When Will I Arrive?

As a white person who believes in God’s multi-ethnic kingdom, have you ever found yourself falling into the trap of thinking you’ve arrived at a place of “getting it?” Do you ever think back on how many mistakes you used to make before you became one of the “good guys?” I have. I do. But sometimes we can think we’re one of the good guys, when we’re actually perpetuating harmful ideas and practices.

Let me explain.

Reverend Doctor Brenda Salter-McNeil opened last week’s Christian Community Development conference by confessing the limitations of her own leadership. Dr. Brenda is an African American leader who has spent her life leading the evangelical church in racial reconciliation. She shared a story of visiting young Ferguson activists on the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, and asking them what they thought of the Church. “We hate your misogyny. We hate your hypocrisy. We hate your complacency. And we could care less about your attempts to make yourselves feel better by making your churches more diverse. What we care about is you bringing real change.” Ouch.

The implications of these young activists’ critique were that Dr. Brenda had been complicit, possibly even participatory, in ideas and practices that actively contribute to their marginalization. Yet rather than react defensively, protecting her life-long legacy of leadership, she listened, she began re-examining her assumptions, and is going back to the drawing board.

If Dr. Brenda needs to keep learning from her critics and challenging her method and assumptions, then we do too.

Just because we may have been affirmed by “getting it” in the past—whether that means 20 years ago or 20 minutes ago—doesn’t mean we “get it” today. And the truth? We probably never “got it” at the level that we thought we did. I’m actually convinced that the more we think we get it, the more blind we are to our own faults, and the more dangerously we wield our cultural power as white people. What passed as cross-cultural competence ten years ago doesn’t make the cut today. We need to learn how to put ourselves in places of perpetual learning, especially learning from folks on the margins of cultural power.

Dr. Brenda went to Ferguson and listened. What will we do?

1. Enter into/Go deeper in a cross-cultural relationship: nothing holds a candle to keeping us growing like being in honest relationship with a justice-minded person of color. This could be a young activist, a mentor, or a peer. Forming new relationships is an art beyond the scope of this post, but more than any other thing, our relationships shape who we are. If we want to grow, we need to be in honest friendship with new folks who will speak truth.

2. Diversify your media: one year ago I subscribed to a daily RSS feed from The Root, a black-owned, black-issue-oriented media outlet. Not only has that decision given me more connective material to discuss in relationships with black friends, but has also led me into asking new questions that are changing me.

3. Discover black twitter: tap the benefit of un-censored conversation about race in America. Start with hashtags like #blacklivesmatter or #oscarssowhite and follow a few folks that intrigue you. Beware: you will see vitriolic bigotry in some of the comments…just a part of the learning.

4. Read non-white-male theologians: A Taiwanese friend recently asked if we could begin identifying certain theologians as “white theologians” in the same way we identify “latino theologians” or “native theologians”, so that white doesn’t equal “normal.” I was so grateful for that insight. Start with Grace Ji-Sun Kim, James Cone, Justo González, and Richard Twiss.

Even though she stands upon a mountain of integrity and decades of prophetic leadership, Dr. Brenda had the humility to let go of being overly sure of herself, and as a result Jesus is expanding the scope of her prophetic influence. How much more appropriate is it for us, then, to hold our own cross-cultural competence loosely?

Where do we not “get it” as much as we think we do? And how can we put ourselves in places where we’ll be equipped to answer that question?

Who am I? / Race vs. Ethnicity: what’s the difference?

As I continue on this long (and sometimes bumpy) road of ethnic identity and racial reconciliation, I am continuously amazed at how complex this journey really is. One way it gets even more complicated is the subject of ethnicity and race. A lot of white folks use these terms interchangeably. While they do go together, I have learned they are not the same thing.

My journey involves me owning my privilege and supremacy as a white straight man in the Midwest, and continuing to understand how I benefit from such associations and identifications. Discovering the implications of my racial identity is essential to my ethnic identity journey. Growing up in California and moving to the Midwest has been amazing but difficult too. I have never been made more aware of how different two white populations in the same country can be. When I express my emotions in church and other places, many people who look just like me (i.e. white) don’t know how to respond to my passionate, expressive personality. I feel so awkward. Why are these Midwest people not as excited as I am to talk about feelings? Is it a geographical difference in the United States? Or maybe the ridiculously cold winters in Wisconsin just freeze your emotions? While these are both true, maybe there is something more to it.

