. Now that the public sector is incapable of sustaining the level of activity it once had, and it has a devastating impact on African Americans.
Because we have such a shallow political leadership, what happens is if you say that, the first thing the Tea Party types and fiscal conservatives do is back up and say, “I’m not a racist.” That’s a knee-jerk reaction. If I preached a sermon at my church and the majority of the women got together after service and said, “That was a sexist sermon,” I can’t simply say, “I love my wife. I love my mother. I’m not a sexist.” I would have to take seriously their critique. What happens is fiscal conservatism refuses to listen to our critique because, in most of their minds, they are not personally racist. So they’re not willing to step back and analyze the racial implications of their philosophy and their policies, and therefore the discussion goes nowhere.
As the author of a book about debt-free living, you’re clearly not saying that people should abdicate personal responsibility. Are people even able to adopt a debt-free living message in the midst of this economic crisis?
Yes. The first line of defense is to control whatever resources you do have. It requires making some very important decisions. In Texas, black people spend $1.1 billion a year on lottery tickets. The University of Texas did research and discovered 58 percent of the blacks in Texas spend $57 a month on lottery tickets. There’s 1.6 million black people in Texas who are spending $57 a month on lottery tickets. So while I am concerned about the macro-economic issues, my question to them is this: Is that the best use of $57 a month? Fifty-seven dollars a month put into a mutual fund over 20 years will yield some real cash, and it’s more likely that investing or saving $57 a month will yield benefits than it is that you’ll hit the lottery when the odds of hitting the big lottery are 195 million to 1.
Has there been an increased interest in the personal finance courses your church offers given the economic situation?
Oh, sure. I started this ministry in 2005 and things were pretty rosy. People were taking out second mortgages on their houses, refinancing and pulling cash out, and getting approved for new loans in 24 hours. That was then, but this is now. The economic condition of the country and the world has motivated many more people to want to know more about how to handle their money.
Some Christian leaders signed a Circle of Protection document to defend programs that help the less fortunate, and they met with the president to urge him not to balance the budget “on the backs of the poor.” What do you think is the appropriate Christian response to this crisis?
I agree with that. However, having been in government, I understand the challenge that Mr. Obama has. The Congress has much more power over the budget than most people realize. The president doesn’t have a whole lot of power over the budget in terms of what’s authorized.
We didn’t get into this mess overnight, and we’re not going to get out of it overnight. There ought to be a balanced, gradual strategy to repair the federal budget. It has to be balanced in that you can’t simply go to programs that support the most vulnerable, even if you agree that it’s inappropriate. On the other hand, it has to be gradual. You can’t do it quickly.
The Tea Party people made commitments last year when they ran for office, and what they have to take into account is that you cannot eliminate $14 trillion in debt in three months. You have to do it gradually because … there is a human story behind every item in the federal budget, and if you don’t balance your fiscal prudence with humane values, then you’ll do what my grandmother used to say: you’ll cut off your nose to spite your face.
Listen to Rev. Soaries explain the role of race in the federal budget debate.
A professor, a policeman, and the President offered all of us an opportunity to reconsider issues of race, class, and justice in America. But are we able to grasp the deeper lessons? Seven leaders reflect on the real message of the Henry Louis Gates controversy.
A special forum featuring William Pannell, Cheryl Sanders, Glenn Loury, Curtiss DeYoung, Art Lucero, Vashti Murphy McKenzie, and Tali Hairston.
People wanted to make the Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrest and subsequent brouhaha a parable about a lot of things — the prevalence of racial profiling, Ivy League elitism, disrespect for law enforcement, racism, classism, black rage, white privilege. The episode may have had shades of all those things. But the truth is always more complicated and multilayered than the pre-wrapped boxes in which we’re inclined to deposit racial events. And in the end, nobody’s mind really seemed to change about any of the issues at stake. Even Gates and Sergeant Crowley, the arresting officer, said they would simply “agree to disagree” after their much-heralded reunion at President Obama’s so-called “Beer Summit.”
Now, a few weeks removed from the drama of the moment, and with the advantage of hindsight and cooler emotions, perhaps there’s a better chance of drawing some meaningful lessons from what has been glibly labeled by the media as “Gates-gate.” We asked seven Christian scholars, pastors, and urban leaders to give us their perspectives on the real message of the Gates-Crowley-Obama “teachable moment.”
