Jim Wallis kicks off lecture series on race
By Erica Seltzer-Schultz
On Wednesday, September 20th, Redeemer hosted Jim Wallis, a Christian writer, political activist, and former spiritual advisor to President Barack Obama, as part of a lecture series co-sponsored with Westwood Lutheran Church titled “Race and…” Founded in the wake of the Jamar Clark murder last November, the monthly series aims to bring these congregations together to have deep conversations about the way race affects a number of different issues in our society. The next conversation, titled “Race and the Church,” will held 8pm, Tuesday Oct. 11th at Redeemer, and will be led by Pastor Kelly and Pastor Mark Hanson, Bishop Emeritus for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Following a beautiful hour of song and poetry by the Poetic Diaspora, Wallis told the packed audience that, after spending the day in the more secular environment of Augsburg College, he was now going to speak frankly as a Christian to Christians. Race, he told the group, is not simply a social construct; it’s “an idol we made up to justify slavery.” This “idolatry of white Christianity separates white Christians from God.”
According to Wallis, “Slavery is not over; it has just evolved.” He pointed to the poor quality of many inner-city schools and the profiling and violence inherent in our present-day policing, arguing that white people would not tolerate it if it was happening to them. God, he said pointing to Genesis chapter one, made “mankind in our image, in our likeness.” Yet our society does not treat people of color as children of God. Wallis told the story of a young person in Ferguson who said, “I still feel like I’m 3/5th human.” Reminding the audience that whiteness is a construct developed along with race, Wallis said, “If white Christians acted more Christian than white, black people would feel safer.”
When Wallis was a child, his white parents told him that, if he got in trouble, the police would help him. But black parents, regardless of their class status, have to teach their children how not to get shot when they are being profiled by the police. Wallis posed the question, What if every white parent also discussed with their children what black parents have to tell their children? He admits that it would probably make them uncomfortable, even angry. And, yet, Wallis sees discomfort and anger as good. “It’s this discomfort that leads to change.”
According to Wallis, 72 percent of white Christians believe that the shootings of young people of color are part of isolated incidents, yet 82 percent of black people feel that they are part of a larger pattern. Wallis sees our contemporary racial geography at the core of this discrepancy. White people so often live in places devoid of people of color, so there’s often a very real lack of understanding in regard to the racism people of color face.
Wallis cites the development of relationships and empathy through storytelling as key ways that we can attack this divide. He told the audience about his two sons who, upon becoming close with their non-white teammates, grew passionate about the discrimination they face. Noting the segregation so often inherent in schools, workplaces, and faith communities, Wallis asked the audience, “Who is at the table in our lives?”
Wallis recognizes that there are not many places that can build this bridge, but sees religious communities as offering important potential. “Multi-cultural congregations shouldn’t be admirable, they should be essential,” he said commending Redeemer for its diversity. But he added, “Diversity is not enough. We must change the narrative. We must get people to hear each other’s stories. Churches are a safe place to do that.” Wallis sees this multi-congregational forum on race as an important start.
For Wallis, changing the narrative is not just a side project; it’s something we must “bet our lives on.” Within the context of the upcoming election, he feels we are at a key moment in our country’s history where racialized politics have gone from implicit to explicit. “We must fight for the future and soul of our nation.” He describes faith as “the substance of things hoped for,” and believes it’s at the core of this fight. At the end of his talk, Wallis urged the audience to show moral courage. “Trust your questions and believe in what you can do in a place like this.”