Race is defined as a group of people with a common physical feature or features. Makes sense why I benefit from white privilege and white supremacy. Ethnicity, however is a state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition. For more, see Ethnicity vs. Race.

“Nana, why doesn’t more of our family speak Spanish?” That question is one that still rips a band-aid off a wound for me. I was doing a research project in college interviewing women in my family and I wanted to know more about the side of my family I knew least about: my Spanish heritage. Most white Americans don’t know much about Spanish culture and I grew up just as naïve. I grew up assuming, “I’m only a quarter Spanish so it doesn’t really matter, right?”

As I grew older, I started to realize my Spanish heritage was not the same as my Scotch-Irish side and that the experience of many of my white friends was not always the same as me. Why did some of my family burn to crisp in the sun and others turn an olive color? And why did some of my family have the last name Perez and others not?

My grandma explained that when her older sister was young, the principal beat her when she spoke Spanish in kindergarten. I cannot say if this is the only reason why my family stopped speaking Spanish, but it undoubtedly played a significant role. I do not pretend to understand what it was like for my Spanish family to enter the United States. Names and language can adapt, enabling me now to assimilate fully into white privilege and supremacy. But I wish my family would have carried on more of the language and the culture, the things that tied my family to Cadiz, Spain. I lost something in the process. We all did.

On a recent podcast, I heard Michelle Higgins talk about how white people in the United States, defined by their Italian or Irish ethnic heritage, also experiencing some discrimination for keeping their cultural norms. These communities quickly realized if they defined themselves by their race, they would no longer be the subject of such abuse and oppression. When our families made that choice, we knit ourselves with white supremacy and abandoned our ethnic identities. We no longer saw ourselves as having an identity in our community.

“We had Mediterranean exclusion acts, we had local civil laws about Irish men and women, about people from Germany. We have had a lot of anti-people laws that were directly connected to ethnicities. There was a time when you were Irish there was no way in the world you were going to marry anybody who was Italian. But somehow because of black and brown skinned people, because of the necessary subjugation of people who looked a certain way and that is including our Asian family members as well. Somehow because of that it became more beneficial, it became more secure to get rid of Italian, Greek, German, Irish, Syrian even, Armenian. It became more beneficial to just call oneself white. And when that happened everyone lost something even the people making the choice. They chose to be color-blind amongst people who shared some piece of the spectrum of their own skin color. But they lost in that because the thing that they were bowing down to was artificial. Power directly connected to race is artificial.”  (Michelle Higgins)

Over the last five years I’ve been on a journey of owning my ethnic background and learning what it actually means to be Spanish and Scotch-Irish. At the same time, I need to own my racial identity as a white man in the United States who has participated in and benefited from the oppression of other ethnic and racial groups. (The history of Spain in the Americas is not one to enter into naively or lightly.)

I don’t think the racial identity of being white by itself is a strong enough basis for us to participate in true reconciliation. Being racially white, there’s not enough be proud of as we enter into the pain we cause our minority sisters and brothers. At the same time, drawing entirely on ethnic identity (saying “I’m not white, but I’m Spanish”) is not the best way to approach conversations with minority sisters and brothers. However, a solid understanding of your own ethnic identity can propel you into dialogue when you need to own your privilege. If more white people could create places to explore the ethnic identity our families may have or have not abandoned, could that enrich our understanding of race, white supremacy, and white privilege? Could it give us the courage to enter into the pain of others?

Keeping the peace; improving our justice

My heart is breaking today. I just got the news about the deadly shooting of police officers in Dallas. This is completely unacceptable. And, earlier this week, other officers shot two black men who did not deserve to die, in two days. I wish we lived in a culture of peace and safety for all these brothers and sisters. I feel such a sense of loss for these public servants and their families. I hear the voice of a black four year old comforting her mother, who loudly grieves Philando Castile’s violent death. None of this should be happening.

How can we move past this impasse?

Personally, I know, without a doubt, that when I call the policeUnknown-1, they show up and are helpful to me. My personal safety is assured, when I call the police. They are professional, and use good judgement about my safety. This has been true in the past and I believe it will be true in the future.

