by Judith Guy
Ministering to the Most of These
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Matt. 25: 40
Eight of us made two rows and an arch with our chairs as we squeezed together in order to see the computer screen and to participate in a skype conversation with Rev. Dr. Dietra Wise Baker, who is a Disciples of Christ minister in the St. Louis area. She took part in some of the organizing of the Black Lives Matter protests against the police in Ferguson, MO after Michael Brown, an African-American teenager, was shot and killed by the officer, Darren Wilson. In our conversation she shared her experience of being in Ferguson and her role as a pastor. She also shared her disappointment in the lack of response from many churches in the area and from the denomination. All of us [in the Constructive Theologies Project] left this Skype session unsettled. As a group of ministers and students of theology of different races we all shared a passion for the church and for racial justice. I was left with the question of how to engage those churches who never responded, those churches of privilege that did not respond and are not responding now.
Privilege is a complex and an ever changing social reality. People can be privileged in some areas and not in others. Privileged people are often bystanders in their area of privilege. Privileged people don’t necessarily have the animosity or the intentionality of oppressors. We (privileged people, in this paper white people) are, sadly/disappointingly/angrily, just here. We accept the status quo, without experiencing it as unjust, because we are generally fine in relation to the current system. The lack of response from churches in the St. Louis area to the protests verifies this. This paper is not about those who are already allies who act. It is addressed to the many white churches who still remain silent and passive about the racialization of this country. As ministers and other church leaders who are dedicated to the Gospel, and who care deeply for our communities, we must work together to find ways to address the lack of response from the white moderate to the deep racial injustices in our society.
Perhaps the nearby churches in St. Louis felt sympathetic towards the protests, yet that sympathy wasn’t felt enough to respond through action or even reaching out through words. How do privileged people feel the urge of God to act, respond, stand up against oppressive forces and join in? Is there a way that ministers can better prepare their privileged communities to question the way they unwittingly participate in oppression and how to respond and change the way we interact?
Transformation is relational
As teenagers my older sister and I had a certain “game” we played in worship from time to time. During the really happy songs we would sing happily and we would arch our necks and look around smiling and we searched to see, “Was anyone else having fun? Was anyone else joyful?” We were not subtle but still people rarely noticed. We were mostly just having fun and trying to entertain ourselves, but we were also pained that these joyful songs were being sung without emotion. We were only looking for a smile in return as we rejoiced in the glory of God. But we rarely met eyes with people; we rarely connected. To sing “Joyful, Joyful we adore thee” with a blank stare, and “Joy to the world” with our heads down just seemed paradoxical to us. There was no embodiment of the joy that we sang and proclaimed.
I still play this “game” occasionally. Thankfully, I have been in more and more churches where smiling in worship isn’t too rare and the congregations feel the music which they sing. Yet, I do not think that being in a worship service in which the only clear sign of worship is the words the people use is a unique experience. There is a lack of spirit present in this story, a lack of connection not only to the song but also to the people in the space singing together. Many people say this is how white people are. Stereotypically we don’t have rhythm, we don’t know how to dance, and we are quite stoic in the ways we show emotion. I had never really taken these stereotypes seriously. I didn’t argue; they all seemed true. That is just who we are; that is our culture. But what if this is more than the culture and it is a result of oppressive actions over generations, of us trying to hide from each other and ourselves, what if this expression of ourselves is not really an expression of ourselves but an expression of our history of oppressing? What if it isn’t ok? What if it is a symptom of an illness? A number of thinkers including, Paulo Friere, Mary Elizabeth Hobgood, and bell hooks, have observed that the result of white supremacy is to turn people into objects, separate the body and spirit, to separate people from their culture, to make consuming the way of making meaning in the world. Everyone stuck in this system is dehumanized by it, but only people of color are conscious of this while white people think they are winning even as our spirit fades away.
One of the privileges of being white in the Unites States is that white people do not think about the way we are racialized. We do not consciously experience it until we are directly confronted. In some ways congregations that are predominantly upper/middle class and white occupy the place in society that everyone should occupy. Their comfort is not too much and not too little. And yet since this “comfort” is irrevocably connected to white privilege; it is bothered and harmful. The comfort came and continues to come at a price because privilege invokes unequal social relations. When one person has privilege the privilege is paid by someone else who does not receive that privilege. The privilege of feeling safe in the midst of police officers is inseparable from black people being criminalized. The privilege of seeing white people in power and narrated as historical patriots is inseparable from the untold stories of slaves building this nation under oppression and Native Americans being lied to and murdered. But I assert, as many others have, that the price isn’t only felt by people of color. White communities are made hallow through the continuation of white supremacy.
