Why the Body of Christ is Not White

Posted on September 10th, 2014 by

white-featherThe following transcript is from a homily given in Christ Chapel at Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN). As part of the “From Segregation to Integration through Conversation” faith and learning series in Daily Sabbath, the text for the day was 1 Corinthians 12:14-26. The audio recording can be found at: https://gustavus.edu/podcasts/chapel/2011/2014-09-08%20Daily%20Sabbath%20Chaplain%20Brian%20Konkol.mp3
 
The color of my skin is white. I am Caucasian.
 
I am white, from head to toe, in case you had not noticed.
 
It is quite possible that you had not noticed, because in case you have not noticed, most days in this place, most all of us have skin that is white. And as those of us that experience winters in Minnesota know better than most, in the midst of a “white out” it is difficult to notice anything that is not white.
 
While there are some special days with some special circumstances and some special exceptions, we in this place tend to be white people surrounded with other white people. Because, the fact of the matter is that most white people in most places tend to have social circles that are mostly filled with other white people.
 
As was recently reported by the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2013 American Values survey, when respondents were asked to identity as many as seven people with whom they had discussed important matters in the six months prior to the survey, the results revealed just how segregated white social circles actually are. As reported by the study, the social circles of white people in the United States are 91% white. In addition, the analysis also showed that over 75% of white people reported exclusively white social circles, without any minority presence whatsoever. All together, the Public Religion Research Institute showed the sociological fact that, even in an increasingly diverse multi-cultural nation, birds in the United States with white feathers – such as my own – continue to flock together. In other words, contrary to the common cliché (often given in response to these difficult topics), when it comes to white American people, the facts reveal that some of our best friends simply are not black.
 
The consequences of such white social isolation are beyond serious, and we witness evidence of such seriousness more often than we realize. For example, when we hear of the specific account of what happened to a young black man in Ferguson, Missouri, or when we hear the more general accounts of how far too many young black men are forced to grow up in this country, it all can be very difficult for white people in the midst of a “white out” to notice or understand. As many have concluded over the years, what is out of our sight can easily be placed out of our mind.
 
For example, Jonathan Capehart’s recent Washington Post column contained a personal and poignant account of his mother’s lessons to him as a young black man. Among other things, Capehart explained how he was told to never run in public because it would raise suspicion. In addition, he was told to especially never run with anything in his hand, because people would assume he stole something. Capehart was also told repeatedly never to talk back to police, or else law enforcement would be given a reason to take him to jail, or perhaps something worse. And perhaps most of all, he was taught never, ever, to leave home without proper identification, or else his mother may one day have to ID him.
 
When those of us with white skin hear stories like those of Jonathan Capehart, not only are we reminded of the despicable double standard that continues to exist in our country, but we are also reminded that such stories are the stories that most white people are simply not socially positioned to hear about, and in turn, not ethically conditioned to care about. Furthermore, one can argue that such widespread race-based social separation is a root cause of divergent reactions along racial lines to events such as the Watts riots, the O.J. Simpson verdict, and, more recently, the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. In other words, for most white Americans, #hoodie and #handsupdontshoot often feel completely alien, as we would much rather speak with one another about – as the infamous website reminds us – other “stuff white people like”.
 
So what does all of this mean? For starters, what this means is that matters of life are matters of faith, because the God of life is the God that is alive in our lives, and what we believe about this God ultimately impacts how we believe we can and should treat one another. In other words, contrary to our common modernist attempts to separate the social from the spiritual, the Gospels remind us that our social lives are our spiritual lives, and our spiritual lives are our social lives. Which in turn means, when we hear 1st Corinthians, Chapter 12, and when we hear the Body of Christ imagery about the eyes and the hands and the feet, this is not simply a spiritual text, but this is a social text. And this is not just any social text, but it is a social text with a very real social test. More specifically, the text provides a test, in that it is one thing to blatantly harm one another through acts of commission, but when we harm one another through direct or indirect acts of omission, not only does such segregation lead to increased levels of homicide within all so-called communities, but such social isolation leads to the homicide of community itself – especially when it is the most privileged that choose to self-segregate and isolate.
 
However, as people who name and claim that resurrection was, in, and can be real, what this all also means is something else. It means hope. When we name and claim all parts of the body in response to the ways in which God in Jesus names and claims us, and when we affirm each and every person as God has affirmed each and every one of us, then there are social implications of such spiritual affirmations. As every member of humankind – regardless of skin color – shares a common dignity and receives entry into the community of God, each and every human being bears the image of the one who brings us into life in the first place. The result of such a socio-spiritual movement is the revolutionization of our national, educational, and yes, ecclesial white isolation.
 
Therefore, what 1st Corinthians tells us is that we should experience a spiritual and social conversion from segregation to integration so that we may experience reconciliation and transformation. For in doing so, we are more likely to understand than ignore, we are more likely to serve rather than severe, we are more likely to walk alongside rather than push up against. And of course, we are more likely to speak with instead of shoot at.
 
What this all means is that, because the content of our learning and living is ultimately shaped by the context in which it all takes place, the Gospel calls us to dare to share life together as God in Jesus dares to share life with us. Black, White, Brown, and every shade in-between, we need to dare to share one body in Christ together. We need to struggle together. We need to celebrate together. We need to learn together. We need to live together. We need to speak boldly to one another. We need to listen humbly with one another. We need to risk not being right together. We need to be human together because it is only in being together that we can truly be human. For in being together we learn to belong to each other, we are more likely to expand our narrow notions of community together, open up our contemporary conceptions of unity together, put aside the labels of us and them together, and instead see others and ourselves as we all truly are, together.
 
The 12th Chapter of 1st Corinthians reminds us that we are indeed called to be One Body in Christ. However, far too many of us with white skin are too often tempted to see the Body of Christ as a White Body, for this is what a “white out” can do. Yet as our reading reminds us, such isolation is a cancer that eats away at the Body of Christ. For when there is isolation there is indifference, when there is indifference there is ignorance, and when there is ignorance, there is injustice. And we need not look far to see evidence of it all.
 
And so, to the people of God of all different shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors. And especially to those beautiful souls among us who have been working so hard on these matters for far too long. May we move from segregation to integration, and may we do so through the blessings of the incarnation that moves us into authentic and genuine conversation. As Jesus was made known among us by grace, we may come to know others with such grace, so others may come to know us, and in doing so, we all may have “we” redefined.
 
May we make this road by walking it together, and may God bless us with boldness and humility as we do. Today. Always. By the grace of God in Jesus, and for the sake of all people in all places. Amen.
The Rev. Brian E. Konkol serves as a Chaplain of the College at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. An ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), he holds degrees from Viterbo University (La Crosse, WI), Luther Seminary (St. Paul, MN), and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa). He blogs at http://briankristenkonkol.blogspot.com and tweets @BrianKonkol
 

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