The Tea Summit We All Should Attend

By Johnathan Smith 7-23-2010

The NAACP recently roared into the national spotlight when, during the organization's 101st Annual Convention, its delegates unanimously passed a resolution calling on the Tea Party to "repudiate its racist elements and make it clear that there is no space in the organization for bigotry." Not surprisingly, the Tea Party was swift with its response: The movement's leaders condemned the resolution; Mark Williams, the national spokesman for Tea Party Express took to the airwaves and posted on his blog a "letter" from "coloreds" to Abraham Lincoln calling him "the greatest racist ever" for his role in abolishing slavery. (Mr. Williams subsequently removed that posting.) By the time National Tea Party Foundation spokesman David Webb appeared on CBS News' Face the Nation (in a segment with NAACP President Benjamin Jealous) and announced that the Federation had expelled Mark Williams and the Tea Party Express, the saga had already taken its place as the newest chapter in this country's seemingly never-ending story about race.

Much ink has already been spilled on this topic: There have been musings about the appropriateness of the NAACP's resolution as well as questions about the extent to which "racist elements" have permeated the Tea Party movement. Given the media's insatiable appetite for stories carrying even a whiff of racial discord (plus, there's a Sarah Palin tie-in!), I have no doubt that we haven't heard the last about this controversy. However, rather than rehash any of the themes that have already inundated the mainstream media's coverage, I am much more interested in an exchange that occurred between Jealous and Webb on Face the Nation that unfortunately has largely been lost in the shuffle.

During the broadcast, both men were asked about the willingness of their respective organizations to host joint town hall meetings around the country as a way to address the tension between the groups. Mr. Webb, himself an African American, welcomed the idea, stating: "Think what it would mean to this nation if we would have an open forum and a real summit, a real tea summit -- instead of a beer summit -- on race relations," referencing the meeting President Barack Obama hosted last summer after the much-publicized altercation between African-American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and white Cambridge police officer James Crowley. Mr. Jealous also seemed open to the idea, but cautioned that the meetings should address issues other than race. He observed: "There should be no debate about racism."

Someone should let Mr. Jealous know he doesn't have to worry about that. In this country, we don't have debates about race. Screaming matches? Sure. Quick, uniformed judgments? Not a problem. Photo-ops? Of course! But a meaningful discourse about racial difference and how that plays out in our society? As a nation, we have collectively said "no thanks" to that.

The simple reality is that it's awfully hard to have such discussions. Seriously and substantively grappling with an issue as complex and difficult as race, without devolving into lobbing stereotypes and barbs at each other, may be one of the hardest things to do. Yet we as Christians should not back away from the challenge. In fact, we have a mandate to confront and abolish racial divisions. An examination of Jesus' life reveals that he constantly reached out beyond his own ethnic and cultural group, and embraced everyone, regardless of race, gender, or social status. One poignant example is found in John 4:1-26, where Jesus, in contravention to the longstanding separation between the Jews and Samaritans, ministers to the Samaritan woman at the well. That incident, far from the exception to the rule, serves as a testament to the principles of inclusivity and racial harmony present throughout the gospels. As Paul explains in Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

So here's my suggestion: what if we, as Christians committed to living out Jesus' ministry on this earth, took it upon ourselves to host our own tea summits? What if, instead of waiting for the Tea Party and the NAACP to get their acts together, we reached out to people who don't look like us, who may not talk like us, and sought to engage them on issues of race and difference? What if we found the "Samaritan women" in our lives -- the people we've been socialized to hate or mistrust -- and extended not only an olive branch, but an opportunity for discussion? To do this, we don't need a big stadium or a national platform, much less a media circus. We can do it in our homes, churches, and workplaces. And we can start doing it today.

One of the amazing things about the Boston Tea Party is that it represents a historical moment where ordinary people realized that they had the power to challenge oppression and make a difference. How marvelous would it be if we could have the same realization when it comes to confronting racism? If, instead of lamenting the distressing state of race relations today, we took it upon ourselves to change the discourse and open up pathways for meaningful communication?

Now, that's a tea party I can't wait to see.

portrait-johnathan-smithJohnathan Smith is a New York-based lawyer. He also serves as a youth minister at Gethsemane Baptist Church.

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