A Humanizing Vocation
Pedagogy of the Oppressed begins with the proclamation that the vocation of humanity is to humanize. After claiming this as the vocation of humanity Paulo Friere notes the result of choosing dehumanization, “Dehumanization, which marks not only those whose humanity has been stolen, but also (though in a different way) those who have stolen it, is a distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully human. This distortion occurs within history.” What is challenging about this powerful and true notion is that the system of white supremacy today has been in place for several generations. This creates challenge because white people have not experienced the transition from a humanizing vocation to a dehumanizing one. White people today have been directly involved, but through participation in systems that obscure the feeling of dehumanizing. An example of this is why it is easy for us to buy products made in sweat shops again and again. The consumer does not feel the loss of relationship nor see the suffering of the people working in the sweat shop. We do not have the closeness to dehumanizing that releases a visceral reaction. Even when we see police brutality in the news our part in that is not explicit. It is easy to side-step, blame on individuals, separate ourselves from the injustice. How do we address oppression we do not see or feel, yet do perpetuate? This historical distortion Freire has written about surely persists. White people have been dehumanized by the practice and participation of white supremacy but so gradually that I am not even sure we have recognized our loss. White supremacy is so normal in the United States we have ceased to need direct oppression, rather oppression is written into the narrative and the privileges of being white seem deserved.
White people must free ourselves from the repression we have placed on ourselves from generations of being oppressors and sinning. Through freedom from repression we could move to a place in which we use our power to transform the unjust systems beyond our church community. So how do pastors engage this “unfelt” problem, our “normal” evil? How do we become part of the healing process? The process of transformation, the movement from obliviousness to awareness is central to Christianity. How do we move together to awareness? Not just about becoming aware but following on the way? First we must know where we stand as a community and for that the predominantly white churches must engage inwardly within their community.
Many predominantly white churches that I have encountered view the role of the pastor to be one of comfort and taking care of members. With this view of the pastoral role, faith becomes a mostly personal endeavor and a personal affair. Not only is the prophetic voice lost, but the pastor’s individual voice can also be lost. My father has always worked in a community that expected politics to be set aside and separated from religion. This expectation is hidden in the need to respect political diversity. The establishment of private faith makes it comfortable for people to come forward and be in a diverse setting, yet if nothing of substance is shared is it really diverse? Not only is the pastoral role restricted to one of personal faith, guidance, and pastoral care, but the community follows this model as well. Topics of racism, poverty, and other social concerns are labeled political, controversial and most importantly outside the realm of religion.
Transformation is possible only through a public faith which displaces certainty and opens up new possibilities for reality. Public faith allows the church to not only be a place where people from diverse ideologies come together, but also a place where this is felt and experienced communally. The church must be an intersection of ideologies and a displacement of certainty in order to be a place of transformation.
Pedagogical thinkers Paolo Freire and bell hooks help us navigate the nebulous space between private and public faith and between openness and clear direction that ministers must enter in order to help congregations become a liberated community. They both speak to the framing of acceptance in education. Although the university and the church can be seen as very different realms, I argue that both, schools and churches, continue to frame reality and have an opportunity of changing frames. If churches are not intentional they will perpetuate the dominant myths. . Although, churches perpetuate myths and hegemonies they have a different role than schools and different modes of engagement. Ministers who interact with people who are not yet aware of their privilege, the false myths of society, and the injustice are not only working for a power shift and a change in social acceptability, but an inner personal change (which in turn becomes an outer social change) towards critical consciousness and transformation. A movement for wholeness and dismantling white supremacy is about power shifts, but at a deeper more permanent level, it must be about transformation. Dismantling white supremacy cannot be a concession, but a transformation of the use of power.
I use “we” throughout this thesis as a way to locate myself, a white woman, in proximity to ministry “to the most of these” and the relational possibilities for transformation that I explore. I invite everyone to consider these claims, yet, I recognize that not all readers will be a part of this “we.”
Judith has been called to be the pastor at Mackinaw Christian Church.