If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Healing Racism: A contemporary reflection on an old story

American society has tried to rid itself of blatantly racist attitudes toward people of color. And that's a good thing. We don't like it when the KKK flaunts their racist attitudes and stirs up trouble. We have moved beyond blatant bigotry. We don't burn crosses, wear hoods, and spit out hate speech. We have put away many of or old stereotypical images like Aunt Jemima, Watermelon-eating Negroes, blackfaced images like Al Jolson and Amos and Andy. We've laid to rest characters like the Lone Ranger's sidekick, Tonto (which, by the way, means "stupid" in Spanish), and Hopsing, the loyal cook for the Cartwrights on Bonanza. We don't tell racial jokes that we once told to our white friends. We wouldn't dare refer to Brazil nuts as someone's toes using the "N" word. We have taught our children creative new ways to make choices besides one old form of, "eeny, meeny, miny, moe ... " We have lauded the civil rights movement and its strides toward equal opportunity for all races. It's nice to have a day off on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. We watch Oprah and cheer on the Lakers. Why, we even elected a black president of the United States. We are a post-racial nation, right? Some of us can even say, "You can't say I'm racist. I have a Black friend" or "Hey, I work with Mexicans. I can't be racist."

While we exempt ourselves from racism, we, white, Euro-Americans, were shocked at how the African- American community responded to the outcome of the OJ Simpson trial. The L.A. riots made us scratch our heads. We don't quite understand why people of color don't trust the police or public officials like we do. To us the disproportionate number of people of color in prison and on death row seems to indicate, from our enlightened perspective, that they are just involved more in crime than whites are. Segregation of people of color from whites in many of our cities has nothing to do with racism. Birds of a feather just seem to flock together. We don't seem to get it. And there's a reason.

Racism is alive and well. Whether or not we are prejudiced against people of color, racism is a reality that permeates North American society. In this post-civil rights era we are encountering a more ingrained, deeply rooted, subtle form of racism that is more difficult to recognize and to heal. The story of Naaman and his healing can serve as a metaphor to address another kind of healing needed today----the healing of racism.

The story of Naaman begins in the land of Aram. Naaman was the commander of the Aramean army, a mighty warrior held in high honor and esteem. He was afflicted a skin problem; leprosv. Even though his "leprosy" was probably only a mild form of skin disease, it must have caused him untold moments of social embarrassment Naaman's wife heard through her slave girl of a prophet in Samaria, who can cure him. She told her husband. Naaman decided to send a letter to the prophet through the official royal channel of King Hazael of Aram. Naaman was able to use his power and privilege to get what he wanted. I won't comment on how that works for whites in American society. Upon receiving an official communique from the king of Syria, asking that Naaman be healed, the King Joram of Israel, ripped his clothes. He couldn't heal Naaman of leprosy any more than having an African-American president can heal our nation’s racism. Elisha informed the king that Naaman needed to come to him. Surely this bruised Naaman's ethnic ego.

Naaman's skin problem was bad enough to cause him to take the risk of stepping over to the other side of the tracks. Naaman gathered his entourage and headed south of the border. As he halted his chariots in front of Elisha's house the coins he brought jingled. Still wrapped up-in a garment of ethnic pride, Naaman didn't even get down from his chariot to speak directly to Elisha. Elisha, who was a dignitary in his own right, must have considered this an ethnic slap in the face. So, he responded in kind by sending out a messenger to Naaman to tell him a thing or two. Elisha's messenger told Naaman that he must go and wash himself seven times in the muddy Jordan river, another big blow to Naaman's ethic ego. This demand raised the hackles on Naaman's skin and he stormed away infuriated.

In our story we find Naaman infected with an ethnocentric worldview. Admittedly, he did have to eat a slice of humble pie in order to cross the border into a foreign land and to stand before a foreign prophet of a foreign God. Naaman wasn't looking for any long term relationship with another ethnic group. He wanted to do his deed and get the heck out of there. This kind of like the hit-and-run approach of short-term mission work. Go to some ethic community, do your thing, and then go back to right side of the tracks, with no long term commitments. Naaman figured his healing would not take too long. He expected Elisha to come out to him, like one of the priests of his own religion. The prophet was supposed to call on his god's name, magically wave his hand over Naaman's spotted skin, and abracadabra, he would be healed. Then, he would be on his merry way. Instead, Elisha told him to go and wash himself in Israel's Jordan river. "What? Are you nuts? Aren't the Arbana and Pharpar rivers, the rivers of my land and people, better than the waters of the Jordan? Why can't I be healed in my own land, among my own people?" What did Elisha's Jewish land and rivers have that were so special? Naaman didn't get it. He had trouble understanding how washing in a foreign, inferior river was going to heal him. Naaman, the river is not the issue here. It's your ethnocentric attitude.

