Wisdom and White Fragility
We’ll be back in James 3 (if you want to turn there) in a few minutes. We are in a series called “Serpents and Doves.” And this series is launched from Matthew 10:16, where Jesus called his followers in the midst of intense chaos and hostility to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. We’ve talked about the fact that most of us naturally tend to be serpent-ish or dove-ish. And he’s saying, I want you to be both, thoughtful and thoughtful. Have you thought about that? The definition for thoughtful? There are two different meanings for thoughtful. One is characterized by reason, the other is anticipating the needs of others. The first sounds very serpent-ish, the second dove-ish. We are called to be both studious and courteous. One word communicating two ideas that in this case are to be expressed together. We are called to be both keen and kind, wise and warm, rational and gentle.
Today, we want to apply this to racism. Why now? It does appear that Christians, in an unusual way today, are dividing with one another over racism. And it’s not so much (as I see it) one is for racism and the other is against it. I personally don’t know anyone who is overtly for racism. But based on our definition of and response to, believers, well-meaning Christians, often are talking past one another and end up shutting down, canceling one another. And in light of that, I want to use a popular book as a means of launching into this discussion. It is the book, “White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” by Robin DiAangelo. Now, if you’re visiting, I just want you to know we typically don’t use a book as the basis of our discussion. We try to study the Bible. But this book is portrayed today as “the bible of racism” for our society. It is the number one book on racism in The New York Times, Amazon. It’s the number one book in the nation for many, many weeks. It was selling so fast they could not print it fast enough to keep up with sales. For a while, you couldn’t even get it.
Dr. DiAngelo has been teaching diversity training programs for years and is good. She’s a good speaker. She’s a great writer. And she’s so good she gets $6000/hour to train. So, if your business wants her to come, she’ll do a two-hour training for $12,000. I am in the wrong business. And well-known companies cannot sign up fast enough. See if you recognize any of these companies. These have all emailed her this summer and many more. Amazon, Nike, Under Armor, Facebook, CBS, Netflix, American Express. Last month, Instagram was flooded with tens of thousands of pictures, many displaying their copies of this book.
So, before we look at the book and then respond, let’s look at THE book, James 3:13. And I want us to think of this message today as simply one way to try to learn to apply what we learned last week. Last week, we exposited James 3:13-18. I’m going to do a quick review, and then we’re going to see if we can carry that mindset that God calls us to, to a very sensitive issue of the day. James 3:13,
“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.”
Basically, the question is, who is a life specialist? Who is wise and understanding among you? Someone who knows how to navigate life’s challenges in the presence and power of God. Well, they are people, who “by his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.” Notice two things. Number 1, this person does the right thing — “his good conduct.” But he also does it in the right way, in the meekness of wisdom. It’s both serpent-ish and dove-ish.
Jesus … I’m sorry, James contrasts two kinds of wisdom to help us understand what he means here. The first is earthly wisdom. And in each one, he tells us the home, the heart and the harvest of that kind of wisdom. The home of earthly wisdom. Where’s it from? It is from earth. It is earth bound. It is unspiritual. It is demonic. The heart of this wisdom (That’s verse 15). The heart of this wisdom (verse 14), what is it like? It is characterized by bitter zeal, harsh jealousy, and self-interest. And it boasts and is false to the truth. The harvest (verse 16) of this wisdom, what does it produce? It produces disorder and every vile practice. Chaos and corruption flow from earthly wisdom.
