Facing up to our racism


A call to have hard conversations about race

By Tony De La Rosa | Presbyterians Today

This year’s Thanksgiving table may be the perfect place to have a “hard conversation” about race.

In a few weeks, many of us will make our way to a place we call home in observance of Thanksgiving, our most religiously secular and secularly religious holiday. Gathered around a table of plenty, we will partake and share, acknowledging God’s gracious bounty to all and giving thanks for it.

However, Thanksgiving tables are notorious for bringing together generations with different points of view, each person speaking their mind. Some people will speak with delicacy, some with tentativeness, some with courage and still others with privilege — and don’t forget the outrageous conversationalist for whom the hashtag #nofilter seems to have been invented.

Politics, economics and religion often make their way into our Thanksgiving conversations, testing the familial and social glue that binds us together. Frequently at the center of these traditionally taboo subjects is race in America.

Conversations about race are inherently challenging. Setting aside the confusion, defensiveness and wounds that such conversations inevitably surface, few of us can speak without visceral passion on subjects like privilege and disenfranchisement, bias and discrimination, terror and rage.

The concept of race holds us hostage as a people. It is at best an entirely fungible fiction, a socio-political construct rather than a biological fact. There is no gene that determines our race. Each of us is fearfully and wonderfully made, a genetic code of astonishing complexity.

Instead, racial identity is something that expresses itself with singular power in our family ties, places of residence, educational achievements, music choices, fashion statements, and — most tellingly — our church affiliations.

Since the addition of the Confession of Belhar to the Book of Confessions in 2016, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has put antiracism at the center of the table as part of our call as God’s people. We must gather and talk if we are to begin to dismantle the structures that accord race such power. And it is the church that must take the lead. The Confession of Belhar declares:

We believe

  • that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ; …
  • that the credibility of this message is seriously affected and its beneficial work obstructed when it is proclaimed in a land which professes to be Christian, but in which the enforced separation of people on a racial basis promotes and perpetuates alienation, hatred and enmity.

The hard of work of engaging in conversation about race begins with each of us. Several stories in this issue of Presbyterians Today are intended to foster a greater degree of understanding and conversation about race within our congregations and other worshiping communities, so that we may truly bear the message of reconciliation to a world torn apart by racial injustice.

The table of Thanksgiving provides an apt metaphor for what to expect when we engage in this work. Conversations about race are hard. Some of us will be apprehensive and fearful, and others bold and assertive. Emotions will run high. We may occasionally lose our filters, but we won’t lose our faith in the power of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation in Christ.

As Christians, we take solace in the witness of Jesus, who presided over a similarly contentious table before he paused, gave thanks, shared bread and wine and charged all to remember him.

Tony De La Rosa is the former interim executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.


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