Ervin Stutzman, in an article titled Learning about Race, tells several stories from our brothers and sisters in Christ. He says, “For example, I can walk down the streets of most villages or cities and no self-appointed neighborhood watcher or police patrol will give me a second look. That’s not true for most people of color, who bear the burden of being watched or profiled for just walking on the sidewalk in certain sections of town, as Trayvon Martin was doing.”
He tells the very real, very palpable stories of people he has met in communities just like ours.
People of color who all knowingly teach their children how to safely interact with the police (a lesson my parents never felt a need to teach), students at Christian colleges who are profiled lest they wear backpacks to prove they are students, Hispanic pastors pulled over by the cops for no reason at all (has this every happened to you or your white friends? Me neither).
About these stories Stutzman says, “I have come to understand that these are not isolated incidents; but everyday realities for many people of color, not only on the streets of America, but also in the pews of our churches. Unfortunately, it’s just as common now as it was 25 years ago.”
What a far cry from Deuteronomy 10 which we heard earlier, which says, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
And what a far cry from our denominations Call to us. The denomination we are a part of today tells us that to be a Christian today demands that we address this issue. 1 of the 7 Core Convictions of Mennonite Church USA reflects this principle by saying, “Racism, antipathy and alienation between different cultural groups stand in the way of Christ’s kingdom of love, justice and peace.” Through my writing I’ve worked hard to define and Undo racism as I’ve experienced it in myself and in our city.
But we also need to move beyond undoing racism to advance a Jesus-centered response: what we’ve started to call, Intercultural Transformation. I believe God is calling our church to pursue racial justice, and that we’re invited to participate in creating a city of holistic shalom and peace in all ways.
But how do we get there? I am no expert in this area. So today I want you to meet a pioneer in racial competency, someone who is further along the journey and can give us the tools and skills we might need. He’s an expert, but also someone you know already, some of you have even grown fond of him: Saint Peter, whose story of intercultural conversion is told in Acts 10-11. Typical of Christians in his day, Peter misunderstood racism and his role in it, until he had a powerful vision from God.
His story reveals 10 Skills Required for Intercultural Transformation:
- Develop a Vibrant Spirituality. In Acts 10:9 we find Peter at prayer, the place in which he receives a vision that flips his entire racial world upside-down. Likewise, in Acts 10:30 Cornelius, Peter’s new Gentile friend, discovers his call to intercultural transformation in the context of prayer. Paul’s powerful prayer in Ephesians 3 that we might have “power to comprehend” God’s broad love for all people reminds us this is essential, and difficult work. Indeed, we cannot undo racism or live like Christ without the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Like Paul says in Romans 6:11, we can “Consider yourselves dead to sin and able to live for the glory of God.”
- See God’s Vision Clearly. In Acts 10:11-13 Peter receives a shocking new vision of the beautiful new world God is creating, in stark contrast to the accepted norms of the day. Through Christ, who is our peace, “you who were far off have been brought near…he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall… creating one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace (Ephesians 2:13-15).” In seeing God’s vision Peter says “God shows no partiality” (10:34, 11:12) and “makes no distinction between them and us” (11:12, 15:9). Paul calls it “the mystery of the Gospel” (Ephesians 1:9, 3:3-6) that “Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body.” As a stream running in the Hebrew Scriptures, through Jesus life and ministry, and beginning in Acts, Peter finally sees this vision clearly. Kenneth Leech, “Such a spirituality is rooted in a vision of a better order, a vision of God’s kingdom. A spirituality to combat racism is a kingdom spirituality, a spirituality of a new order of things… and this involves vision and envisioning, dreaming and prefiguring, living the dream and holding fast the vision.”
- See and Diagnose Racism Clearly, understand the roots of our own exclusion and resistance to God’s vision. Citing Levitical law in 10:14 Peter uses his faith and religion to openly challenge Jesus’ vision for intercultural transformation, “I have never eaten anything that is unclean or profane.” We must be open about our own sordid past, and acknowledge that racism is more than hate crimes. Though our reasons might be slightly different, we too must see racism in its full systemic and individual expressions. Dr. Beverly Tatum defines racism as being more than just a hate crime, or which there were over 191,000 in 2008. She says, ““because racism is so ingrained in the fabric of American institutions, it is easily self-perpetuating. All that is required to maintain it, is business as usual…[when] people do not disrupt unfair systems of privilege, they are—willingly or unwillingly—on the moving sidewalk, receiving White privilege and inadvertently enabling racism” (p. 11).
- Align ourselves with God’s vision for Intercultural Transformation. We do this above tradition, culture, or “common sense” expressions of colorblindness and birds flocking together. Peter decides, despite his religion, culture, and upbringing, to follow God’s leading in Acts 10:20-23. Again in 10:28-29 & 10:34-36 he consciously chooses to align himself with God’s, rather than his own, vision. Kenneth Leech goes on to say, “As the experience of Christians in both Nazi Germany and in South Africa shows, resistance to racism is bound up theologically with the claims of transcendence and with the assertion that Jesus is Lord, and the refusal to acknowledge lesser gods.”
