Unintentional Harm: On Faith and Race | UMC YoungPeople
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December 2016

Unintentional Harm: On Faith and Race

By Chris Wilterdink

Entering into theological conversations about race can become tricky, quickly. People of faith who are called to understand and serve in times of distress tread on sacred ground. Sacred ground doesn’t guarantee safe space to operate. It does require bravery and grace. Sacred space requires your bare feet, vulnerably in touch with everything that God has created. Faithful Christians can engage the topics of racism, justice, and inequality with the best of intentions. We contribute to the conversation intending to do no harm, yet racism is like a serpent. It wriggles and writhes, lashing out just as we try to grasp and subdue it. Racism continues to slither on in many communities, often camouflaged by familiar surroundings.

Maybe you are religious. Maybe you are spiritual. Maybe you don’t like labels. Either way, you care about God and all of creation, therefore you care about other people. The current conversations and activism around race relations in the US are opportunities to practice what you believe. Perhaps these six ideas can help the conversations and actions that you, yourself will take:

6 Ways We Unintentionally Do Harm (and Ways to Do Better)

  1. Saying “I’ll Pray for You” to Avoid Action
  2. Using Silence to Stay Detached
  3. Overemphasizing Spirituality
  4. Encouraging Numbness
  5. Tribalism
  6. Privileged Preaching

1) Saying “I’ll Pray For You” To Avoid Action

  • That phrase, as an excuse, maintains the status quo. It preserves whatever is causing tension or harm. Imagine you are walking by a lake, and a swimmer is struggling to keep their head above water. Saying “I’ll pray for you” and continuing your comfortable walk could be seen as a really inappropriate response. (Especially from the point-of-view of the person in the water!)
  • When we have the power to make a difference, we must do so as stewards of creation. We are our brother’s keepers. Avoid using prayer to remove yourself from a situation that calls for action.

Do Better:

  • Yes, pray. Prayer is awesome. But pray in a way that amplifies the voice of the voiceless. Pray aloud with victims of oppression or racism. Pray out loud with others in your community. Pray alone and silently when you must, but pray in public places too.
  • Set actions to accompany your prayer. Back to the walk by the lake metaphor. Stop what you are doing to meet those who are treading water or in danger of drowning. Offer a hand and find out what you can pray for or how you can pray for that individual. When you know the needs, you can find out how you can help in addition to prayer.

2) Using Silence to Stay Detached:

  • Staying “neutral” by not participating in conversation leaves plenty of space for issues to burn. Imagine that you witness someone toss a cigarette butt onto the ground, near some dry grass. You don’t think anything of it, don’t do anything about it, don’t tell anyone about it. Then, the next day, you find out that a wildfire flared up near what you witnessed. With silence from too many people, we’re all left standing on scorched earth. Imagine that your home could have been in within reach of the fire. Would you remain silent? Would you want others who could see the danger building to bring attention to the fire?
  • Silence on important issues is a mechanism to avoid responsibility. Avoiding responsibility prevents action, and therefore reinforces injustice.

Do Better:

  • When you see something, say something. Dialogue. Speak and listen with others who hold power to change the injustice. Engage people who have relational capital in communities, whether they have titled positions or not. Communicate with those in power positions and make your opinion clear.
  • Uncomfortable talking about race? Start with friends or other church members by saying “I don’t know enough about this to even know where to begin. How can we learn more about what is going on? Who can help us learn to talk about race?”

3) Overemphasizing Spirituality

  • Saying things that relate to “God’s plan” or “being called home” in reference to deaths due to racism and oppression enable us to disassociate our humanity from the physical needs of our brothers and sisters.

Do Better:

  • Be a steward of this earth, be your brother’s keeper. Take concrete steps to incrementally change the current reality. Accept that we are not perfect, and neither is our world, but we’re working on it. Take stock of any ways that you personally create disparity or contribute to racism to motivate yourself to change.
  • Recognize the humanity of everyone. Develop empathy by witnessing the real effects of racism. Pray the names of victims of violence while you reach out to those impacted by its effects.

