Overcoming the anxiety of talking about racism

Carolyn Helsel’s upcoming book from Chalice Press aims to help white people talk about racism. In this guest blog, she reflects on the August 11-12 violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Brad Lyons)

Carolyn Helsel
Carolyn Helsel

Sick. Sick to my stomach. I opened social media Saturday morning to reports of torches and racist slogans of white nationalists at a “Unite the Right” rally on the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

I turned off my phone to get breakfast for the kids. We were traveling to San Antonio for the day, so attending to children occupied my mental space. But I wasn’t hungry for breakfast.

While I tried to keep current events out of my mind, they kept showing up. As we drove through downtown San Antonio, three white men carrying signs and wearing shirts with Confederate flags crossed the street in front of my car while I waited at a stoplight. These men were headed several blocks away, to join a protest against the removal of a Confederate statue from a San Antonio city park.[1]

Later that afternoon, while I sat at a restaurant, the news on the TV reported the alarming headlines: at the Charlottesville rally, a neo-Nazi drove his car into the crowd of counter-protestors, killed a woman and injuring 19.

Minutes later, I overheard a young white man joking at a nearby table, “I tell you, white men have it hard these days.” I’m not sure he’d been paying attention to the news from Charlottesville.

Driving back to Austin, my mind kept returning to the white men wearing Confederate flags in San Antonio and the white men in the pictures from Charlottesville, carrying torches. I kept wanting to distance myself from them: these white people are not the kind of white people I know and love. These are really bad people. Ignorant people. Evil people. But feeling sick-to-my-stomach did not go away. I could not distance myself far enough.

Returning to social media at the end of the day, several people called out to white preachers, asking: “How are you going to change your sermon for tomorrow?” Articles in major news outlets challenged the Christian church to respond with a definitive condemnation of white supremacy, asking: “After Charlottesville, will white pastors finally take racism seriously?[2] And “How Will the Church Reckon with Charlottesville?[3]

But I wondered whether the people who went to this rally even went to church? I doubt it. I wanted to think of them as crazy hate-filled heathens who would never step foot in a church. I want to think of these people as so very different from me.

But as a colleague of mine from Austin Seminary, Dr. Margaret Aymer, reminded me, these people still look like me and are not that different from me. Dr. Aymer posted the picture of the torch-wielding men, and instructed viewers to look them in the face: “If you are white or the parent of a white male child, as I am, look at these faces. Look hard. These are not monsters. These are not deformed or mentally ill people. These could be your sons. These could be my son. Look hard. There is no “they” out there. This is about you. This is about me. This about how you interact with family and how your raise your children. Do not look away.”

As uncomfortable as it makes us, we need to keep looking. We need to sit with the discomfort of these terrorizing moments, because they will not go away when we are not looking. They will keep happening. There will continue to be demonstrations that support this way of thinking. We need to denounce them as evil and to condemn this rhetoric.

At the same time, the depth and breadth of racism is thicker than this one event, bigger than a group of white nationalists protecting a statue, older than the history that these whites want to memorialize. And condemning racism as evil demands more than realizing that racism is a problem. We have to keep talking about it with other white people.

White liberals have prided themselves on “getting it.” There’s a sense of self-righteousness that comes from feeling you are on the right side of history. But self-righteousness fosters a sense of superiority. And superiority continues to compete for superiority. There will always be better labels, more critical analysis, and more radical calls for change; but if these only lead to self-satisfaction in our moral superiority, we have failed. Whites who want to make a difference need to accept that there is no moral high ground for us: no matter how “woke” we are, we continue to be part of a system that unjustly benefits us. We are not superior to these white nationalists. We bear the guilt as well.


[1] Emilie Eaton, “Dueling San Antonio protestors clash with each other, police over Confederate monument.” The San Antonio Express News. (August 12, 2017). http://www.expressnews.com/news/local/article/Dueling-San-Antonio-protesters-clash-with-each-11814577.php

[2] Jemar Tisby, “After Charlottesville, will white pastors finally take racism seriously?” The Washington Post. (August 12, 2017). Accessed online at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/08/12/after-charlottesville-will-white-pastors-finally-take-racism-seriously

[3] Emma Green, “How Will the Church Reckon with Charlottesville?” The Atlantic. (August 13, 2017). Accessed online at https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/will-the-church-reckon-with-charlottesville/536718/

Christians and Standing Rock: An Update

News outlets often describe the standoff between the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Energy Transfer Partners, developers of the North Dakota Access Pipeline, as contest between the water rights of indigenous peoples and the energy needs of the nation. This is a false and misleading characterization of the conflict.

