In the fall of 2008, I was a new student at Baylor University in Waco, TX. I was beginning my first Master’s degree (weird that I even say that now), and I was beginning to explore my liberal leanings. Had I gotten my ducks in a row to vote absentee, it would have been the first election I voted for a democrat (as it was, it was 2012 before I was officially able to cast my vote for Obama).
The night of the 2008 election, my roommate and I gathered on the couch to watch Jon Stewart report the results of the night, both of us nervous but not wanting to admit that we were really cheering for Obama. We breathed a sigh of relief when the results were announced. The next morning, we awoke to word that students on campus had had their own small version of a riot, with Obama signs burned on campus and a noose found hanging from a tree.
When I think of Baylor’s politics, I think of that noose. Baylor is a diverse campus, but it’s still largely white and largely conservative. When I asked my classes to tell me what came to mind when they see the word “feminist,” “hairy lesbian baby killers” was a common response. I was closeted in more ways than one while there, even as I explored and developed new philosophies on life and faith.
Baylor is also the place that introduced me to the wonder of liberation theology – theology that saved my faith, that kept me from losing myself in the spiral of depression, that kept me sane and healthy in some pretty dark times. I have a complicated relationship with both of the schools I attended for higher education because I recognize the good alongside the bad.
But it is ultimately because of what that university taught me about liberation theology that I must now indict Baylor, along with the whole of the white church in America, with a failure to be hospitable, gracious, and loving toward the black church in America. Over the past week or so, multiple churches have burned in the South. Not just any churches though – specifically churches populated by black people, in black theological traditions. This all is following the terrorist massacre of nine people in historic Charleston AME church by a white supremacist.
Investigations are ongoing in many of the fires, with police claiming lightning as responsible for at least one church. Three others have been determined to be arson, while investigation is ongoing in three more. I suspect we will find arson to be the case in more, and I doubt the burnings will stop once this becomes a national story. Indeed, media attention for their cause seems to be what these racists want.
The burning of black churches in America is remarkable because it highlights the specific, ongoing attacks on black theology from a white supremacist society – attacks largely ignored by a white church even as it seeks after “racial reconciliation.”
Even with the media narratives about these churches being burned, the centering is on the white church and its response. “The white church cannot claim persecution when black Christians are being shot and burned,” I’ve heard (and largely agree with). But such narratives and such arguments still center white response to black pain, rather than centering blackness itself. Rather than encountering the events as they are, we use them to take potshots at whiteness. We use blackness as a foil for the problems of whites, which fails to center the important black experience.
Even as I write this, I’m aware that, as a white woman in South Dakota, raised in white Baptist traditions, I struggle to decenter myself from the conversation. I want to talk about the white church’s relationship to the black church, and I want to angrily expound on how the rejection of liberation theology by the white institutional church lends itself to an atmosphere in which the burning of black churches goes unheeded.
These narratives are all important, and I’m sure as this summer develops, we will see these discussions had.
But right now, I want to simply say that we – we meaning white Christians – cannot center our politics or our responses in this issue. I’m reluctant to comment on this terrorism at all because I do not want to become part of the noise, part of the crowd of white people demanding that black people affirm our response to their pain. This is the time, white people, for us to learn solidarity, to listen to the stories of these black churches and to understand how our insistence on being the center of discussion tosses gasoline on the fires.
Now is not the time to talk. Now is the time to listen, to stand alongside, to hold our siblings in their pain, to realize that their pain runs deep and cannot be solved by a patchwork of goodwill and kind intentions. This conversation will require a radical decentering of the self – a sacrifice of our pride, our beliefs about who we are, and a willingness to love the other to the point of giving up our very selves. This is what reconciliation demands of us. Read black voices. Listen to their stories. Learn.
Let us pray.