Living With Unjust Legacies: Race, Justice, and Privilege

 + This event, sponsored by the Hispanic Center, African American Church Studies Program, and Africana Student Association, was titled “Living with Unjust Legacies: Race, Privilege, and Justice,” and was the beginning of a series of conversations on race and justice at Fuller. The comments from participating professors include a mix of history, scholarship, anecdotes, and personal stories. To preserve the dynamic nature of their stories, we’ve published whole portions of the session transcribed from the recording.

Privilege PanelJoy Moore: While we’ve come together this evening to talk about unjust legacies, and we’ve come together to talk about the difficult conversation of race, privilege, and justice, I want to remind you that we don’t come here as experts talking at you. We come together as brothers and sisters in Christ. Our gathering together is the expectation that we come knowing that if we can name sin by the power of the Holy Spirit, and we can talk honestly about who we are and where we are, that together we can make a difference in the world. That’s the task of the church.

Some people would like to say we live in a post-racial society. Well, you can’t talk about being post-racial unless you first understand why we even call ourselves “racialized” in the first place. So, a bit of our conversation tonight will be difficult to hear. And I will tell you on behalf of the panelists, if it steps in your backyard or it steps on your toes, we’re all Christian brothers and sisters here. Do not shoot the messenger. Our expectation is to learn together, to grow together, to walk together, so that when we leave this place we might be a glimpse of God’s glory by being a counter-cultural community that is multiethnic, multicultural, but most of all, claims to be unashamedly and unapologetically Christian.

Our panelists are not merely talking about this in front of you. They’re living it in their lives. So, with open hearts to the Spirit of God speaking among us, let us embrace their words that we might be transformed to transform the world.

Juan Martínez: If you go to the National Palace in Guatemala City, Guatemala, now called the Palace of Cultures, there are a whole lot of large murals that purport to tell the story of Guatemala in the official version. At the very center of all of these murals is a Spanish soldier in full gear and a scantily clad indigenous woman together. That’s the official version of how Guatemala comes to be formed. In the background, you’ll see a priest giving catechism, you’ll see an indigenous person teaching the Spaniards how to plant corn, and, if you look really carefully, you’ll actually see a battle way, way in the background.

Every culture, every society, has people who are privileged and people who are not, and those in privilege get to tell the story. They get to decide how we tell the story. The part you don’t  hear is when the National Palace was built by General Ubico, 3,900 indigenous people died in the process of building it. Basically they were slaves, and since there were plenty of slaves to become labor, if they died, you would replace them quickly. That part of the story doesn’t get told: who actually built the building and under what circumstances.

Privilege is what’s assumed by those who are in power. It’s like water for fish. It’s the things that you don’t actually think about because that’s just the way things are. In every society, it’s different. It will look different in Guatemala and in Mexico than it will in the United States or Korea. But in European-influenced societies, the mass migration of Europeans to the world five centuries ago created a particular version of that, and a version that we live with today. Now the reality is that most people would never ask the question; that’s just the way things are. Of course, if you’re challenged on why things are that way, you can give all kinds of very rational explanations. Through most of the nineteenth-century American scientists could explain to you—and there are still some that will use these kinds of explanations indirectly—why people of African descent are inferior to people of European descent. They could prove it scientifically. We have religious explanations. We are the people of God; we are the city on the hill; we are whatever. We can give all kinds of interesting reasons. I was just reading an article written by one of the new atheists explaining why Muslims are inferior to Europeans, so it doesn’t even have to be religious. We have all kinds of ways of explaining why the world is the way it is.

One of the American myths is that we’re all individuals and we all make it on our own, and that’s why it’s so hard to even have this conversation because I can’t even acknowledge that as a group, as a socioeconomic class, as people that have certain common characteristics, some benefit and some do not. Because after all, it’s all individual. So why is it that I finished fourth in my class in high school here in California, and counselors never told me about going to college. Everybody else in the top twenty or thirty—it was a small high school—who happened to have a slightly different skin hue and a different last name were told about college. Coincidence? Probably not. If I had asked, they would have told me (because I had heard it told about others) that at the end of the day, all Mexican kids are going to work in the fields anyway, why waste our time. So, that’s the way the world is. I want us to think about privilege as the thing that we have and we don’t think about, and that frames reality.

Mark Lau Branson: We’re all shaped inside stories. As we work with the theme of the evening, there are legacies that we live with. There are stories that are there before we get there. The Christian story was there before we got there. Our ethnic heritage, our family inheritance, these are stories that we are brought into, sometimes by birth, sometimes by migration in different ways, and occasionally by choice.