I also know, that African Americans cannot count on this professional treatment. Because of these repeated incidents of violence against Black suspects, they fear and distrust our police officers – even the ones who might do a great job. ProtectAndServeAmerica has a profound racial inequity problem, with regards to our policing. A lot of black folks feel they cannot depend on being protected, or served, by some police officers.

What can you do, as a white person who cares about justice and wants people of all races – and those who serve as police officers – to be safe, alive and experience well being? Here are some practical steps you can take:

Get to know your own police officers.

-You may have a neighborhood officer – have you met him or her?  It’s better to know people before there are problems where you live.

-Your police department may host events, do you attend and meet the officers?

Educate yourself about policing.

-learn how police officers decide when to use force? what defines excessive force? when do police decide to use deadly force, and how can communities influence the police who serve them?
-what is restorative justice, and how can communities practice it?

-read former Police Chief (and now priest and pastor) David Couper’s blog, improving police.

the President’s task force on 21st Century policing

Start to educate others about policing

-bring in speakers who know more than you do, and are committed to fair and just reforms.

-offer classes and conversations at your church, your campus

-write your legislators about new national standards and why we should hold police accountable for their choices around use of force

Join others working for change in where you live

-figure out who in your town, city or community is advocating for improved policing, and join the conversation. Look on Facebook, read the news, ask your connections.

-contact your local legislators, express your concern – (do this after you’re educated and connected… it’ll help you figure out what the request is.  Do you want to ask for a professional review of policing standards and use of force decisions; what is the accountability process, what is going on in the judicatory.)

Whatever happens, don’t fight (violently).  Don’t freeze.  Do something and let’s make a difference together.



Orlando, Intersectionality and the way of Jesus

Everybody is talking about Orlando this week, as we should be. After we express our concern for the victims and their loved ones…after we pray and keep vigil… I notice we all start to make claims.
-was it a gay event, and we need to beware of homophobia?
-was it because of guns, and how easy it is for Americans to obtain them?
-was it a Latino event, and we need to be less racist?
-was it a Muslim event?
-was it simply untreated mental illness?
-no, it was a domestic violence thing…

Doug and I were talking about all this, and what strikes us is that the folk making claims using these various lenses tend to use their claim to give themselves power.

How different that is, from the way of Jesus, who related to everyone uniquely how they were. Paul said let’s be like Jesus,

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.” (from Philippians 2, NRSV)

So first of all, Jesus practiced and invites us into a downward movement… becoming humble, considering others better than we are. I can’t think of a more effective position to take, in cultivating relationships with people who differ from us – listening, serving, learning.

But secondly, to go back to Orlando, it’s not that one claim is true, and another isn’t. It’s that they’re all factors. The tragedy in Orlando rose out of a complex intersection of all of those things.

Our lives are also like that. I’m white and straight, but I can use my experiences as a woman to empathize with what might be happening for people of color and LGBTQ people. I can use my racial power in listening, serving, learning: “emptying myself” like Jesus. As a pastor, usually when I walk into church, I have more power than others in the room. I can use that power to give others voice. Being alert to the intersections of my life, helps me become a more faithful person and leader.

Earlier this week (in part in response to Orlando, but other events in my city), I organized and moderated an interfaith (and interracial) teach in. Two Rabbis, a Pastor (Black), an Imam (African)… and me. Here we are answering folks questions.



Left to right, Rabbi Bonnie Margulis (speaking), Pastor Stephen Marsh, Imam Sheikh Alhadjie Jallow, Rabbi Jonathan Biatch, and myself.

What fascinated me was that each one of us spoke in different ways about the fact that our three great religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) all taught us that God created our diversity, to humble us, to help us struggle, and ultimately, to heal us. You doubt this? Think about the passages in scripture about reconciliation, about church unity, about learning to love your brother or sister.

So I invite you, as you read and think about Orlando, and other situations, to become more alert to the intersections, and the complexity of our identities. What if God created all this diversity, to bless us? And consider your own complex identity… where do you have power? Where are you disempowered (and vulnerable)? Jesus, I imagine, intends to lead you in both places to bless others.

