I hate controversy. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say I would rather be incapacitated with a month long flu than to enter into a controversy. This may be an over-exaggeration in the general sense, but when it comes to the controversies surrounding ethnic unity, I promise you it is true. I will never forget the poor eventful day when I realized I had no choice but to enter full-swing into the controversy. It is a day I wish never happened and even to this day, there are times were I feel like saying to God,
“Why did I have to get dragged into this? I curse the day I ever turned on the news!”
For well over a year, when it came to the various riots and the reporting of social injustice among police and African Americans, I did not want to open my mouth. It took me well over a year to feel accepted as a minority in a predominately mono-ethnic Seminary, and the last thing I wanted to do was stir the pot. Besides, I assumed, in the first place, that many of my white brothers and sisters would speak up on my behalf on these issues, and there would be no need for me to engage.
However, months went by, and I didn’t see any such responses. In fact, I saw the complete opposite. Some Christians who I considered friends would mock minorities and publicly claim that many of them were delusional in regards to their assertions of social injustice. When Eric Garner came on the news and the video was released showing police officers strangling him to death, I thought that it would be a turning point in the discussion. I was so wrong. The day came when I posted the video of his strangulation on social media, and I discussed how tragic it was that Garner lost his life due to police officers who over-stepped their authority and power. Immediately, I received backlash. The backlash was strange as I was accused of being a “consistent race-baiter” who frequently sowed seeds of disunity. This accusation was strange to me as I had only posted one or possibly two other statements in the past related to issues of race/ethnicity. It quickly became clear to me that I was extremely naive. I only had three options:
- Remain silent on issues of ethnic prejudice and injustice and allow others to speak on it in unhelpful ways that cause greater division.
- Mention issues as they come up and, despite the irregularity, still be accused of divisiveness and race baiting, or
- Since I will be accused of divisiveness and race baiting whether I discuss the issues frequently or infrequently, I might as well be all in.
I chose option three not because I wanted to, but because I didn’t feel I had any other faithful choice. I was unable to choose option one. My convictions held me captive regarding my need to be a voice since almost the entire seminary body I was a member of was either silent on the issue or lacked the perspective of an actual minority. I couldn’t take option two because it lacked commitment but carried the same cost as option three. Therefore, after much prayer, counsel, and consideration I decided to go with option three and count the cost. I would like to share with you some of the costs as I counted it and what extra cost there was that I didn’t expect.
The Loss of Acceptance
Have you ever had the feeling that you were being watched? Well, I don’t only have the feeling, but I actually am. When I am driving a car, walking in the mall, or sitting in a class room. I may not have a stalker, but I am being observed. Its not my mannerisms that are constantly observed or even the way I speak. It is my ethnicity that is constantly being observed. From the stranger in the classroom who says,
“You are black and so you probably don’t know what Reformed Theology is.”
Or the stranger at the Christian conference who says,
“You don’t look like you speak American.”
Or how about the young well meaning man who out of the blue asks,
“Why do you even have to refer to yourself as an African American, why can’t you just call yourself American.”
My ethnicity is constantly under surveillance. While some can go about their day and never give their ethnic background a single thought, I do not have that luxury. My wise white grandfather told me as a boy,
“Kyle, you are multi-racial, but you better understand that everyone will see you as a black man.”
I remember the seriousness in my Grandfather’s eyes. He was determined that I understand that I did not have the luxury of being perceived as neutral. In the South, I was not just a man but a “black man.” Today, I can say with the utmost certainty that if it wasn’t for that talk, I might not be alive today but I learned early on how to walk with caution. As a black man in a predominately mono-ethnic context, acceptance and a sense of belonging is almost totally determined by how well I can adapt or “fit in” to the majority culture. Being a minority and speaking about ethnic reconciliation would highlight the very thing I sought to suppress for the sake of acceptance. If I discussed issues of race as a minority, my ethnicity would be highlighted, and a degree of isolation would become inevitable. I would no longer be safe. Ministry opportunities and even potential pastoral positions could be lost for speaking about ethnic reconciliation rather than ignoring it.
