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by Shannon Jammal-Hollemans
“Recently I asked my husband the simple question, ‘Did you empty the dishwasher yet?’ My intention was to find out if my favorite coffee cup was clean. Bruce, however, felt as if I were monitoring him. Regardless of my intent, the impact was that he felt nagged. The way I meant it, and the way he heard it, were miles apart.”
Debby Irving, Waking Up White (Cambridge: Elephant Room Press, 2014, p. 159)
This story resonates with me, one, because it is a familiar scenario in my home, and two, because it speaks to so much more than a familial relationship. Irving shares this story in her book, Waking Up White, which is about how she has grown in her understanding of race and how it plays out in our communities. She relates the story to illustrate how even with our best intentions, we can still hurt people.
“Racist” is a loaded term. When most of us hear the term “racist,” we often think of white-hooded bigots, harassing behaviors, and the days of Jim Crow laws in the United States. But racism is so much more. Racism is bigger than bigots, more pervasive than one-time events, and is alive and thriving in our present reality.
Racism lives in the power dynamics at play in our relationships. Racism is built into the systems in which we operate. And racist behaviors are frequently unintentional.
Race is a biological myth. There is no such thing as race when looking at our genetics (to learn more, check out this article from Newsweek Magazine). But race is also a cultural reality, and as a social construct, race impacts our relationships, lives, and structures. When I say that I am a racist, I am acknowledging that I am a sinner, saved by grace alone. I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day One, Q & A 5). I am also acknowledging that I have power, power granted me merely by the position into which I was born.
As someone who is half white, who has been enculturated as white in many ways, and who is often perceived as white, I have power that I leverage every day, whether I realize it or not. Power that I did not earn. While “God sets us free from the dominion and slavery of sin…daily sins of weakness arise, and blemishes cling to even the best works of saints, giving us continual cause to humble ourselves before God…”(Canons of Dort, Fifth Point, Articles 1 and 2).
As people who seek to follow Jesus, we cannot ignore the racial realities in our relationships and communities. Our sinful human nature means that we want to have easy answers, quick fixes, and boxes that we can put things in to keep things nice and tidy. But that’s not how God intends for us to live. As difficult as it can be, God calls us to live in the complexities. God asks us to take seriously the hurt that our actions or thoughts or words have caused, not just cling to the fact that we meant no harm. God asks us to examine our sinfulness, to own it, and to repent. Not one time, but over and over again.
With all of our good intentions, we have an immense capability to mess things up. And we will continue to practice racist behaviors if we aren’t intentional about learning, growing, and being stretched by God so that we might reflect God’s image more clearly. That is what the spiritual disciplines are all about—being stretched to become more Christ-like.
When seeking to be reconcilers, we make all kind of mistakes: we will try to speak for other people, we will take charge rather than letting the people who are vulnerable take the lead, and we will try to dictate reconciliation on our own terms. We will want to deflect and place the responsibility on others. And we will struggle to hear the truth—that our good intentions sometimes cause harm, that we are imperfect even when we mean the best, and that we are still called to try again. With intentionality, by the grace of God, we can still be used to reflect the God who created us, saved us, and empowers us for every good work.