Serving in Christian ministry in America requires a knowledge of the racial history and current reality of our context. We need to understand how people are affected by our racial history and present struggles, especially through the African American experience.
I’ve found the following books to be helpful to me for understanding perspectives on race and society. There are many ways to engage in this area, including personal relationships, ministry partnerships, conferences, and intentional community. Yet we must also become informed, and reading can help do that.
Jemar Tisby surveys the history of racism in America, and the church’s participation in defending, excusing, ignoring, and even promoting racism. It’s a difficult book to read for someone who loves the church, but Tisby very carefully and honestly lays the facts bare before us using primary sources. Many of these primary sources are beloved figures of the church, and we’ve chosen to ignore their complicity, and therefore our own, in racist systems. His survey moves from the beginnings of slavery to the Black Lives Matter movement of today, and he offers a helpful map for a way forward toward racial reconciliation that would really heal our land. If we are ready to take off the blinders that our society places on us, often in theological garb, we can begin to see healing take place.
This book can help a pastor lead a church to repentance for any participation in racism. It can help us understand areas where our theology may be shaped more by racism than by Scripture. And if we are white, it can help us to reach out to minorities with a more humble acceptance and awareness of our participation in racism and its systems.
Is racism a fundamental part of our society, built into it from the beginning? If you have ever asked that question and wanted a thorough answer, this is it. Dr. Kendi takes the reader on an anti-racist journey from the earliest days of modern racist ideas to today. He shows that while anti-racists have been around from the beginning, racism has grown, adapted, and overpowered anti-racism for centuries. Racism is not based merely on the actions of a few hatefully individuals, or even on the everyday stereotypes most humans experience. Instead, says Dr. Kendi, racism is a system of oppression designed to guarantee power to those on top. Racist ideas are created by the powerful to maintain a system that maintains a balance.
Kendi documents that from the beginnings of the colonial period, through slavery and beyond, America has developed and maintained a racist ideology. This ideology has been nurtured and defended to maintain powerful interests, interests that many people benefit from even today.
Discovering this true aspect of our history is not really a difficult task or an obscure reality. All of the sources Kendi uses are out there, and most are from mainstream American leaders and thinkers. Dr. Kendi doesn’t quote many theoreticians. He simply shows us our past as it exists in written documents, many from our heroes. The passages he quotes are ones that our educational system largely ignores and that many of us would rather not see. Many white Americans choose not to explore these areas of our history in any detail and remain in purposeful ignorance of them to maintain a positive view of our history, or to minimize the brutal realities of our past. But in ministry, we can’t afford to remain in any darkness and must be open to hear the truth. Dr. Kendi’s book, so carefully based on facts and documentation, cannot help but allow us to see a part of history that cannot be ignored.
Kendi’s follow up book How to be an Anti-Racist is a personal memoir combined with more history and a call to action.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Award-winning poet Maya Angelou’s first memoir, Caged Bird, tells her story of the poverty and racism that she experienced growing up in Stamps, Arkansas, and later in St. Louis. She experiences the crushing effects seeing her dignified and loving Grandmother degraded and the fear that surrounds poor black people under the power of racist society. Later she suffers the trauma of rape and the terror of having to escape the fallout of the alcoholism of her father. In San Francisco, she begins to understand the power of her mind and the value of study, and gives birth to a child.
Angelou’s story captures the pain and passion of an African American life in the 1950s and 1960s in an emotionally powerful autobiographical format. I recommend listening to the audiobook, in which Ms. Angelou is the reader.
Caged Bird opens our hearts to the plight of many who are oppressed today, and though very painful to read, the passages on her sexual abuse cannot help but wake us up to the suffering people around us.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Baldwin presents The Fire Next Time in two parts. The first is a letter to his 14-year-old nephew in which he gives “the talk,” explaining the way that American racism grinds down African American men, and the anger that it generates. Baldwin encourages his young nephew to use that anger to resist the total pressure that surrounds him. He powerfully describes the pressure to believe the de-humanizing stories that our society tells about black men, and the systems that enforce those stories.
The second essay is an honest, painful, and raw description of his experience in the church and with religion, including the Nation of Islam. This essay provides a clear and powerful description of his journey from the church, to the Nation, and beyond. This essay allows us to listen in on a man’s search for truth, one who is sadly unable to encounter it within the church.
White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
Robin DiAngelo has written a book for white people to read, written by a white woman, about how much of our upbringing in this society conditions us to be defensive and sensitive when confronted with racism. White people are often taught that racism is only found in a few angry Nazis or small groups of white supremacists, and is quickly passing away (or is already over). Because of this false belief, most white Americans are conditioned to become personally defensive when minorities, especially African Americans, share their perspectives on race and society.
DiAngelo helps shift the conversation to structural racism, a system which, overall, benefits white Americans more than others, and maintains social and political power within the majority. She has spent many years studying racism and interviewing people from many backgrounds, and conducts training across the country on overcoming racial insensitivity and structural inequalities.
She helps us see how the “colorblind” approach that many white people take concerning race can be just one more way of avoiding having to sit with and accept the way that racism, past and present, has affected so many of our fellow human beings. We would rather not accept that reality, or our place in it, so we claim to “not see race” so that we can avoid seeing racial pain.
For me, the experience of reading the book made her point. I had a hard time reading it because I reacted exactly as she predicted white people would respond when faced with the evidence of racism in our own lives and the systems within which we operate. I felt defensive, personally attacked, and kept being tempted to justify myself. For me, reading this book was a good way to observe my own reaction and to reflect on why I felt so defensive. It also helped me to see patterns in my own thinking and relating to others, that are based more on white guilt, white fragility, or white solidarity than they are on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Fiction can speak to us about real life, often more profoundly than even the best non-fiction. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is the profound, epic story of a black man in America, who learns through long experience that the only way for him to live is to become invisible as a self. Ellison’s book is a fictional story, but it is set in a very real world that is already a dystopian reality for many. The reader is taken on a journey of revelation, in which the individual humanity of a man is slowly, but inexorably, crushed.
John Stott taught that the pastor should have one ear open to the world, and one to the Bible. Keeping one ear open to the human world means listening to the voices of people who are not necessarily experiencing life the same way I am. Reading these perspectives has challenged me as a human being, a white man, and a priest. Church leaders should read widely and learn first to understand people where they are, listening for understanding.
The Gospel shines a light on every area of human life, but race is an area in which it is tempting to turn away from that light, especially when it shines on my own heart. Yet if I want to understand and serve all people, in the name of Christ, I have to learn to listen to the people with empathy and humility. These books have been one part of helping me start to do that, on a long journey of understanding.