WILLIAM PANNELL: I was listening to President Obama’s press conference, and when I heard the answer he gave about Gates and the cop, I knew he had made a serious mistake. I said out loud, “Oh, no. Don’t do that.” He was out of line not knowing all the facts, and he responded out of his experience of being black in a nation run by white cops. His answer was understandable, given this history. And this history is still very much alive all across this nation. But he is the President of this country; of all people in this country, including those who have never been in the back of a bus. No president should rush to judgment and speak off the cuff as he did. I don’t know what he said to Crowley during their meeting in Washington, but I think he owes him an apology.
The other mistake he made was to be much too laudatory of Professor Gates. Gates is a hot-dog professor at Harvard who loves the spotlight and enjoys a reputation of being superior in human relations. At Harvard he is virtually untouchable, in part because he is black. He is a fine scholar of course, but this isn’t about scholarship. Further complicating this event is the fact that Mr. Obama is an honored graduate of Harvard. Too much baggage for a president to carry on this one.
What have we learned? Not much, probably, for those whose experience on either side of this issue precludes the possibility of seeing both sides of this event. Black people are still being mistreated by white cops — black ones, too, for that matter. A cop is a cop; they represent the army of occupation in all our cities. Civilians beware!
On the other hand, policing is much more complicated an enterprise today than in the more recent past. And most departments have made strong efforts at preparing their officers to respect civilians of all colors in the line of their duties. But it is still true that racism is alive and well in this country. If I were I still a father of teenage boys, I would warn them about any encounter with police. I did this when my boys were in their teens, and I’d still do it today.
The way forward in this arena of mistrust requires that we open discussions between “civilians” and the “army.” When such conversations do occur, they are most often heated because they have been triggered by some encounter between the police and a civilian. Riots have been set off this way. Ask Rodney King.
What we need is a series of regular backyard conversations between police and neighborhoods in an attempt to develop “communities of discourse,” climates where trust can be developed. The most promising centers for such discourse could be local congregations, but better in someone’s backyard. The barbecue tastes better there.
Then this: One of these days the executives of major news outlets need to get converted from their corporate greed and realize that free speech is really not free. It carries with it serious responsibilities for the general welfare of a people. Spreading hate on CNN, Fox, or any other outlet ill serves the nation. We are very badly divided in this country. Under intense pressures owing to the economic crisis, nerves become frayed and the natives get restless. If we cannot talk about our differences, we are in serious trouble. And our differences are anchored in fear. So let’s talk about what makes us afraid.
Dr. William E. Pannell is Special Assistant to the President and Senior Professor of Preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary. In the past he has served as a professor of evangelism and as director of the African American Studies Program. A gifted preacher and professor of homiletics, Pannell has nurtured several generations of Fuller students from the classroom to the pulpit. He currently serves on the board of Taylor University in Indiana and is the author of numerous articles and books, including The Coming Race Wars? A Cry for Reconciliation (1993), Evangelism from the Bottom Up (1992), and My Friend, the Enemy (1968).
CHERYL SANDERS: I think the real message of the Gates affair is that white privilege does not readily convey to affluent and influential people of color. As a next step, beyond meeting over beers, perhaps President Obama should consider convening town meetings around the nation to discuss these issues, if he can garner the political courage and moral authority to do so.
At Third Street Church of God, we have incorporated the ministry of reconciliation into our mission statement and ministry priorities. One reason why race relations remains problematic in the United States is the failure of Christians to acknowledge that all persons are made in the image of God and that God is no respecter of persons. Therefore we have deluded ourselves into thinking that the racism, sexism, and elitism practiced in many of our churches reflect the will and Word of God.
The special role churches could play to bring healing to our racial rifts would require recollection, repentance, restitution, and reconciliation, in that order. Reconciliation requires more than beer-bottle diplomacy — there must be transparency and truth-telling with the intention of actually changing the way we relate to each other.
Dr. Cheryl J. Sanders has been senior pastor of the Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C., since 1997, and is Professor of Christian Ethics at the Howard University School of Divinity where she has taught since 1984. She has authored several books, including Ministry at the Margins: The Prophetic Mission of Women, Youth & the Poor (1997) and Saints in Exile: The Holiness-Pentecostal Experience in African American Religion and Culture (1996).
GLENN LOURY: The real message? I think it’s that the president must do a better job managing the “race” issue. I recognize that this issue is pretty far down the list of things he has to worry about, and rightly so. But, as the principal public official now in the position of framing the national discourse on race-related matters, he has an awesome responsibility to get it right. And, he’s been revealed by his handling of this incident to be not nearly as sure-footed as conventional wisdom would have it. This is likely to cost him politically over the long run, which cannot be good for African Americans or progressives in this country.