The second kind of wisdom he communicates is (verse 17) the home of this wisdom, heavenly wisdom, is from above. Verse 17, the heart of this wisdom, what is it like? It is first pure. Just pause there because he puts the accent on pure. First pure, then all these others. But don’t miss “first pure.” That is, untainted by what he described in verse 14, the bitterness and the self-interest that characterized earthly wisdom. God, please purify our wisdom. “Then peaceable” — gets along with people who are different. “Gentle” — willing to yield. “Open to reason” — that is persuadable without being gullible. Willing to listen even when it makes me uncomfortable. “Full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, sincere,” that is genuine. Look at the harvest of this wisdom. What does it produce? Verse 18, “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
This is our prayer. We’ve been crying out to God this week that he would produce this harvest of righteousness that’s sown in peace and by those who are making peace. So, with this prayer filling our minds, let’s consider this popular book in light of Scripture. And I want to warn you, because we’re blessed in our church to have so many diverse political opinions and backgrounds, I could pretty much guarantee you will be offended at some point in this message. Not purposely, but … OK, purposely. No. Let me just begin by reading. These are not her words for the most part, this is my summary of the book, “White Fragility” in five sentences. Some of you have a busy schedule. You don’t have time to read this. So, I’m going to do it for you in five sentences without critique, as objectively as I can. This is just what the book says. Here it is:
White people in the US, regardless of economic status, are born into a social system of white supremacy that intentionally and/or unintentionally socializes them to see themselves as superior to people of color.
When confronted with this reality, white people react with anger, defensiveness, silence, guilt, or withdrawal.
The discomfort of racially sensitive conversations prompts them to evade responsibility and reinforce the status quo.
Since the system of white supremacy is inevitable, denial, defensiveness and guilt are unhelpful.
A far better response is to become “less white,” less oppressive, more racially aware and sensitive toward the experience of people of color.
Five sentences, the whole book. Now I wanted to do a full review, and I feel like it would be helpful at some point to do that. But there’s no time for that. So, let me just make a couple observations. Number 1, about racism. DiAngelo defines racism as “a system of legal authority,” — and every word in here is important — “a system of legal authority and institutional control that reinforces a racial group’s collective prejudice.” She emphasizes that your personal likes or dislikes, friendships (no matter how diverse), good or bad experiences (the fact that you’ve lived all around the world and can get along with everyone) are irrelevant. Racism, according to this definition that flows directly from her critical race theory, is not about individual discrimination or bias. It is a system, a structure, that is not about your personal animosity.
Now, to understand the significance of this, let me illustrate. And this is not her illustration. That will be obvious because of its crassness. But if I say to you, “You all are fat. You are fat.” How does that make you feel? Yes, some of you are being good because you’re in church. But some of you will want to counter-attack like one person in the first service who yelled out, “Well you’re skinny!” Okay, that’s fair. Our response, when spoken unkindly to, “Who are you to say that about me?” Or maybe less direct, “I try to eat right. I know I could lose a few pounds.” But then I explain what I mean by fat is not about your individual waist size or calorie intake. I’m talking about systemic fatness. I’m talking about the fact that we live in a country that consumes more resources than any other country on earth percentage-wise. So, when I say you’re fat, it doesn’t matter how big or small you are. I’m saying you were born, if you’re from America, you didn’t choose to be fat. You were born into a country characterized by systemic fatness, overconsumption. And therefore, you’re part of that whether you choose to be or not. And when you react defensively and start yelling things back or explaining how you’re not fat, it just proves your “weight fragility.” Now, this is a ridiculous illustration, right? Okay. Please, please understand. Don’t go away saying, “Peter thinks fatness is the same as racism.” That’s not the point. Here’s the point. To be clear, the point of the illustration is simply to illustrate how important words are. Definitions matter. If I say something and mean one thing when you typically hear it to mean another, then we are going to be talking past one another. Right? Even if we were to agree on the different views, if we’re not clear on the definitions, we’re missing one another.
And so often I believe this is happening today. One person is talking about racism as personal animosity. And they’re thinking, “Wait, do I dislike people of another race? Do I treat them with partiality, lack of equity? Do I, intentionally or unintentionally, am I part of reinforcing social systems that are intended to keep people down?” And many people are horrified at that allegation. But another person may be speaking of a very different definition of racism, that being an unconscious participation in a social system that cannot be otherwise. There’s no way, for the social system as it was constructed, to not be racist. Therefore, it is inevitable and unredeemable. The system itself needs to be eliminated and replaced.
