Originally published in May 2016.
At its June meeting last year the trustees of Denver Seminary approved the formation of a Race Relations Working Group to examine the history and current state of the Seminary’s relationship with the African-American church community in Denver. Members of that group included trustees—Eddie Broussard, Ted Travis, Patricia Raybon and Bryan Wilkerson—a student, Brandon Washington, the Director of our Urban Initiative, Felix Gilbert, and me.
Interaction with this group has been very beneficial in my personal journey of learning and growing concern about racism. This journey led to the creation of a document entitled, “Racism: A Reflection and a Prayer.” Crafted with the help of the members of the Race Relations Working Group, it also includes the voices of many other African-American friends, authors and leaders. It is by no means a perfect or even significant document. It is raw and personal and, like its author, deeply flawed. It is, however, honest and heart-felt.
After hearing and discussing this reflection and prayer, the trustees and the faculty of Denver Seminary voted unanimously to endorse its sentiment and substance. It was also presented at the Rally for the Common Good, the final event in a year-long consideration of racism by the Vernon Grounds Institute of Public Ethics.
Our commitment at Denver Seminary is to honestly address the need for us to build better relationships with minority communities. This personal reflection and prayer has created opportunities for many deep, honest and earnest conversations. We offer it to you with the prayer that it might somehow do the same in your communities of faith.
Racism: A Reflection and a Prayer
Just two weeks after becoming the president of Denver Seminary in the summer of 2009, I had the privilege of meeting with a group of African-American church leaders in the city. Even in that first conversation, it became clear to me that an undercurrent of tension existed between the seminary and many in the black community.
Unfortunately that tension remains, sometimes more obvious than at other times, but always simmering beneath the surface. Efforts intended to bring about resolution have seemed not only ineffective but sometimes even managed to aggravate the problem. This tension has confounded and befuddled me.
A couple of years ago, an African-American friend asked, “Mark, are you a racist?” His question stunned me. I didn’t know how to answer and didn’t do so for what felt like an eternity. Finally, I heard my voice saying, “I don’t think so.” That was a beginning. The question has haunted me ever since.
The series of very public tragedies in 2014 and 2015 that resulted in the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police officers roiled our nation and raised troubling questions about systemic racism. Even more troubling were the different narratives and interpretations of these events that emerged in the black and white communities. Generally speaking, the white narrative interpreted these events as stories of individual actions while African-Americans saw them as evidences of systemic racially driven injustice. How could these two communities, even in the Church, hold such divergent views of what had happened?
Then came the massacre in the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. A white man sat at the table with the people of God, tasted their hospitality, and murdered nine of them simply because they were black. Naked racism, pure evil, assaulted the sensibilities of our nation. While grieving that tragedy, another troubling question emerged in my heart and mind. “Whereas, it was easy to see the mass murder in Charleston as racially motivated, why was it harder for me as a white man to see the other events as such?”
And that question kept ringing in my ears, “Mark, are you a racist?”
Like many, I have defined racism individualistically. This approach allowed me to assume that since I didn’t have negative or prejudicial feelings toward African-Americans and hadn’t, therefore, intentionally sought to disadvantage them, I wasn’t a racist. It also allowed me to remain ignorant of the history of racism in America and blind to its tenacious and pernicious presence in contemporary U.S. society.
I can’t think that way anymore. Several books, articles and conversations have begun to chip away at my ignorance and indifference. “Aha” moments, troubling questions and painful realizations have been my companions along the way. I’m not yet far enough along to speak with any measure of confidence on these matters, but some key learnings are reshaping my thinking significantly:
- Thinking of racism as more of a multidimensional social reality than an individual prejudice has helped alleviate my tendency to see it as someone else’s problem and, thus, ignore it. In their book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, authors Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith propose the phrase “racialized society” as a starting point to better understand the problem of racism. They write that a racialized society is “a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships.” Professor Robin DiAngelo, writing as a white American, understands racism as “a system that ensures an unequal distribution of resources between racial groups.”
- Because whites have more power in all of the significant social institutions in U.S. society, we benefit from a racialized society and fail to recognize that fact in our own sense of accomplishment and success. Frankly, we seldom think of the influence of race or racism in our own lives. As a result we too quickly and too easily deny that racism remains a social reality that negatively affects the lives of millions.
- Many of us in the white community are uncomfortable talking about race and racism because it challenges our detachment from racial issues. As DiAngelo writes, “We move through a racialized world with an unracialized identity. . . . Challenges to this identity become highly stressful and even intolerable. . . . We perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as a very unsettling and unfair moral offense.”
- Most of us are unwilling to admit that we have chosen to live segregated lives in the places we reside, work, play, worship, and send our kids to school. We make these choices as an expression of deeply held values of comfort, security and opportunity. Yet, we seldom, if ever, would admit that the choice to live segregated lives may come from deeply buried desires to live apart from blacks. In living segregated lives we live impoverished lives and we communicate that we see little intrinsic value in building deep and abiding relationships with African-Americans.
- Because we do not see ourselves as part of the problem of racism, and because we do not recognize how pervasive and destructive its ongoing presence is to our society, we do not readily engage in actions that prophetically rebuke racial inequality and racist behavior. Our silence makes us tacit supporters of a racialized society and complicit in its perpetuation.
“Mark, are you a racist?”
Coming face to face with my complicity in supporting a racialized society has turned me inside out. The realization that I have benefited from a social and economic system that has been built through a shameful history of racially driven segregation, oppression and injustice, even though I may not have intentionally perpetrated such acts, has challenged my sense of identity, my narrative of personal accomplishment, and the shallowness of my faith. At times it felt as if the sky was falling. But it didn’t. What is falling is my willingness to deny, to explain away, and to be indifferent to the scourge of racism.
As I struggled to express my thoughts and feelings in this journey, Patricia Raybon, a Denver Seminary trustee and member of the Race Relations Working Group, recommended that I write them out as if I were speaking with God. What emerged from that advice is this prayer of lament, repentance and commitment, written in May 2016.
Have mercy on me, O Lord.
I have blinded my eyes. In spite of the clear evidence of deeply embedded racism all around me, I have looked the other way. Too many have died. Too many have suffered. Too many have been locked out and cast aside. Too many indignities. Too many injustices. And still I looked the other way.
Have mercy on me, O Lord.
I have hardened my heart. Believing the lie that blacks have the same opportunities as whites, I could not allow myself to admit that my life was shaped as much by racism as theirs—mine to benefit and theirs to harm. But it was and it is and it will continue to be. I have cared too little. I have grieved too little.
Have mercy on me, O Lord.
I have silenced my tongue. My voice has not been raised in prophetic rebuke and anger. My feet have not stepped out for justice alongside those who have more courage than I. And in my silence I am an accomplice to bigotry.
Forgive me, O Lord.
I have sinned against you and against those who suffer the evil of racism. Indifference has smothered my soul and snuffed out fleeting impulses for reconciliation. I ask for your forgiveness and I will appropriately seek their forgiveness.
Empower me, O Lord.
I need your strength to step beyond blindness, indifference and fear; to step toward those whom I have sinned against. I make no grandiose promises or plans today for I know how easily these can be made and forgotten. But this I know. I cannot be the same. And I will not.
This is my prayer. I have shared it with the trustees and the faculty of Denver Seminary and I humbly share it with you today. I do not presume to make it the prayer of others. But I can say that as the president of this school, it reflects my heart to lead Denver Seminary to a new place in our relationship with the African-American community. I ask for your patience, forbearance and willingness to speak truth to me in love when I fall short of its sentiment and substance. And I ask for your help in bringing resolution to a tension that has lingered far too long between us.
President, Denver Seminary