The NBA Is Better at Lament Than We in the CRC Are

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I’ve been wrestling all week with how to address the shooting of Jacob Blake. . . mostly because I’m so angry. This morning I saw how the NBA is handling it by refusing to play and go on as if all is normal. I thought, “The NBA is better at lament than we are.” 

We talk about racism from time to time in the Christian Reformed Church. And this is a good thing. So many churches don’t do this at all, and I think we should recognize that we are doing something good here by talking about it. (Sidenote: If your church doesn’t talk about the sin of racism, ask some questions about why this isn’t happening). 

I’m concerned, however, about HOW we have tended to do this lately. Please don’t read a negative tone here in what I’m writing. I’ve been accused of coming off in writing as condescending or arrogant when I write about antiracism. I am hoping this piece of writing does not do this. Here is how I see myself: to borrow from Paul, I am the “chief of sinners” when it comes to racism.  I’ve done, and still continue to do, so many racist things. My thought process is governed by my whiteness, my gut-level interpretations are so controlled by my white socialization, my emotional responses to racism in the news and in my experience are filtered through my whiteness.  

So in the next few paragraphs when I write to you all about the white norms I see at play in the CRC’s culture (and its ramifications for this Sunday), please read it as one addict in recovery talking to another addict to encourage each other to work towards getting sober from our internalized racism. I want to ask that together we work towards getting sober from our collective institutional bent towards adhering to the rules of the dominant culture of white supremacy which I perceive as subtly but significantly affecting our church.  

By pointing out things in the following paragraphs, I am not judging anyone. I’m saying that I see this in myself, and it kept me addicted to the sinful habits of white supremacy thinking, and I want to get sober together. I’m convicted and I want to share this with you all, because for me to stay in recovery, I need the help of my community. You are my community, and you have some of the power to control things I need to get healthier as a white person and recovering racist.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading and reflecting on how white cultural norms assert themselves in worship spaces. If we enter into lament at all in worship spaces governed by white norms, we tend to do so in a way that could be termed “managerial racism.” This managerial form of racism is “spiritualized” in worship spaces by:

  • Adhering to the white cultural value of “time management” (as opposed to “making time” for people) 
  • Refusing to deviate from the routines of liturgical practice (i.e. liturgical practices centered on white people’s right to comfort at all times and in all places) 
  • Controlling language by tightly scripting the wording of expressions of lament (e.g. emphasis on perfectionism as dictated by white norms; valuing verbal correctness over verbal authenticity, sometimes expressed as the need for theological correctness)
  • Preferring expressions of lament that are poetic or “beautiful”, without strong displays of authentic emotion, usually pre-written. This preference privileges the voices of those whose expressions follow these norms of whiteness, and undervalue expressions of lament that are raw, passionate, and/or spontaneous.  This preference emphasizes the white cultural value of controlling one’s emotions so that white people do not feel discomfort or distress.  This also ignores the needs of people of color whose expression style values other characteristics, and who would view white norms of expression as inauthentic, emotionally blunted or lacking in conviction.
  • Insisting that only certain voices have the privilege of speaking (e.g. only those with institutional power may talk vs. allowing the community to speak freely, i.e. power hoarding, emphasis on maintaining power hierarchies)

This is not an exhaustive list of characteristics, but a summary of things I’ve been reading. Which brings me to the NBA’s walk-out. The players are unwilling to engage in their normal routines right now, and instead are speaking freely, without monitoring, about the pain and frustration they feel. 

They aren’t releasing a committee solidarity statement by the management of the NBA, and they aren’t saying that only the coach of each team make a public statement. . . they are just stopping everything and letting the players pour out their hearts in public. It makes me sit up and say that the NBA understands lament.

So back to worship this Sunday.    

I’m asking that we abandon our typical white norms that govern worship this Sunday and instead take this Sunday to center the voices of the people of color who still call the Christian Reformed Church home. I sincerely believe that God is at work in our congregations, but that for too long we have been governing our church and worship spaces according to white norms of behavior. This has impeded our ability to follow Christ together as diverse communities by centering white people at the expense of people of color. . . and for this Sunday, I am asking that we stop.