Now, without even talking about it, do you see the difference there? A very personal view of racism and a power view, a power structure view of racism? Those are two different ways to come at this subject. And without even examining each one carefully, can we agree right from the start, we need wisdom from above. What does wisdom from below do? It locks down (verse 14) bitterness and self-interest. Self-interest isn’t just individual; it can be collective self-interest. Locked down, shut down, cut off. But wisdom from above is first pure. That means before I even engage on a conversation online about this, or in person. And I’m preaching to myself. God, please purify my heart. I am riddled with self-interest. I can react to other (this is that bitter zeal), I react to other people’s wrong, what I believe is a wrong response, then I in turn react with a wrong response. And it just keeps spiraling. God, we need wisdom from above that is peaceable, gentle, open to reason. Can you imagine what would happen to the church of Jesus Christ if we were characterized by this kind of wisdom? It doesn’t mean, as we’ve seen throughout this series on serpents and doves, that you shut down your brain or don’t stand for anything. But it does mean you open up your ears.
Second, let’s talk for a moment about race. DiAngelo rightly defines race as socially constructed. She writes,
“Race is an evolving social idea that was created to legitimize racial inequality and protect white advantage.”
The construction of this social concept, that being a whiteness vs. a blackness, increased, really developed and increased as our country embraced slavery. And then it was legitimized by science and theology. Many people don’t realize that Charles Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” also originally included (one of the versions included) this title, “The Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life.” Science was brought in to legitimize this horrific slave trade. And then theologians like Robert Dabney brought in twisted theology to try to legitimize this horrific practice, that one race is above another race. John Perkins, in his book, “One Blood,” explains,
“Whiteness, it turns out, is a very recent idea in the grand scheme of history, but it’s a powerful one that was used to create categories and systems that would place value, economically and otherwise, on skin color and the groups of people who are either blessed or burdened by it. If race could be used to indicate a group’s level of intelligence, it’s work ethic, and its tendency to do wrong, then the majority culture could justify all types of bigotries and discrimination.”
But it’s a lie. The Bible and science both make super clear, it’s a lie. Have you ever read the Human Genome Project on race? It’s fascinating. While they concluded that different so-called races have different, certain physical trait variations. Listen to what they say. “There are no consistent genetic patterns to distinguish one race from another.” No consistent genetic patterns to distinguish one race from another.
Act 17:26 makes clear God “made from one man every [ethnos, ethnicity] of mankind to live on all the face of the earth.” So, here’s the dilemma. And we are at a really dangerous moment right now, because we can fall off the cliff into this idea, “Well, if there’s no such thing as race, then we have no problem. Why are we even talking about this?” Or we can fall off the cliff on the other side and reinforce the lie that has been handed down. So, how do we have an honest conversation about our nation’s many times horrible record on race while at the same time not perpetuating it?
DiAngelo refers to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ (what he calls) “The Dream” as white people’s false assumption that they are actually white. And she summarizes that with these words.
“I take this to mean that whites can only be white if someone is not white — if someone is the opposite of white. White is a false identity, an identity of false superiority. In that sense, whiteness isn’t real.”
Now, if you looked at my copy of White Fragility, you would see a lot of notes on the side. This is one of those places like, “Yeah! It is fake! It isn’t real!” It’s a lie that was fabricated by Darwin and reinforced by Dabney. But it originated with the devil, not with God. It is wisdom from below — unspiritual, demonic. Yet, and again you’ll feel the tension, for many of our Black brothers and sisters, many people of color, this feels very hollow, because their experience has not said that there’s no such thing at all. It’s screamed the opposite.
So, how does the heavenly wisdom respond? How can we grow in awareness of what we might not be aware of? How can we get a deepening sensitivity without deepening the racial divide? Here’s another way to put it: How can we become color blind without being color blind? Do you know what I mean by that? There’s a good kind of color blind — we stand equal. And there’s a bad kind of color blind that acts as if there’s no difference. God has created a beautiful diversity, and we are to celebrate that. So, how do we celebrate diversity while at the same time standing absolutely equal in a right sense, different in a beautiful sense. And as I see so many movements today, it seems like we’re falling off the cliff on one side or the other. God, give us wisdom from above.