How to Grow our Compassion

In a way, our hearts are like boats in the sea. Boats attract barnacles, without even trying. If you are a boat in the sea, barnacles are looking for you. Can you remove the barnacles from your boat by getting a long pool cleaner brush and rubbing it alongside the hull while it is docked? No, you have to pull the boat out of the water, get out your putty knife, and get to work. article-2161405-13AC92FE000005DC-310_964x558And what happens if you do not clean off the barnacles? Your boat slows down. Lots of drag. It does not perform up to capacity. Boats are built to glide smoothly through the water.

My friend, Paul Gibson, uses this imagery to describe our hearts as well. Often without knowing it, we pick up barnacles on our hearts. Through media, through experiences, through pain, through other people’s stories, we form lots of opinions about other people. We form snap judgements, often having no idea we have even done this.

Paul recently led a group of us on a “compassion exercise” to help us see ourselves and others more clearly. He handed everyone a blank 3×5 card and a pen. He said, “I am about to show you six photos of six different people. On a scale of 1 to 10, write down how much compassion you feel toward this person.”

First he showed us a very malnourished child from Africa, with a sad expression on his face. He followed with a middle eastern man, then a middle eastern woman. Next was George W. Bush. Then MLK Jr. Last came a Latino man with tattoos all over his face and neck. Each time we had about 5 seconds to look at the photo, and write down our reaction.

In small groups, we shared our responses, our grading system. Everyone graded differently. One guy said, “I don’t like people in authority. I have the least compassion for authority figures.” They next person said the opposite, “I trust authority. I felt the most compassion for them.” A third person added, “I based my compassion on choices. Did they choose this situation, or was it chosen for them. The child did not choose to live in a famine, so I had most compassion on him. But the guy with tats did choose that life, so no compassion on him.” Each of us responded differently, but each of us did respond out of a grid, a system of evaluating who deserves our compassion. People saw their bias. They paid attention to the “barnacles” on their hearts, and felt the need to invite Jesus into their barriers to compassion.

Then we prayed, quoting Hebrews 7:25: “…Jesus lives to make intercession for us.” How is Jesus interceding for each of these people? Listen to what he puts on your heart this time. First we saw people through our lenses and grids. Then we tried to see people through Jesus’ eyes.

It reminds me of God’s work in Peter’s life in Acts. In Acts 10, God wanted to help Peter see the “barnacles” on his heart, what held him back from compabarnaclesssion. For Peter, God went to extraordinary lengths to “pull his boat out of the water” and transform him. God called Peter to take a very long walk to Cornelius’ house. As he walked, Peter became much more aware of his fears, his assumptions, and his partiality toward Roman soldiers.

We too need space to “pull our boat” out of the water, examine ourselves in the safety of God’s love, allowing him to transform cold places into warm places of God’s love for everyone.

On vacation, or, the role of sabbath in racial justice

My spouse and I are going on vacation, driving to the mountains and then on to New Orleans. Now sure, I still like to learn. When we travel, one thing we love when we travel is to check out the cultures, races and history of the place. There are almost always museums, or tours or art installations… in different ways, local folks telling their story. We learn a lot. And we delight in God’s people.

But a sabbath spirit is simply a spirit of curiosity. It’s different time than work time. No plans, no goals… I let myself be amazed by the diversity and beauty that God has created.

Vacation, or weekly sabbath, is a significant broader part of any prophetic journey towards justice. Activism without sabbath eventually leads to burn out, because it demands a lot of our own emotions, efforts and energy without restoring them. When you and I let God lead us into the death and pain and chaos of our world, it will lead to prayer. Prayer is not primarily asking God to fix things. Of course prayer includes that, but primarily it’s a conversation with God, with Jesus, an opening of our lives and ourself to God’s presence and patterns of work in the world. One of God’s patterns is rest.

Sabbath is the Judeo-Christian practice of taking one day a week, to simply rest. It’s rooted in the earliest origin story, that God created the world in six days, and on the seventh day, God rested. Even God… rested, and said His or Her work was good. Jesus kept sabbath, and went to synagogue on the appointed day. So I keep sabbath. Because I’m a pastor, I have to pick another day than Sunday. But I know that on sabbath, my purpose is to do nothing. There is no work. No ‘to do’ lists. I ignore chores. I ignore computers and cell phones and social media. I rest.

