White Christians need to have conversations about race. Our silence and stammering in the face of white supremacy and its outcomes clouds our witness. Naming race-based privilege can feel deeply personal and offensive for white people who have had their own sense of personal and familial struggle. Even uttering the phrase Black Lives Matter can become an offense that is met with retort.
We need these awkward conversations. The future and integrity of our faith compels us to do this work together. We too often look for ways to absolve ourselves without taking responsibility or acknowledging white supremacy’s effect on our church and culture.
Sometimes as Mennonites we see ourselves as exempted from whiteness because of our unique religious story. Sometimes because of our own ethnic heritage we want to name our unique experiences in whiteness as if that diminishes the power of whiteness itself.
As the dominant religious perspective in the United States, Christians carry a unique responsibility to speak words of repentance as well as to do the difficult work. We have used our faith as a weapon and shield. Repentance is not simply a statement or a one-time event. It’s ongoing work of questioning and shifting values and resources. Symbolic change carries some value, but transformation is hard, ongoing work.
This historic moment invites white Christians to listen. In the weeks after George Floyd’s death, white people have taken all sorts of postures. Some of us have gone silent, desiring to listen. Some of us have taken to the streets in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. There is a tension between listening and acting. We need both if we are going to find our way toward life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in this country together.
The work of the Spirit was and is to hold together a community across differences. One of the earliest complaints within the church in Acts was the unfair distribution of resources. Leaders responded in a way that validated the concern. The church grew and had a compelling witness because it took this complaint of cultural bias seriously.
I was scheduled to preach online on Pentecost. This year’s Pentecost landed in the midst of the uprising. My own city of Philadelphia was under curfew. I received communication from white friends who both encouraged me to go gently and to go hard in addressing issues of racial injustice. I felt the weight of those tensions and also the reality of my black and brown friends, neighbors and colleagues.
We are positioned within the church to lead out of our deep traditions while acknowledging our failures. We have the spiritual resources to do the hard work of change that prioritizes God’s intention for human flourishing.
For white Christians, the starting point is to lay aside our defensiveness and open ourselves to relationships and community. This means taking complaints seriously, as did the early leaders in the Book of Acts. It means being open to transformation by the Spirit. It means understanding that our identity is rooted in the way of Jesus, not the way of whiteness.
For Mennonites, this means learning to speak of peace while working for justice. It means not only compassion but also holy anger. It means leaving behind comfort and quietude and embracing disruption and disorientation. It means more questions than answers, more wondering than retorting. It means finding a way, through Christ’s redemptive power, to speak and act in ways that underscore Black Lives Matter.
Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor and follower of Jesus in Philadelphia.