Subverting the Myth

I MET PASTORS Harvey, Alton, Charles, and Joel in Houston’s 5th Ward, a black neighborhood that in 1979 earned the title of “the most vicious quarter of Texas.” I was drawn there by a sermon I’d preached on Psalm 23 called “An experiment in crossing borders.” In it I asked my congregation, “What border is God leading you to cross? And who is waiting for you on the other side?”

Little did I know the profound impact that sermon would have on me.

Nearly five years later, I remember when these men stopped being “pastors at black churches on the other side of the 5th Ward border” and became “my people,” deeply connected as members of the body of Christ.

It was a moment of profound truth-telling, when I realized I was controlled more by the values of Western “racialized” culture than I was by the liberating gospel of Jesus and the alternative community to which I had given my life. It became clear to me that I’d affirmed myself and my identity through the lies of racial privilege, and done so at the expense of my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Michael Emerson, a sociologist from Rice University, provides us helpful language to understand how race works. Rather than analyzing racism (concretized for most of us through powerful images of slavery, hooded white supremacists, separate drinking fountains, and individual acts of hate), he invites us to analyze how our society is racialized.

Racialization, for Emerson, means that “race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships.” In other words, race continues to be one of the primary ways that our society exhibits social stratification by giving different “economic, political, social, and even psychological rewards to groups along racial lines; lines that are socially constructed.” Race as a social construct (rather than a biological or theological fact) continues to operate as a “dance partner that was designed to trip us up.”

Racialization accounts for disparities in health care, life expectancy, incarceration rates, execution rates, the chance of being a victim of gun violence and of being stopped by the police, and in many other areas. Racialization remains as much a given in our culture today as it was on the slave block or in the “whites only” establishments in the South—but its exceptional fluidity has changed drastically how it is expressed.

The conversation we need is not about you or me being a racist. It’s both more graceful and difficult than that. It’s about equality in the body of Christ and whether or not those of us with privilege are willing to listen—truly listen—to the truth from people of color.  It’s a conversation about justice and “darkness,” which John insists does not have the power to overcome Christ’s gospel light (John 1:5). This is a conversation about whether we have passively or actively committed ourselves to the values of Western racialized culture and lost our identity as the interdependent body of Christ called to intercultural transformation.

MY FRIENDS IN the 5th Ward are suspicious of white churches wanting to come into their neighborhood for “missions.” That is why I’m genuinely humbled by my relationships there, and by the shared worship we’ve experienced.

To be sure, race is not the only way social stratification divides and oppresses us: patriarchy, classism, homophobia, able-ism, the growth in income inequality—all continue to call out for liberation, particularly in the places they intersect. But given the way race continues to work and be portrayed in the U.S.—including the myth that we are in a “post-racial” world—it’s important to see clearly both the big picture (anti-oppression) and its details (i.e. the specifics of racialization).

According to the Roots of Justice anti-oppression training, also known as Damascus Road, “Prejudice becomes racism when one group in society uses power to enforce their racial prejudices over other groups in such a way that they receive more benefits and privileges while the other groups receive fewer benefits and privileges.” Stated briefly, racism equals prejudice plus the systemic misuse of power.

How is race expressed today? The 2010 Census unmasked profoundly segregated housing patterns in the U.S. In 2013, a white man was acquitted of killing an unarmed black teenager; the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act and some white Christians celebrated this as a step toward being “colorblind”; white teenagers in Texas challenged affirmative action as being “reverse racism”; an all-white church youth group was naively used as a pawn in Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s anti-immigrant racial profiling.

The Bible’s overarching narrative calls followers of Christ to become agents of resistance dismantling oppressive and racialized cultural expressions—from its commitment to the dignity of all humans as created in the image of God to God’s liberating action on behalf of the marginalized; from Jesus’ rejection of social discrimination and the creation of a radically inclusive community to Paul revealing the center of Jesus’ work to be “evangelizing peace” by breaking down the walls that divide us (Ephesians 2) and celebrating “oneness” and cultural differences as unequivocal assets to the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12).

HOW MIGHT THE white church respond? What does discipleship mean in a highly racialized setting? For starters, we have to realize that we’re all caught in the system of racialization and need liberation and healing. Generations of believing in and benefiting from racial superiority has distorted our identity, our ability to be in community, and our missions.

Christena Cleveland, in her powerful new book Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart, names how prejudice and privilege function consciously and unconsciously to prop up wounded and sin-sick souls. “Prejudice and negative evaluations often come from our need to maintain high feelings of self-worth,” she writes. “The more we feel that our self-image is threatened, the more likely we will put others down in order to regain a positive self-image.”

The first step in transformation is recognition: We must listen and see the world as God is working for it to be.

Individual acts of blatant racism have long been condemned in our culture. So if everyone agrees that racism is sinful, why does racialization persist in our culture? Why does there continue to be an imbalance of power, privilege, and access based on race in churches, schools, entertainment, criminal justice, health services, and other areas?

Core to its persistence is a basic disagreement in defining racism and how race works today. Conventional definitions of racism that focus on individual acts insulate us from racism itself, from our own privilege and need for liberation, from unintended indirect consequences, and most important from being a part of the solution. Misdiagnosing racism in individualistic terms typically leads to faulty therapy, namely: “colorblindness.” A colorblind posture can easily dismiss racial and economic disparity rather than inviting liberation and hope.

