A couple of weeks have past since Barack Obama gave his speech on race. Supposedly, it was the speech that changed everything. You may detect a note of cynicism here. I'm not cynical about the speech itself. It is probably the most important speech that has been given in my lifetime. My cynicism lies in the collective will of the American people to do what Sen. Obama asked us to do, namely, to think about and discuss the issue of race with honesty, sensitivity, frankness, and thoughtfulness. Initially, my skepticism was in the ability of the country to have such a conversation, but after giving it some thought, the real question for me has become 'where is this conversation going to happen?'.
We are currently reading the book More than Equals in small groups at my job. For many of us, it is the umpteenth time we have read the book, but it is a helpful exposition on race relations from the perspective of Kingdom values. The problem is that fatigue sets in. After awhile, people stop remembering why you are having the conversation in the first place. Then all of the anger, guilt, shame, and resentment that have built up over time begin to bubble to the surface. Some get tired of having the same conversation over and over again. Some don't even think the conversation is worth having. Some feel like they are getting blamed for what their ancestors did. Some feel like they can't escape the memory of what was done to their ancestors. When this drags on, people just get exhausted. It isn't one of those conversations that can be held ad nauseum. Actually, I'm not sure that there is such a conversation.
So where can we have this conversation and do so effectively. I have a couple of suggestions:
The Media: I actually do believe that this is one place where the media can lead the way, if they do so responsibly. What would that look like? Well, it means that you have to have a lot of voices involved. It means you don't just bring on the black guy who agrees with Sean Hannity or the black guy who is going to defend Rev. Wright. Ideally, you have them both. I get pretty frustrated with anyone who wants to present the "African American Experience" as being monolithic. The same is true of the "White experience".
The problem with the media is the reduction of important issues to decontextualized soundbytes. The other problem is the 24 hour news cycle. The flood of "infotainment" can get really overwhelming. You rarely see any nuance in the news programming and objectivity really seems to be a thing of the past when it comes to the cable news stations. Now don't get me wrong. I am part of the problem here because there are some nes shows that I love. But I, like many, tend to gravitate towards those stations and programs that represent my particular political leanings. I try to watch a few people that I disagree with to keep myself "fair and balanced", but sometimes it is just too frustrating. The 24 hour news cycle thrives on sensationalism, so they hire hire people that will either stir your passions or raise your ire. That isn't always helpful when talking about an issue as delicate as race. Content-wise, I think PBS and NPR are really ahead of the curve on dealing with these issues. Both tend to be a bit left-leaning, but they get thoughtful authors and commentators on their programs. Format-wise, they are rarely as engaging as the cable news stations, which is unfortuante with America's constant need for entertainment.
Church: Okay, this should be the obvious one, right. The Church has the obvious advantage of theological language that suggests that all people are created in the image of God. It also has the presumed advantge of established relationships, which I think are vital for these kinds of conversations. Most churches have a couple of major struggles to overcome if they are going to seriously have this conversation.
The first challenge is the fact that most American churches are still pretty segregated. I have learned in a very painful way that you can't have conversations about race, even in a Christian context, without a critical mass of different races being present. I guess you can have the conversation, but it won't lead to transformation. That, of course, brings up the issue of why churches are homogenous to begin with. That might be a conversation for another time, but I will say that homogenous churches (particularly non-white churches) have served a purpose in this country for a long time and shouldn't be easily discounted.
Another huge challenge for most churches is that the messages come along in monologue form and rarely in dialogue. It is hard to have a conversation if you can't talk back. Even the most well meaning pastor can only give her own perspective. So how are we going to converse about any of the important subjects that our world is faced with when the conversation is one-sided? I think this is one of those places where leaders have to decided that they are going to give up a little bit of control and let congregation say what is really on its heart and mind. That is scary, especially for those of us who like to preach uninterrupted. Still, I think this is one of those times when we have to step out into the darkness and trust that God will protect us from whatever we might find.
One more thing about the church; theology can be a problem. Almost every atrocity that has occurred since the dawn of Christianity has been legitimized through bad theology. Our own biases can be spiritualized away. Our prejudices can be rationalized biblically (how's that for an oxymoronic statement!). We have to be discerning of what parts of Scripture we use to have this conversation and what parts we exclude. We also have to deal with the theological preconceptions of those who are in the pews.
The Internet: Ironically, I think the internet is the worst place to have this conversation for two interrelated reasons: 1) the ability to post anonymously. For the past few months I have been reading the cowardly, racist comments that people have added to stories about politics, religion, and even sports. They cloak themselves in the shadow of the world wide web, saying things they probably wouldn't dare say in the light of day, face-to-face. They hide behind psuedonyms. I believe lots of people post comments on websites just to play devil's advocate, but I think there are others who actually believe on some level the hatred that they spew, but such hatred cannot be countered in in soundbytes on discussion boards.
The second thing about the internet is that it is no replacement for genuine community and genuine relationship. It's a great place to spew your ideas, but not a great place to have a real dialogue.
This conversation about race will now as it has happened in the past; in the context of relationships where people are willing to offend, be offended, forgive, and repent. It will happen aomng people who care about being in relationship with folks that don't look like them. It will happen among people who are intentional about getting outside of their own comfort zones. It would be great if those people were in the church. Oftentimes, they are not. They might be in bars. Or coffee shops. They might be in classrooms and on campuses.
Ultimately, the true benefit of Senator Obama's speech may not be that of an initiation of a brand new conversation, but of an invitation for more participants to join in on a conversation that many have been having for years.