I may read or garden or listen to my favorite music. I may go for slow walks and do yoga. I look at clouds and trees and flowers. I sit around. I take naps. I eat dinner and talk with my spouse, but I don’t cook or do dishes afterwards.

On the one hand, sabbath keeping (and vacations) are simply restorative. We human beings are limited and need to take a break. Cross-cultural relationships are hard work and tiring. Race and racism challenge us. But I also believe there are actually spiritual powers and prinicipalities, forces God set up for good, underpin these vast systems of inequity. All this is bigger than we are. My sabbath keeping, my vacations, have actually stretched my capacity to trust that God is still at work, when I am not.

However, even on the topic of race, sabbath has a lot of space for delight. In so many ways God’s creation and human cultures are amazing: the food, the music, the art, the beauty of all God’s people. In sabbath time, or vacation time, I turn away from the pain and brokenness of the world, trusting that God holds it, and I get to rest from my limited attempts to repair and comfort. I turn away, and I turn towards delighting in the world as God has created it.

The mountains and New Orleans, I think, will be the perfect places for that.

Time Out, Part 2: Space to Process Our Conflicting Feelings

Calling a Time Out helps slow down a potentially confusing or hurtful cross cultural conflict. Calling a Time Out also allows us white people (and everyone) to process our jumbled feelings.

Back to the story of me hosting the multiethnic group of Christian leaders. The next day I began with a second “Time Out,” but this one was to process and learn from our various reactions.

I began with, Let’s brainstorm a list of possible feelings that someone might have had last night. When you experience cross cultural conflict, what feelings might people have? (I chose a question that was a step removed, so that they did not have to own their feelings just yet, but rather could say what other people might have been feeling. I thought this would be a little bit safer way to get everyone to enter the conversation.)

You can see from the photo, our list was quite varied. (Forgive my bad handwriting, but I figured you might like to see the real list we created.) Paula pointed out to me that the list is mostly negative feelings, and I reminded her that the context was conflict and misunderstanding.

How is it possible to have several conflicting feelings at the same time? I quoted Mark 9…when the father confessed to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief.” I related to the father. Often I have belief mixed with unbelief. I am a jumbled set of sometimes contradictory feelings. That is okay. I just need space to call a Time Out and process the jumbled mess inside me.

Now, please pick 3 feelings from the list that you personally were experiencing. Or 3 others that did not make our list. Share with your neighbor.

Okay, let’s invite God into the feelings. It is not enough to just name the feelings. We want to interact with God amidst the feelings.

I confessed to them that my 3 instant feelings in the midst of the conflict the previous night were anxiety, awkwardness, and fear that the conversation would morph into a shame or blame dynamic. By naming my fears to myself in the moment, I was able to not be paralyzed by them. I find that we white people are not very good at naming the feelings we are having in the moment. So we tend to analyze the content of what is being said and try to have a rational conversation, maybe we try to win the argument, or get defensive. We are being highly influenced by our feelings, but we tell ourselves that we are just working out the ramifications of the disagreement.

Or if we know better than to be argumentative or defensive, we are silent. We white people seldom have safe places where we can process our multiethnic confusion and where we can bravely name our jumbled and conflicting feelings.

Paula and I have been the kind of white friends where we can process safely and wisely our white experiences (but we are careful not to turn our conversations into racist gripe sessions where we complain about these people and those people).

Try calling a Time Out on yourself the next time you find yourself having a reaction to a news article about racial conflict (or if you find yourself having no emotions at all…numbness or indifference or apathy are equally important to name and invite God into.) Or if you are an extrovert like me, ask a wise friend of whatever ethnicity, Can you be a safe place for me to process cross-cultural confusion from time to time? Is it okay if I call you, and you could play the role of a peer mentor for me? That way they expect you to call and process with them.

When White People Should Call a Time Out, Part 1

Time Outs are crucial in sports. And in the past few decades, parenting has picked up on the “Time Out” trend. Time Outs can calm things down. For both the parent and the child.

Time Outs can also transform a confusing cross-cultural mess into a transformational, healing conversation, where God moves deeper in the lives of everyone participating.

Here is a recent one for me. I was hosting a multiethnic gathering of Christian leaders, so we all could learn about multiethnic complexity and Christian witness.

