Twenty-five years ago, the ELCA passed a social statement called Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity and Culture. Today, we remain the racially whitest denomination in the United States. According to a Pew Research finding in 2015, the ELCA is 96% white.
What does this mean?
As public faith leaders, we are called to confront sin and systems of injustice that perpetuate suffering.
How do we talk about race, systemic racism, violence against people of color, the economic suffering of people of color, racial disparity in incarceration rates that ensure our prisons are 40% African American, and the frequent police shootings of unarmed black men, women, and children if we don’t understand the invisible privilege of whiteness?
How do we talk about white identity without sounding racist?
What is the nature of the work we must do as a church to redress the silence and passivity we have largely exhibited toward racial injustice in our Christian walk?
ELCA World Hunger has done much to alleviate poverty and suffering in other parts of the world. But what have we done in our own communities to see and address the suffering of people of color, from economic and educational disadvantage to racial bias in the criminal justice system?
White Christians must learn to talk about these things so that we might develop the emotional and spiritual capacity to resist white supremacy, become antiracist allies in solidarity with our black and brown neighbors, and pass down this developmental learning to our children and grandchildren.
Here are ten books I have found profoundly helpful in my personal journey of racial understanding, white awakening, and struggle to become a white ally in my public leadership as a Lutheran Pastor. These are a starting point; indeed, there are many other writers, witnesses, and leaders we must notice along the way.
Consider picking up one or more of these books—possibly even requesting one when you get that inevitable “what do you want for Christmas?” question—to deepen your understanding. In my next post, I’ll share some articles and documentaries for additional learning.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2012. Alexander sought to understand the racial disparity within the criminal justice system that alarmingly disadvantaged African Americans at a rate twenty times greater than whites. She sees the criminal justice system as a product of a racial caste system at work in U.S. policy that transcends political parties. Alexander invites the reader to see a correlation between three institutionalized systems of white domination: slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and mass incarceration. For those congregations and leaders engaged in criminal justice system ministries, prison ministries, or post-incarceration accompaniment work this is a necessary read.
Anderson, Carol. White Rage the Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. Bloomsbury USA,an Imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2017. White Rage traces the history of African American struggle and progress in the U.S. as a process of hard-fought advancement and resilience, followed by anti-black resistance, violence, and legal/political dismantling of that progress. Each of the five chapters looks at black struggles for equality, post-black advancement in American policy, and the white backlash that ensued. White Rage reveals the power of prejudice and white fragility by tracing the overt public ways whites reacted against black progress throughout U.S. racial history. This is a revision of American social and economic history that whites need to read in order to understand the power of the oppressive system. Anderson’s history advances the cultural or systemic notion of racism and white supremacy.
Dyson, Michael Eric. Tears We Cannot Stop: a Sermon to White America. St. Martin’s Press, 2017. Written as a sermon/liturgy for white Americans, this book is a black scholar’s testimony about white supremacy, white fragility, and black suffering at the hands of it. This book will trigger white fragility. It will make you angry. And it is one of the most important books I’ve read this year. The section called “Benediction” is an outstanding call to action for whites, suggesting many ways in which whites can make reparations, become racially literate, participate in the black struggle for liberation, speak up against racial injustices taking place in our communities daily, welcome immigrants of color and fight for their rights, visit a black church, and most of all show empathy. I recommend Dyson’s work for pastors, preachers, and teachers longing to understand the black struggle and the problem with whiteness, hoping to become antiracist allies on the journey.
Hart, Drew G. I. Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism. Herald Press, 2016. As a black Christian writer, Hart does three things that make this book helpful for churches. He devotes a chapter to the subversive life of Jesus and how he addresses and deconstructs dominant systems. He spends a chapter articulating the meaning of whiteness as a social construct and the significant challenge of antiblack racism in society and how it is a problem for everyone—not just whites. He is critical of black Christians for not doing more to address the internalized racist ideas that demoralize people of color and advantage whites. His final chapter provides seven Jesus-shaped practices for the antiracist church. Hart commands the white church to learn about the history of racism and white identity in the U.S. His personal storytelling—rooted in the gospel story and calling the church to practice Jesus’ way of solidarity and life in community with those on the bottom of the ladder—is good counsel. This book would make a great small group conversation.
