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Liberation, Not Interfaith Conversation: How Can White Christians Stop Talking & Start Acting for Racial Justice

The Problem with ‘Welcoming’

My home church recently hosted a summer-long series of guest speakers under the theme “Expanding Our Faith.” Eager to gain insights from other religious traditions, we invited a rabbi, an imam, a Zen Buddhist monk, and an indigenous storyteller to preach on four consecutive Sundays. Our team chose songs, wrote prayers and selected images for the program that reflected the speaker’s faith tradition. Yet I could not help but notice the giant cross which hangs in the front of our church, above the platform where our guests spoke. On these Sundays, the cross seemed to dominate the room.

In her book, Radical Welcome: Embracing God, the Other, and the Spirit of Transformation, Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers provides strategies for ‘mainline’ (read: predominantly white, majority heterosexual) congregations who are seeking to welcome marginalized cultures and groups into their church. Spellers distinguishes between “inclusive” churches that practice incorporation and churches of “incarnation” who practice radical welcome.

An inclusive faith community incorporates new marginalized members without modifying its core dominant cultural identity or institutional structure. By constrast, in a community that practices radical welcome, the community’s cultural identity(ies) shift to enable full expression of a range of voices and gifts to be present. The power structure of the community changes so that leadership reflects all voices within the community. Radical welcome transforms every aspect of the community’s life together.

When we talk about becoming a multi-racial church, we tend to focus on what we can do to be accessible and “welcoming,” what signs we can add to the building, what outreach events we might schedule. We rarely (if never) sign on for power sharing or a complete top-to-bottom transformation of congregational identity: after all, many of our United Church of Christ churches have been around for hundreds of years. Congregational identity and a narrative of the local church’s place in a certain telling of American history is deeply ingrained.

In the same way, as we pursue engagements with other faiths, we strive to be welcoming and hospitable. We are courteous, work to pronounce unfamiliar names correctly, ask permission to take photographs. But we do not question how our way of being followers of Jesus, the ways we literally “do church,” inhibit our ability to communicate authentically with others.

Sometimes it seems that dominant white culture and dominant Christian culture are so interconnected as to be indistinguishable from one another. How “hospitable” can my church actually be to the indigenous leader whose great-great-grandfather was forced to attend a missionary boarding school whose teachers included members of my church?

What kind of justice work do Christians need to pursue in order to participate in authentic interfaith relationships? How do we need to change our way of holding and using power so that others can be present?

White-Christian Dominance of Interfaith Space

Perhaps the example of inviting guest speakers into my Christian place of worship is disingenuous, for a secular meeting place where many faiths gather would seem to offer more even ground. But I think the model of inviting others to come to us illustrates the problem. In the city where I live, interfaith work is organized by an ecumenical council (a group of Christians) whose buildings, lands, etc. play host to our multi-faith gatherings. Our meetings for interfaith racial justice organizing with Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) are held in a white church.

When we gather, once a year, for Interfaith Advocacy Days, on the steps of our state capitol, I’m aware of the statues, memorials (even street names!) which pay tribute to ‘pioneer’ ancestors…those responsible for the plunder and desecration of indigenous holy places. There isn’t any ‘neutral’ territory outside the dominant white-Christian-culture of our society.

When we gather in a secular place, consider the structure and order of our interfaith prayer services: we always begin and end at an appointed time. We usually have a printed program listing the speakers, which means that certain people must and do speak (and the audience does not generally interrupt). We use certain words, which are believed to be “common”: prayer, blessing, litany. When we gather to celebrate many faiths, we still structure our gathering using a dominant white-western-Euro-American cultural model that is especially conducive to Christianity.

In racial justice organizing, we distinguish between multiculturalism and dismantling racism. Multicultural efforts often manifest as seeking to collect a kind of smorgasbord of cultural diversity, while efforts to dismantle racism resist the colonizer-collector attitude that treats diversity as a product to be bought and bartered.

Too often interfaith gatherings reflect a colonizer model: dominant Christian culture plays host for a buffet of faiths and cultures whose dishes provide “flavor and spice,” the “exotic other.” Power remains centralized in the hands of the host who invites and disinvites guests at will. This is especially evident in language.

While we pride ourselves on hearing and understanding one another in interfaith dialogue, do we also notice whose vocabulary provides the scaffolding for the conversation? Who picks the terms, who decides what the words mean?

The Limits of Language

For example, my community includes a Umatilla/Nez Perce/Sauk & Fox indigenous storyteller and an Ifa priestess. When I talk about interfaith work with them, they resist my use of the word faith.

