NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – The message of Jesus is one of total inclusion and absolute equality, said Drew Hart in two recent lectures at Bethel College – but the church has largely missed it.
Hart was at Bethel Feb. 12-13 to give two Staley Lectures on how the church – especially the white, American one – can and should do better at addressing deep-rooted issues of racism and white privilege.
Hart, who has worked as a Brethren in Christ pastor and is now associate professor of theology at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, told about a meeting he had with a young white pastor in Philadelphia.
At one point, the other pastor placed a cup of tea between the two of them. The cup had writing on one side and the restaurant logo on the other. “We each need the other to help understand what’s on the other side of the cup,” the pastor said.
While it might have seemed like “a nice ‘After-School Special’ moment,” Hart said, “it really doesn’t work like that.
“[As a black man,] I have to have a pretty good idea without help what’s on the ‘white’ side of the cup, while he can go his whole life without having to step into the other side, the other world, and he will still be successful without that.
“We need to find different language and different frameworks, especially in the church, to address race and racism. Only when we understand how [racism] works in society will we be able to break the cycle in our lives and communities.”
Hart, a Messiah graduate, also told about two different chapel experiences that have stuck indelibly with him.
Both involved guest speakers who, although saying things in ways Hart said he had not heard before, seemed to be giving “Jesus-centered messages, so I began leaning in.”
Many of his white peers, by contrast, chose to walk out.
“In both cases, I did not understand why whiteness was more important than the message of Jesus,” he said.
“Sometimes in the church,” he said, “we’re so focused on race and racism in terms of getting more people, more diversity, in the pews. We pay attention to the horizontal – ‘If we can just get people together, in proximity, close to each other’ – and not the vertical, the racial hierarchies.
“Look at enslaved people in the 19th century [in America] who worked in the house, cared for the children, in many ways performed intimate functions, and yet were still seen as sub-human. That was ‘proximity.’
“Racism is a system. We live in a racialized society. We have been ‘racially managed’ because we haven’t been aware of the racialized nature of society.
“We need to speak openly and honestly about how and why race developed as a social construct, to justify social dominance. If anyone can have this conversation, it ought to be the church.”
White Christians, Hart said, almost unfailingly have the best intentions in their interactions with those who are “different,” but struggle with failure to recognize racialized systems, to “name the lie of white supremacy” and with “400 years of bad racial intuition.”
He recalled living and working in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s, Allison Hill neighborhood, majority black and Hispanic, and seeing a group of what he took to be white Christians in bright yellow T-shirts that said “Harrisburg Invasion,” giving out groceries in his neighborhood.
“They were trying to do good,” he said, “but the racial hierarchy stayed in place. In their own eyes, reflected by their own motto, they were coming in to ‘save this poor black and brown community.’
“What would it have looked like if, instead of coming in with their own agenda to ‘help,’ they had sat down to listen to the amazing leaders in that community?
“There’s a different orientation that Christians ought to live in, in solidarity with the way of Jesus [who lived] alongside those who were the most vulnerable and marginalized.
“Society organizes itself in one way – we organize ourselves around the Messiah and offer our bodies as living sacrifices. What we do with our bodies actually matters. Where we place our bodies matters. What bodies we put our own bodies alongside matters.
“We need to commit as the church to become the kinds of people who can follow Jesus in the way he provided, that can provide hope for our society, even in the midst of the serious challenges we face.”
Speaking more to the history of racism and a racialized society in the United States in his second lecture, Hart asked, “Four hundred years into American racism, where do we go from here, coming from communities socialized in such a way that we’re complicit in forces of oppression without realizing it?”
Hart pointed to “the counter-intuitive way of Jesus.”
Referring to Philippians 2, Hart reminded the audience that “Jesus didn’t exploit his equality with God, but emptied himself to take on human likeness. God’s power is made perfect in weakness. God’s power takes root on the underside, in vulnerability.”
Hart called the church to “Jesus-shaped solidarity.”
“Take up the way of Jesus in standing with the oppressed. Distrust your own intuition [created by the dominant culture] and seek out solidarity with those who have been oppressed – allow their experiences and their eyes to shape and see what’s going on around us.”