How to Unite a Divided Country: Talk about Racism

A day after the mid-term elections, now that Democrats have taken a majority of seats in the House, and Republicans maintain control of the Senate, it seems as though our country is as divided as ever. How do we bridge the divide in hopes of working together?

Talk about racism.

What?! That seems counter-productive. Racism is a divisive word, a label someone throws down that sends the other person scrambling to defend him/herself. Why would we want to open up that can of worms?

Because naming racism and helping each other understand its complicated history and ongoing impact can increase our empathy. Understanding racism can help us identify when politicians are using deep-seated racial fears to drive voters to their side. Unmasking racism can help us build a stronger community where we can challenge ourselves to be better.

I turned on the news just briefly this morning, and they were speaking about race—mentioning “dog whistles” or how politicians will use words and phrases that don’t sound overtly offensive but can be heard as stoking racist hate and fear. The anchors were also talking about racist robo-calls in Florida and Georgia, two states where African Americans ran really close races for governor against white men.

Yet despite the overt hateful messages and the more subtle forms of fear mongering, there was a record number of “firsts” in this election. For the first time ever, two Muslim women and two Native American women were nominated to congress, an African American woman was elected to represent Massachusetts for the first time in its history, in Texas we elected the first two Latinas to go to congress from our state, and we saw the first openly gay governor elected. More than ever before, we saw more candidates elected that more accurately represent the diversity of our country.

We need to talk about race and racism in order to help heal these divides and to celebrate the gifts that persons from different backgrounds and perspectives have to offer. We cannot work with one another effectively if we don’t understand the experiences of others. We cannot understand the experiences of others if we cannot talk about race and racism.

Where to do this? Where you worship.

Some of the best places to have these conversations are our places of worship. Communities of faith already contain the components for having these conversations: people gathered together to learn how to live more faithfully in the world, leaders devoted to crafting thoughtful messages that stretch and encourage their congregants, and systems of support in place that have fostered a sense of trust and love within a community. If you are going to a place of worship, you are also likely to be around people who are like you in some ways, and different from you in other ways. Congregations continue to be largely segregated by race, and sometimes by political affiliation as well. But that is not always true: there are congregations that intentionally seek to be racially diverse, and congregations that are “purple,” with significant numbers from both political parties represented in their congregation.

Having conversations where you worship with people from the other side of the political divide, with the aim of increasing our understanding of racism and its destructive power, can help us align ourselves with one another against an evil that does not choose sides.

The divisiveness of racism runs deep, tearing at the fabric of our nation, since racism helped weave that cloth in the first place. In order to heal, in order to unite this country, we need more than ever to overcome our anxiety about talking about racism, and address it directly, refusing to let it destroy our hopes for what we can accomplish together.

My second book, Preaching about Racism: A Guide for Faith Leaders, just arrived at my house. The official launch date is December 5th, but if you ordered your copy through the publisher, you should receive yours in the mail by the end of this week.

Preaching about Racism is a guide to help foster these conversations. Read it to preach, read it to lead discussions, read it to run small groups that cultivate healthy relationships of deeper mutual understanding.

Last summer, on a family road trip, I stopped at the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. This is a memorial to the victims of lynching whose deaths were sometimes recorded in local newspapers, but more often than not their names were not mentioned or recorded. Visiting this museum is a powerful reminder of the violence of racism, a violence we continue to see today in the form of shootings at black churches and Jewish synagogues. One of the quotes from that museum proclaims that “we will remember. With hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice. With courage because peace requires bravery. With persistence because justice is a constant struggle. With faith because we shall overcome.” We need to talk about racism. We cannot change our future if we do not remember our past.

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This quote inspires me, because it also reminds me of the power of hope, courage, persistence, and faith. As a professor of preaching, I believe the best preaching can instill these values in listeners.  Understanding racism so we can build deeper connections in our community requires these virtues and more, and preaching in our communities of faith can help to foster them.

We do this work because we are made for relationship, and we benefit from the gifts of one another when we are willing to risk uncomfortable exchanges to learn from each other and grow as a community. This is good news: that we have gifts to share with one another, and gifts to receive, when we open ourselves towards these hard conversations with a commitment to grow. Join me. Let’s talk about racism, and how we can work together to make a difference in the world.

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