Third, renewal. In the end, the book “White Fragility” leaves many readers feeling hopeless. Our racist past seems to determine and define and guarantee a racist future. For example, I’ll give you just a couple examples. DiAngelo contends that cross racial friendships must be characterized by racism. These are her words.
“Racism cannot be absent from your friendship.”
From your cross racial friendship. It also must be passed on to your children. It has to be. She even uses the words there’s no such thing as a “racism-free upbringing.” And the reason for that is because the social systems, from her perspective, are so rooted in it, there is no hope of that not happening. And this is where … By the way, if you do not see how what is happening in our educational buildings is directly connected to what is happening with our burning buildings, your head is in the sand. What we teach matters and actually produces direct results, good or bad. Even though she has dedicated her life to anti-racism, she concludes,
“Racism is so deeply woven into the fabric of our society that I do not see myself escaping from that continuum in my lifetime. I can only continually seek to move further along.”
Now, get it, she’s not saying (and I think we would all agree with this) that there are going to be racists. There are and there will be, just like there are and will be proud murderers. Every kind of sin will continue. That’s not what she’s saying. She’s saying it’s so deeply woven into the fabric of society that she cannot escape. She will be a racist till the day she dies. It’s permanent. The color of your skin defines you perpetually as an oppressor or the oppressed. And that is one of the reasons why many Black writers reject this approach. For example, John McWhorter in “The Atlantic explains,”
“‘White Fragility’ is, in the end, a book about how to make certain educated white readers feel better about themselves. DiAngelo’s outlook rests upon a depiction of Black people as endlessly delicate poster children within this self-gratifying fantasy about how white America needs to think, or, better, stop thinking. Her answer to white fragility, in other words, entails an elaborate and piteously dehumanizing condescension toward Black people. The sad truth is that anyone falling under the sway of this blinkered, self-satisfied, punitive stunt of a primer has been taught, by a well-intentioned but tragically misguided pastor, how to be a racist in a whole new way.”
And there’s evidence that white fragility actually harms racial reconciliation, as Dr. George Yancey, a professor at Baylor, argues that DiAngelo’s methodologies can further divide. And here it is:
“We need solutions that pull us together, not drive us apart … The only way forward is together.”
Okay, I know we’re not a big “amen” church, but I’m going to back up and say that sentence again, and I want us to work on that. You ready?
“The only way forward is together. [Amen! That was good.] In sum, contrary to the questionable research surrounding white fragility, research suggests that a common identity and fruitful interracial contact can reduce prejudice.”
Pause there. I just want to let that soak in, because you will see when the gospel is rightly understood, preached, and lived, that’s it — a common identity. We are all image bearers. And if you know Jesus Christ, we are one in him. If anyone should be able to talk about race and live and move toward true racial unity, God’s people must lead the way.
“My own work,” Dr. Yancey goes on, “indicates that interracial couples and multiracial churches have found ways to solve racial problems equitably.”
Now, he doesn’t minimize the challenge. The differences can be significant. But listen to the way he summarizes.
“Working together will be hard. Extremely hard. But why should we be surprised at that? Usually, the things worth having are hard.”
Just let that echo in our minds. When we feel like giving up or feel discouraged or aren’t sure what to do, I want us … There is so much more we can say about this. But let me just end with the three ideas we focused in on in our racism series two years ago: listen, lament, love. It’s a really good place to start.
First, to listen. It is hard to listen. I stink at it. But to be pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason is wisdom from above. It’s easy to shut down. It’s easy to become defensive. It’s easy to watch the news and see one response and react in the flesh with another wrong response. It’s easy to divide over political differences, to cancel one another. It’s also easy to be against racism in the abstraction — just as an idea. But something changes when we close our mouth, we sit down with a brother or sister who is different from us, and we listen. And we look to the past to learn from it, both celebrating the good, lamenting the bad. But then we seek wisdom to move forward together. We listen.
Secondly, we lament. It’s hard to lament. Edmondson writes,
“Empathy means that we take the burdens, the sorrows, the concerns of our neighbors upon ourselves to the point of crying tears with them … We think about their children as if they were our children. We think about their concerns as if they were our personal concerns, and we cry tears with them.”
