Can the Church reckon with racism?

June 23rd, 2015

This fall, the character of Miles Morales, teen son of an African American father and Puerto Rican mother, will become Spider-Man in Marvel’s main comic book universe. Miles has already filled the role of Spider-Man in the “Ultimate” comic book series, though Peter Parker has continued to sling webs and foil evil in the main comic line.

This announcement is an exciting one for me, even though (full disclosure) Spider-Man has never been one of my favorite characters or comic book reads. Still, comics are founded on their ability to shift and morph, so when one is able to do so in a new and compelling way, I’m on board. Of course, many die-hard fans would probably call me blasphemous. I suppose that if major changes were happening to a character I cherished more, I might feel differently. But this case is a bit more complex, and therefore problematic, than that.

There will of course be misplaced outrage — which is another troubling piece of our current society’s reaction to anything — over the decision to have a bi-racial character replace Peter Parker, a white male, behind the iconic mask. I can say so with confidence because of the vitriol that followed the announcements of a woman in the role of Thor and a black man in the role of Captain America.

Racism has the insidious ability to show up in both large and small ways. People being hateful over a comic book character pales in comparison to the horror of Charleston, where a racist individual, emboldened by a wider culture willing to dismiss or outright ignore the realities of white supremacy (especially white male supremacy), slaughtered nine people. But that’s the nature of the virus that is societal racism: it infects broadly, shows up in multiple ways and is far from easily eradicated.

What is a Christian to do? When events like Charleston occur, we, sadly, have been through similar situations enough times to follow an unspoken script. We condemn (though not always in the right way), we pray, we announce solidarity, and then we move on to the next issue. It’s a cycle that has become heavily problematic, almost to the point where our handling of racism is becoming as troubling as the racism that prompts our reaction.

We can, and should be, shocked to conversation and reaction by the large events, by brutal murder and racist violence. But the Christian community must become proactive; the conversation must be continual and ongoing, even when things seem quiet and we feel like we can lay off the rigorous work of healing the divides of the past that persist into the present. Maybe Christian communities can become better at noticing when racism appears in the mundane. Maybe, for example, when veiled, hateful comments arise over a fictional, historically white character being replaced by a half-Black, half-Latino character, the Church can be among the first to respond. By keeping the dialogue going, by fueling the discussion with the everyday instances of racism that we start taking time to notice, maybe we can become more equipped to address the beast which has so sadly been allowed to grow in our midst.

So the Christian community must become proactive. The Christian community must also become provocative. Just as Jesus forces us to rest with uncomfortable truths about the nature of power and the life of the kingdom, we must speak into our culture about the uncomfortable realities of privilege and racial oppression. It is often difficult for the Church, with its rooted traditions and long, arcing history to embrace newness, especially when that newness calls for large-scale shifts in nature of our social fabric. But we must.

We must because right now, our current script is failing us. Right now, we are purely reactionary. The continued existence of a culture that shapes and gives power to a killer like Dylann Roof is evidence of that. Right now, hate, rather than grace, is systemic. Yet we are a people of good news. And the good news here is that the church can lead the movement for change. In Christ, we have the model for deep transformation. In Christ, we have the model of incarnational life, of radical hospitality, of grace and acceptance which literally knows no limits.

Racism, in all its forms, feeds on exclusion. Inclusion must be the nature of the Church, as the life and teachings of Jesus taught us it should be; if it is, the national tolerance (and willful ignorance) which fuels this persistent social disease will become both clearer and more abhorrent to those of us committed to the abundant life. Steps toward an identity of inclusion will include our admitting how we have failed our neighbors, how we have let oppression and systemic injustice feed on our unwillingness to act.

Inclusion will begin with a stark acknowledgement of our failures. It will continue with real dialogue about privilege, poverty, opportunity and oppression, all of which are factors wrapped up in systemic racism. And, if the Church is serious about inclusion, such dialogue will lead to actions that address the injustices committed by those in power, the needs of those on the margins and the systemic attitudes that lead individuals and communities to place themselves above their neighbor and against the very being of God.

God gives us the call to lead and enact change. As Peter Parker's uncle Ben said, "with great power comes great responsibility." And if the Church can’t, or won’t, take up the responsibility to channel the power and love of Christ in order to lead such change? Then we may be forced to acknowledge our uselessness, as outdated a relic as the flags of racist nations long gone.

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