4) Encouraging Numbness

  • Tread carefully when consulting others to look for “silver linings,” to “be the light,” or even to just “be the change.” It can be a sign of not understanding the physical or emotional state others are living in. Those who are in the midst of emotional reactions can feel betrayed, confused, or angry. Honor their need for stability and healing without giving advice.
  • Providing advice for others to simply “get over it” prevents engagement with the real issues. It also renders us unable to deal with reality. "Get over it" prevents us from contributing to healthy relationships and systemic change.

Do Better:

  • Be honest in word and expression. When sharing, listen actively and respond in ways that do not attempt to control or change the emotional state of another. Respect feelings, no matter what they are. Anger can call others to action. Sadness can plant seeds of empathy. We must feel pain before our bodies know to heal the hurt.
  • Develop compassion and strength to recognize and engage with both positive and negative emotions.

5) Tribalism

  • Many churches and Christian believers come together in worship and in small groups. Coming together is an important part of Christian communities. Yet, sometimes worshipping communities are made up of people from similar levels of privilege and backgrounds. Without attention, these communities can become exclusive, either in explicit or implied terms. If you believe your church to be a welcoming and healing place, who must be invited into your community? How are those of different beliefs or incomes or ethnic backgrounds welcomed and received?

Do Better:

  • Draw the circle wide. Create invitations for partnership, relationship, and friendship with those of different backgrounds. Participate in worship with communities other than your own. Learn from multiple pastors and other leaders.
  • Help diverse groups bridge experiences. Share knowledge and resources to support one another as children of God.

6) Privileged Preaching: When Entitlement Becomes the Way

  • A privileged life can lead to a faith based on the laws of attraction, or even prosperity gospels. Sharing this kind of theology with those who are not benefactors of a system creating the privilege can create hurt on top of hurt. Saying things like “Everything happens for a reason” or “You get back what you put out” isolates people and damages our ability to be in real relationship. Those kinds of phrases display ignorance of the kinds of suffering caused by oppressive systems.
  • Privileged preachers tend to create homogenized, one-size-fits all beliefs and statements. This can happen with the assumption that everyone has had similar formational experiences, and grew up with privilege. This means there are people who think that having privilege is the norm. When the cultural assumption that all have privilege takes over, it promotes a sense of entitlement. More people then assume that having privilege is because they “live life the right way.” If that is the case, then those living in oppression can be assumed to not be correct in how they live their lives.

Do Better:

  • Walk humbly. Accept that your personal experiences affect your opinions, and that your perspective is limited. To widen your perspective, gather information from multiple sources and meet others in their setting. Don’t wait for them to come to you.
  • Sacrifice your plenty. When your environment offers safety, food, and security it becomes easy to blow your own spiritual trumpet. Create ways to give and experience life in the shoes of another. In so doing, you may feel that some things in life don’t make sense. This can help you understand the point of view of victims of oppression and understand some of their suffering.

Racism continues to exist, yet few want to own their contribution to any kind of oppression. Even fewer want to readily admit they play the role of an oppressor as people of privilege or power. Sometimes, those who wrestle with the serpent of racism share unintentionally harmful ideas in well-meaning conversations. Yet any of those fears must not prevent us from addressing systems of racism as a response to our faith.

We must not continue in ignorance. We are not faithful Christians if we allow more innocents to die or live in fear for their survival. If we try and distance or protect ourselves from the sin of racism, the stronger the snake's hold on our attitudes becomes.

Written by Chris Wilterdink
Director of Program Development - US
Young People’s Ministries
Discipleship Ministries

Chris serves as Director of Young People’s Ministries for Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Church. Chris has a BA in English Education, and an MS in Project Management, and over 15 years of local-church youth ministry experience. He is passionate about leadership and faith development in young people and helping ministry leaders understand their value in the lives of young people. A Stephen Minister, Chris is a native of Colorado living in Franklin, TN with his wife Emily, 2 children, and sausage-shaped beagle.