Faith is a dominant word, they tell me. They point out that, for example, in our country, one can be licensed as a Jewish or Christian or Buddhist chaplain, but not an Ifa chaplain. From their perspective, “people of faith” are people who follow religions with a history of oppression and domination of indigenous people, culture and spirituality.

When I ask my friends to name their spiritual practices, the words they use include: ritual, ceremony, meditation, dance, journaling, movement, smudge, prayer, spell casting, journeying, listening/talking to ancestors, circlework, dreams, pow-wow, feast, blessing.

The words I associate with “faith”: worship, liturgy, litany, communion, fellowship, confession are not words that they use. In fact, there is active resistance to using words that are Christian.

It isn’t that we have different words for the same thing, so that our task is one of simple translation. (I’ve observed other scholars attempt to place their labels onto indigenous practices, comparing passing the peace pipe to communion, for example, and have seen the violence inherent in renaming something against its intention.) For example, “ritual” is used instead of “worship” because the central task of a ritual is connection to elements of energy and/or ancestors, rather than praise of a deity. So while it might in superficial ways look similar (i.e. we sit in a circle, gather for about an hour, sing, hear a lesson), our gatherings are in many ways deeply, intentionally different.

For my friends in indigenous African and Native American traditions, spiritual practice in their own terms is a form of resistance to the European colonization, slavery and genocide that attacked and destroyed their culture and language. Many old words have been lost, and the new ones that are being reclaimed do not/will not fit into a framework of “faith,” not even for the sake of “interfaith dialogue,” for fear of once again becoming invisible and being erased.

For people seeking liberation from ever-present systems of oppression and domination, something like dialogue — an exchange of words and ideas between peers — is not the goal (or perhaps, not the first one). Sovereignty is the goal, liberation is the goal.

Indigenous peoples are actively advocating for their right to protect their land, practice their religion and nurture cultural and community life for future generations. African-American peoples are resisting white supremacist police and vigilante violence, affirming their right to life and to worship in Black churches that have long served to nurture connection and resilience.

While white people talk about making sure everyone has a place at “the table,” they do not consider how the white table itself is toxic and life-threatening to those they want to invite.

What does it cost people of color to enter white space in order to participate in interfaith dialogue? How might changes in power structures be a prerequisite for interfaith gatherings?

Letting Go of Power So All Can be Present

The accountability guidelines used by Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) provide a valuable model for white Christians seeking to do interfaith work. SURJ members seek to show up for racial justice in two major ways: first, working within white communities to call out and change the ways they are perpetuating white supremacy through our ways of being in the world, and second, showing up with financial, physical, legal and spiritual support to POC-led campaigns for liberation.

As we understand it, showing up involves not talking at the public action: not to the press, not on the mic, not about our feelings. Showing up involves listening and holding back and questioning what feels like a natural impulse to make it all about us. Showing up means dropping off food for an all-Black gathering, taking off work to be in audience at the courthouse and at city hall, contributing money to bail and living expenses for local leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement.

I’m wondering if white Christians can show up to interfaith work in this way. Perhaps the most useful white Christian participation in an interfaith setting would be to provide food, foot the bill for space rental, and not say anything, but just listen as indigenous and African and Asian Pacific Islander and Latino people share their sacred stories. Listen and reflect and listen some more.

White Christians need to stop worrying about how to invite everyone to the table of faith, and start wondering instead about all the other tables they’ve never visited…the ways of doing religion and being church and yes, even following God, where they aren’t in control.


This blog post is an excerpt of a paper I presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion / Society of Biblical Literature in Atlanta, Georgia on November 23, 2015. 

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When Talking About Race Hurts

I’ve been challenged recently to hear that some of what I’m sharing on Facebook is experienced as hurtful or polarizing. I’ve been thinking deeply about this, trying to sort it out, and want to share some thoughts.

I think part of what’s happening is that it is hard to stop racism. Racism isn’t just about the system out there: the US government, global imperialism, etc. The system is also inside us. Which means at least two things are happening when we talk about race:

1) Power is being challenged/changed and it doesn’t feel good.

When my friend Kathleen Saadat answers the question, “where do white allies fit in?” by saying “if they can’t figure out how this struggle is in their interest then they can go home. I don’t need ’em. I don’t need anybody coming to save me,” white folk may feel OUCH. From my point of view, what I see Kathleen doing is resisting racism (in general and within the question).

She’s resisting the racism that happens when black people take care of white people by making us feel good about ourselves. If she had answered with “here’s what you need to do,” whites would have added that to our task list and felt good about being able to help. And that would perpetuate the problem. Because that helping is how racism works…if the struggle for black liberation is only (or primarily) the task of black people, and white people pitch in here and then but never challenge ourselves to change how we’re part of the system, then the system within us continues.