We’re going to be in that narrative and we can’t get out of that narrative. So how do we live in a world where that narrative is so powerfully dominant? What are the ways that I counter it? What are the ways as a group of people that we counter it?

We, in fact, voluntarily participate in it by way of numerous personal habits, practices, feelings, and thinking. So, it’s the same regarding the race narrative. The race narrative of the Americas was here before any of us got here. It was formed initially as an economic system—it’s simply easier to keep people enslaved if they are easily identified, and that’s the basis of what was going on earlier.

At times in class, I’ll say race doesn’t exist. Race is socially crafted. This is a social narrative that’s made up. But that can too easily get misunderstood because obviously race is incredibly powerful—so how do we understand that narrative and what do we do with it? It doesn’t work to ignore it. It doesn’t work for me to say, I’ve got one Latino colleague and we wrote a book together. It doesn’t even work to say I’m ordained in a Black church, so this is not a narrative that matters to me. It’s still a narrative that has shaped the very privileges that I have lived with myself. I am married to an Asian American woman, who was born one year after they left China, so basically she was raised in an immigrant family. This helped me to start understanding that while our parents were both working class and basically the same economically, because I was inside a white narrative, we knew all the resources on how to make that work. She couldn’t get music lessons, because her parents didn’t know there were music instruments in the school. And on and on and on.

So the way privilege is funded—and I use that word broadly—it is about money, but privilege is also funded by relationships, it’s funded by institutional habits (even those that are denied in official policies), it’s funded simply by who knows whom when it’s time for a job. Look at the current data on unemployment. It’s not accidental. It’s inside a narrative. And that narrative is still there even though all of us in this room don’t buy that narrative as being good, right, just, or Christian.

When I was the dean of an African American Bible college, one of the ways that I woke up to the dynamics of this was when I found good textbooks and curriculum from African American publishers, and I just thought this was great stuff. But then I would get pushback from some of the African American adult students saying, “We don’t want that. We want what the white students read. Because, Mark, we gotta make it inside their world.” Now there are all kinds of things wrong with that conversation, but this was the dean waking up to the fact that there are different facets to what an education is for.

Everybody here has ways to be influential in your church, in your life, in your world. Everybody in this room has a chance to change this narrative.

Hak Joon Lee: I will begin with my own narrative. When people find out I published two books on Martin Luther King, usually they assume that one of the books was the writing from my dissertation, which is not the case. Actually, I wrote my dissertation on Puritan Covenantal Ethics. This resonates with what Mark Branson told us. I, as a person of color, must first be in the mainstream. That’s the way you find your place in the game. So, you prove yourself first, then you secure your position there, then you move to the next step of your career, which can be the study of your own racial and ethnic history and ministry.

Second, the institution where I started my first teaching happened to be the oldest seminary and also it was a Reformed seminary, which fit well with my dissertation. But, at the same time, I found the majority of the student body were people of color, mostly African American. So, I had to serve their needs as well. There are reasons why I got to publish two books on Martin Luther King: one is responding to students’ needs. Secondly, I can simply say it was divine revelation, which greatly enriched my teaching and spirituality. It was only two years ago that I published my first book in Korean. The point I’m trying to make is that to be a regular professor in an American institution, striving to have equal treatment and not be treated in any implicit sense as second-class, is a challenging toll. You have to prove yourself. So in my teaching, I happen to be, in a way, a multiple player. I can teach mainstream American ethics, I can teach African American ethics, and I am also able to teach the Korean side as well. I did it with joy and excitement, because I love to do theological engagement, but I’m sharing this because it reflects the story of my struggle for survival. In a way, many biblical figures had to also adjust to their own context. I’m not sharing this as a complaint, but it turned out to be such a rich blessing, because, in a sense, it helped me to understand what my calling is. A calling not just as in a partial or tangential way of understanding another community’s history or ethics, but actually deeply engaging in their narratives and their deep thought forms and ideals, and thinking about what my community is and where my ethics and spiritual calling stand.

