As a young man, I participated in a Paul–Timothy Program designed to develop future church leaders. As part of our training, we read about a racially diverse, fast-growing new church in Chicago called Circle Church. Formed the in the late 60s, the church met in a union hall located between black and white neighborhoods in this racially divided city. At the time, Circle Church was a model for racial diversity, but later ran into difficulties and split along racial lines. Long-standing racial segregation and prejudice in Chicago still shaped the way blacks and whites in their church related to each other. Whites were used to taking charge and were largely unaware of what we today call white privilege. Others felt left out and deeply buried racial frustrations became insurmountable.
Such discrimination goes beyond race. Women friends have told me about participating in meetings where their suggestion was ignored but then taken seriously when a male colleague said the same thing. It can feel like you’re invisible. Women need to be better and brighter to get the same respect. But it’s tricky because a determined woman is labeled “pushy” when a male counterpart with the same characteristics is assumed to be a natural leader.
Social class and economic status easily lead to yet another kind of discrimination. Some of us are born on third base and go through life thinking we hit a triple. This has been a longstanding problem. The writer of the book of James in the New Testament scolds his congregation for giving undue honor to a rich visitor while ignoring and demeaning a poor person. He pointedly asks them, “Isn’t it the rich people who oppress you?” (2:6).
Lynn Hur, an Asian-American high school student gives us yet another twist on discrimination in America. The school she attends is predominantly Asian-American and she says it’s a privilege to grow up in an environment where she isn’t teased because of her small eyes or praised for her good English. But it can easily blind students to the racism they will face in the real world. She wants people to know three things: “Number one: Racism is not just a black-and-white situation. [It] encompasses the entirety of our colorful and complicated world. Number two: No one is completely innocent. Asians have their own assumptions and stereotypes of others, despite our experiences. Number three: I want us to look racism in the eye, name it and undo it” (The Mennonite, Feb. 2017:29).
Ben Goossen talks about white Mennonite privilege. He’s referring to those of us from European stock who can trace our genealogy back to our Anabaptist ancestors. He calls it white privilege with a twist. We’re very aware of our ethnic family names, foods, and the history of our ancestors as a persecuted religious minority. It makes us feel special but it makes others feel like they can never quite fit into our churches or ever measure up. They will always be outsiders. Such blinders keep us from seeing our white privilege. Ben Goossen says that learning about white privilege taught him to see us and our churches in a different light. He writes, “I see that even when we talk about peace and justice and righteousness, we can still be implicated in systems of oppression” (The Mennonite, Feb. 2017: 23).
Yet another divisive and often incredibly painful matter is how we relate to and include people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. A lesbian friend recently told me that some of her family will not even talk with her (a kind of verbal abuse) or allow her to come to their homes. Jesus warns us that verbally abusing and demeaning another person is equivalent to murder. Such anger, like murder, opens the cauldron of hell. He tells us that if we are about to offer a sacrifice or gift to God and remember that our brother or sister has something against us, we should immediately drop what we’re doing, first go to be reconciled, and then return and offer our gift (Matthew 5: 21-24).
For Jesus, compassion and relationships always trump ritual and religious purity. He was fond of repeating Hosea 6:6: “For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” It’s instructive to consider the many times he went out of his way to build relationships with despised others such as the Samaritan woman. Churches continually face challenges related to the different forms of prejudice and discrimination in our world. We will want prioritize going out of our way to build relationships with despised others and to practice reconciliation.