Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism
Paperback: Herald Press, 2016
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Stina Kielsmeier-Cook
*** Trouble I’ve Seen is our March Book of the Month
Read along and join in the conversation…
I was mindlessly surfing the internet when I saw a post in an alternative parenting forum that caught my eye. It had a picture of a woman wearing a loose-fitting sundress and holding her baby up in the air, their noses touching. Under the photo it read, “ALWAYS go with your gut Mamas.” Normally I would pass by this type of post blythely, perhaps nodding in silent agreement as I went on to scan other posts about placenta encapsulation and amber teething necklaces.
But something about that expression made me stop scrolling and pause. Was it the all-caps with no room for-nuance: “ALWAYS?” Was it the word “mamas” – this appeal to an all-knowing mothering community of mostly well-educated, white women?
It bothered me, I realize now, because it is incorrect. To put it plainly, ALWAYS relying on your intuition is just bad advice. It is true in instances of infant sleep (staying up later will not help your baby sleep past 5 AM), and, in a much more serious way, it is true in matters of racism. Following our gut reactions can unknowingly lead us to live racially segregated, racist lives.
Drew G. I. Hart makes this point in his important new book Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism. He implores Christians to wake up to the ways dominant American culture has shaped their minds and basic perceptions to value whiteness above all else. As an alternative, Hart introduces the concept of “counterintuitive solidarity,” challenging Christians to go against their gut and be resocialized by the Gospel of Jesus, which values all people as children of God. Hart explores whiteness, theological implications of valuing the marginalized voices, and the Black Lives Matter movement. He leaves no one unscathed, criticizing even multicultural churches that tokenize black participation.
Now, this provocative call to question our basic intuitions might be a difficult pill to swallow for a person who – like me – thinks of herself as a “nice, white lady” with social justice leanings. It is more comfortable for me to understand racism as isolated incidents by bad people who make racial slurs or tell off color jokes about minority groups. But this shallow, or “thin” view of racism is exactly what Hart is trying to challenge.
This is where Hart’s book shines and is an invaluable gift to the church. It is clear from his writing that Hart – graduate of nearly all-white Messiah College – is accustomed to explaining systemic racism to white people. He takes the time in his book to break down American white supremacist culture, which is the air we all breathe, many of us unconsciously. He argues that it is impossible to examine our basic prejudices without first seeking a thicker, deeper understanding of racism, which delves into the structural ways our culture values white bodies over brown and black bodies. Racism is not about white and black people having differing perspectives on equal footing but is a hierarchy, a vertical racism, with whiteness being power over. And racist ideology is not only “out there” – it is inside all of us. It shapes our basic attitudes, our gut inclinations.
In his chapter on the Black Lives Matter movement, Hart describes how these messages of white supremacy in our culture shape basic perceptions of young children in America. In the Clark doll experiments, kids were given a white doll and a black doll and then asked to assign attributes to each. Both white and black children called the white dolls “good” and “beautiful,” but the black dolls were “bad” and “ugly.” These devastating results for white and black children alike have been replicated nearly every decade since the first experiment was conducted in the 1940s. Truly, racial attitudes that value whiteness over blackness are pervasive and pretending to be “colorblind” does nothing to challenge or change these underlying perceptions.
Hart also details the ways white Christians have often gotten it wrong during the tortured history of race relations in the United States. Of course, in retrospect, it is easy to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. day in 2016, but what are we to think about his contemporaries who actively opposed his message in 1963? Most Christians were unable to see the evil of Jim Crow or slavery or the Dred Scott decision as they were happening in society. Hart makes a compelling point that white Christians do not have a great track record in identifying and facing oppression. He suggests that it is precisely the people of the margins who are best able to identify racism and oppression in real time.
One story in particular has stayed with me. Hart describes theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s journey from upholder of the status quo to willing subverter and plotter to overthrow Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s awakening to the ills of Nazi Germany didn’t happen in a vacuum. He spent time studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he became friends with an African American seminary student. Through his immersion in the black church, Bonhoeffer was exposed to new ideas. His horizons were broadened to include the perspectives of the marginalized; he came to understand Jesus’ ministry as good news to the minority in society. Without this re-socialization, argues Hart, Bonhoeffer would not have the eyes to see what evils were happening all around him in Nazi Germany. He would have been like so many white Christians: blinded by the dominant cultural messages of the day.
The thing about being resocialized, especially when you consider yourself a “nice, white lady,” is that it hurts. I have been scared to dig into the national conversation on race that is happening through Black Lives Matter; I haven’t really understood the depth of my orientation to view and value whiteness above all else. It is much easier to plead ignorance than to painfully examine my own biases or to consider how much I benefit from the current system at the expense of others on the margins. And, I realize now that it is not optional for me to engage my own racism if I want to follow Jesus, even if it is uncomfortable.
So, how does one combat racism – this thick, all-pervasive American disease? Spoiler alert: it takes nothing less than transformation. Thankfully, Hart closes his book by offering tangible, practical steps for those of us on the journey to change. One helpful recommendation for Christians from the dominant culture is to change their reading habits to reflect racially diverse authors. Reading can help white Christians like me to see through news eyes, to see reality from “the underside” of the hierarchy we live under in America.
Without new eyes, we misread the racial injustices happening in America today. Without new eyes, we rely on our untrustworthy intuitions that are shaped by a white supremacist culture instead of Jesus. Every one of us needs to be remolded and reformed by the gospel, Hart reminds us. And then, once we can see, we must act.