Last week, three of my Baptist communities declared their full-bodied, faithful commitment to the work of racial justice. The boards of directors for both the Alliance of Baptists and the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America–Bautistas por la Paz, released nearly simultaneous statements expressing unwavering support for the movement for black lives. At the same time, the congregation I pastor, Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Harvard Square, affirmed a comprehensive programmatic direction for the coming year of ministry we’re calling a “Year of Dismantling White Supremacy.” I couldn’t be prouder to call myself a Baptist right now.
As the convergence of my Baptist communities move further into this work, there are a few early lessons I’m learning that I’d like to reflect on with others committed to dismantling the ways ideologies and practices and structures of white supremacy infiltrate our consciousness, shape our society, structure our institutional life, and even shape our spirituality. These lessons are mostly intended for white people and communities:
It’s not you, it’s us.
There’s a tendency for white people to take it personally whenever the subject of white supremacy or white privilege comes up in conversation or programmatic emphasis. “I’m not a racist!,” “I’ve figured all of that race stuff out a long time ago,” and any number of other messages tend to dismiss the ever-evolving, communal nature of this work.
While it involves “personal” work, too, dismantling white supremacy and working for racial justice is “us” work that requires a robust collective dimension. It isn’t exclusively about addressing individual “racism” (though there’s that, too). So it’s definitely still work for people who “aren’t racists.” You may have done your work on personal racism a long time ago, but your neighbor needs your story, your support, your experience and your conversational abilities to help them do their work. So it’s definitely still work for people who’ve “done their work” a long time ago (and you may discover there’s still more work for you to do in the process!).
Most importantly, this ministry isn’t about dismantling white people (though it may feel that way on the surface at first), it’s about dismantling the “whiteness” we all inhabit — that often unspoken set of ideologies, norms, practices and power arrangements that unjustly structures our relationality in interpersonal, societal and even church life.
It’s not racism, it’s racialization.
Whereas “racism” typically means the prejudices based on race that we all individually hold to some degree or another, the Berkeley racial justice scholar, john a. powell, uses the term “racialization” to help us see beyond prejudicial attitudes toward racial minorities. By “racialization,” he means “the set of practices, cultural norms and institutional arrangements that both reflect and help to create and maintain race-based outcomes in society.” Racialization points to “historical and cultural processes” and “describes conditions and norms … constantly evolving and interacting … [and] varying from location to location.” It may help to expand our vocabulary so that we can be clearer about what dimensions of this work we’re addressing in our ministry.
You can easily have a racialized organization full of non-racist, even anti-racist individuals. Despite the best intentions and explicit ideologies of the individuals, the institution itself may still be racialized in ways that disadvantages those who aren’t white. Addressing racism alone doesn’t usually get at the complexities of racialization in our churches, communities and organizations.
It’s not just black and white.
While much of our most pressing work at the moment is directed at the movement for black lives, dismantling white supremacy transcends relationships between black and white persons and communities. The roots of white supremacy run deep and spread wide. It’s easy to miss the ways white supremacy is at work in a variety of other contexts, especially as it intersects with Christianity.
For example, the current rise in public expression of Islamophobia, targeting Muslims for suspicion, discrimination and violence, has its roots in a (white) Christian majority maintaining power and control over (largely brown) religious minorities. White supremacy is at work here.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe continues protesting the proposed 1,172 mile long Dakota Access Pipeline that would transport oil from oil fields from North Dakota to Illinois, coming within a half-mile of the Standing Rock reservation, threatening its water supply and posing a threat to the environment on a much wider scale. But don’t miss the fact that this protest is also about the violation of the historic treaty rights of the tribe and has its roots in injustices that extend backward to the 15th-century “doctrine of discovery” giving (European) Christians the right to “discover” for their monarch any land not inhabited by Christians (i.e., inhabited by indigenous and aboriginal people). White supremacy is still at work here.
It’s not political, it’s gospel.
The truth is, the gospel is political. But some folks tend to think that when the call of the gospel intersects with a hot button concern on the political landscape, tackling that concern head on in church means you are engaging in “politics” and not “ministry.”
But taking on the work of dismantling white supremacy in churches is first and foremost the ministry of the gospel of peace rooted in justice, not politics. And to do the work of the gospel, we need spiritual tools that transcend those available to us in the political sphere. Resources like lamentation, confession, repentance, prayerful discernment for Divine guidance, the grace to live with one another through discomfort and disagreement, and hopeful expectancy paired with diligent activism to bring about a vision of the world as it ought to be (i.e., eschatology).
It’s not unsafe, it’s just uncomfortable.
There’s just no way around it: this is uncomfortable work for most white people. But most meaningful ministry is uncomfortable at times. It’s probably why Jesus had to say, “Do not be afraid!” to his disciples so often. It’s helpful to remember, as one congregant recently reminded me, that there’s an important difference between “being safe” and “being uncomfortable.” In the communal work of dismantling white supremacy, you should feel safe, but you will not always feel comfortable. As Emerson said, “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”
If you’re taking care to structure dialogue in such a way that shaming is reduced, a sense of “being in this together” is engendered, and a communal ethic of care is cultivated, then you’re on your way to creating safe spaces for the often uncomfortable work of dismantling white supremacy. And — my fellow Baptists — I’m glad we’re in this ministry together.