We have to find a way to talk honestly about our problems, which lie at the intersection of race and class. It’s not blackness in general, or in the abstract, that is the issue. The racial profiling of successful black Americans is not the deep problem here. (I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, or that it’s not a problem. I’m saying if that were all that was going on, it wouldn’t be a fundamental blemish on our democracy. What is a fundamental stain on our democracy, and what gives rise to a great hypocrisy in the way our country presents itself to the rest of the world, is the virtual police state that is being run in our midst, with its great weight falling on the backs of the black and brown, urban, low-income, poorly educated, socially marginal populations who have fallen between the cracks. This incident, and the way in which it has been handled, including by the President of the United States, reveals just how far we are from being able to confront our true racial demons.
What role should the church play? No more or less than in any other central area of American life (the environment; economic justice; war and peace, etc.). I don’t believe that this is a “why can’t we all get along?” kind of spiritual battle. It is a political and economic battle, which of course has a spiritual and moral dimension. But, it is not a question of personal morality (how should black and white individuals deal with encounters like the one in Cambridge last month?). Rather, it is a question of public morality — that is, how should we as a nation deal with those who are being left behind?
Glenn C. Loury is the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences and Professor of Economics at Brown University. He taught previously at Boston University, Harvard, and Northwestern. In addition to his scholarly work, Loury is a prominent social critic and public intellectual, a frequent commentator on national radio and television, and an advisor on social issues to business and political leaders throughout the country. His books include One by One, From the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America (winner of the American Book Award and the Christianity Today Book Award) and The Anatomy of Racial Equality.
CURTISS PAUL DEYOUNG: The confusing details surrounding the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. by the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police department demonstrate once again the challenge of healing the open wound of racism in the United States. The incident reveals the often unseen depth of generational scars and raw fears experienced by persons of color, even those who sit in elite positions in the country. It also shows how those serving within institutions in our country fail, despite their best efforts, to recognize these effects and order their behaviors accordingly.
Until our best minds and most committed healers focus on the deeper levels of bigotry and systemic injustice, and implement a process for transformation, we will continue to experience the symptoms of this entrenched reality.
Curtiss Paul DeYoung is Professor of Reconciliation Studies at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has experience in urban multicultural ministry in the United States and South Africa, and his research interests include multicultural interpretations of the Bible and interfaith dialogue. DeYoung is the author of several books, including Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice.
ARTURO LUCERO: I think one of the main lessons from the Gates incident is that frustrating circumstances can be a seedbed for misunderstandings and unfortunate consequences. Proverbs says, “He that is slow to wrath is of great understanding: but he that is hasty of spirit exalteth folly.” And it later says, “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.”
The Civil Rights Act protects all Americans from discrimination. But it does not change the heart of man. The only real answer to matters of race and class is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Government legislation may impact our actions, but the Word of God transforms our lives. It teaches us to love one another as Christ loved us (John 13:34-35), to put the interests of others above our own (Phil. 2:3-4), and to forgive (Eph. 4:32b). Although the Word of God is clear in its teachings on this matter, some preachers of the Word are not.
The role of the church is to bring people to maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:12-13). Paul goes on to describe how we are to reflect that maturity, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
As long as people of all ethnicities perpetuate the injustices of the past and their grievances toward other ethnicities, the wound will never heal. The only biblical solution is for pastors to teach their flocks to forgive those who hurt us (Eph. 4:32b), love our enemies, and to pray and do good to those who hate us (Matt. 5:44; Luke 6:27).
Arturo Lucero is the president and founder of Multi Cultural Ministry and also serves as an adult ministry pastor at Sunrise Church in Rialto, California, a multiethnic congregation of 4,000. As the former director of Bible Church Mission, a church planting agency, he developed a strategy for ministering to the growing Hispanic community through an established non-Hispanic church. As a conference speaker and consultant to churches, his focus is on equipping churches for reaching the immigrant community. He has contributed chapters to the books Reuniting the Family of God, edited by A. Charles Ware and Eugene Seals, and Just Don’t Marry One: Interracial Dating, Marriage, and Parenting, edited by George and Sherelyn Yancey.
VASHTI MURPHY MCKENZIE: I think a big lesson from the Gates incident is that stereotypes persist in our world. Stereoptypical attitudes will meet you in the boardroom, classroom, locker room, on the street, or even at your front door.
