Bad teaching doesn't let us off the hook

by Mariam Williams

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I'm composing much of this column on the return flight from Dallas, where I've just spent the past few days at Race Forward's biannual Facing Race conference. This event came one day after I heard John Powell, an international expert on such topics as race, "othering," and law, deliver a powerful lecture, "From Freedom Summer to Ferguson: Why we need a new culture of belonging." I heard his talk less than a week after attending a discussion with Louisville, Ky., Presbyterian Theological Seminary students and faculty who had gone to Ferguson, Mo., to join others in peaceful protest against the killing of Mike Brown and the continued state-sponsored murders of unarmed black men, and to repent for not doing enough as people of faith to address racism.

This discussion took place two days after my religion class discussed a reading (chapter 1) about African-American Christians' historical attempts to rehumanize blackness in the face of racist religious narratives. And this today is the same day the grand jury in Ferguson is expected to either indict the officer who shot Mike Brown more than 100 days ago or to send him back to work with his gun, badge and whatever motivated him to shoot an unarmed teenager at least six times. Hence, I start the week with a brain still processing new information on faith and race and with a combined feeling of inspiration, hope and trepidation.

Someone at the seminary luncheon pointed out that the U.S. has never had the formal, national attempt at racial reconciliation that South Africa has had. I left the luncheon wondering if for full reconciliation to come to pass, white Christian leaders of all denominations might need to repent not only for not doing enough to dismantle racism, but also for perpetuating it.

Since the lecture and conference, I've become convinced that- for us to live in a world where George Zimmerman offers Trayvon Martin a ride home when he sees him walking in the rain, where John Crawford can look at a toy gun in Wal-Mart as freely as a white open-carry supporter can walk through Kroger with an assault rifle, where men of color walk through New York City boroughs without police harassment, and where Renisha McBride gets help instead of death -- yes, repentance from white Christians must happen.

As I learned from Professor Powell, the backlash against progress toward racial and social justice comes from the perception that the very core of whiteness is being attacked. Whiteness here is not just skin color, but a mentality toward dominance and a social status of power and influence. When one group gains freedom, what happens to the core being of the group that has been on top? In reality, nothing. But if your religion has trained you to believe that blackness is evil, equal to Satan incarnate, severed from humanity and from the divine, a curse, deserving of the worst of everything the world has to offer, and the opposite of you? Well, then you might express some anxiety about losing what you have been taught is your God-given place.

So you react. You support lynching and other acts of terrorism against people you can no longer enslave. You give them no land of their own and underpay them to work yours. You ban them from your professions, department stores, bathrooms, neighborhoods, schools and families. You restrict their right to exercise their citizenship. And when the world supports how they assert their humanity with resistance, you adapt together but never repent. Eventually, your religion lets you off the hook by teaching color-blind accountable individualism: God calls Christians (especially white ones) to work on their individual racial animus but ignore structural inequality, just as anyone seemingly oppressed should work on self-improvement, not systemic change. Furthermore, you cover your bad civil rights movement record with an international adoption movement that brings children of color into your homogenous church congregations. You raise them with your power, influence, resources and dominance, and you believe you've dealt with race.

Until you see your black son's stitches after he's been beaten by police, or until your neighbors report your son for being in your house. Or until you realize that your children are black to you, too. In the Q-and-A session, Powell shared that a group of conservative Christians who adopted orphaned black babies and small children from other countries have sought his help because, not realizing that the adorable little kids would become the universally feared black teenagers, the white adopted parents have been devastated to realize they love their children but hate blackness.

I think it may be more accurate to say they hate all that blackness has been construed to be, and they feel ashamed of their hatred. Now, despite my use of the second person in this essay, I don't mean to strike an accusatory tone. Professor Powell suggested that compassion without judgment is necessary to help the families he advises and in building an inclusive culture more generally. I'm sure these families don't realize their hatred was inevitable given evangelical church history; rather, they absorbed virulent messages of anti-blackness that have been passed down (and reworded since 1968 for political correctness), just as many black people have internalized the same messages.

With that, however, I don't mean to absolve any Christian of learning more about this history, even people of faith who are outside the Southern Baptist and evangelical Protestant traditions that perpetuated much of what I've laid out here. Nor does bad teaching let any of us off the hook from repentance. We are called to repentance and reconciliation.

[Mariam Williams is a writer born and raised in Louisville, Ky., where she's received numerous arts awards. When not working in the field of social justice research and taking graduate courses in women and gender and Pan-African studies, she blogs at Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]

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