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Pastoral Reflections on Our Racial Tensions (blog)

Two pastoral reflections that might help us move forward as we contend with our nation’s racial reckoning – the first directed to those who are sick and tired of discussing racism, and the second toward those who are feeling overwhelmed by the weight of it.

Dave Swaim

| March 24th, 2021

Hi friends,

This last year has been challenging for myriad reasons.  Many of us have grown because of these difficulties, but most of us are tired of “growing” by this point and long for a reprieve.

I’ve been blessed to have intimate conversations with many of you as we contend with our nation’s racial reckoning.  I’ve been impressed by your humility, touched by your confessions, heartbroken by the wounds you’ve revealed, and inspired by your courage.

Today I want to share two pastoral reflections that might help us move forward – the first directed to those who are sick and tired of discussing racism, and the second toward those who are feeling overwhelmed by the weight of it.

First, for those who wish we’d “just preach the Bible” and stop talking about racism…

As I said in my closing remarks last Sunday, I hear from a few Highrockers who want us to stop talking about race and injustice so much and “just preach the Bible”.  I love the Bible, so I’m delighted by that suggestion – but reconciliation, including racial reconciliation, is what the Bible is all about! 

In Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit filled the Church for the first time the evidence of God’s presence was in the miraculous ability of people from diverse ethnicities to finally understand each other.  Not long after that, one of the first challenges the young church had to address in Acts 6 was racial conflict among them.

Then in chapter 10, another great move of the Holy Spirit overturned Israel’s established racial hierarchy and taught Peter that in contrast to their long-standing bigotry, “God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (Acts 10:34-35)

This continues to be a theme in Acts and the rest of the New Testament. As I highlighted last Sunday, one of the most prominent themes in Paul’s letters is helping different ethnic and economic groups learn to love each other because this is part of what it looks like to truly follow Jesus.  Jesus Himself commanded: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

I’ve been reading the Bible from beginning to end again this year, and while reading Genesis- Numbers I was surprised by how frequently racial righteousness is demanded throughout the Old Testament as well.  Clearly this is a big deal to our Lord!

All this to say, “preaching the Bible” is exactly what is forcing us to talk so much about racism. Given the prevalence of this topic, the real question is why have we heard so little about it until recently?  Perhaps we’ve allowed our devotion to comfort or privilege to filter which parts of God’s Word we’ve listened to. Indeed, if Christians had been “preaching the Bible” more faithfully over the past decades and centuries, we might not be in the mess we’re in today.

I know we are all tired after a year of storms on multiple fronts, so I appreciate that some –  you are just feeling worn out in general.  But as depleting as this race conversation is for some Highrockers, the lack of honest conversation about it over the last 400 years has been devastating for other Highrockers whom I know you love.  So although it may feel heavy, this is the work of following Jesus and I am proud of you for taking these difficult steps with us.

Secondly, a word for those feeling the sting of racism or some other affliction right now…

During our Asian-American discussion on Facebook last Tuesday it was fascinating to hear different panelists and commenters describe the moment they first “woke up” to the realities of racism.  For some that happened years ago and for others it was happening live in that moment! They’re only now beginning to take inventory of all the discrimination they’ve endured throughout their lives. It’s clear that we’re each at different places along this pathway.

However, since the murder of George Floyd and the 8 precious lives in Atlanta last week, many of us are suddenly becoming more attuned to the sinister influences of racism.  The lights are coming on as many people voice their personal, painful experiences only to discover how many others have endured the same thing.  While that solidarity is a gift, it doesn’t make these realizations any less painful.

Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ famous insights about the stages of grief may be useful here. She suggested that when faced with pain or the loss of something valuable, including our sense of safety or justice, after the initial shock we typically respond with denial, anger, bargaining, and depression.  Many people assume we should progress through these in a neat and linear fashion, but that’s never been my personal or pastoral experience.  Usually we ricochet back and forth between all these postures unpredictably, which only exacerbates our confusion and fear.

