Is Racism Curable?

What do we do with the Roseanne Barrs, Michael Richards, Donald Sterlings of the world? The race to condemn them and the impulse to ostracize them is understandable, but we shouldn’t expect either of those responses to help racists overcome racism.

Another way of asking the question is how do we create less racist communities? More specifically, can the obviously racist—the Roseanne Barrs, the Michael Richards, the Donald Sterlings of the world—be rehabilitated? Can they learn to tolerate cultural diversity, let alone appreciate, value, embrace it?

The educator in me believes so. An integral part of anti-racism work is found three-fourths of the way through yesterday’s New York Times essay, “Sex and Gender on the Christian Campus”.

Molly Worten explains that an increasing number of evangelical Christian college students are beginning to question their conservative parents’ and professors’ theological and political assumptions. For example, Ashley Brimmage at Biola University. Worten writes:

“Ms. Brimmage is not a typical Biola student, but she is not unusual either. There is a small but increasingly vocal progressive community on campus, including L.G.B.T. organizations. When Biola applied for an exemption from the Obama administration’s interpretation of Title IX in 2016, students protested.

I asked Ms. Brimmage how she came to her views on gender and racial justice. Did she encounter a new theological argument in a book or a class? ‘The biggest answer is relationships with others, not working through these things on paper,’ she said. Female mentors and friendships with gay and nonwhite students compelled her to revise her theology (almost half of Biola’s students are now nonwhite or international).

Ashley’s “biggest answer” jives with my experience of learning to embrace cultural pluralism and with my helping young adults learn to interact smartly and sensitively with diverse people. It’s about close, interpersonal relationships with people different than oneself. Only then do negative preconceived notions that are a byproduct of implicit biases begin fading away.

Yes, let’s take away racists’ public platforms which are privileges—whether television shows, comedy club gigs, or professional sports teams—but let’s not completely ostracize them; instead, let’s surround them with diverse people whose life stories are our best hope to begin changing their hearts and expanding their minds.

Can You Will Yourself to be More Humble?

Friday I found myself in a day long diversity training workshop. The first of six days spread throughout the academic year.

It was a good experience only in the sense it made me much more empathetic towards teachers who routinely complain about ill-conceived professional development.

Organized in small groups of four, we were repeatedly given two minutes to discuss complex questions and topics that required paragraph-long responses. But since there was only time for a sentence or two, I mentally checked-out. On top of that, the facilitators didn’t provide an overview for the day which proved frustrating.

We did lots of activities, but too often the purposes of each weren’t clear enough. Even more confounding was the fact that the sum of the activities did not equal more than the individual parts.

The whole experience was repeatedly described as a “training”. “Training” works well when talking about labradoodles learning to stop at street corners, but when it comes to human beings and human diversity, it masks the subject’s inherent complexity. In frustration I wrote to myself, “I don’t want to be trained. I would like to be more aware, more understanding, more caring when it comes to colleague’s and students’ whose life experiences are markedly different than my own.”

My biggest problem was thinking I knew more about the subject than the facilitators because I’ve been teaching in culturally diverse settings for most of three decades, I’ve read extensively on multiculturalism, taught multicultural education courses several times, and published essays on the challenges and rewards of multiculturalism.

Of course I have a lot more to learn, but the facilitator’s assumptions about how adults learn made it nearly impossible for me to benefit from their efforts. In short, they seemed to think adults learn through small group activity after small group activity.

I would have liked to have learned more about diversity and equity through extended, open, and honest conversation with people different than myself. As in a graduate seminar. I don’t know whether my fellow participants felt similarly. Or whether you would have. Maybe I’m an outlier, in which case, never mind.

The Great Church Disconnect 1

Some numbers. 67% of Americans think religion is losing influence. In 1987, there were 5.3 million people divided among 11,000 churches in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). At the end of 2009, there were 4.5 million in 10,348 churches. Since 2003, throughout the ELCA’s congregations, average weekly attendance has fallen from 144 to 131 people.

Why?

Here’s a New York-area religion reporter’s thoughts:

“I think demographics play a part. The next generation is largely unchurched, families with children are overextended, retirees move to the shore in summer and the south in winter, the faithful grandparent generation is dying.

The culprit may be our leisure society. And, believe me, I know what you are facing: working hard all week makes us feel we’ve fulfilled our obligations, need to connect with family, and enjoy that blessed reprieve of a weekend at the beach or mountains or maybe just sipping an unhurried cup of coffee while reading theTimes. We want to play with the toys we worked hard to buy.

When did God’s gift of the Sabbath become a weekend away from our Lord and from each other? Without getting into worship wars, poor preaching, church disputes, or bad music, we must ask more fundamental questions. How important, how powerful is our need simply to be together? The early Christians obviously felt the presence of Christ in their gatherings but they experienced a kind of rare community, koinonia, they called it (Acts 2.42). Is there a way we can be accountable to each other as sisters and brothers in Christ? Would a pastor or deacon, a council member or a friend simply call Sunday afternoon and say ‘We missed you’?”

The ELCA church my family attends is a snapshot of the “graying of America”. I would guess the average age of people in our congregation is close to 60. There are few young families and fewer people than when we first started attending seven or so years ago.

Our church, our synod, and the ELCA are failing to connect with people in compelling ways, especially culturally diverse young and middle-aged people. Our synod’s percentage of “members of color” has exploded from 2.3% to 3.9% since 2003. Too few people are asking why the church is failing to connect with people of color in particular.

I think the religion reporter is discounting “worship wars, poor preaching, church disputes, or bad music” far too quickly. On the surface they may not seem fundamental, but words—spoken in sermons and sung in worship—are symbolic of a worldview that does or doesn’t challenge and inspire people in meaningful, compelling ways. And the Sunday service is the center of the church week and the sermon is the center of the service.

Increasingly, ELCA preaching strikes me as problematic and may in part explain the church’s decline. What’s most fascinating about the preaching problem is it’s larger than any one person or ministry team, it’s a pervasive culture whose norms I suspect are learned first and most significantly in seminary. It doesn’t matter which of the 10,338 ELCA churches you attend next Sunday, you’re likely to hear a very similar sermon that I would characterize as unceasingly literary, vague, and forgettable. To be continued.