I’ve seen some chatter of late on social media about racism and one suggestion is that we might be talking about it too much–that somehow we are “stuck” in a 60s era conversation and we need to move to another phase that is more productive. I’m sure people espousing this view would disagree with my previous two ways to respond to the Letter from Birmingham Jail, which was to confess the sin of racism that still persists today.
My thinking on this point is that if one says “the best solution to the race issue is to stop talking about it” then one might also say “the best solution to the sin issue is to stop talking about it.” For me, many of the sensitive issues of our day are made more clear when you have a healthy and biblical view of sin and righteousness, including the issue of racism. Our deeply held sinfulness doesn’t just go away when we ignore it and move on. What’s more, it doesn’t just go away by talking about it either. We must keep talking about it, and keep walking a different walk–and also to admonish our brothers and sister when ones walk, and talk, betrays a sinful racist attitude or action, or at least hints at it. In our “political correctness is a sin” mentality sometimes people act like calling them out for this is just “PC nonsense.” Well, I’m not yet ready to call racism a political correctness issue, brothers and sisters.
For me, Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail is a challenge, even here 50 years later, for me to [highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]Continue the Struggle [/highlight]against racism.
In the Letter, King stated: “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”
I think that some have a misunderstanding that all of our societies are naturally and “inevitably” moving more and more towards an absence of racism, and instead that our equality is assured, and instead we need to move on to other issues, or perhaps deeper problems. I disagree on this front. With King, I want to be a continued co-worker with God in the hard work of struggling with racism alive and well today. When it comes to time–we may Celebrate the Progress, as I did earlier in this series, without losing sight of the continued struggle today.
How might we do this?
Well, for myself I think there are many layers of leadership in which I have a direct influence where prejudice unfairly influences things, and I can struggle against these on a practical level. So, I’m saying that there are hundreds of ways to continue the struggle the Letter from Birmingham Jail outlines to us, but here are four that I am working on in my life. I ask myself four questions about racial prejudice that guide me, and perhaps these will help you too in your role in the world today:[highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]Who is leading?[/highlight] — This is a question of who is making the decisions, who is in power, who has the right to set the direction. In my world as a pastor for years, this question had to do with who was on the board of the Church, and who were the key powerful decision makers on the staff. In my current role it is the board of the entire denomination, which we call our “General Board” and also the Executive Cabinet, which I am on, and then our District Superintendents, which are regional leaders of our denomination. I try to influence these arenas to ensure that minorities and women have more power. some might say: “Just have the best people… be color and gender-blind.” I am not of that opinion: First, because becoming color and gender-blind is a myth–it’s impossible. Instead, it is better to admit the bias of race and gender, and then work toward looking more like heaven. When people say: “Just get the best” and then everyone who is in power is a white male over 50, well, then I’m saying: “Perhaps you don’t think a black person could ever be one of the best? Or perhaps you don’t think a woman or someone under 40 or someone who speaks English as a Second language is as smart as the old white male club?” I remember a time when we had to intentionally find minorities who would be willing to be up for election, another time when we put an african american woman on a board as a non-voting member for a season to raise her exposure, and make it more likely for her to be elected the next year (which she was.) I remember a time when our leaders need to explicitly ask competent and very popular leaders to “take a break” on a board in order to open up a seat for an equally or even more competent but perhaps less popular minority leader to win their seat. These are the little things, behind the scenes, that can be done to continue the struggle, my friends. [highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]Who is chosen? [/highlight]– There are times when I myself have a choice to make–a hiring decision or an appointment. I have worked to find ways to build relationships across ethnic lines in particular so I just have a better pool to choose from (for many of us that is the first step–we would, perhaps, choose more diverse teams if we just knew a more diverse group to choose from.) For me that meant going to different conferences, finding resumes and references in different places–widening my scope of relationships beyond the all white male seminary club I came from. In a few hires I’ve made in the last 5 years I held off on the process’ completion until I knew I had a truly diverse pool to chose from. If I didn’t I would not shrug my shoulders and say: “Well, these are the 50 applicants I got… so I did my part.” Instead, I’m seeing the pool’s diversity itself as my responsibility. What’s more, I think that I need to choose non-white candidate whenever possible, and understand that diversity itself is an asset to a team–just like having someone with a specific skill set or educational level or proficiency. I learned from a colleague once that a diverse team makes better decisions because it is far less likely for groupthink behavior to set in. On this note I wonder if the very popular “alignment” talk of many leadership gurus is being used as a subtle way to defend prejudice. Why is it that it is so hard for we middle-aged white men to get “alignment” from women and minorities on our staffs? MMmmm. I’ll have to think on that a while. [highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]Who is visible? [/highlight]– Here for me it is all about the faces. If all the faces on my print materials, all the people giving testimonies in my videos, and all the people on the stage singing and speaking are from one race, there is a problem. Sometimes we don’t catch this until we train ourselves well, and so it’s good to ask someone to sort of be the internal check on diversity. I’ve used others for this purpose in years past before I was sensitive enough to do it myself. Now I find myself building lists of “who could be in the video” and ensuring that it is a diverse recruiting pool. This may sound like I’m over-doing it to some, but I do believe the intentionality is crucial–or it doesn’t happen. Again some of this is building the network of relationships so you know someone to actually put in the video… it can’t just be arbitrary. But it does need to be intentional. [highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]Who is coming? [/highlight]– Finally, I do want to look at the crowd that is coming and question it. For many of us, we want to start here–those of us leading churches want “our congregation to be more diverse” or we want “the church to be less segregated on Sundays.” I’ve found that I need to engage in the previous three questions for many years before pushing on this fourth question. But I do need to push on this one as well. Demographics matter–if my church doesn’t “look” like my community then there are likely deep seated reasons for it. While the above three questions are the place I want to start… I can’t stop there and hope everything works out. I long for the Church to look more like my community, and more like Heaven, at the same time. If it doesn’t then I need to step back and do some analysis, even focus groups, informal polls and even formal polls to find out why there is a persistent problem. In my fifth local church we had a century long reputation problem where the poor, the uneducated, and the non-white felt they could not go to our church. I’m here to say that while it is a massive struggle, you can overcome all these barriers. (I’m also here to say that the racial barrier was in some ways not as difficult as the economic one, and not nearly as hard as the educational one, but that’s a story for another day.)
Now, I have not mastered all the above. Certainly I am making prejudiced decisions all the time that I’m unaware of. But I find that I can make better decisions, have healthier relationships, and lead my organization in a way that continues the struggle against sin and makes us more like Christ in the above ways. I know that I have some big challenges in that while our board is very diverse (compared to previous years it’s a massive change) our cabinet is all-white, and our regional leaders (of which there are 32) are all white males over 40 years of age. It takes time to improve on all these levels, and in many ways the top one is the hardest–but I do think by starting there it helps everything else start to fall into place (after all, once there is more diversity in power, then you can leverage power itself for this cause.)
In the last paragraph of King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail he summed up the goal, one that is not yet achieved, but for which I continue the struggle, and I hope you do too:[quote_box author=”Martin Luther King, Jr” profession=”from the Letter from Birmingham Jail”]Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.[/quote_box] [divider type=”simple”]
Links to the “Five Ways to Respond to the Letter from Birmingham Jail” Series: