Race, Politics and Religion: How Do We Get To A Jonah Moment?

Oct 6, 2017

The concept of race, religion and politics have been making the news. But it was the incident in Charlottesville that brought the issue to light yet again, leading people to speak out. A descendant of Gen. Robert E Lee, Pastor Robert Lee IV spoke out at this year's MTV Video Music Awards denouncing racism and white supremacy.

Lee: We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism and hate. As a pastor, it is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America's original sin. Today, I call on all of us with privilege and power to answer God's call to confront racism and white supremacy head on. We can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement, the women who marched in the Women's March in January, and especially, Heather Heyer, who died fighting for her beliefs in Charlottesville.

His words, however didn’t sit well with some members of his congregation so he resigned.  Rev. Edie Bird from Christ Episcopal Church and Pastor Tyler Tankersley from First Baptist Church share their thoughts on his comments and how the church should discuss issues of race.


Interview Highlights:


On Pastor Robert Lee IV comments at this year's VMA's

Tankersley: I think that being a pastor can be a risky vocation. I think that you have to have sort of an agreement with your congregation about what the role of [a] pastor is. If you look at the story of Robert Lee IV, there were also lots of members of his congregation that were very supportive that he was speaking out on these issues. But there were clearly some members who were upset that their pastor would be so vocal on justice and racial issues. What I think of when I hear a story like that is that a congregation has to decide what are the lines that we are willing to cross and not willing to cross. And what are ways that we empower our leaders to be beacons of the gospel, and beacons of justice in our community. What are the ways that we protect our leaders and help to make sure that they have the freedom to speak out, but yet also do so responsibly. I think that that's a really delicate balance. The relationship between a pastor and a congregation. But there are also things that transcend issues we can agree to disagree on. There is no agreeing to disagreeing when it comes to white supremacy. That is a clear justice issue that people who claim to follow Jesus need to speak out on. And speak out boldly on. Silence is not an option in the face of that kind of issue. So I don't really know what this pastor was facing from his congregation. I do know that the church itself issued a statement later that said that majority of the congregation was supportive of him, but yet in the role of pastor, it doesn't take much for some people to decide 'oh, I'd rather my pastor not talk about that issue. I'd rather they stay silent  on that issue.' And that can become a toxic environment to work very quickly.


Bird: I was glad he said 'America's original sin,' because that triggered my memory. In 1991, I was the pastor of a congregation that had formed from a historically black and a white congregation. They had come together in the 1970s. And after I had been there about a month, a couple of the black members of the congregation came to talk to me and said 'you know, we realize that the white members are not aware of this, but there's racism here in the congregation.' And they gave me some incidents of things that had really hurt them and their families that were just kind of unconscious actions and they asked me as a white pastor to work with the white members around the issue of racism. And we did it together as a whole community. We've formed a study group. And we studied Sojourners magazine had a kind of nine week course called 'Racism, America's original sin.' And we took two years and we had a good diverse group of both black and white members of the congregation working on it. But it was the 'ah-ha' moments, the eye openers, and the shock moments that came for the white members who because of white privilege were able to live in ignorance of the realities of systemic and institutional racism in our society. And so we don't tend to even see it. We often have that luxury of not even seeing that this exists. And that was a wonderful couple of years of internal struggle and awakening for me and I think for the other white members in that congregation. So, what I've seen since is that it's really good to go toward the things that make us uncomfortable. And in congregations when I pick up a lot of that energy around something that is really uncomfortable and we don't want to talk about it, it's usually the very issue that the Holy Spirit would really like them to begin to talk about, because it will open the doors to the Holy Spirit's presence among them. And I've seen that with issues around LGBT inclusion and same sex marriage. Many issues that we're afraid to look at are in fact the exact issues that will really open our hearts and minds to the presence of the spirit. And they'll build relationships between us, because when we avoid talking about these things, we tend to avoid people that might disagree with us. And so, we avoid building the relationships and we avoid building the community.

