“Jesus treated everyone as important, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, or class. Are we not to do the same?”
By Matthew McBirth
As I see it, the relationship between two Jewish characters and their families in Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen illustrates one of the primary causes of racial conflict in our communities.
The plot (in short): Reuven and Danny grow up in different sects and communities, and Reuven strongly objects to how Danny’s father raises his son in virtual silence to prepare him to be his community’s next leader. When Danny and his father do speak, it’s only while studying the Talmud or in times of discipline. When Reuven expresses his frustration with this, Danny responds that this is how it is done, regardless of how peculiar it is to those outside the community.
As the novel progresses, this fundamental disagreement leads to conflict between the two families and larger communities.
I believe this—the devaluing of another’s story—is one of the primary causes of racial conflict in our communities, country, and churches.
HOW WE DEVALUE OTHERS’ STORIES (AND HOW THAT LEADS TO CONFLICT)
At the root of racial frustration is the feeling that a story is not valued or even considered. Story, in this sense, is one’s testimony, family history, or background in general; it’s the narrative that creates the way one perceives the world and oneself.
Our stories influence our cultures and values. When someone intentionally or unintentionally attempts to devalue our story, we feel unimportant, invisible, and underrepresented . . . and rightfully so. These are actions and habits the church is taught to avoid, for Jesus treated everyone as important, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, or class. Are we not to do the same?
To achieve authentic unity in the church, we must first identify the two ways stories are devalued, for devaluation leads to conflict.
Denial: To achieve unity, we often strive to ignore or deny race or ethnicity. We take on a false perspective of people; we claim the color of one’s skin or ethnicity of one’s family does not matter.
Honestly, it makes sense for people to think this way, especially when considering verses like Galatians 3:28 that talk about there being “neither Jew nor Gentile.” However, this perspective can fail to acknowledge, and can even erase, one’s unique story. The kingdom of God explicitly recognizes the importance of ethnic diversity, evident through the coupling of the Lord’s Prayer and Revelation 7. Race tells a story in the same way one’s family name tells a story. Although these stories should not dominate one’s life over the Christian narrative, they should be seen as important.
When a person says, “I do not see color or race,” it denies a person or group their identity. It’s like saying, “I don’t care that you’re Hispanic, or Asian, or black, or white, or . . .” Sometimes this comes masked in a truth statement such as, “Aren’t we all just one race—the human race?” I understand the heart behind statements like these. However, these types of statements cause conflict because they not only deny obvious differences (color of skin) but also historic and individual experiences.
I was discussing racial issues with two friends, one black and one white. One friend stated, “It’s OK to say ‘the black community’; don’t look over our skin color, it’s part of who we are.” Unfortunately, we often deny the story of the ethnic minority while emphasizing the story of the majority, and we couple it with a request that they assimilate.
Complete Assimilation: The word assimilation may cause one person to cringe and another to smile. In my time serving college students, I can say without reservation that assimilation is not inherently negative. At Ozark Christian College, we have systemically influenced culture. If you arrive at OCC’s campus at 9:30 a.m. on a Tuesday, you won’t see anyone unless you happen to enter the Chapel, where students, faculty, and staff meet together for worship. It’s a cultural habit to which students assimilate, and it’s an example of how assimilation can be good. And so assimilation is not inherently negative, but requesting complete assimilation is.
Every church has a way of doing things, whether it’s Sunday’s song selection, leadership structures, or the clothes people wear. Most likely, these things reflect the majority culture, or at the very least, the leadership. This may seem OK, but for a church to achieve unity across ethnicities and cultures, it cannot be the norm.
When we are content with serving people only in a specific cultural way, this leads to homogeneity—which is why a majority of U.S. churches are homogenous in their leadership, staff, and congregations (according to the book Divided by Faith). The unvoiced statement to “outsiders” is this: “You can be a part of our church, but you have to worship the way we worship.” It’s like telling a prospective member to leave their unique culture at the door.
Is your church requesting complete assimilation? Look at your leaders and volunteers. When they all are of one ethnicity, we indirectly indicate the cultural stories we value most. The same goes for whom we put on stage or in front of the congregation, because it indicates the people we trust. We also need to pay attention to our worship songs, for these can fail to celebrate the different genres of music that various cultures bring with them.
Denying stories and requesting complete assimilation lead to conflict. This conflict may take any number of forms. Attendees or members may
- express frustration with music choices,
- share with the pastor that they don’t feel represented or that leadership is deaf to their concerns, or
- contemplate leaving because of the church’s lack of concern for racial injustice.
All of these stem from churches either denying a person’s story or requesting complete assimilation into the existing culture. It isn’t enough to say, “We will not do this anymore.” We must intentionally resolve these conflicts and avoid them in the future.
PRACTICAL STEPS TOWARD RESOLVING RACIAL CONFLICT
Here are three practical steps toward racial conflict resolution and unity.
1. When racial conflict arises, recognize there are different cultural ways to handle it. One popular way conflict is managed is in a direct, but emotionless, conversational style . . . but it’s not the only way. Some cultures are more direct and open with their emotions; they invite passionate dialogue. Other cultures may be indirect and emotionless; the discussion can be more dispassionate, and the answer might need to be inferred based on subtle clues.
I once spoke with a student who began to raise her voice as we discussed a difficult topic. After the conversation, others who had overheard part of the conversation asked, “Is everything OK?” because they interpreted the louder-than-normal voice as anger. Yet, the student wasn’t angry at all, she was simply passionate about the topic.
2. Strive to understand the story of other people instead of immediately jumping to conclusions. Because it’s our tendency to be color-blind or to see our culture as the norm, we often make assumptions about why somebody is upset rather than trying to get at the root of the issue. Jesus, in his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), provides us with a good example to follow. That type of meeting—a Jew meeting a Samaritan—would typically have led to conflict (see John 4:9), yet Jesus, rather than questioning why the woman was at the well during that hour of day, engaged in her story. His approach led to unity and reconciliation (4:16-42).
3. Be Proactive. If we strive to be proactive to racialized incidents, racial conflict will occur less, or it will at least be handled better. To be proactive, we should have ethnic diversity represented in the eldership, executive team, staff, and volunteers. The leadership of the church at Antioch exemplifies this (Acts 13:1). We also must preach about the importance of unity in the church. Paul clearly did this throughout his letters. He wrote on racial unity being an essential implication of the presence of the gospel (see Romans and Ephesians 2, 3).
In The Chosen, Reuven grew frustrated with Danny’s father because he thought it was wrong to raise a child in silence. By the end of the book, Reuven sits down with Danny and Reb (the father), and listens as Reb explains why he raised Danny in silence. Reb tells him silence is practiced to teach a child the need for compassion and empathy in a suffering world. Reb’s story matters—and the stories of other ethnicities matter.
It’s easy for us to operate in a way that doesn’t consider another’s story, because a consideration for others takes more effort. But when we consider others’ stories, it helps us get to know people who are different (or not so different) from us. It’s easier to ask others to assimilate to our story—to our culture—but it’s far better to be willing to be the ones to adapt.
As followers of Christ, we are called to value one another’s stories and to take steps toward reconciliation (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). This happens through embracing and valuing healthy diversity, listening and engaging in people’s stories, and being proactive to show God’s kingdom is for every tribe, nation, people, and language.
Matthew McBirth, husband and father, serves as director of diversity at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri, where he assists the college in cultivating a multiethnic campus and institution.