The Charge of Being Divisive
Everyone has a worldview, a certain lens in which they perceive reality. All people understand their world through some kind of story that explains the world around them. Many times these stories/narratives are deeply engrained. For instance, consider the term “majority cultural narrative” for a second. China has a certain story that it believes and in the “Story” they are the greatest nation on earth with the greatest people. America, on the other hand, has a different story and in America’s story, it is the greatest country with the best people in the world. Nations, people groups, and even political parties all tell themselves a story, and it is within the story that the group finds meaning, purpose, and understanding of its role. Now, consider a people group or social structure in which the predominate story that is held is,
“Racism is a thing of the past, and it no longer exists. There are no privileged people groups but rather everyone is on equal footing, and if someone doesn’t become successful, it is because they didn’t take advantage of their equal opportunity.”
If that is the majority cultural narrative of a group and someone comes along and says,
“There is still racism in society, and there are social injustices that are preventing a large number of people from succeeding”
—what do you think the majority cultural narrative will write into its story? They will consider the one who is opposing the narrative to be hostile. If there is a common agreement amongst the majority, they may even charge the minority critic as being “divisive.” This charge would be made because the majority is in agreement and so it wouldn’t matter how wrong they are, if someone is going to present information that could compromise the unity of the majority, they are “divisive.” This is why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was considered divisive in the south during the Civil Rights. The majority cultural narrative during King’s time believed that segregation wasn’t that bad. For many white southerners, even pastors, Dr. King was stirring up disunity because he was challenging the cultural narrative and refusing to be silently patient. Experience showed me that if I was to speak out on issues about race/ethnicity, I too would be charged with being divisive. The irony comes in when one considers that my speaking out is actually an attempt at unifying. The challenge is, in order to unify, some have to be wiling to acknowledge in humility that their cultural narrative may be off.
I will never forget the first time I spoke out against Donald Trump due to his racism. I received a private message from someone who I thought was a friend who said to me, “Why are you criticizing Trump? I thought you were one of us!” This young man’s problem was that there was no room in his cultural narrative for a young black man to disagree with the Republican Party Nominee and still be considered an evangelical Christian. My lack of support for a man who considers the majority of Hispanics rapists and drug dealers and who speaks of blacks as being “his” people discredited me from being “one of the people.”
I have yet to write a post about racial reconciliation that has not been submitted with fear and trembling and a great deal of prayer. I am constantly begging the Lord that my comments would be edifying and would build up the body. I praise God that the massive majority of saints and unbelievers who have read my posts have heartedly affirmed them. However, critics are usually louder in their critiques than encouragers are in their affirmation, and so it is easier for one harsh critic to impact me more heavily in their tearing me down than it is for an encourager in building me up. I am tremendously thankful for all the saints who have reached out to me privately to affirm my work in reconciliation. There are no words to describe the impact an encouraging comment can have when someone is constantly bombarded with Criticism. However, private messages of affirmation have been minimal compared to the amount of messages I have received in criticism. I know it isn’t due to a lack of appreciation. Often, in private conversations or in conversations with others I am close to, people would reference me and the benefit my ministry of reconciliation has been to them. I find myself frequently wondering why they never said anything to me about my impact. Or, why they didn’t defend my impact in a public thread when I was being accused of being divisive. These things would add to the discouragement. Discouragement would also come as I would see many people I love remain silent on the issue altogether. Martin Luther King Jr. once said,
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
This has been my experience. The silence of a Christian, minister, or theologian regarding the public displays of racism that have occurred recently are etched into my memory much deeper than the vocal bigots who have spoken to me with such hatred and condescension.
