Rediscipling the White Church
Updated: Jun 15, 2022
For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. Romans 7:18-19 NASB
(This is the third in a series of reflections on books read by the Creekside Book Club)
In May of 2020, many white Christians were feeling grieved and burdened by racial injustice and cries of lament coming from our brothers and sisters of color, especially Black folks, following events such as the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd.
It was hard to know what to do, what to think, and even how to navigate what it meant to be a white person in the midst of these complex problems.
For me, the identity of white wasn’t something that I grew up with or grew into naturally. I grew up feeling “normal,” and “regular,” and even sometimes like I didn’t have a culture, unlike the kids in my class who knew exactly what ethnic food or cultural tradition they were going to share for the heritage assignment at school.
In June 2020, joining the March to Surrender felt like a very natural way to do something small but meaningful in response to a big problem, and it also felt like the beginning of something bigger, something ongoing. After the march, many Creeksiders were yearning for practical next steps. At the recommendation of several Black pastors from the conference, Pastor Mark organized a book club to read what was a somewhat surprising choice: Rediscipling the White Church: From Cheap Diversity to True Solidarity by David Swanson. The book exhorts majority-white churches to look inward and learn about ourselves to become equipped for racial reconciliation.
David Swanson starts from the premise that the segregation common to white Christianity is “not fundamentally a diversity problem,” but “a discipleship problem.” He believes that deeply held presumptions about race have been ingrained in us along with faith basics. Despite our sincere desire to attack racial injustice, these presumptions hinder us.
One example of a hindering concept is an unbiblical narrative that people of different races are fundamentally and inherently different. Such narratives are like invisibly polluted air; we don’t recognize it and wouldn’t consciously choose it, but that doesn’t lessen its impact on us. Part I of the book explores these narratives in detail.
Swanson also contends that three American cultural frameworks taught in Christian contexts hinder our attempts at racial justice: freewill individualism, relationism, and anti-structuralism. These frameworks drive us to think of social problems like racial injustice as based on individual deficiencies and broken relationships. So we’re skeptical of solutions that focus on systems or institutions.
Perhaps most uncomfortable to wrestle with is the idea that white Christians have been wounded by race. Racial injustice – the actual, personal hardships and suffering in folks’ lives – is hard to acknowledge and sit with.
Also hard to sit with? The idea of whiteness. European immigrants didn’t arrive at America’s shores as white, but with particular and God-given ethnicity, culture, and language. These particulars had to be sacrificed in order to get ahead in a new land with a rigid racial hierarchy where “white” was on top. It was a painful bargain, and one which resulted in painful-to-acknowledge complicity with racial injustice. That leaves us, their descendants in the 21st century, reluctant to identify ourselves as white, or to admit that we don’t face systemic injustices because of our race.
In the longer Part 2, Swanson adopts a hopeful tone. He describes seven liturgical practices to lead us to live more fully into God’s kingdom ways and experience true solidarity with all people: table fellowship, kingdom preaching, subversive liturgies, children’s ministry of reconciliation, presence, salvation from superiority, and uncommon friendship. These practices can “lead white Christians into solidarity with the diverse body of Christ.”
While this book is dense and can tend toward the academic, Swanson sprinkles stories and personal anecdotes throughout. I wouldn’t recommend this book as a breezy beach read, but I appreciate that there are both some tough questions to chew on and wrestle with, and some very practical action steps proposed.
David W. Swanson is the pastor of New Community Covenant Church, a multicultural congregation in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.