Race and Racism: Waking Up, Again, to the Obvious

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The convulsions over race and racism continue south of the border. Accusations accumulate, fingers point, victims and their families grieve, and apologies are offered by white leaders in politics, industry, and the church.

A Tennessee pastor, however, wants to move beyond apologies. “Decrying white nationalists,” writes Noel Schoonmaker for the Religious News Service, “is an ethical lay-up for which no white person should feel the slightest hint of self-congratulatory pride.”

Schoonmaker isn’t wrong. It’s a very sad day when a white American gets noticed merely for saying that racism is bad.

We have had, however, a long string of very sad days in America—and in Canada. A long string of very sad Sundays in particular.

I lived in the United States throughout the 1980s, attending church regularly. I heard precisely zero sermons on race and racism.

Since returning to Canada in 1990, I have continued to attend church regularly. I have heard precisely two sermons on race and racism in almost thirty years.

Visiting New Zealand a couple of years ago, I made sure to tour Waitangi, the historic meeting place of Maori natives and Pakeha settlers. In my short time on both the North and South Islands, in rural areas as well as on university campuses, I was impressed at the constant public acknowledgement of the two founding peoples—at least as obvious, even in bilingual signage, as the French-English duality I experience living in New Brunswick today.

But native peoples in Canada? I drive past the occasional road sign in B.C. noting borders of various First Nations territories, and I recently observed signs on the University of British Columbia campus acknowledging unceded lands. Christian media, such as “Context” and Faith Today magazine, do regularly feature stories on race and racism here at home as well as abroad, as do the CBC and other mainstream media.

Yet we still are not thinking about race and racism very much as Canadians, and especially as Canadian Christians. Public schools, in fact, seem to do a better job of inculcating anti-racism than our churches.

I worry about what’s happening among our American cousins. One of the most loudly Christian countries in the world seems to be in yet another civil war, albeit mostly a cold one so far, about the ongoing pathologies around race.

I worry as I think about the most Christian, church-going nation on another continent, Africa, and about how little restraint Christianity exercised over the racist rage of Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda.

And I worry as we Canadians welcome large numbers of people from the very varied cultures of Asia—from Mosul to Shanghai to Dhaka—and Africa—from Addis Ababa to Lagos to Johannesburg, even as we haven’t come within miles of dealing adequately with our own native peoples. The opportunities for racism increase daily in this country while most of us continue to think racism happens somewhere else.

We may think we’re on a path of ever-increasing liberality, compassion, and tolerance, a path marked out by the significant changes in the 1960s and 1970s in immigration policy, family law, multiculturalism, and the removal of Christian rituals from public life.

But historical paths do not inexorably run in straight lines. Large-scale social changes rarely occur without significant reactions. When some people are lifted up, others lose at least relative status, and not everyone is convinced that we are stronger together. Charlottesville has reminded Americans of those sober truths. What will we need up here?

Christian churches should never have to be told to preach anti-racism and to practice love for the (different) neighbour. Christian leaders should never have to apologize for overlooking, ignoring, or repressing discussion of difficult matters of race. It should indeed be an ethical lay-up to denounce white supremacy.

But lay-ups are easy only because you practice them, every day. And if instead you go months or years without even attempting that shot, when the occasion suddenly arises to do what needs doing, you stumble, bumble, and fumble the opportunity.

As Pastor Schoonmaker says, “To concretely repair racial injustices and facilitate socio-economic advances for persons of color is the more difficult work to which we can commit ourselves.”

How have we Canadian Christians somehow not committed ourselves to it? How is this not just a standard part of our faith and practice?

Here’s hoping that I hear, and see, more about race and racism this coming year.

And here’s hoping I say and do more about them myself.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 700 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book is scheduled for release later this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).