In the book of Acts, Chapter 6, there is a story about the distribution of food aid to widows who were Hellenistic Jews who converted to the Jesus Way. Their needs were being overlooked, and preference for food distributions was given to attending to the needs of the widows from the dominant culture making up the Jesus Way at the time … those Jews who were ethnically Jewish. When the Hellenistic minority raised their voices, the church leadership, comprised at the time of a monoculture of ethnic Jews, responded by making a new food-distribution system comprised of God-fearing leaders from the Hellenistic Jewish community. 

In other words, they centered the Hellenistic Jews, believed their complaint as legitimate, and took action. They didn’t say, “Well, we don’t know the whole story…” or accuse the Hellenistic Jews of not asking in the right way or with the right tone. They just believed them and took action.

Can we, like the early church, do this together so that our congregations can be safer places for people of color, and all of us, to heal from the racism that besets and damages all of us?      

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Thank you for sharing this, Eric. Your voice is prophetic, and one that ought not to be dismissed. We have a call to turn from our sin and return to God and God’s intentions for this world. May more of us recognize the damage being done by the sin of white supremacy in the Church, particularly to our witness, and stop making excuses for the planks in our eyes. The beauty of God’s kingdom is only made viable through our diversity.

Community Builder

Eric, it is extremely important to be hospitable in our worship to people of different races and cultures. I see that is what you are trying to emphasize and I think that is really good.  Please continue to encourage all of us in the CRC to do this. We need to be flexible, we need to be sacrificial, as we reach out to others, or accommodate the people already in our church communities.

But to me, it seems like you are confusing categories, "race" (skin color) versus "culture." What do you mean by "white culture" or "white cultural norms?" Are you talking about all white people in the world, or only white Americans? Are you saying that by virtue of having a certain skin color we can assume what a person's culture is, because cultures are always associated with that skin color?  For my Ugandan friends that love time management and are more time-conscious than me, does that mean they have more white culture than me?  For the Japanese that are more time-conscious than Americans, are they therefore more steeped in white culture than Americans? For all of my white American friends who are terrible at keeping time, have they absorbed some kind of other culture, are you suggesting that they have taken on black culture?  I don't understand these categories you are using. 

I say this gently and with love, but I think you should be more careful about using racial stereotypes. By saying that it is a "white" thing to be perfectionistic, it is almost like implying that it is a black thing (or non-white thing, person of color thing) to be whatever is the opposite of perfectionistic. I would imagine that many black people would find that painful and offensive. We should be very careful not to judge people by the color of their skin but instead by what they actually do, by their individual character and personality. And just as we shouldn't think that all black people in the world are exactly the same and have prejudice towards them, we shouldn't think that all white people in the world are exactly the same either.

I'm not taking issue with some of your proposals. I'm all for making those changes sometimes in our church services to be hospitable to people of other cultures and ethnicities. My church while I lived in Grand Rapids, Madison Square, did a great job of that by having different worship teams that utilized different musical styles and ways of leading worship, and even different languages.

Community Builder

Ahhh. Eric I didn't realize you are from Madison Square and leading in worship design. So you know exactly what I was talking about with diverse worship. You know better than me. That was one of my favorite things about the church when I was a part of it. I miss it greatly 

I love how Lord's Day 40 of the Heidelberg Catechism gives insight into this conversation:
Q 105. What is God's will for you in the sixth commandment?
A: I am not to belittle, insult, hate, or kill my neighbor - not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds - and I am not to be party to this in others; rather, I am to put away all desire for revenge. I am not to harm or recklessly endanger myself either. Prevention of murder is also why government is armed with the sword.
Q 106. Does this commandment refer only to killing?
A: By forbidding murder God teaches us that he hates the root of murder: envy, hatred, anger, vindictiveness. In God's sight all such are murder.

Q107. It is enough then that we do not kill our neighbor in any such way?

A: No. By condemning envy, hatred, and anger God tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly to them, to protect them from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies.

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