Jeff Hitchcock of the Center for the Study of White American Culture puts it this way: “White American culture is the dominant subculture in the United States ... Compared to other racial/cultural groups in the United States, white American culture holds greater power to control resources, set rules, and influence events. This position of dominance is not an accident, but rather a product of our history, involving elements of economic and political struggle ... White cultural advantage continues, promoted not so much by avowed supremacy as simple denials that white cultural dominance is still a force.”

The price of our status imbalance (and its denial) is extremely high. Internalized racial superiority can and does lead to acts of violence and derogating of others. Indeed, in her chapter subtitled “How Cultural Threat leads to Hostile Conflict,” Cleveland outlines how racialization can make us dangerous and violent without us even realizing it. White Christians with good intentions can and do cause great harm by targeting communities of color as “missional dumping grounds.”

Popular video blogger Jay Smooth says we need to move from a surgical to a hygienic approach to racialization. Instead of thinking about racism as something we need to have removed (like tonsils. “Racism? Nah, I had mine removed a couple years ago.”), racialization is something we need to cleanse ourselves of daily, like flossing our teeth. This analogy empowers us to be proactive rather than experience paralysis from seeing our complicity in racialized structures.

The invitation as followers of Christ living in a racialized society is clear: Be transformed by the liberating love of Jesus’ reign.

Too many times I’ve seen white Christians hear from minority Christians, only to be dismissive because “that’s just their opinion.” We need to trust and honor marginalized voices. Jesus intentionally listened and learned from the margins: children, women, strangers, sinners—the oppressed in his midst. Even his voice was clearly a voice on the margins. And yet most liturgical and theological resources deemed “normal” in my tradition are uniquely white.

My congregation intentionally spent the season from Christmas to Pentecost 2012 “learning from the margins.” I read commentaries and theology only from people of color, preached from various perspectives, hosted multiple guest speakers, and engaged our adults in cross-cultural Bible study using a study book from South America. This empowered us to see differently, and in seeing differently to become something different.

When we read text and life with the marginalized, faith becomes subversive, radical, and Christ-like—capable of critiquing power in ways privilege cannot. Minority churches have more to teach white churches than we have to teach them about community, being “missional,” justice ministries, and living as Christ-followers without power in our increasingly post-Christian world. Responding to God’s call to cross the border into the 5th Ward has loosened my tongue regarding injustice and God’s kingdom at work in our world.

Being the prophetic body of Christ will overturn our ideas about reconciliation. To generationally racialized communities, “reconciliation” sounds an awful lot like a demand for conformity to a white default world: “Come join us at our table, which we’ve kindly extended for you.” This won’t do. Reconciliation will need to be held in tension with acts of solidarity and an increasing willingness to give up privilege to see Jesus clearly in the margins.

The Sunday morning after George Zimmerman’s acquittal, a friend phoned from the 5th Ward to ask, “Are you going to talk about Trayvon Martin in worship today?” I said that I would; I assumed he was asking to gain clarity on whether or not he would himself. But he knew very well that he and the vast majority of black churches across the country would unquestioningly talk about the verdict from the pulpit. He wanted to know, wouldItalk about it. It was less a question and more an invitation: He needed to know that at least one predominantly white church would talk about it on this painful day. He was asking me, “Are you my ally?”

He was right to ask. An unscientific Christianity Today online poll found that 96 percent of churches (mostly white) said little if anything from pulpits that day. The silence of most white Christians in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, and our inability to understand how many in the black community felt, was likely due to the blindness of living in a “white default” and imbalanced world. We’re born into a white default world, where white is not the only option but it is the default option.

The white church must overturn our practice of missions to underprivileged communities of color and gain the biblical skills of being allies. For those of us with privilege, it’s absolutely essential to the gospel. Jesus performed the gospel over and over again for the socially disadvantaged, subverting all forms of social discrimination while celebrating cultural diversity in the most intimate of settings: the table.

Paul, too, is a fantastic example of what it looks like to become advocates for a marginal community (see the book of Acts). A white ally will speak truth to power, using privilege to gain access where people of color cannot. A white ally will speak to the white community following the voice and values of people of color. Speaking from within the white culture itself helps dismantle racialized norms and behaviors in white culture and open creative space for intercultural transformation. We do this at the invitation of marginalized communities.

Racialization continues to exist in part because our church’s disciple-making culture has not equipped people with privilege to dismantle it. Churches in dominant white culture and leaders of privilege must cultivate the skills of being white allies.

FOLLOWERS OF CHRIST are called to unmask the stories that empower all forms of social stratification and oppression we find in the world, whether built upon race, economics, gender, religion, or sexuality. We’re living a different story, with different rules. Our rules are fashioned by the story of God’s redeeming justice, which breaks down walls and binds us together as one body, the body of Christ. It’s the story of a just society where the gospel is performed for the socially oppressed, all forms of social discrimination are subverted, and cultural diversity is celebrated in the most intimate of settings.

Which leads me back to the question: What border is God leading you to cross? And who is waiting for you on the other side? 

Marty Troyer is pastor of Houston Mennonite Church: The Church of the Sermon on the Mount and writes as “The Peace Pastor” for The Houston Chronicle at

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