- Insist on Equality of Relationship. When in Acts 10:25-28 Peter is offered a position of dominance over his Gentile friend, Peter acknowledges the privilege he holds but refuses it. He insists on a Non-paternalistic equal relationship. For us today this requires we engage in ministry with not to or for. And it requires we move past learning about racial/ethnic minorities (which does create empathy) and begin to learn from and with them, creating relationship.
- Commit to Spread God’s Vision in Church and Broader Community. After puzzling over and thinking through (10:17, 19) his encounter with God’s vision, Peter re-imagines his theology and incorporates this inclusive vision into his Gospel proclamation (10:37-43). He intentionally chooses to become part of the solution, rather than neutrally being part of the problem. Glen Guyton says, “Moving an institution from symbolic antiracism to meaningful antiracism requires hard work, intentionality and a commitment to change from the dominant culture (Anglo).” Again, Kenneth Leech, “ The most serious threat to the struggle against racism, fascism, and injustice is the eroding of the dignity and sense of worth, the subversion of the human spirit. When people cease to see themselves as agents of change, but merely objects of manipulation, they are lost.” Why don’t we commit to host a Damascus Road Anti-Racism Training in Houston? We have said we value being Mennonite. This is what it means. We have said we want to grow, that we want our world to be transformed. Do we have a good reason whey we have not done this already?
- Be an anti-racism Ally. When traditionalists resist intercultural transformation Peter acts as an ally to his new brothers and sisters in Christ, standing in solidarity and advocating for their full inclusion. Several times we see Peter properly using his power and privilege to confront the individual and systemic racism he now sees: in Acts 10:46-47, 11:1-18, and again in 15:6-11.
- Nurture Reciprocal Cross-Cultural Relationship. Entering into a reciprocal, equal relationship, Peter accepts their invitation in 10:48 to remain with them for several days. Breaking all number of laws and undoubtedly eating some of that tasty unclean food he saw in his sheet-vision! Healthy intercultural relationships include understanding differences, valuing them as an asset rather than a defect.
- Gracefully Diffuse Racism. When racism manifests itself in Peter’s presence (11:3-4, 15:1-11) he chooses a non-anxious approach by simply sharing his story and values, rather than attacking in protest. He takes the middle road between fleeing the situation and fighting; which turns out to be very effective. This is the skill I most obviously neglected when I sinned by remaining silentin the midst of racist chatter. Two possibilities my friend Katelin Hansen suggested to me are:
- Play dumb and ask, “Why was that funny?” or “I don’t know what you mean by that word.” Sometimes making someone articulate what is behind a joke/statement is enough for them to hear how hurtful it actually is
- Love the sinner, hate the sin. Say something like, “I know you are a good person, and I would hate for anyone to think otherwise, so you should know what you said might be interpreted as prejudiced” or ” your such a loving/sensitive person…it surprised me to hear you say that.” Check out this great 3 minute video: How to tell people they sound racist, that helpfully differentiates the “what they did” conversation from the “what they are” conversation.
- Accountability for our language, structures, rituals and actions. No matter how much we come to master these skills of intercultural competency, we’re likely going to get it wrong sometimes like Peter. In Galatians 2:11-14 Paul tells of a time he held Peter accountable for an intercultural misstep. Two excellent practices of accountability for institutions such as churches are The Voice of Color Thesis and Veto Power for people of color. The Voice of Color Thesis suggests we set aside Dominant Culture definitions of racism, sexism, etc… and allow the voice of color to define racism. In other words, if people of color say something is racist, we listen to them. Veto Power is exactly what it sounds like, the power to halt or postpone decisions and direction based on race. This becomes increasingly necessary in the presence of [needed] token representation on boards and leadership teams.
I proved last week I’m no expert on this topic, so I’m deeply grateful I can learn from people like Peter who are farther along the journey. I hope seeing a Skill Set such as this empowers you on your own journey of Intercultural Transformation!
I close with a story that is helping me feel at home in my discomfort. 2 months ago my parents visited, and one of our projects for my dad was for the two of us to re-build our back fence. With money the church had given us, we bought all the supplies we’d need, made arrangements with our neighbor to tether her dog (whom we were protecting ourselves from) and set off on the task. I kept watching my dad, skillfully and thoughtlessly insert screws to secure our boards. But for some reason I was struggling, my power screw driver kept slipping. Of course, he does this for a living and I only when forced. But the fact he was an expert and I wasn’t left me feeling ashamed. As I watched him, I was hoping he wasn’t watching me
But at one point in the day, I grabbed the wrong screwdriver and effortlessly drilled several screws. Something was different: better, more balanced, easier. Turns out he didn’t only have better skills, he also had a better tool! I simply needed to change my drill-head, and didn’t know it! While I had the same goal as my dad, I didn’t have the skill to know that a worn-down drill head would cause me fits.
The same is true of the 10 Required Skills we talked about today. There are people who have more skills than we do, and there are people who have better tools. But if we’re committed to the same end, we can learn, we can grow. They might be awkward and new, they might feel funny or even make us nervous. But if we’re committed to the same goals: they’re essential. Indeed, we as Christians are the only ones with all the tools needed to genuinely undo racism and advance Intercultural Transformation.
Houston Mennonite Church, may you come to know the love of Christ which is broad enough to include everyone! (Ephesians 3)
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