Multiculturalism and Grappling With White Privilege

Mike and I returned yesterday afternoon from the PC(USA) Multicultural Conference in San Antonio.  We went to this conference hoping to gain insight about church-planting and multi-ethnic churches, given our hopes for starting a new multicultural church here in Pittsburgh.  What we experienced were frustrations, challenges, and encouragement.  This will be a long post, but it’s necessary, so please read on. 

First the frustrations: It is tempting to make “multicultural” into a buzzword.  We were given multicultrual bags, fed multicultural buffets, sang in a multicultural choir, etc.  At times it seemed the word became a meaningless adjective to which people attached anything else happening at the conference.  While the preaching was phenomenal, the music used in worship was considerably lessmulticultural than worship services at places like the Association of Presbyterian Mission Pastors conference, or World Communion Sunday at the Presbyterian Center with the Company of New Pastors.  The temptation this reveals is that of turning the idea of multiculturalism to an end in itself.  When we seek our diversity just for the diversity’s sake, we will be disappointed, because it will be robbed of all integrity and joy.  Instead, as preachers like Cyprian Kimath Guchienda, James Kim, James Lee, and Rashell Hunter reminded us, the focus should always be on Jesus.  It is Jesus who will draw all nations to himself.  It is Jesus whom people from every tongue, tribe, and nation will worship in the Kingdom of God.  When the church began on Pentecost, the multicultural vision of the nations hearing the good news in their own tongues was realized because the Spirit was empowering witness to Jesus.  

Second, the encouragements and challenges:  The best moments of the conference were those spent sitting at the feet of Jin Kim, pastor of Church of All Nations in Minneapolis, and his incredible team of interns: John, Dana, Hikari, and Joo.  Together they challenged us to examine ourselves more closely about the effects of white privilege in our own lives.  As we met with them and others at this conference and told them we’re hoping to plant a multicultural church, for the first time people were bold enough to say “but you’re two white guys.”  It was almost relieving to have people name it, instead of just looking at us funny and keeping their skepticism to themselves.  But no one told us we can’t do it, that it’s impossible for two white men to lead a multi-ethnic congregation.  Instead, we were told that we have to start wrestling with our identity.

So we’re diving further into grappling with our white privilege and the ways in which our society is a system of injustice from which we often benefit.  My own life so far has pursued the token efforts at righting my own injustices: I buy fair-trade coffee, care about the environment, speak up about politics.  But to what extent are these just guilt-relief mechanisms? My friend Austin has written about this.  I responded by quoting a book from one of the classes I’m taking right now:  Miguel de la Torre writes, “How then can those who are privileged by the present social structures find their own liberation from those structures, a liberation that can lead to their salvation? By nailing an crucifying one’s power and privilege to the cross so as to become nothing.” (Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins [Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis  2004] p. 17.)  I have failed to do this.  I moved into the neighborhood, but never crucified my ambitions at school and work, and thus have failed at even getting to know my neighbors.  What does this crucifixion truly look like?  And, as Michael asked, what are we raised to in the resurrection from this crucifixion?  Are we raised to a new awareness? To relationship?  To love? 

The bottom line is that it comes down to a ministry of reconciliation – in honesty and transparency forgiving and accepting forgiveness, both on a personal level and on a societal level.  I have to confess that (like so many others in the emerging church) I’m quick to speak out about these things on a societal level, but I fail constantly to pursue this in my personal life.  Why?  Because I forget my identity as a child of God.  I forget my identity in Christ.  Dr. Peters closed class today that reminding us that when we identify ourselves as “white-male” or “black-female” or any other label, we implicitly deny our identity in Christ.  I am a child of God before I am a white-male or any other label which can be applied to me.  We can only grapple with the effects of my privileged place in society and the ways in which we’re called to take up a cross if we recognize our identity in Christ.  For, as with the discussion of multiculturalism above, it is Jesus to whom every knee will bow.  And it is in Christ that we find reconciliation, both personal and societal, across all other barriers. 


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