Because we are the system, changing the system means changing ourselves…changing something inside us. For me racial justice work is spiritual work, transformation work. An ouch is an invitation, an opportunity to sit with feeling hurt and reflect on my feelings without getting defensive and shutting down and blaming or shifting the conversation elsewhere. When I feel confused (which happens often), it helps me to pray or meditate, to notice how I’m afraid and remember that I’m loved, and to try to let go of not making mistakes and figuring it all out.

2) I think another thing that’s happening is that whites are being judged and judging ourselves. Another article I shared recently by Rachel Hackenburg was in the format of the “dear white people” letters making their rounds on the interwebs. Setting aside obvious rudeness and name-calling (never okay), I’m curious about the ways our feelings are hurt reading these. Many of these, like Rachel’s piece, are judgmental.

As we start to realize that we are the system – the system lives within us – we name, label, distance and judge that part of us. White folk are trying to find a way to call other whites to accountability for what we’re doing wrong and to stop doing it. This is hard because what whites are doing wrong is so deeply embedded into our way of being in the world that it feels like we’re being told we ARE wrong: our approach, our ideas, even our questions are bad.

That’s not true. White people are not bad people. We’re beloved and worthy and complicit and well-meaning. We’ve learned, at a very deep level, a way of being in the world that perpetuates an injustice we want to stop. So we feel stuck. We feel afraid that talking about race means confessing a bunch of sins we haven’t committed, or even worse, sins we committed against our will and are powerless to stop.

But even if we feel despair, it isn’t hopeless. I promise. We can do this. We ARE doing it. Our discomfort and hurt feelings and confusion are evidence that we are engaged with the conversation, and if we can not take it too personally and sit with it, it will get easier. It will get easier to be uncomfortable and confused and hurt, because we’ll remember that power is changing and we are the system and so we are changing and change is HARD.

I whole-heartedly believe that it is possible to talk about race and be loving and kind. I know this because some incredible mentors in my life have been (and continue to be) kind to me when I am excruciatingly vulnerable, when I ask well-meaning but racist questions, when I make mistakes.

My friend Vanessa Timmons says our spiritual task is to meet change with the best of ourselves. Let’s bring our best. Let’s be kind and courageous and forgiving of mistakes and committed to challenging injustice and dismantling racism.

I’d love to talk more about this, privately, or publicly on facebook or my blog, so that we can learn together.

Yours in love and struggle,

Mourning the Crimes of Thanksgiving

We recently celebrated a Thanksgiving service at my church. As we sung our way through several hymns, I felt more troubled than grateful. The words to the classic Christian standard Great is Thy Faithfulness stuck in my throat. I couldn’t sing: “all I have needed thy hand hath provided…great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”

Source: http://nearemmaus.com/2011/11/24/thanksgiving-genocide-and-reconciliation-with-native-americans/My stomach clenched, my spirit rebelled. I wondered bitterly about people, many of them members of my community, who don’t have all that they need. Is God unfaithful to those people? And what about the ways that God’s so-called provision or bounty or harvest are used as cover words to mask oppressive systems of inequality built and maintained through institutionalized violence, theft and betrayal?

Recently I attended a teach-in at Portland State University on the Indigenous perspective on Thanksgiving. We watched the video The Truth About Thanksgiving. I learned about the enslavement of indigenous peoples and a Thanksgiving “celebration” in 1637 that included the murder of over 700 men, women and children, about which the Governor of Plymouth William Bradford later wrote: “It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire, and the streams of blood…and they gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands.”

As I sat in church and watched my young daughter join the other children in listening to a story about the “pilgrims” and the Native Americans, I worried.

I worried about the story we are re-creating with each telling.

I worried about how we praise God for providing for “us”…who is the us?

Rev. Dr. Traci West

Rev. Dr. Traci West

During my thesis research, I learned much from the work and writing of Rev. Dr. Traci West, Professor of Ethics and African American Studies at Drew University. Dr. West argues that white dominance is perpetuated when we ignore racial realities, “pretending they are not relevant in certain kinds of social interactions, like the dynamics within Christian worship services.”*

She asserts that “racialized understandings of ‘us and them’ can be strongly conveyed in prayers about those who are ‘less fortunate than we are’ or projects to reach out and help ‘them’.”**

So, for example, in our prayers for thanksgiving, how do we distinguish between the blessings that we receive as beneficiaries of a legacy of genocide and colonization and the blessings that we receive as “children of God”? How do we reinforce an “us” as aligned with the “pilgrims” and a “them” as aligned with those indigenous “enemies”?

Language matters. It reinforces and remakes reality. Is PILGRIM – a word which means a penitent, humble traveler seeking Spirit – really the right word for a group of invaders, murderers and thieves?