Our process for healing racism may begin with overcoming our ethnocentricity. Ethnocentricity is a viewpoint and attitude which says, "My race, my ethnic group is superior to others." In order to understand Naaman's actions and attitude toward another people we need to understand his actions in collective terms more than as an individual attitude. Let's think of Naaman as part of a larger social system of a people displaying prejudiced attitudes toward another people group. Ethnocentricity says, "My people, my nation, my ethnic group is better than yours." Ethnocentricity keeps us from healing relationships. As long as we cling to white superiority and privilege, we will not be able to nurture those relationships which can be healing balm to our lives. Dealing with our ethnocentricity can become the first step on the road to healing racism.

Ethnocentricity blocks the power of God's healing streams that flow through all races and nations. To consider our race, our people, our land as better than everyone else's fosters xenophobia, the fear or hatred of the stranger or foreigner. Ethnocentrism has dominated our white, European culture and history. It has resulted in a nation wounded by imperialism, colonialism, slavery, genocide, racism, and violence. Ethnocentrism is, in reality, one of the first words that must be written on the pages of American history. As European Americans we need to be reminded that the land on which we live was not our land to begin with. The death of millions of Native Americans, their ghettoization, and the destruction of many indigenous cultures in the process was fed by ethnocentrism. There is no record that any of the intruders into these native lands looked positively upon the Native American peoples, their religion, or culture. The Naamans who took this land of America thought, "What do the streams of Native American life have to offer to us Europeans? Aren't the cultural streams of our native land much cleaner?"

In our own day ethnocentrism still permeates the land founded upon "liberty and justice for all." It has resulted in systemic white racism. One of the ways we blind ourselves to the presence of racism is by thinking of it only in individual terms as racial prejudice. Racism is not about personal prejudice. When we say, "Well, Black people can be just as racist as white people," we are thinking of racism in individualistic terms. Racism is not just a matter of personal prejudice. Mennonite Central Committee's Damascus Road Antiracism training defines racism with this formula: Racism= prejudice + systemic power. Trainers are adamant upon this analysis in understanding racism, even when white people don't get it. No other ethnic group in our society has the power to enforce its prejudices upon another group, no matter how manner individual exceptions we might propose. Therefore, with this definition racism is a white problem. If anyone still doesn't get it, I suggest that they take the Damascus Road training.

The disease of racism causes us to break out in a skin condition called "white supremacy." I'm not talking about white supremicists like the KKK marching down the streets in white sheets unashamedly yelling "white power!" I talking about the pervasive, but unrecognized situation in white American society. White people, white culture, and white religious expression are seen by the majority of people in our society to be the norm. Our ways are superior and define what is normal. As a collective group white, European Americans with the most power and privilege in our society. Whites hold economic, judicial, educational, political, and social power. Whether or not we are overtly prejudice or racist in intent, all whites, including myself, participate in and benefit from a racist system, which subordinates and oppresses people of color.

White racism is still with us. Racism is not exclusive to the KKK, the Aryan Nations, and the Skinheads. That's why electing a black president has very little to do with systemic racism. Systemic racism exists in the systems and institutions of our whole society. Racism shows up in pocketbooks, politics, and perceptions. Take, for instance, these findings from some recent surveys and studies. A Census Bureau study from ten years ago revealed that the average college-educated African American man earned less than the average college-educated European man by $10,000 a year. That fee is most likely the same or higher today. Another survey revealed different perceptions among whites and blacks about work among the races. Two-thirds of the whites surveyed believed that African-Americans get "equal pay for equal work," while two-thirds of blacks believed just the opposite.

In another study, for whites an integrated neighborhood is a community with at least one Black household out of fifteen, while for African Americans it is a fifty-fifty ratio. Also concerning housing, another survey showed that 55 percent of whites said blacks are not worse off concerning their homes than other groups with comparable education and income, but 64 per cent of the blacks surveyed believe they are worse off. One survey showed that more than one-third of whites still think blacks tend to be "less ambitious," "breed crime," and "have less native intelligence than whites." Naaman had a skin problem. Racism is, in a real sense, a skin problem; the problem of power and privilege the comes with having white skin and judging other based upon the amount of melanin in their skin. It is disease that has infected our institutions and infected our social arrangements, including education, housing, job opportunities, economics, legal and judicial systems. Ethnocentrism, white supremacy, and racism block the healing streams of God's power that flows out to all nations, races, and peoples.