An Unexpected Surprise
When I think about what has surprised me, the primary thing that comes to mind is the source of most of the criticism. The truth is, I have lost friends over the issue of ethnic reconciliation. Well, there have been people who I thought were my friends who I discovered were not based off of their hostile opposition to anything related to ethnic reconciliation. I did not expect that I would encounter fellow seminarians who would say things to me such as,
“I thought you were one of us”
“Oh, so you are actually one of those people”
—when I sought to engage in the issues related to ethnic harmony and social injustice. These responses from people only proved to me that the friendships I had with them were superficial and contingent upon me submitting to their predominate cultural narrative. The moment I deviated from what they considered good, acceptable, and perfect was also the moment where I no longer fit within the the realm of “safe” for them. On occasion, I even heard some of my critics say that they weren’t alone in seeing me as divisive but that others agreed with them but felt too “threatened” by me to actually tell me themselves. I do not know if this is true but if it is, the very idea honestly broke my heart. Why must a man of color be “threatening” when he discusses issues of ethnic unity? Why would someone who considers me a brother in Christ be afraid to approach me? I could only pray that this wasn’t true because if it was, it would be the spiritual equivalent to a pedestrian clutching their purse or locking their car door as I walked by. Before the Lord, I don’t think I’ve ever been threatening in my language regarding this topic. My lack of having a “threatening” demeanor is even further proven false by the simple fact of all the saints who have disagreed with me at times who have been willing to reach out to me and engage in fruitful conversation. I fully recognize I am a passionate person and when I speak on an issue I care about I can come across bold or even dogmatic but I don’t think I’ve ever been harsh or unwelcoming. I am honestly open to that criticism and if I have been it has never been my intention. Still, I can’t help but be puzzled by the idea that there are people out there who are afraid to reach out to me. I’ve committed to not giving much thought to this idea since this charge has only been presented to me by critics who themselves have been ungracious and harsh towards me in their criticisms.
The question one is then led to ask is,
“If speaking on these things can be so difficult or costly, why not give up the discussion?”
To this, I answer,
“Because superficial unity is no unity at all.”
In John 13:34-35, Jesus says that the world will know that Christians are the people of God because of their love for one another. There is no cost too great for me to abandon the pursuit of Christian love. If I believe the testimony of the saints, as demonstrated by their love is threatened, I must speak out. I must plead for grace and strive to practice humility but to not speak boldly in such circumstances is self-preservation and not love. If I am honest, I try to convince myself on a daily basis to give up on talking about ethnic reconciliation. I hate engaging with the topic. It is emotionally exhausting, at times discouraging, and frequently I hate the costs that I have had to endure due to my engagement.
However, at the end of the day, I am compelled by love to continue. This is why I have counted the cost and pursued ethnic reconciliation. I never imagined that I would receive such backlash from fellow believers, but at the end of the day, I have felt the need to pursue it despite the pushback. I truly believe that ethnic diversity and unity in the church is a Gospel issue. The lack of it places the church’s testimony of love on the line. Ethnic and cultural disunity in the body of Christ leaves the church’s missiological witness anemic. Christ is worth more. Jesus’ glory is worth more than the challenges I have faced. I am thankful for the new friendships that I have made over the past several months. I have found camaraderie in some of the most unexpected places over the past several months. My wife and I have been able to bond deeper as we have had to walk through a lonely season. For years my wife and I have led and counseled the saints of God but over the past several months, it has been those same beloved Christians who have now cared for us through our tears and deep feelings of hurt and betrayal. In all honesty, I would be a bitter, angry man if it wasn’t for the local church and the faithfulness of its people. My desire to plant a minority led multi-ethnic/cultural church has only grown and my excitement to do so has never been more intense. 2016 was a year that many minority ministers who serve in majority contexts experienced hurt, betrayal, and confusion. May 2017 be the year of not only recovery for them but the year where saints of every hue unite together and build a body that will be more reflective of the Kingdom of God. May the Lamb receive the full reward for his suffering.
You can follow me on Twitter @KyleJamesHoward. Also, check out my podcast “Coram Deo Podcast” which focuses on issues concerning Biblical Counseling and Practical Theology. You can search for podcast on any major podcast catcher, listen on the web here, or follow updates @CoramDeoPodcast.