People of Faith – Becoming a Disturbing Presence in a Church Living in the Tension of White Privilege and Racism


imageMy church, Redeemer Lutheran Church in north Minneapolis, has partnered with a couple suburban Lutheran churches to commit to a year long series on “Racism and. . .” We started in September and in October we tackled “Racism and People of Faith.” We heard personal, thoughtful and honest reflections from former ELCA presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, who is white, and our church’s pastor, Kelly Chatman, who is black. We followed those reflections with small group conversations and then a question/answer opportunity.

While the journeys of our speakers were different in many ways, they were similar in their rootedness in the radical love of Christ. Both spoke of the hunger on the part of people of faith for evangelical defiance. We were challenged by Bishop Hanson to be a disturbing presence in our churches and the world and encouraged to live with the inherent tension that presence creates, remembering that at the core this needs to be about doing the work of God.

Those of us who are white and that have lived a faith experience steeped in whiteness and privilege were given the opportunity to reflect on how black people of faith must feel when the music, worship and stories of our ELCA churches is steeped in that same white privilege and tradition. What is the message sent to people of color when our almost all white ELCA invites people of color to join “us” and the “us” is really the white “us” . . . not God’s “us?” Inviting people of color to worship as we do, is not about being one people of God. It’s about protecting our white traditions and privilege, and continuing to be comfortable while other children of God are then left by us to be uncomfortable. Saying to our brothers and sisters of color that, yes, we want you to come and worship with us, with our white traditions, and be like us, is not truly being about the work of God. And, if we’re honest and authentic, we know that in our hearts.

To be a disturbing presence and truly be about the work of God, we need to, as white people of faith, lean into that tension that is created when we do talk about white privilege and racism. Ultimately, it has to be about more than talk. It means living our lives in Christlike ways that call out and reject the white privilege and racism that is ingrained in our culture.

Can those of us who are white rediscover our childlike curiousity to generously listen and learn from people of color, embracing fully who they are as individuals, children of God, and part of God’s diverse community of believers, each created in God’s image? We, as Lutherans, are steeped in our own church traditions, including our own tradition of white comfort. Leaning into that tension and discomfort does not come easily; but, what’s the alternative?

We, as white people, have the luxury and privilege of disengaging in or leaving a church community when conversations and actions start to become  a real and disturbing presence. Yet,  that is precisely the time we must lean in and embrace the tension. That’s where we learn and grow. That’s where we are human. Being a disciple of Jesus is, by definition, radical. When those of us who are white make following Jesus, an itinerant preacher of color, comfortable, we are choosing to be  more white than Christian. Don’t walk away. . . just because your white privilege lets you.

The weekend following this conversation we had at our church I attended, with over 400 people of faith, an inspiring gathering, titled “Journey toward Justice: Privilege and Race in Our Church.” It was an opportunity to gather and begin to talk frankly about the sin of white privilege and racism. The speakers’ unapologetic truth telling, coupled with articulating practical ways white folks can take action to immediately make a difference, was encouraging. But the conversations also revealed our humanity and how we are both sinner and saint – all of us at such different places along the “journey.” We began to unpack some of the difficult questions surrounding white privilege in our predominantly white churches. We also saw how our own white fragility made these necessary conversations incredibly challenging.

Jim Wallis, our first speaker in September, in his book, “America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America,” talks of “white fragility.” Wallis references a 2011 journal article by Robin DiAngelo, professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University, where DiAngelo defines white fragility as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.” DiAngelo notes that, for white people, being called out on racism can mean they are being identified as a “bad” person. This is an intolerable place for white people to land. It is a huge challenge to our core identity as good, moral people. DiAngelo notes this white fragility also comes from our own deep sense of entitlement. According to DiAngelo, we have set our white worlds up to preserve that “internal sense of superiority” and we resist what challenges that narrative. And, DiAngelo says, we do this all while proclaiming that race is meaningless to us.

Nobody likes their world and identity to be challenged. My hope is that those of us who live daily with our white privilege might prayerfully work to let Christ into our hearts to be that disturbing presence in our own internal sense of superiority and entitlement.

One of the poignant questions raised in our small group discussions following the sharing by former Bishop Hanson and pastor Chatman related to confronting our own white privilege. The question was asked, “What are white people willing to sacrifice or give up?” Perhaps we can begin with giving up our own sense of superiority and entitlement and a white fragility that continues to  bind us to sin.

We trust that our grace filled God, with powers beyond our limited human understanding, will lead us, his children, to a place of wholeness where we reimagine our collective commitment towards racial justice.