David Bailey and Erin Rose on White Supremacy
Churches often shy away from conversations about white supremacy or which lives matter. A Presbyterian elder and a worship leader explain how to pastorally move toward effective reconciliation ministry.
David M. Bailey is director of Arrabon and a program affiliate with Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Erin N. Rose is worship leader and teaching pastor at East End Fellowship in Richmond, Virginia. She sings with Urban Doxology, a band that seeks reconciliation through worship. In this edited conversation, Bailey and Rose talk about how a violent rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, made more people think about white supremacy.
Why have you been talking more about white supremacy?
DB: At Arrabon, Urban Doxology, and East End Fellowship, we navigate the space between people with a theology of protest and those who believe the United States is a Christian nation. We are more pastoral than prophetic. We try to accept people where they are and pastorally lead them.
White supremacy isn’t a term we used much before the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. No one expected it to get so crazy or that someone would die. After that weekend, Google searches for white supremacy spiked. That rally was yet another example of what divided times we are living in.
ER: The proximity of Charlottesville to Richmond was jarring. This could have happened in Richmond, which was the capital of the Confederacy. My attention always returns to how the church responds to divisive events. God has reconciled himself to us, so we as churches are called to lead in reconciliation.
Is that why you both signed a statement of unity from Richmond area pastors and ministry leaders that rejects white supremacy and the sin of racism?
ER: Yes. Sometimes Christians hear a story about racism and start quoting Revelation 5, about how God’s kingdom includes people from every tribe, language, people and nation, or Revelation 21, about God making all things new. Those visions describe God’s intention. But we caution against jumping too quickly to talk of heaven without naming and dealing with all the fallenness and brokenness between earth and heaven.
Are white supremacy and racism the same thing?
DB: The terms overlap, but white supremacy is different than racism. Supremacy is the belief that whatever adjective goes in front of it—white supremacy, Christian supremacy, male supremacy—describes something that is better than the rest. Our country is founded on a system that puts whiteness on top. This value is built into our legal, cultural, economic, and political systems. We don’t choose white supremacy. It’s a history that we Americans are born into. But if white supremacy is a spirit and practice, then it’s something we all have to struggle against within ourselves.
DB: You’ve probably heard about the famous doll test cited in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs Board of Education about integrating public schools. Two black psychologists, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, used dolls to test how segregation psychologically affects black children. They showed white and black little kids some doll babies, asked them to identify the baby’s race, and asked which doll baby was better. Even the majority of black children chose the white doll baby.
I often use that example to explain that, just because I have black skin, it doesn’t mean I don’t have to wrestle with white supremacy. We have hundreds of years of U.S. history premised on whiteness. Also, white supremacy especially contrasts whites and blacks. It often ignores Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans.
How do you suggest dealing with white supremacy?
DB: We can confess our sin of believing that whiteness is superior, repent, and ask God to change and transform us. You don’t have to be perfect. It takes time to learn how to talk about and move from diversity to shalom. Also, remember that white supremacy is a belief system we’re born into. White privilege describes the systemic benefits conferred by the norm of white supremacy. White privilege is often invisible to white people but not to people of color.
Talking about white supremacy can be so uncomfortable . . .
DB: Saying that we are all white supremacists doesn’t mean we are all KKK or neo-Nazi. It means we live in a system that overtly and covertly sees white supremacy as normal. The church should be part of the solution, but Christians often feel overwhelmed, embarrassed, ashamed, or afraid of saying the wrong thing. Theological training hasn’t equipped us to address living in such a diverse and divided society.
ER: Lots of people really don’t know about racism in our country. When they give surface responses—But we’re just one human family! I don’t see color!—it can be really painful to people who’ve had a history with racism. People often try to put a bandage on things too quickly. They’re not okay with lamenting or crying out to God. Most churches don’t really practice lament. Practicing it doesn’t make tragedy easier, but it gives you a community, language, and framework to have authentic conversations about race.
What’s a good first step to becoming more effective at reconciliation?
DB: We’ve had a colorblind approach for so long. We need to suspend judgment and hear other cultural narratives. We each come from cultures with different experiences, perspectives, and ideas about the best way to do things and solve divisive problems. As Christians, our theology of shalom needs to shape our sociology. Shalom means completeness, wholeness, and flourishing. We need to do more listening and learning, like Jesus did for 30 years. That’s how he practiced reconciliation.
ER: Try to listen long enough to understand what’s going on under the surface of a question or statement. For example, saying that black lives matter doesn’t mean we’re saying white lives or police lives don’t matter. It’s not a zero-sum game. When people insist that our country operates as if all lives matter, we can show empirical evidence that government policy and historical practices don’t equally support all lives.
Can you recommend pastoral resources for exploring a ministry of reconciliation?
ER: I’d recommend that a church do a deep dive into Isaiah 58. God tells Israel, “You think you’re doing the right thing with fasting and worship, but you’re oppressing your brothers and sisters. You don’t get to pick who I count as your family, ‘your own flesh and blood.’” That’s the best place for churches to start if they want to be effective leaders in a ministry of reconciliation. God identifies your blind spot, tells you how to fix it, and promises your light will break forth.
DB: Urban Doxology’s mission is to write music and liturgy for reconciliation in racially and economically diverse congregations. Amena Brown worked with us on a song about Isaiah 58. It’s spoken word with background instrumental music. You can use it as a call to worship. Arrabon recently released the Race, Class, and the Kingdom of God video studies. It can help your congregation become a foretaste of a reconciled heaven in our divided world.
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