Helsel, Carolyn B. Anxious to Talk about It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully about Racism. Chalice Press, 2017. Carolyn is white, young, educated, and a mainline Christian writing for other white mainline Christians who are anxious about entering a conversation about race and racism. She is sensitive to white fragility and names it. The chapter on racial identity development is helpful in understanding how racial identity forms differently in whites and in people of color. Using storytelling and anecdotes from interviews, Carolyn talks about her own journey of understanding. She does not see herself as a professional antiracist or activist but as a faith leader called to lead uncomfortable conversations with parishioners. She includes helpful questions for group reflection after each chapter and an interesting closing chapter on spiritual practices to support the conversation on race and racism. She names gratitude, self-compassion, bearing witness, and hospitality as practices that can move us sensitively toward racial awareness and antiracist actions.
Hill, Daniel, and Brenda Salter McNeil. White Awake: an Honest Look at What It Means to Be White. InterVarsity Press, 2017. Hill (a white man) was a leader at a very large suburban Chicago megachurch when he had a racial awakening. This book begins with personal testimony as he came to understand how white his world was. He exegetes the story of Nicodemus to describe his own journey from racial blindness to sight. Using racial identity development theory, he maps out the way white cultural domination affects the way we see our world. The book follows racial identity development for whites: Encounter, denial, disorientation, shame, self-righteousness, awakening, and active participation. White Awake is for the white community to learn about the process of moving from living as a passive racist to an active antiracist as part of one’s Christian witness. There are discussion questions for each chapter that make this book useful in small group study or for a learning community. The narrative flow and personal testimony given in the book makes the book less academic and more like a memoir.
Kendi, Ibram X. Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Nation Books, 2017. This is a newly published historical tour de force on racism in America, and a national book award finalist. Through the lens of five Americans: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois, and Angela Davis, Kendi asserts that racial discrimination bred racist ideas that resulted in ignorance and hate. We have tended to believe that hate bred racist ideas that caused discrimination. Working through the complicated history of these five American characters draws the reader into black history. In the epilogue, he traces the post-racial lie, discussing the election of Obama and other factors that indicate that the U.S. is not post-racial. How do antiracists stamp out racist ideas? Historically, education, uplift suasion, and white sacrifice were viewed as the necessary steps but they have failed. Kendi claims racial discrimination must be opposed by voting antiracists into seats of power to vote in antiracist policies. This book is a tome, but maps out U.S. history of racist ideas and policies in a way that brings hope that we can change the national narrative going forward into one that establishes equitable society for a beloved humanity.
Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy a Story of Justice and Redemption. Scribe, 2016. Stevenson is an Ivy League lawyer and the head of the Equal Justice Initiative. He is African American. This book is autobiographical examination of the criminal justice system and its unjust racist treatment if black Americans. The book is a heroic tale of his work to address the racially-biased punitive system at the height of the war on drugs, a war perpetrated by whites in power against blacks. Remaking blacks as drug dealers, criminals, and street thugs, white leaders used the power of the criminal justice system to subjugate the African American community and incarcerate its young men at an alarming rate. Just Mercy beautifully narrates his legal efforts to oppose this system and dismantle its power over the black community, a battle he continues to fight.
Wallis, Jim. America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. Brazos Press, a Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2017. Wallis is the founder and head of Sojourners, a progressive evangelical Christian magazine and social media organization. Wallis is an ally and antiracist writing in response to the tragic deaths of black kids at the hands of police. Wallis has been on the front lines in Ferguson and Baltimore. His theology suggests that white America must realize and repent from the original sin of racism and white supremacy that is embedded in American history. The third chapter lays out the argument that racism is sin for which we have not repented. He discusses white privilege and ignorance. He discusses reparations and reconciliation. His vision of a new multiracial church betrays his own whiteness, but he has several positive examples of diverse evangelical Christian communities.
Wise, Tim J. White like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son. Soft Skull Press, 2005. This book was a gift to me from an African American colleague. Wise writes a kind of racial memoir as a white kid who grew up in both integrated and segregated neighborhoods. Wise puzzles out his experiences with people of color, his emerging understanding of whiteness and white advantage, and his desire to become an antiracist ally professionally and personally. His insightful awareness of the privilege of whiteness as it unfolded in his life story provoked in me an interest in my own racial autobiography. I began to consider my own life as a white man, really for the first time, while reading this book. What is the meaning of whiteness in my life? How does my knowledge and understanding of it, in contrast with what it means to be a person of color, with the lens of empathy, impact my choices as a public servant? Wise’s book is a way in which whites can begin to see and hear their own racialized identity within the context of racist, antiblack American culture. In fact, there is no white race apart from a racist devaluing of the black person. His personal storytelling will engage the white reader in questions about privilege and how to divest from it to be in authentic relationship with people of color.