Am I complicit if I do not know I am participating in oppression?
Yes, because in that case, I am also in denial.
I know I claim and benefit from privileges based on my race, country of birth, class and religion. It is that very privilege that keeps me from seeing all the ways I am complicit in keeping my own interests at the center, instead of other people’s worth. I believe this about myself, my own faith tradition, my country. But I grasped the reality in a new way when I read Jemar Tisby’s book The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.
The first reason why I couldn’t parse this out before, is a simple view that the way things are is how they’ve always been. I know that’s not true, and have myself pointed out, (for a low stakes example), that the “traditional” worship service based on a hymnbook that was published the year I was born is only a tradition of those few decades. It does not define who we are or what “traditional worship” must be like. But the present is so… present. We are gladly led to believe that the way we understand an issue in our time is the culmination of all history, and therefore RIGHT. The Color of Compromise gives several examples of major, defining issuesfor a group of people, but the biggest is tracing the development of “race” as a distinguishing feature to justify race-based chattel slavery, and all of the points when Christians could and should have disrupted that concept because of our faith. Disrupting racism today should be one of the main tenets of our faithful witness.
Secondly, I was not aware of all the coded language and concepts that function around me, and in which I participate. This book has made me wary, more so than I was before, of any re-framing of conversations leaning into “states rights” or “individual freedoms” or even “law and order”. All of those phrases have been code for racial oppression, as slavery was outlawed and Jim Crow laws defeated. Racism adapted, inside and outside the Church. I did not recognize this thoroughly enough to challenge coded language about “the neighborhood” or different “worship styles” for different racial or ethnic groups in our midst in my last permanent pastoral position. How could the conversation have shifted if we talked about race and the Church, instead of trudging ahead to divide up who got to choose what music we sang when? In the final chapter on strategies to move forward, Tisby powerfully urges us to name specific examples. “Loving people” in generalities (All Lives Matter, anyone?) is code for doing nothing for specific people.
I had been thinking – desperately hoping – that if people just realized they were hurting children or could understand the root causes of migration or systemic poverty, they’d vote, legislate and behave differently. They just didn’t have a clear view of what they were doing. I sometimes picture Martin Luther thinking he would nail the 95 Theses to the church door for debate and they’d see the error of their ways and change. Instead his actions seeded a peasant revolt and entirely new churches. But maybe, just maybe, many more people understand the coded language and objectives behind the issues they champion, better than I do. Maybe they thoroughly believe the surface story for whatever their virulent stance is, and wouldn’t knowingly advocate for something that is essentially racism in a different guise. For example, abortion rights, which Tisby traces back only a few decades to when Southern Baptist preachers supportedthe cause in the 1960s, before it became part of the platform of the Religious Right (whose first galvanizing issue was actually not abortion, but segregated “Christian academies” in the South). Limiting abortion access used to be acknowledged as disproportionately impacting poorer and minority women. Maybe those virulently opposed to abortion access now think it is all about the potential life of a developing human. Or maybe it is consciously or unconsciously about making access more difficult for poorer, minority communities, because that effect is repeatedly exposed.
In the midst of reading this eye-opening, engaging history, I also saw the film about the Emanuel 9 at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, who were killed by a white supremacist after welcoming him into their Bible study. A white supremacist who was raised in my denomination. The theology of the survivors drives the meaning of the documentary, and initially I was a bit skeptical. I didn’t want them to jump to forgiveness so soon – I wouldn’t. I was quick to judge their theology instead of trusting that it was exactly what Black people have needed to survive with faith intact, all that white supremacy has put them through. One of Jemar Tisby’s ideas in the final pages of ways to restore what has been broken in Christianity by racism, is to value Black theologians as highly as we automatically do white ones. The lived experience of oppression may indeed carry more theological significance than anything I read in seminary or since. I am here to learn.