Many people have come to meet with me during a period of grief because they fear they’re not “doing it right” and hope I can help them get through this in a more orderly or efficient way.  But the internal chaos and pain is part of doing it right!  Each emotion feels so permanent in the moment, only to be replaced by another, equally strong emotion, or no emotion, a moment later. I’m pretty sure there is no one way to “do it right”, but there may be a few ways to do it wrong.

Other people who experienced the same thing you did, whether someone in your family who experienced the same loss of a loved one, or another person of your ethnicity who has experienced the same kind of discrimination, will process that and respond asynchronously.  They may not feel the same strong feeling you do at that moment, but by tomorrow the two of you may have switched places.  So perhaps when you are experiencing anger, they may be stuck in denial, which only makes you angrier!  Too often we misinterpret someone else’s unique experience, emotions or place in the growth process as a lack of love, and respond with disdain instead of curiosity, honesty and vulnerability.

Just as we need to give ourselves room to process and grieve, so we need to give that same space to others.  There’s no “right way” for them to do it either.  All this to say, don’t demand that other people feel exactly what you do when you do in order to be close to each other.  We need one another on these journeys, but we don’t all walk at the same pace.

So let’s listen to and learn from each other, but resist the temptation to lecture each other too quickly.

In general, it’s healthy to be cautious of declarative statements and conclusions. The urgency of my current emotions may not correlate with their durability.  If I’m really on a journey, I’ll probably not be in the same place next week that I am right now.  But today there’s needless pressure to react immediately to every news event even though our first reactions are usually not our final reactions.  While I may feel something immediately, usually it takes me much longer to uncover why I feel that so strongly.  I need to discern how much of my immediate emotion is a reaction to my present circumstance, and how much is a reaction to previous painful events that I’m only now digesting. Processing this with God in prayer and with trusted friends in conversation is how healing begins. So before blurting (or posting) something you might later regret, give yourself space to pray and breathe a bit without the demand of an immediate response.

In these moments, often the most helpful people are those who’ve travelled these rocky waters ahead of us.  Someone who lost a loved one or got the same difficult diagnosis you did years ago may be able to empathize with where you are now and help you navigate through the stormy seas ahead.

As many Highrockers are dealing with racism in a new and deeper way, those who’ve travelled these roads previously may be able to empathize and offer wisdom.  The African American community has been wrestling deeply with this for decades and centuries, which is tragic, but also means that they can offer a rich perspective that people with us on the journey don’t yet have. I’ve learned so much from African American scholars and friends in this area, and still have so much more to learn.

Our Board has been learning from Pastor Michelle Sanchez, while our pastoral staff has been taking an outstanding course led by a Black church we admire. My own family includes seven black children, a Latino son and two Korean kids, so we’ve been wrestling with the daily impact of racism for years. But recent books by people like Jamar Tisby, Isabel Wilkerson, Eugene Robison, Korie Edwards and Highrock’s own Sarah Shin have been transformational because they’re so much further down the road than I am.

Well where does all this end?

The last of Kubler-Ross’ ‘Stages of Grief” is “acceptance.”  But how can that be our goal when what’s happening is unacceptable?  Acquiescence just enables the evil to persist!

I find it more helpful to think of acceptance through the lens of the Serenity Prayer: “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  I can’t change the past, but I can help change the future.  While I can create appropriate boundaries to limit my exposure to toxic people, I can’t change them without their cooperation. I can’t eliminate all sin from the world or even my own heart. If I fixate on fixing things I can’t I’ll be perpetually frustrated and ineffective. But we can make important changes!  We’ve been called by God to bring grace and truth to this broken world, and filled with the Holy Spirit – we can move mountains!

I’m so sorry for the persistent pain many of you have experienced because of racism, and sorry that people like me were able to ignore this for so long because it wasn’t hurting us in the same way.  Love should have compelled our nation to address these injustices years ago.

Let’s do it now.

It will require courage, but I can use my voice, my gifts, my influence, my prayers, my finances, my vote and more to fight for the changes in myself, in our church and in our nation and world that will bring justice closer.

I pray that we’ll be that kind of Church – one that has the courage to change the things we can, and the mutual compassion to do it together.