I believe that there is no cultural, post-racial society without undergoing interracial relationship, interracial engagement first. “Post-racial” can be such an easy way of forgetting the pains and untold story of the past history, and moving on to the next step. But, actually, to be genuinely post-racial we have to first go through the process of learning each others’ history, including the pain and suffering of the other group. I think in many cases evangelicals are dropping the ball in this area, and I’d also like to name that as usually the privilege of those who have power—you don’t have to learn other people’s history or narrative for your own survival or thriving, but other groups have to learn all your history to be part of that game. That’s exactly the bankruptcy of this idea of a post-racial society. I think it could play out in many different ways. For example, in the Los Angeles area, if you start a new church, will you as a pastor know and understand the history of other groups so you can genuinely build up mutual understanding and koinonia or will you simply wait for others to join your narrative? That’s where all this conversation of multiculturalism stays today. Multiculturalism without intercultural engagement may end up in the Balkanization of our culture or an ongoing hegemony of a dominant group, which goes against our core ecclesiology. We are called to form one body of Christ, not the segregated body of different groups. How do we form one body without mutually learning others’ history, others’ pain?

I understand that building the body of Christ through intercultural learning is such a challenge for all of us, because many of us are busy. We barely manage work, family, study, and ministry. There is a pressure even in our seminary education that we don’t know the history of other groups. That is, you just go through the process of following a traditional theological track, unless you’re intentionally engaging in and participating in the life and stories of other people. So I welcome this panel as an opportunity of mutually challenging us and opening ourselves to other people’s story. In particular, we collectively need to attend to the story of slavery, segregation, and racism, which although personally we are not responsible for, is the elephant in the room. We did not contribute to the creation of that system, but that elephant is still hanging around with us. How do we collectively address its legacy? It’s a challenge. The past history of slavery and racism affects not just white-black relationships, but black-Latino relationships, or black-Asian American relationships. It’s still visible in many corners of our lives. So, I hope this conversation is really naming what the issue is, while also thinking as Christians how we can move beyond the painful past history and enter into a new constructive chapter.

+ What follows are key quotes from the second half of the session.

Juan Martinez: So many times, diversity is who gets to decide what’s diverse and how? Who sets the parameters for the diversity? What are the kinds of things that get to be in the conversation? They’re usually things about privilege. So, one of the problems with diversity is that at the end of the day, it’s still framed by those in charge. It’s still framed by those who have the power. They get to set the rules about what it is that we’re going to talk about when we say “diversity.”

Mark Lau Branson: The deep problem of the terminology and the frameworks around diversity and multiculturalism means that they are often a part of the problem. This is why, in our book, Juan and I use the framework of intercultural. It deconstructs the hegemony that is in the diversity and multicultural conversations.

I cannot know who God has shaped me to be unless I hear your story, and unless my story is changed by your story. I cannot understand the gospel unless I am changed by the other. I can not understand the diversity of the trinity that I am in the shape of—I am in the image of the trinity—and I can’t approach at all entering into that unless I am engaged day-by day-with words and actions, with thinking and feeling with the other. This means I am profoundly impoverished unless we put aside multiculturalism and diversity and instead are engaged systemically and personally at all levels with listening and being vulnerable to the initiatives of God in the other.

Hak Joon Lee: I truly invite—me as your brother and a believer in Jesus Christ—my white brothers and sisters to my struggle, Love’s struggle, all people of color’s struggle, because the same mentality that enslaved, discriminated, and objectified African Americans, Latinos, Chinese migrants, and Native Americans is now working toward poor whites.

We think we are post-racial and multicultural, but actually are we? The colonizing power that worked about 300-400 years ago in Africa, Latin America, and other parts of the world, now is intensified through global capitalism. Now, it doesn’t discriminate whether it’s a white or black person. It’s a Satanic mentality, because you totally dehumanize and instrumentalize people created in the image of God and are using them and wasting them, for your own benefit and then you run away.

This was the call of Martin Luther King at his last stage of movement. He genuinely invited whites to join the struggle of African Americans and others so that whites also can be free and enjoy their human dignity.

I believe that’s the message of the gospel. The message of the gospel is liberating everybody and building one community without privilege.

Love Sechrest: The future, I hope, is about building coalitions among people of color and whites of good will to resist the demonic forces that divide.

My vision is of a church where a politician comes right before the election and starts promising stuff, and he doesn’t know what goodies to promise, because it’s all mixed up. Because he or she would usually make assumptions about what this audience might want based on how they look. It’s really important for us to get behind the squabbling, because the coalitions are so fragile. You can break them up in a snap.

Racism is what has helped working class people in America from forming these coalitions for centuries. It works like a charm. We’ve got to stop it.

Joy Moore: We’ve got a long way to go in this conversation. I hope that as we plan more events that you will come. Some of those events will require you to speak, to ask questions, and will require you to risk having your lives transformed. But for now, I invite you to thank our panel for sharing personally and richly on this topic.