I was looking at the lineup of a recent church conference and did a double take. I couldn’t help notice that of the 30 or so presenters, all but 2 were men. All of the men were white. This isn’t the only conference that has the same ratio, in fact, most do. Do you think this a problem?
Before we move on it’s important to clarify some language on racism and church.
Racism is prejudice combined with power. This is critical. Anybody can be prejudice based on skin colour. However, only those with inherited power from the systems in our culture can be racist. White Canadians are the primary benefactors of our systems. This is why “reverse-racism” is non-existent. For example, Aboriginals do not hold any systemic power over whites, and therefore can’t be racist. Prejudiced? Sure. Bigoted? Sure. But racist? No.
Secondly, when I refer to “the church,” I mean the “majority church”. Majority churches, denominations, and institutions refer to exclusively white congregations lead by white leadership. For example, when we discuss that the “church” is losing privilege in a post-Christian world, the church we refer to is the majority church. Although all churches lose stature as Christendom erodes, only the church that held cultural power to begin with can lose it.
The majority church owns religious messaging which makes us complicit in the systems of prejudice and oppression. The disparity is perpetuated in the actions of the church, like in moments it remains silent on issues of race rather than doing the tough work to expose systemic wrongs. Part of the reason why this continues to happen I surmise has to do with our culture. The majority church has become reticent to the deep systemic wounds it has inflicted because we value our privatized faith and individualization. But there’s a more nefarious reason too. When power and prestige are at stake, it’s hard to acknowledge there’s a deep evil running through our veins.
I’ve had conversations with my peers and many would casually acknowledge racism doesn’t exist anymore, and if it does, it’s not their problem. Or, because we see overt displays of white supremacy in America (think Charlottesville, et al.), but not in Canada, we don’t have a problem. It’s true, in America the issue of race is at the forefront, particularly the systemic oppressions of blacks. In Canada, we have our own demons. For example, we can barely reflect on the systemic evil that produced a need for the MMIW inquiry because it was so efficiently buried from the limelight for so long.
Let’s look at more examples from politics, church culture, and church leadership.
In Calgary, a recent election pitted the incumbent, Nenshi, to the opponent Smith. The challenger’s strategy centered around character assassination. It seemed Calgarians didn’t know why they shouldn’t vote for the incumbent other than they heard he was, “arrogant.” Did the race have anything to do with it between Nenshi and the Bill Smith, who is white? To some degree. But here’s the point, a dialogue on race in almost every sphere couldn’t even happen. The dominant narrative was, “racism doesn’t happen,” “not in my city,” or as the challenger put it, “I don’t even see colour.” It made no difference that a quick look at any social media post by Nenshi yielded racist and odious comments. People didn’t want to acknowledge the overt presence of racism.
In Canada, it’s difficult to broach the issues of abuse, poverty, incarceration, etc., and the treatment of Aboriginals in this country. Challenge the deeply engrained majority narrative of why these problems exist. What often happens, rather than exposing the systemic problem, the powerful deflect to their own narrative like the “Indian Problem.” Can’t they just get a job, why are they so lazy, they’re drunk all the time, we should stop giving out handouts, they get enough, why are they still complaining, that was a long time ago, I’m not a racist so why does it affect me, and so on.
Racism exists and it’s within the bones of the Canadian church. To ignore this reality requires one to discard, disregard, and ignore the stories of minorities saying otherwise. Are we familiar with these stories, particularly in a church community context? One of the reasons we don’t hear many stories about racial injustice is the lack of advocates for the telling of the stories to begin with. Church leaders are the gatekeepers to the narrative in the local church. The gates are often closed.
The church conference with all white men at the helm is a product of the rhythms in majority churches. The leadership is comprised of white staff, white lead pastors and white elders. In Western Canada, I can’t think of a single non-ethnic church over 200 led by a non-white lead pastor (or a woman for that matter, but that’s a conversation for another time). I did a quick tally of the “mega” churches in Calgary. 100% are led by white men. The elders boards are 95+% white men.
It’s no surprise then, given our leadership, that we neglect broaching the conversation of race. The majority church is nearly entirely led by men who’ve never known what systemic oppression looks, feels, or tastes like. There’s potentially a more nefarious reason that I mentioned earlier. Change challenges inherited privileges. If we start to dismantle the systems of oppression, someone stands to lose.
Yet, in the midst of evil, Christians are still guided by a fundamental identity. We have a role to be participating reconcilers because the great Reconciler has gone before us (and continues to go before us). My next blog post will look at practical ways for the church to move forward on the issue of race in the Canadian church.