I was born in the heart of the South (Birmingham, Alabama), only twenty-three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in a hospital just blocks from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where four African-American girls were killed in a bombing. Race has permeated my memory. Yet for years, I have puzzled over how anyone who calls themselves a follower of Christ can view anyone as inferior or as an other when we are all made in the image of God and are told that for God so loved the world. Too often the Church has been silent on issues of racism and has neglected standing up against injustice towards African-Americans, Native Americans and other minority groups. But why? What is the reason for our neglect towards these issues? Is it because, as James Baldwin has so acutely written, "I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hate so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain"? Are we afraid to face our own sense of entitlement, racism and complicity?
I believe that if we want change in the world, we must first want change in ourselves.With racism being so prevalent in our culture, I have spent a great deal of time trying to learn more about this issue so that I can not only think more deeply and wisely on such matters, but that I can look within myself to deal honestly with my own sense of white privilege and the racism that still has roots inside of me. I have read powerful works like James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between The World And Me, Michael Eric Dyson's Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon To White America, Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age Of Colorblindness and Jim Wallis' America's Original Sin.
Along with all of those important works, I would add Ken Wytsma's The Myth of Equality: Uncovering The Roots Of Injustice And Privilege. Wytsma, the lead pastor of Antioch Church in Bend, Oregon and the founder of the Justice Conference, writes a powerful and brutally honest examination of two themes: privilege and responsibility. Using history, theology and current affairs, he traces the roots racism and the Church's inability to confront it and white privilege not only in the culture but within its walls. '
"Racism," he writes, "is the diminishment of worth in men and women in and through bias, systems and power structures that disadvantage them in tangible ways based on skin color. Reverse racism is a phrase thrown around when white people are singled out or described in terms of their whiteness. It is often, however, a gross misapplication of the idea of racism."
This "reverse racism" is something I have heard many times over the years by whites in complaining about there being black colleges and universities, black beauty pageants, BET, and affirmative action. Wytsma confronts this head on, "Losing preferential treatment or letting go of privilege . . . is not the same as experiencing oppression when institutionalized systems and structures harm someone on the basis of the color of their skin."
One of the areas most egregious is the prison system in the United States. As he notes, we have only 4.4% of the world's population and yet we have 22.2% of the world's incarcerated men and women and the majority of them are minorities. (This is a subject addressed in Alexander's The New Jim Crow and Ava DuVernay's amazing documentary 13th).
Yet if one were to ask a majority of white Americans, especially within the Church, about white privilege, most will get defensive and unwilling to even confront the reality of the issue. "Our desire for comfort," says Wytsma, "leads us to defensiveness when we are confronted with the questions of race. But when did our comfort become the standard?" Don't agree with him? Then bring up "Black Lives Matter" and see how many people counter that with, "All lives matter."
"The truth is," he continues, "is, we all love justice, until there's a cost."
Ken Wytsma does a brilliant job of tracing the recent reality of racism, of colonialism (with its injustices of enslavement, rape robbery, extermination), of the subjugation and confinement to reservations of Native Americans and how so much of these atrocities were done in the name of Christ and the Church. He confronts how many have often used the Bible to justify their racism and the institution of slavery and the fallacy of their arguments. Certainly one must ask, as the author does, "How have Christianity and racism been able to coexist so often and in so many places?"
Certainly, at least within evangelical churches, there has been a "false dichotomy" that "sees the gospel as being distinct from societal concerns." What they have often done is disconnect from the concept of social justice. Too many evangelicals view social justice as a political concept when, in fact, it is a biblical one. Justice is a kingdom principle that runs throughout both Old and New Testaments to address social injustices and inequalities. Too many have focused on what they view is the gospel message of missions and salvation but have neglected the day-to-day command to work for both redemption and restoration, of taking care of those who are oppressed, taken advantage of, discriminated against, persecuted and neglected. When Christ reminds us that we will always have the poor with us, he is also reminding us, "Take care of them." When we work for justice we are building the very kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven. Ken Wytsma does an excellent job of connecting justice and righteousness. He quotes Gustavo Gutierrez, "To preach the universal love of the Father is to inevitably go against all injustice, privilege, oppression, or narrow nationalism."
Wytsma challenges the reader in a compassionate and compelling way that offers real solutions toward racial reconciliation and social integration. This is a brilliant, important book for the Church to not only read but use for open discussions on the subject of race, white privilege, and how they can promote truly equal social justice.
The Myth of Equality was published by InterVarsity Press and will be released in June 2017.