When George Floyd was murdered, I didn’t immediately speak up. I didn’t post anything on social media. I sat back and watched and listened, primarily because I was afraid of saying the wrong thing. It was then that I began to realize just how much I still have to learn…
My eyes were opened (and my heart was broken) when I read a Facebook post from one of our black staff members at First United Methodist Church Richardson. In her post, she vulnerably and courageously shared about her experience of becoming numb to the stares that she receives, to the false assumptions that people make about her, and to the judgment she endures on a daily basis because of the color of her skin.
And then in the most selfless manner possible–in a manner that she did not deserve to have to write this post–she addressed her white friends and family and explained that one of the hardest parts of understanding racism is that somehow “intention” has incorrectly become the defining factor of what is racist.
If that were the case (i.e., if racism was defined by intention) it makes it a lot easier for me to confidently say that I don’t participate in racism because I don’t intentionally cause harm to people whose skin color is different than my own.
But what this friend and colleague then went on to explain in such a selfless and loving manner is that racism is so much more than individual, intentional acts. Instead, it’s also systemic. It’s built into the ways we operate as a society and a culture, and it expresses itself in all sorts of implicit biases we have.
One of the hardest parts of breaking the cycle is that we aren’t even aware of it in the first place. In this case, ignorance is not bliss.
I recognize that this isn’t a new idea to many people who are reading this…. but keep reading, because I think the next part is worth noting.
Ironically, as a Methodist pastor who prefers to see the world through the lens of Wesleyan theology, I think embedded in our theology lies both a problem and part of the answer.
When we talk about sin within Wesleyan theology, one of the ways that we’ve historically differentiated ourselves from some other Christian traditions is that sin is often understood as a “voluntary transgression of a known law of God.” In other words, sin is personal, and intentional.
This is part of what enables us to talk about holiness. When sin is based on intentionality, I can say, “Well, I feel like I’m pursuing holiness because I’m committing fewer intentional sins.”
You see how this parallels the way we think about racism? If everything is individualized and based on intention, then it’s a lot easier to say, “I don’t do that.”
While “individual intentionality” is a major part of the way we talk about sin within Wesleyan theology, there’s a lot more to it. Where I believe we often miss the mark (sorry for the sin pun there) is when we focus so little attention acknowledging the collective result of sin, the way that our individual decisions over the course of time collectively create systems and structures that are sinful. The longer that we live into these systems, the more normative they become. The more normative they become, the less we question them, and the more blind we become to their existence.
That said, as much as our overemphasis on the individual, intentional nature of sin might contribute negatively to the way we think about racism, I also believe that Wesleyan theology provides part of the answer in what we call prevenient grace.
The idea of prevenient grace is our recognition that God is at work in the world, and in our lives, even before we are aware of it. Prevenient grace is “the grace that goes before.” It’s the power of God that enables us to respond to God’s invitation to repent and reorient our lives toward Christ. It’s also the power of the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and our hearts to recognize the sin in our lives, and the sin that is built into the structures and systems in which we live and operate.
It’s why, since the earliest days of Methodism, John Wesley spoke out against slavery. He allowed the Holy Spirit to open his eyes to the societal sin of slavery. It’s a part of our DNA as Methodists, a part of our DNA that we need to recover and lean into now more than ever.
So, is sin individual and intentional? Yes, but it’s much more than that, too.
Is racism individual and intentional? Yes, but it’s much more than that, too.
Until we ask the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to the sinful nature of the structures and systems in which we live, it will be far too easy to continue walking blindly behind the assumption that “I’m not racist” simply because I don’t intentionally cause harm to people of color.
May God give us the courage to ask for our eyes to be opened, for our hearts to be convicted, and for our heads and hands to do something about it.