On the challenges of talking about racial issues at church

Bird: There seems to be a real energy around 'we've got to talk.' We absolutely have to talk. And I only moved into this city and this diocese three years ago, but that summer was when Michael Brown was shot and I happened to be attending a required dismantling racism training. We're all required to do it, and I was there at the training when that was going on. And then we just hosted one at our church and we had a whole bunch of our members come to it. And it was just the week before the verdict came down in the Stockley case and people have expressed to me from those two days of intensive work that they really had their hearts opened. They felt like they were walking around the world in a new way with new sensitivity and new awareness. And things that they had just never realized, they were starting to see. But I think the challenge is how do you do it in a way that is calm, that takes the long view, that is patient with the places where people are in denial, and where things are difficult for them to accept. How do you do it in such a way that just keeps working and working and working, but doesn't reject people because of the things that they're struggling with. That's to me the key. One of the things I noticed when President Obama was elected was, I saw a lot of people say well now we're done with the race issues. And I thought 'oh, no we're not.' And I think that was a very superficial thing that a lot of white people thought 'well, if I vote for a black president that means that this is over and so we have to just keep working no matter what. No matter who's been elected. No matter what's going on. We have to just keep working the ground on this issue.

Tankersley: Within Evangelicalism itself, it's become such a highly individualized kind of theology, where it's about 'my' individual sin. It's about 'my' personal relationship with Jesus. It's about whether or not 'I' go to heaven or hell. And the truth is if you look at the Bible it's something like 85 percent of the times that you see the pronoun 'you' in the Bible it's not 'you' singular. It's 'y'all' plural. This is a book that's directed to communities. It's communities that are wrestling with these issues. Jeremiah [book of the Bible], when you see this plastered on coffee mugs and LifeWay and that kind of stuff. 'For I know the plans I have for you.' And people take that and they think well God's got a wonderful plan for 'my' individual life. That's not what God is saying in Jeremiah. God is speaking to his people and saying as a community, I have plans for you. Plans to help you get through the exile and help you to come out on the other end. But it is going to be difficult. He doesn't promise that it's going to be smooth sailing, but the point is that scripture is directed not to individuals but to communities. And so, our entire story and our entire theology has got to become less individualized. We have to acknowledge that our world is broken. And evangelicals do a good job of speaking about that on an individual basis. But there is such a thing as communal sin, as national sin. And we are called to call that out and we are called to be voices of redemption, and voices of healing, and voices that are brave enough to call out sin when we see it. And I think that some people are tempted to keep faith as an individual journey that is really just about the after life. So that way the gospel doesn't mess with my bank account. It doesn't mess with my biases. It doesn't mess with prejudices. It doesn't mess with how I feel about poverty or racism or division within my community. If I can keep the gospel just about what happens after I die then I don't have to worry about what happens before then.

On having a 'Jonah' moment

Tankersley: Scripture is a community of voices. It wasn't one book. It's multiple books written over a 1,500 year period. And you do have voices in scripture that push back against even racial bias in Israelite life. You have Isaiah 3, where they are coming back from the exile, they come back to Jerusalem and they're looking around at each other and they're saying 'okay, what kind of world are we going to make now?' And you had some people like Ezra and Nehemiah who said 'well the first thing we need to do right now is throw out all foreigners. And if you married a foreign woman you get divorced and kick her out of the country.' Isaiah 3 says, no. In fact, when we build a new temple, we're going to let foreigners in. We're going to let eunuchs in. And they are never going to say 'oh, I'm not wanted here.' No they belong with us. And the book of Jonah is about a man who has a racial bias against people from a Assyria. And God tells him go to Assyria and offer them a chance to repent. And he says, 'no, I hate those people. I'm going to run to Spain. I'm going to run to the farthest corner of the earth I possibly can.'

Lewis-Thompson: And that didn't work out too well.

Tankersley: It did not. It did not. But the funny thing is, in fact the book of Jonah is a book of comedy. Even though he has this racism towards these people, he walks into Nineveh after being puked out of a whale, he walks into Nineveh and he says '40 days more Nineveh be no more.' And then he walks away. And as he's walking away, the whole city just repents. And while he's walking out, he goes on a hillside and takes his lawn chair, because he wants to watch this city burn. But instead he watches as the city turns to God.

I do think that the great fish can serve as sort of a metaphor for crisis. I think that that's partly what Jonah experiences is crisis. And crisis is painful. It's hurtful. It's isolating, but it is an opportunity. It's an opportunity to reassess where you are. To acknowledge the ways that maybe you've been wrong. And I think that's a little bit of what we're going through right now as a country. I think we are in the belly of the fish right now. I think we are facing a crisis. And we have to decide where we're going to move forward from here.