It’s one of the reasons I love what Allan just described. We’re looking at our brothers and sisters like, “What are they doing with their kids? How do we help break the cycles?” We weep with those who weep. And the weeping before God is not a heaping false guilt, but it’s crying out to God. It’s getting the heart of God for my neighbors and their children. We can do this because you know what it means. When you’re scared for your kid, you know what’d you do. Now take what you know what to do and then think about what does that look like for someone else’s? We lament.
And then third, we love. It’s hard to love. And when I say love, I know that can sound like it’s just an emotional response. I don’t mean love in abstraction, up in the clouds. Real love reaches out and acts. Real love cannot stay quiet when a racist joke is being told. Real love cannot stand by when injustice is being perpetuated. Real love utilizes whatever position, whatever asset, whatever gifts, whatever resources God entrusts in my hands. Real love utilizes those not just for self-interest — remember, that’s human wisdom — but, how can I use this for the good of my neighbor? And real love doesn’t give up.
And this is the part I have to confess my own sin. As elders, we’ve been talking about this and I shared with them that I have failed miserably in this area, among others, but specifically this area. Two years ago, when we did the racism series, and we had beautiful brainstorming times and tons of really healthy dialog, and we dove in the scriptures and we learned so much. And then as elders, we listed some action points and others we wanted to explore. And most of those I have not acted on. It’s easy to love in a moment but not to continue. Imagine if God loved like that. We’d all be toast. And so, one of the things we as elders have done is set up a subcommittee — a team of elders who will continue to explore: what do we need to become aware of that we are not aware of? How do we as a church need to continue to change? And how can we be, not just point to what everybody in the country is doing wrong, but be different here in this community? We have a long way to go. But if we are energized by the wisdom from above, a pure wisdom. That’s not a reactive thing. It’s not just, oh, there’s some news we need to react to. No, it’s energizing because it flows from the heart of God. You can’t have that purity outside of Jesus Christ. That is his pure love fueling us and producing in us a peace-making gentleness.
We’re also … There are numerous prayer gatherings and other things happening as we meet with churches that are different from our church, some the same, but we cry out to God for this on a regular basis. The things worth having are hard. Listen to what Jason Meyer wrote.
“The church is called to put the light of Christ in its prominent place on the nightstand of the nation … Was racial hatred between Jew and Gentile hard in the 1st Century? Yes. Was it too hard for the gospel? No … What other religion has a God who cried and bled for his enemies? How, then, can Christians settle for knowing the suffering of others from a safe, intellectual distance? … In Christ, we can reflect to others the compassion we have received from him.”
Let’s pray. Father, we ask for your help. I ask for your help. My wisdom is so often tainted, contaminated, polluted. Spirit, as you have spoken to us this morning, we run to you, Jesus. We turn from our self-interest, even if that is a collective self-interest, defending our turf, maintaining status quo. God give us hearts. Lord, we’re ready. You show us what we can do and we’re there. The purity that you provide can only come through the blood of Jesus Christ. So, wash us clean. Give us your heart. Raise up peacemakers online, in churches, in neighborhoods, in schools. Not peace fakers, not just pretending everything’s fine, but true makers of peace. And teach us, Lord, as we prayed last night in prayer meeting that we would speak the truth in love. That we would be wise and warm. That we would know your heart and live it out in a way that is truly reflective of who you are and not perverted by our misrepresentation of who you really are. We pray that you would protect us from being swept away with the empty philosophies of our day. But also, that you would protect us from simply reacting with a cold, abstract response. God, we can’t do this. That’s why we cry out to you for help. And this is going to be a long journey as you sanctify us and make us more and more like your Son. Show us the way. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
We want to sing the song that we’ve been singing each week. We’ve learned for this series, “Kindness and Truth,” which brings together what Jesus called us to — we would be characterized by a wisdom (truth) and a warmness, a dovish-ness, a compassion. So, let’s stand and sing.