Why have the hard conversations?

At the recent Christian Reformed Campus ministry association conference we talked about a lot of hard things: racism, abuse of power, and sexuality (and all in one day!). It hadn’t really occurred to me that people might perceive this as strange until one person asked me why we were focusing on all these things and another wondered if we’d planned in a drink at the end of the day (pub locations were indeed made public).

The hard conversations were framed by worship and by sharing with each other about how we [campus ministers and students] were doing. That, I hope, helped place the conversations in the right perspective, even as I believe that the conversations were still hard and could potentially have caused people distress and anxiety. I hope and pray that people are still positively working through what we talked about. After all, we have these conversations together because we all need to see how faith relates to all areas of our lives, including and especially the hard things.

Furthermore, I believe these are areas “where a lot of pain and distress has happened and continues to happen,” and so “I’d like to do all I can to be equipped to know best how to bring the hope of Christ to those [who] are hurting.”

Why don’t we talk about racism?

As part of our study at Campus Edge on difficult conversations, we talked about racism. It was an important topic as part of recognizing how God cares about justice and because not caring about racism takes away from our witness to who God is. During our discussion, one of the questions that came up is why we tend not to talk about racism in Christian circles. Part of the challenge is that many of us avoid difficult conversations in general, so that means we avoid most conversations that bring too closely into focus our identity, our feelings, and whether we are good enough.

Yet, part of the challenge is that it’s hard to believe that good church folk might be racist. Our actions, such as giving to the poor and advocating for justice, show that we strive to live out our love for God and our neighbor; why would anyone accuse us of racism? As Carolyn B. Helsel notes:

If we are generally good people who feed and clothe the homeless and give our money to the poor, it can feel as if we are being unjustly accused of racism when the rest of our behavior shows our moral intentions. Unfortunately, great harm comes to others not simply by our intentions, but by our inattentions. . . Separating intention from inattention means that if we say something that inadvertently hurts someone else, we do not need to get defensive. Instead, we can say, “I’m so sorry. I did not realize what that would sound like or feel like for you.”

Despite our best intentions, we are still sinners. Social science has shown that we tend to like people who are familiar to us and whom we understand, which means we tend to avoid people of different cultures (and even avoid making space for others’ differences). As Christena Cleveland puts it: “our interactions with people who are different from us or who violate our expectations are laden with uncertainty and are cognitively taxing.” Furthermore, when we’re feeling insecure, it’s easy to put others down; in other words, we do our best to disassociate with people who might be considered ‘losers.’ For more on this, I recommend Christena Cleveland’s book Disunity in Christ.

I confess that we at Campus Edge haven’t done a great job of acknowledging racism. Campus Edge’s vision focuses on creating community and integrating faith and intellect; we especially want to be there for people who are struggling with faith. It’s not immediately obvious how the question of racism fits in; yet, that might be because we’ve been ignoring how racism (or other -isms) make a community less welcoming and less supportive. Furthermore, when people use the Bible to support racism or even use one’s good intentions or faith to be indifferent to another person’s troubles and/or unique gifts, how can one not struggle with faith?

We’re working on this at Campus Edge. Pray that we might do a better job of caring about those around us who have been struggling in ways that we haven’t seen or acknowledged. I pray, too, that more people would have the courage to have about difficult conversations, especially connected to racism, justice, sexuality, and spirituality.

Critiquing the American dream

In pub theology the other week, we talked about the American dream: what it was, whether it was inherently exploitative, and whether it has changed. According to Wikipedia, “The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States, the set of ideals (democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity and equality) in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, as well as an upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks about the danger of the American dream in Between the World and Me:

“When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option, because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you [my son].”

According to Coates, the American dream is inherently oppressive, as it causes us to focus primarily on our own personal good and escape from the reality around us, especially the role that race plays in hurting society.

Ryan Cooper, in “The American Dream is a Lie” concurs with Coates:

Coates connects this death [of the promising young man, Prince Jones], and the others much like it happening daily, directly to the American Dream. Gruesome human sacrifice is what undergirds the picket fences and ice cream socials of the “people who believe they are white.” . . .

[This] is not to deny the fact that many Americans enjoy considerable prosperity in this country. Many millions do float easily on the tide of America’s fantastic wealth. The lie is found in the universal application of the Dream, that America is a place where everyone can get a fair shot at a decent life. . .

The American Dream allows us whites to pretend that our relative affluence is the result of our own actions on a fair playing field. But it just ain’t so.”

 

Cooper’s article also contains an interesting and helpful quote by David Brooks where he points to the good that the American dream has given us:

“[A] dream sullied is not a lie. The American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility, and ever more perfect democracy cherishes the future more than the past… It has unleashed ennobling energies and mobilized heroic social reform movements. By dissolving the dream under the acid of an excessive realism, you trap generations in the past and destroy the guiding star that points to a better future. [The New York Times]

Brooks points us to the wonderful freedom and opportunity that has been present for many of us in (North) America, a freedom that has benefited many Christians, especially on account of the value placed on hard work and help for those in our network who are struggling. At the same time, it is important not to close our ears to Coates words, recognizing that, for many different reasons, the opportunities that each individual receives are not the same, and the hard work that we’ve put into things do not produce the same results. Furthermore, the focus on the individual and one’s own achievements has a degree of self-righteousness, selfishness and works righteousness is counter to the Christian teaching of loving one’s neighbour and the recognition that, as the Psalms often say, sometimes the wicked prosper.