How many of our hymns, our prayers, our common liturgical language reinforce not only a particular view of the Holy as a god who sanctions the invasion of promised lands and murder of that land’s inhabitants, but a view of ourselves – Christian churchgoers – as innocent inheritors of the “bounty” of God’s blessing?

Day of Mourning plaque in Plymouth

Day of Mourning plaque in Plymouth

If we claim, as my church does, to advocate for justice, then we need to busy ourselves with the work of reconciliation. Many indigenous people today celebrate Thanksgiving as a Day of Mourning, a day of “remembrance and spiritual connection, as well as a protest of the racism and oppression that Native Americans continue to experience.”

I believe that A Day of Mourning is not for indigenous people alone. We who are Euro-American descendants need to mourn the crimes of our ancestors and actively work for an end to racism. We need to critically examine our language and the romantic stories we tell about pilgrims: about the size of their boat, the nature of their courage, or the pureness of their intent. Continuing to tell the story as we have been is an act of racism, but we can change the way we celebrate, and the stories we tell.

*See Dr. West’s book Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006, page 117.

** Ditto, page 118.

Checking the ‘Race’ Boxes

Applying for a social security card for my daughter, my hand stops over the voluntary ethnicity section. I know that these categories have changed over time (the boxes used to say ‘free’ or ‘slave’ or ‘mulatto’) and reflect a global system of white supremacy.

While I know this history, when I fill out forms for myself I rarely think twice. But this time I am answering for my daughter. I check the boxes for “White” and “Hispanic” and then I stop.

What is the government going to do with this information? Will my daughter be targeted if I make her visible to the government in this way? I think of “Operation Wetback” in the 1950s, of the ICE raids in Portland in 2007, of the families who are still, this moment, in danger.

Then I think about affirmative action programs and college scholarships. I think about my hometown near LA and its increasing Latino majority.  Isn’t it important to be visible?

I’m acutely aware that all of my angst is about the box labeled “Hispanic.” I don’t feel any uncertainty about checking the box labeled “White.” I’ve never had to think about these boxes before and how they relate to me or my family. There was never a box for “German-American” or “Rural Poor White Class.”

If I refuse to give this information, does that mean that I am ashamed of my daughter’s heritage? Paranoid about racism? Trying to opt out?

As I reflect, I begin to wonder if I am using my daughter to examine my own complicity and place in the system. Is that fair to her or helpful to me? I don’t know.

After much internal debate, I print out a new application. This time, I don’t check any boxes. I leave them all blank.

What do you do when you fill out these types of forms? I’d love to hear your thoughts or insights.

Raised to be White

While I’m writing about white supremacy in Christianity for school, I’m also caring for our baby daughter (now nearly seven months old). So as I’m reading about how we become white, I can’t help but think of how she is becoming white, even at this young age.

We talk about gender in our house and how we influence that for our daughter Elena, from the proverbial pink and blue blanket dilemma to baby nail polish (not yet), ear piercing (maybe) and fluffy dresses with layers of crinoline (yes!). We’re intentional about ethnicity, from celebrating the German-American traditions of my family to learning Spanish, choosing bilingual toys and embracing Elena’s Latino heritage.

When she’s older, I will teach Elena that race is a socio-political construct, a tool of white supremacy, and not a biological fact. But until she can understand “socio-political construct,” what else am I teaching her? How am I passing on to my daughter MY white superiority in ways I don’t recognize?

I wonder about things like:

  • Entitlement: these are “your toys,” “your kitty,” “your car”, “your house”, “your park”
  • Superiority: “you are the smartest girl ever!”, “you are the cutest in all the world”, “you are the best”
  • Centrality: The children in the book of poems I loved as a child are all pale-skinned, except for one brown boy. We have a book “Baby Colors” that teaches colors and has children with different “colors” of skin. How do these images reinforce race as a “biological fact” and white as “standard”?
  • Borders & Intimacy: We move through the world together, mama and baby. I know Ellie can feel how I relax or tense around strangers, how I am “too friendly” (in the way that white people are) with brown-skinned babies and their parents. All those unconscious ways I am white, I am teaching it all to her, without using words.

Maybe I’m over-thinking it, but my intuition says that I need to ask these questions. I’m aware, too, of the class status that gives me the free time to notice, ponder, and write this while still making it through the day.

I am, of course, concerned with making sure that our daughter sleeps, eats, plays, poops, cuddles, sings, and has all her physical, emotional and spiritual needs met. But one of those spiritual needs (in my world view) is the need to be whole. And I increasingly feel and know that whiteness is soul sickness, and I want my daughter to be healthy and free.

What do you think? Are there ways pale-skinned people can raise our kids to be less white? How do we do that?

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