For a discussion topic, I presented them with a tension-filled case study of a ministry conflict of multiethnic confusion. In the case study, there are 8 Latino leaders who want to proceed with their plans for a multiethnic outreach, featuring Jesus the Reconciler, from Mark 11:15-18. They also wanted to wear Black Lives Matter t-shirts during the outreach, to show solidarity with their African-American sisters and brothers. But the 15 African-American leaders on the team felt uncomfortable with this idea because they as a community had never discussed what it means to wear Black Lives Matter t-shirts. It is hard to do an outreach on a theme that had not been worked through among the leadership team themselves.

A white woman in the case study team took a risk, confessing out loud, “I feel ignorant.” An African American woman immediately pointed at her and declared, “THAT is why we are not doing this outreach next week. See…she IS ignorant!”

What would you do, if you were leading this meeting?

A good case study gets your blood pumping. It helps you feel the moment. It drops you in the midst of real-life tensions, and makes you find a wise way forward, navigating the difficulties. I invited all of the Christians I was hosting to “enter” this story and try to find a way forward.

So I offered, “If I had been leading in this scenario, I would have called a ‘Time Out.’ I would have slowed things down. I would have declared, ‘In Christian community, we speak the truth in love to each other…’”

A Latino leader piped in. “When multiethnic conversations start getting a little crazy, that is my time to jump in and preach a little bit. I would have said, ‘Because of Jesus’ cross and resurrection, we are a new family in Christ. It is not according to our old definitions, our old lines of insider/outsider. Despite this current mess created by White Supremacy, Jesus is stronger.’”

I liked what he said. I listened and nodded.

Another white person said, “Um…I don’t know how to say this…I feel really awkward….[voice quivering] but I can’t just sit here when you blame me for not just being racist, but being a supremacist.”

The tension in the room was palpable. So I took my own advice. I formed a “T” with my hands, and I said, “Time Out.”

“We’re having a moment. It’s awkward. Let’s name the tension we’re having.”

I took a deep breath. I said, “There are two totally different definitions of white supremacy being used in the room right now. Ironically, my friend Paula Harris and I had this very same conversation just last month. We went to Wikipedia and looked up this term. In the first two paragraphs, we find a definition that is more typical of hate groups. But in the third paragraph, there is a very different definition. It is an academic term, a whole field of academic study, called Critical Race Theory. The professors who teach on this all over the country are not skin heads, but run-of-the-mill professors who use this terminology as a synonym for ‘white privilege.’ I believe one of you is using the definition from the third paragraph, and the other is feeling accused of being in a hate group.” They both nodded. A good conversation followed, with good understanding on many sides.

It was late at night, and the meeting had already gone long. So I wrapped us up. But I returned to this conversation the next day. I wanted to create a little more space to learn about ourselves, to process our reactions, and to redeem this tense interaction. More on that next week.

When was the last time you were in a complex or tense multiethnic conversation…could you have called a Time Out? Would it have helped? Think through different settings or interactions or friendships where this might be helpful in the future.

German School and changing white culture

I’ve been thinking about white culture.  Joe Ho helped us with his observations about white culture, and communicating effectively within white culture on campus.  If you still doubt white people have a specific culture, why not go see My Big Fat Greek Wedding again just to think about the two families coming together, or remember about all the assumptions white people have together around how we do Thanksgiving, or how we do Christmas, or other major cultural events. Everybody has a culture, including white Americans.

Certainly, Doug and I both think that white culture has aspects which are positive and powerful. One of the core values of this blog is to be appreciative, looking for positive aspects to build on. White people tend to have a “can do” spirit, a sense of our own agency, a belief that things can change for the better, for example.

But white culture also has toxic, racist aspects. Black students at the university in my home city are speaking out about our negative effect on them, and their wellbeing. I share this “Being Black at UW” video to bear witness to the toxic aspects of white culture in my hometown.  Please spend two minutes watching it.

So because of this, and other situations like it, we need to change white culture. We need to learn to notice how the Holy Spirit is active in changing culture, and participate with what God is already doing. We can be in our own culture, be prayerful, be connected to white people, and call our friends and family and colleagues to a higher, better, more Godly standard.

How on earth do I change my culture? you might ask.

