By Starlette McNeill
Race. The mere mentioning of the word reveals our unpreparedness, inexperience, awkwardness. Race has been with us for hundreds of years, yet we still don’t know what to say about it — though we are clear on what it says about us and the “other.” Ironically, we don’t know where to put race but we are certain of where we belong according to its categories. And the Church, the members and messengers of the God who identifies with us all, still doesn’t know if we should see ourselves according to the flesh or as new creatures in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 5.16-17).
Ferguson, now synonymous with race, is the new word to be left unsaid. Like politics and religion, it is considered rude in dinner conversation because it gets people upset. We get so riled up that we forget to pass the dinner rolls, forget who we are talking to, forget what we are talking about, mixing other words with it, or forget that we are hungry, losing our appetite altogether.
If spoken in public, persons lean forward, look around corners and give you the side-eye glance. They want to know your opinion or, better said, your verdict in the death of Michael Brown Jr. at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson. And if you do not agree with them, then their campaign for your vote will ensue.
Unfortunately, there will be another new word, new city, new victims, new debate, new comparisons to be made. That is, unless we have the race talk. Now, before you get too excited, this will be an ongoing conversation and much of it will occur not over dinner tables, coffee tables or even communion tables. But the dialogue that is, perhaps in some ways, a mystical monologue will only require you and God. First, it must be one-on-One.
The race talk is about belonging, identity and membership — all of which are sourced by God. The race talk is about sins — all of which are covered by his Son. The race talk is about communion, forgiveness and reconciliation — all of which are the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a communal conversation and requires this sacred village to raise our souls up from the dregs of race. We need to talk to God about race, understanding that God is not a member of a race, not socially constructed, for we cannot form Spirit (John 4.24).
And I’m not talking about fairy dust theology, some sprinkling of nice words and good intentions, pledges of more community projects or increased financial support for struggling communities. I’m not asking for longer and more laborious shifts of blame and responsibility, of guilt and shame, of anger and fear from one person to the other.
No, I am suggesting a harder conversation that might begin with a stutter, the biting of your bottom lip and awkward silence at first because it will begin with the fact that we have not fully accepted our identity as Christians, that we have denied parts in our acceptance of a racial identity, that we do not know God apart from the image that race has created God in, that we often confuse the will of God with the will of race, that we allow race to inform our understanding of God and to determine who God’s people are.
To be sure, it is a dialogue with Love but is about the coupon-assisted, marked-down, reduced love that we offer to our neighbor, the immigrant and stranger. It is a conversation about the love that does not challenge us and costs us nothing to give because it is the scraps of love, leftover love that we were done with anyway. It is a conversation with Love that is not afraid to challenge our traditional fears, Who refuses to go along with our stereotypical images of humanity just to get along with the culture and will not overlook our historical hatreds.
And I should warn you, this race talk will not come with a studio audience — no cued applause here — because it is a conversation about the absence of the community that we have been called to form as a witness to the world. But it is a conversation that will slowly untie the tongue of the Church that continues to bless and justify Sunday morning segregation. This talk will untangle scriptures long ensnared by race due to Enlightenment’s reason and will give us our voice back.
How ironic it is that the “Word-God people” cannot seem to find the words to rid themselves of race and its progeny, that we have allowed one word to taint our image, discredit our witness and jeopardize our fellowship (John 1.1). This is why the race talk is so important. Because we don’t need another new word, another new city where race and its groundlings, that of racism, stereotypes or prejudice, would cause us to lose our voice or at least pretend to.
Some will say, “God is speaking now,” that the actions of a few represent the all. But a burning building is not a burning bush — no holy ground there. God is not speaking there. God’s voice is still small, mysterious, counter-cultural, unpredictable.
As you look down to see how many words I have left, you may be asking, “How long do we talk?” Because we’re tired of talking, right? We want to do something. We are angry and afraid that this will happen again, that the word will repeat itself. But repetition will happen only because we are saying the same things: “I hate you. You hate me. I hate you ….”
We need to talk about race with God until we can see ourselves without it, until we love ourselves and our neighbors without it, until we can pass the dinner rolls without race determining who is welcome at the table.