Healing racism will require that we step into God's healing streams. It will require a religious and social conversion; a baptism against the strong currents of racism. Naaman was cured of his leprosy only as he obeyed the word of God from the foreign prophet, Elisha, and washed himself in the Jordan river. He was not only healed physically from his leprosy, but also personally and spiritually from his egocentricity, and socially from his ethnocentricity. He stood face to face with Elisha and confessed his faith in the God of Israel. A religious and social conversion took place within Naaman's life. His new perspective caused him to act in a rather strange way. He asked to take some dirt from the land of Israel to worship on! Naaman even asked to be pardoned when he bowed within the house of worship of his former god, Rimmon. Naaman missed the point by focusing on the land, like some who wake up to racism and advocate "cultural awareness" or "multicultural training" as a solution to racism. They are missing the point.

The story of Naaman can point us to the healing waters. Our own spiritual and social healing from the disease of racism will require that we listen to the Word of our universal God that comes from the prophets of other races. We will be called upon to bathe in the living streams of other races and peoples. In order to be healed of our racism we will need to listen to and take seriously the prophetic voices among African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans. Their word may open blind eyes and set captives of racism free. We will need to trust the leadership of people of color to show us the way to the healing streams and not think our ways of doing things is always the right or only way. But, be prepared. Our white communities will probably be far more resistant to following the word and leadership of people of color than Naaman was in following Elisha's advice. Yet, the word of our brothers and sisters may be just the Word from God's that we so desperately need to hear for our own healing. The streams of lives and communities different from ours may be the water we need that cleanses us of America's original sin.

To be healed of our skin problem will require stepping into God's healing streams. We can put our toes into the stream by educating ourselves and our children about racism and the cultures of people of color. One of our white privileges is that we don't have to know anything about other cultures or think about race or racism, which is a daily reality of people of color. We can step into healing waters by making long term relations with people of color in our communities. We can go waist deep by dealing with racism on a congregational level. I'm proud that my wife, Iris, was deeply involved in antiracism work through Mennonite Central Committee US and was present at a UN conference in South Africa that addressed racism and xenophobia on a global level.

In its formative years Mennonite Church USA decided to be an antiracist institution, due in great part to the work of Damascus Road. The healing of our denomination will involve including people of color into positions of power and influence. This means that persons of color will be involved in positions of church leadership, policy and decision making, program planning, and mission prioritizing for our denomination and its institutions. There is much, much more to be done to open the doors to qualified persons of color and to change attitudes, policies, and practices. Each step forward is going to be a real struggle. The opinions and suggestions of people of color will need to more than token representation, but rather be given equal weight to that of the white majority of church leaders. As an antiracist institution the Mennonite Church will take the concerns about racism that are raised by people of color seriously. Their concerns will not be written off as "reactionary," "overly sensitive," or "too race conscious." Only as we listen for the prophetic Word of God in other voices and dip ourselves into their streams will we be spiritually and socially healed of racism.

Some of us may still be wondering what in the world the story of Naaman has to do with racial issues. Isn't this stretching the application a bit? Well, a precedent for applying the story of Naaman to ethnic issues was once set by a well known preacher. When he was in his early thirties, just starting his ministry, he preached his first sermon in his home church. He read the scripture text for the morning service and started to preach. The congregation was amazed at the eloquence of his sermon. That was until he got to the part where he applied the Scripture text to their lives. He apply the scriptures to some unrecognized ethnic viewpoints and attitudes of his audience. The preacher took the familiar of the story of Naaman and gave it a contemporary application. He said, "There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” The congregation shifted in their pews and tugged at their collars. The implication was right there in their own Holy Scripture. God is free to chose another race and people, above their own, through which to act and to bring healing. When the sermon was over the congregation didn't come up to the preacher after the service, smile, and say, "Nice sermon, preacher." Instead, they went into a rage, drove him out of town, and were ready to throw him of the edge of a cliff! Who was that young preacher? Jesus!

If we are to be healed of our disease of racism, like Naaman we will need to listen to the Word of God coming from unexpected sources and strange sounding requests. Today's prophets are telling us to go and dip ourselves in God's healing waters, however foreign and unfamiliar the streams. It’s time to step into the healing waters.

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