Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The most important book white Christians will read this summer.

Not to go out on a limb or anything. . . but can I suggest that the most important book a white Christian can read or re-read this summer is Divided by Faith by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith?
Watching the whole episodes surrounding Barack Obama and his pastor and his speech, and then following the commentary about it, I remember just how isolated from the black community, its concerns, its burdens and its perspective are most of my white friends, families and the wider evangelical community. 

I have gotten to the point where I can predict white answers to black questions and vice versa and watch for the predictable facial expression across the table.  I see this on CNN, Fox and in the community.  Here is an example:  Several months ago I was listening to Moody Radio as a well known black leader was being interviewed by a well known white christian talk radio host.  The white interviewer clearly had very high affirmation for his guest and was talking about how dymanically God was working through his black brother in a poor community.  Then the minister referred to Dr. King in passing.  

Then the interviewer asked this question:  On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you say we are doing in improving race relations in America since Dr. King's life.  I knew in that split second that the interviewer was looking for a much higher number than he was going to get.  He was eagerly anticipating it.  Was it 9?  Maybe 8?  

"5.  Maybe 6 on the whole."  came the answer.  Radio silence is always awkward.  

The reason for the silence?  The reason for the different expectation is simple.  White Christians are on the whole isolated by unrecognized privilege from the ongoing struggles of black America.  It is strictly optional for whites to enter the discussion and since it quickly (usually) becomes uncomfortable -- we don't.  Or we do and then leave as soon as we get our toes stepped on.  

My experience has been that my white friends feel unappreciated very quickly. . . .and my black friends feel used and cheated.  That black minister could easily have interpreted the white guys lack of responsiveness about the plight of black America as indication that he didn't actually care and that the point of the radio show was just that -- its just a show (and his black "friend" will make for a great show).  

The reality is that in that example the white guy asked the question not knowing what answer he was going to get and (I would guess) the black minister provided the answer knowing full well the discomfort that the answer would recieve.  

Why am I saying all of this?  With Obama running for president -- and let's assume he gets the Democratic nod -- the insensitive comments, the unresponsiveness to Obama's explicit Christianity (over against Bush's) will leave our Black brother and sisters even more frustrated with the white church than before -- even if they have no intention of voting for him.  

This will be a record year for the following (offensive) words in the white churches across America which foment division between Black and White Christians:

"I'm not a racist but. . . "
"It's not because he is black. . . "
"I have a black friend . . . and he/she isn't voting for Obama"
"I don't see a race problem in America. .  . it's only because they keep talking about it. .  ." 
"He says he's a Christian but how can any Christian be unapologetically black?  If we had an unapologetically white church they would call us racist!"

If you are a white Christian and have any sense that racial reconciliation is important, please read Divided by Faith.  Read it slowly and thoughtfully.  .  .  

(I have added a summary of this book to my other blog.  Click here). 


Servidores said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Aaron said...

You have known me for quite some time and you know that I go through phases where I am just racially tired. This is one of those times. I am racially exhausted with the Obama stuff and find myself getting madder and more bold to express my anger as the days pass. Pray for me man! I am struggling with the idea of inclusion. That is I am at the point where I am ok with having racial diversity without white people in the mix. It is people like you and others that are helping but man I am struggling. My mom being white (therefor I am half white) helps me not to throw in the towel on white christians here in the states as well:)

Joel... Please keep challenging the white church! Through Sunshine, through the way you live, and any other ways possible.

hammerdad said...


Your honesty has been part of what was been so essential for me in my learning about this. I was re-reading some of the interaction between Chris Rice and Spencer Perkins last night . . . the difficulty and struggle we experience has been suffered by those who've gone ahead of us. One of the things I've been thinking about is how Chris was able to vent openly in his book -- and in doing so showed both his honest feelings about Spencer and his own sin.

Let's stay at the table. Let's continue to vent and promise to forgive. Let's love Christ and his body more than ourselves. . . but taking a break when racially tired is ok man. One day the mourning will be turned to joy and I personally feel like we've got the mustard seed witness of this joy in our lives. I love you and your family brother. Peace.


Anonymous said...

Joel, I always have appreciated the way you challenge people to think. I'm glad I found your blog and I'll be reading it (and some new books) on a regular basis. Thanks and God Bless! ~Heather (Wood) Krupa

Pastor Wenner's Blog said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
hammerdad said...

Steve. good to hear from you and glad that you are doing well!!

Wow. Where to start. you've packed too much in for me to respond in full -- we need to get together! I have to respond briefly in 2 ways. First, the point of my blog is that the white church doesn’t understand the black church and often addresses issues of great importance to the black community in a way that creates further division among our brothers and sisters – especially those that are the most conservative and with whom we have the most in common theologically.

Honestly, I think your response demonstrates exactly my point. As whites we immediately want to talk about personal responsibility. We assume that most blacks eschew this but this is flat out wrong. Instead we over emphasize the role of individual choices – as if our own individual choices have led to where we are as a people. In fact we ride on privilege of which we are unaware – even when we live and worship in mixed race communities.

To the point that you addressed: the innercity does shape the moral climate of the family and the inner-city itself was directly shaped by racism, injustice and the powers that be. (see Mark Gornik "To Live in Peace" for a lengthy discussion about this). Yes, racism has indeed broken the context in which MANY black families are, thereby spreading illiteracy, hopelessness, crime, the underground economy, stripped black men of dignity and honor, incarcerated blacks at disproporationate levels. . . I could go on. Individuals are responsible for their choices but there is so much more to the story. Racism has led to enormous poverty and according to proverbs, poverty is both the cause of and caused by sin. So yes, Racism has broken many black families and it legacy and reality continue to do so.

No individual person's sin created the inner city. I agree that personal responsibility is key -- but I would suggest that most white folks use this as an excuse and barrier to actually dealing with systemic issues of racism and as Emerson and Smith demonstrate so clearly in this book. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Aaron said...

Great response to Steve. I grow weary of of folks saying lets "take politics out of the equation" but all their rhetoric seems like a republican commercial add. When will we ever start having honest discussion about this and stop hiding behind statements like the above one?

Maybe I am wrong but it seems Steve is hung on the recent O'bama stuff and is probably not happy about the whole Rev. Wright thing but instead of saying that he hides it behind religious rhetoric filled with isolation and paternalism.

I don't know you man but I think you really need to read a little more history as well as seperate your political allegiances from your allegiance to the gospel and the kingdom of God and the people of God.

Of course I don't expect you to receive this from me but at I am thankful that you know Joel and that you and him can have a "loving" conversation about this. By the way I looked at the St. Paul website and am encouraged by what you guys are doing? Keep pushing forward!!

Grace and Peace,

Pastor Wenner's Blog said...


I have done a lot of thinking on these issues and struggled at times and I really want to learn. I am sorry that I came across so harshly. I don't mean to.
Joel let's have a personal dialog on these issues.

hammerdad said...


coming across harshley is (unfortunately) part of the process for all of us as we wrestle with these things. If that never happens then people are simply not being honest.

So yes. . . Let's get together! I am out of town this week but over the next couple of weeks lets find time!