A Gentle Call for White Guys to Listen

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Gandhi quipped famously that an eye for an eye makes the world blind. In a similar vein, I would argue that speaking (too often shouting) past each other on the issue of race is making the evangelical church deaf. The problem isn’t new, but has most recently expressed itself with “sides” dividing and the volume of voices on those sides turning up louder and louder. I wrote a short poem about it recently:

Can a deafened church
heal then hear while good men
shout past each other?

Conservative evangelicals can’t seem to hear each other any more. And how can we heal if we won’t hear? And how can we hear if we don’t stop shouting? We need to listen to each other. And here’s my challenge, which might chafe against some of you:

I think we have arrived at a moment when the white voices should stop doing most of the talking, and start doing most of the listening on this issue.

With gentle prodding, I hope to approach this as a fellow struggler. I also recognize the irony in this post, that I might be undermining my own point. But I think God has given me some insight by immersing me in both “sides” of this issue.

Me-from-seven-plus-years-ago would not care about this conversation much at all. I, the whitest guy you can imagine, stumbled into caring in March, 2009. God called me to serve a majority black church located in a majority black community. Populated by about 60% first and second generation Haitians, Jamaicans, Bahamians, and African-Americans, our church has changed me forever.

I have now seen the power of God to move his people toward reconciled diversity in a messy and difficult (now trendy) thing called a “multiethnic church.” This experience has sharpened my ears and I can now hear how passionately the heart of God beats for racial reconciliation. It pervades the Bible and God’s purpose in the Gospel. This makes it that much more tragic that the church already has been so deafened on this issue for so long. We need to regain our hearing.

I don’t suggest “a time for silence” from white voices because I’m suffering from “white guilt.” I’m not trying to appease some constituency. I’m not pandering or politicking. I’m not saying white guys should never speak at all or again. I’m not suggesting an arbitrary “time-frame” (as if we could listen for three months and then we’d be good).

I am saying we need to end the shouting match. And that we can start by listening. We need to enter as best we can into “the minority experience” in our society and our tribe called “(conservative) evangelicalism.” I am saying “time” in the sense of kairos, a God-appointed moment. A time for the white voices in evangelicalism to adopt the posture of becoming listeners and learners. We have glimpsed this, but it’s not the prevalent posture of the evangelical church. We have a lot more listening to do.

If you’re angry with my challenge, I understand why. The issue is murky, and you are probably doing your best to engage the issue biblically and humbly. I’m stumbling along more than anybody on this. And in my own stumbling way, I want to help. I want to ask you, whether your hackles are raised or your heart is racing, let’s at least try. I’m trying along with you. I haven’t figured it out, but I have found some things that might help. Here are five of them.

Listen to God’s heart beating in Scripture. Think about the Great Commission and God’s heart for all the nations. Wrestle with Galatians 3:28 and the new identity of diverse humanity in Christ. Spend some serious time wrestling with Ephesians as a whole. What does it mean that God has created “one new man”? What does it mean that God displays his multifaceted wisdom in the church — the multiethnic church? Go to Revelation 5:9 and 7:9 and see the vision of God’s end-time every-tongue-tribe-people-and-nation church. Hear God’s heart, and let it begin to (re)shape yours.

Ask your minority friends what it’s like to be a minority in America and the evangelical church. This will take some time. Have dinners and coffees and breakfasts and Facebook messenger and text conversations. If you don’t have enough minority friends to get deep in the weeds in these conversations, then that’s your first step. Begin to pray for God to diversity your relational network, and even ask him to show you any hidden pockets of prejudice. Maybe he will lead you to do something radical, like leaving your homogenous community or church to join in where he is doing something more diverse. Whatever happens, let me encourage you: take the intiative. Be the one who steps toward people who are different, culturally and ethnically.

Read books that narrate the minority experience. Pick up a few books by John Perkins, especially his autobiography Let Justice Roll Down. Read something like Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Don’t let Coates’ atheism or liberal politics distract you from entering into the narrative of what it’s like to be black in America. Pick up Richard Wright’s novel Native Son or the provocative The Next Evangelicalism by Soong-Chan Rah. Engage and immerse yourself in an ethnic vision of the world that diverges from your own.

Before engaging the “what”, ask “why?” Maybe you read a blog, a book, or a Tweet from a minority leader that chafes against you. Before even engaging the content, ask questions like, “Why does this person feel this way?” And, “Why does this person have such moral clarity on an issue that I see very differently?” Begin to ask God to show you pockets of blindness in your own vision of the world, and to have a teachable spirit on these issues.

Don’t pigeonhole minorities into talking only about racial issues. Intentionally choose biblical commentaries, books, talks, podcasts, and resources from minority leaders on a wide variety of issues that are not “the race conversation.” Often, it will take intentionality, because white voices dominate many conversations, especially evangelical ones. But it’s possible, and important.

If you’ve stayed with me this long, thank you. May God receive the glory in his church reconciled to himself and to each other. I’d love to continue the conversation.

How do you react to this idea?
What might I have missed?
What are some mays you might implement the suggestions I’ve listed?

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