Here’s an example of this going badly. In Wisconsin, where I live, a hundred years ago there were publicly funded German language and dual language (German-English) schools. We had whole towns that spoke only German.   Our Wisconsin white American culture changed, because of the influence of English American immigrants, and the xenophobia between the two world wars. We burned German language books and closed schools.  So we all changed, in Wisconsin, a lot because of the hatred and fear of Germans between the two wars. Now most of our books and newspapers and blogs and schools are English based, and Muller brewery in Milwaukee has become Miller.  (My computer won’t let me put the umlaut over the “u” in Muller.) Sadly, part of the reason some white people are not aware of our own culture is because of these kinds of losses. My own paternal grandmother, who was German, never spoke German to me or in my presence. She and her sister erased most of my connection with German American culture.

But culture change can be redemptive as well. Last week, two guys came to visit me at church. They are in charge of a German language school and they were looking for a place to hold classes. Come to find out, they teach German language and culture to adults and kids of all ages. They are attempting to recover German culture in Wisconsin – in our last census, 44% of Wisconsinites reported German heritage and we have a lot of fun German traditions.  Culture changes, both for the negative and the positive. Culture is a real but fluid phenomenon.

In Germany itself, culture was intentionally changed in an attempt to become less anti-semitic, and heal from the Holocaust. After World War 11, the German people completely overhauled their education system in a concerted attempt to de-nazify and change their culture.

So the question remains, what will we do, to identity, confront and change the toxic effects of white culture? Here are seven simple ideas for adults and children:

  1. educate yourself and your children … find out who you are
  2. guard your own tongue (against hate speech and microagressions)… say kind, good things
  3. speak up against hate speech and unjust situations (be a witness, not a bystander)
  4. don’t take over (we white people, and especially white men, like to solve problems)… let’s avoid fixing and learn to be partners.
  5. leave space for the victim (of racism) to find his or her own voice, and validate it… this may mean, join the protest
  6. when the law comes (police, lawyers, teachers, principals)… stay.
  7. be present, be a witness, be a friend

Book Review: Living in the Tension

I have to admit, I’m one of “those modern ministers who knows something about psychology” (to quote Ed Friedman). I found it insightful when Richard Rohr said “religion is for those who believe in hell; spirituality is for those who have been there.” I obviously read Jewish and Roman Catholic writers, talk theology with Evangelicals and pray with mainline Protestants. In that broad spirit, I offer you my thoughts on a resource which went on sale at the White Privilege conference this week.

Have you ever found yourself asking, but how does racism (or white supremacy) affect white people’s mental and spiritual health? Once we are courageous enough to face the extent of white privilege, what can help us heal our shame, guilt, and grief? How do we heal from our own racial trauma? A new resource addresses these tensions. IMG_3071In Living in the Tension: the Quest for a Spiritualized Racial Justice, Shelly Tochluk weaves together her insights from spiritual practice, psychological study and a long investment in racial justice. Her book is thick with practical strategies and theories. It’s worth reading over time and pondering. Shelly is wise, gentle and clearly invested in profound change in our souls and society.

Shelly’s book holds together a series of insightful tensions. How do white people seek our own healing without either disengaging from racial justice, or expecting people of color to comfort us. How can we cultivate empathy toward ourselves and others and work towards systemic change? In other words, is it truly possible to hold together a need for personal wholeness with the urgent and unchanging need to work towards racial justice?


I appreciated the fact that Shelly’s commitment to change is organic – the way we approach racial justice and our spiritual practices and psychological health grow over time and are interconnected in an organic whole. I personally appreciated the thoughtfulness she brought to my own need for prayer, reflection and relationship as well as urgent work towards changing organizations and society. I found others resonated with her insights about increasing our empathy for racial pain by moving from being a bystander to becoming a witness.

Her book and praxis is post-Christian. If that bothers you, don’t read it. But if you are open to learning from wisdom and trusting “the Spirit of truth” to “guide you into all the truth” (Jesus in John 16) you will find encouragement, wisdom and practical strategies on the journey towards shalom.

Living in the Tension: The Quest for a Spiritualized Racial Justice by Shelly Tochluk (Roselle, NJ: Crandall, Dottie & Douglass Books, Inc., 2016). You can now order it directly from the publisher.