Stereotypical attitudes, unfortunately, are a part of our everyday lives. We’d like to think they’re dead and gone, but often they just depart for a season. We stereotype each other all the time. Just when you think it’s safe, it will happen to you or to someone you know. And whenever it happens, it hurts.
When I read the news account that Professor Gates was arrested in his own home, it suddenly didn’t seem like 2009. Instead, it felt more like 1959. Racial profiling was alleged, but law enforcement officials also felt unfairly judged for trying to carry out their jobs. Stereotypes can affect all sides of a conflict.
A stereotype paints men and women a color that they have not earned and do not deserve. There are stereotypes in every person’s closet, and they come out at the most inconvenient times. Stereotypes are a group fixed notions about a person or group of persons or the conceptioins that surround a position or occupation. There are stereotypes about certain ethnic, cultural, or religious groups. There are stereotypes surrounding Christians and Jews, Muslims and Buddhists. There are stereotypes surrounding men and women. There are stereotypes surrounding people of African, Irish, Polish, or Hispanic descent. One person may be viewed as confident, while another doing the same thing is considered arrogant. One person’s action is called “survival,” while another doing the same thing is “looting.” One person running down the street may be considered jogging, but another person doing the same thing must be running away from something because they must have done something.
Even Jesus experienced stereotyping. In the Gospel of John, chapter one, Philip found Nathanael and told him that they’d found the One that Moses had written about in the Law and about whom the prophets also wrote — “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” What was Nathaniel’s response? “Nazareth? Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael hadn’t even met Jesus, hadn’t shaken his hand, didn’t Googled him, hadn’t read his résumé. He just figured that he wasn’t any good because he came from Nazareth. We all dream of a better world where character is elevated over color and class. But if you want a better world, you have to work for it. It won’t come by wishing.
John wrote about a beloved community; Martin Luther King Jr. preached about it; Donny Hathaway sang about it, “Someday we’ll all be free.” But it won’t come by wishing; it will only come by seeking God and working for a change. We need to work on getting rid of these stereotypes today.
Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie is a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church — the first female bishop in its history — and serves in the 13th Episcopal District, which includes Tennessee and Kentucky. She is a member of the President’s Advisory Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Her latest book is Swapping Housewives: Rachel & Jacob & Leah. Her teaching, inspirational meditations, and commentaries are available as a podcast at ThisIsYourWakeupCallOnline.com.
TALI HAIRSTON: The conclusions drawn from racial incidence in America come quickly and often with undeniable passion. The rarer moments within racial matters is when someone creates a moment of pause that alters the mental landscape of how many imagined or consider race.
President Obama recently created such a pause when he sought to reframe the Dr. Gates and Officer Crowley situation as a “teachable moment.” This triggered a litany of reflections on one of America’s oldest closet skeletons. What is inferred by the President is that his election did not signal an end to all things racial. Rather, America is at best more racially conscious and less resistant to new paradigms related to race.
What we clearly lack is strategic engagement and the intentional effort needed to truly address race in America. This leaves us with two basic options which were regularly demonstrated in this situation. We either choose to ignore the issue of race, believing that if we do so racism will fix itself. Or, we wait until the next race-based conflict and react vociferously with insight and passion, hoping to change someone’s mind or at best give them a piece of ours.
For the Christian community, I argue both these reactions are not in line with Christian mission and witness. From the perspective of an African American male with an Irish family name; living in an Asian community; working alongside Protestant, Catholic, Jew, and Gentile for reconciliation and community development; the issue of race has grown more complex by our lack of missional intentionality. We engage race like a couple in a struggling marriage. Problems are only addressed while emotions and sensitivities are running high. But when the current issue de-escalates, we go back to our churches, neighborhoods, TV shows, and hobbies. This assures we will not be equipped as a nation or as Christians to properly engage “the other” when it most matters.
How much money has been invested in turning the racial tide? What institutions produce marketplace materials that counteract the million-dollar radio and TV personalities that so easily fan the flames of racial ignorance? Christian mission and witness has always demanded intentionality, resources, planning, time, leadership, collaboration, prayer, and hope. If the church could be a witness at this level, maybe change wouldn’t feel so much like a pipe dream.
Tali Hairston is Special Assistant to the President at Seattle Pacific University and director of the John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development. At the helm of the Perkins Center, he is leading Seattle Pacific in a comprehensive initiative born out of a dream and a partnership between SPU President Philip Eaton and the legendary reconciliation advocate Dr. John Perkins. Hairston is passionate about seeing SPU contribute to the reconciliation movement in Seattle and the nation.