People of faith have understood from the beginning that for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe the deeper issues are Native sovereignty, treaty rights, and religion. Religion for many Native peoples is land-based, and Native spirituality is bound to the land, making sacred places set aside for human remembrance such as burial grounds. For the Great Sioux Nation, to be a Sioux is to care for Mother Earth.

The centrality of land for Native spirituality was recognized by the United States with the enactment of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. This law calls upon the government to “protect and preserve for Native Americans their inherent right to freedom of belief …  and to worship through ceremonies and traditional sites.”

In October Churches Uniting in Christ, eleven denominations in covenantal relations, joined the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other indigenous peoples to support tribal sovereignty, water, cultures, way of life, and sacred sites, citing the centrality of land to Native peoples and Native religious practices

On November 4, 524 clergy representing many denominations responded to a call put forth by Reverend John Floberg, an Episcopal priest who has been serving the Standing Rock Sioux people for 25 years, to come to Cannon Ball, North Dakota, for a time of prayer and to be in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The clergy who gathered used the occasion to ceremonially burn a copy of the Doctrine of Discovery, a policy used to justify the confiscation of Indian lands, the destruction of Indian cultures, and the taking of Indian lives.

One month later, with protesters facing an order from the North Dakota governor to leave their encampment before the harsh winter sets in, more than 1,000 communities around the world joined an Interfaith Day of Prayer. People of many faiths came together to pray with and to pray for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Water Protectors. That same day, the Army Corps of Engineers denied a key permit needed to finish construction, a major victory for the water protectors. Whether that victory will end the debate, rerouting the pipeline away from Standing Rock, time will tell.

These prayers and the ongoing vigilance of the faith community is greatly needed. North Dakota Governor Dalrymple called the Army Corps of Engineers decision “a serious mistake.” The Morton County Sheriff’s Department pledged to “continue to enforce the law.” Energy Transfer Partners has pledged to complete the present pipeline.

Christians from many denominations are showing strong support for the religious rights of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. We must stand in deep solidarity now and in the coming year.

David Phillips Hansen David Phillips Hansen is a minister in the United Church of Christ and author of Native Americans, the Mainline Church, and the Quest for Interracial Justice, available for preorder now for delivery in January.

Stand with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe

I urge Christians and all people of good will to stand in deep solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, their First Nation allies, and the many others who have joined them in their effort to permanently block the North Dakota Access Pipeline. The decision of the Departments of Justice, Army, and Interior to temporarily stop construction is a direct result of the actions of these “stewards of the earth” who have taken a courageous stand to protect the sovereignty of Native Americans and our environment.

Native Americans, the Mainline Church, and the Quest for Interracial JusticeMany Protestant denominations have apologized to Native Americans for their participation in the long history of our nation’s efforts to assimilate or exterminate Indigenous Peoples. Some denominations have renounced the Doctrine of Discovery—a legal fiction couched in quasi-religious sentiments that gave European kings a right to conquer foreign lands and is now the basis for U.S. control of Native lands. Most denominations have called for an end to the public use of images and logos that demean and degrade tribal people. Now is the time to take the next step and stand with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

David Archambault II, Standing Rock Sioux Chairman, addressed a letter to “all Native American Tribes in the U.S. and to all Indigenous Peoples of the world,” on August 25, 2016, in which he wrote: “We all have a responsibility to speak for a vision of the future that is safe and productive for our grandchildren.” In this same letter he quoted Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota, who once said: “Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.” When President Obama spoke to the 20th Annual Environmental Summit on August 31, 2016, he quoted a Washoe tribal leader: “What happens to the land also happens to the people.” The president has invited tribes to a formal government-to-government consultation on infrastructure.

If completed, the proposed 1,172-mile pipeline will carry nearly a half million barrels of crude oil from the Bakken fields in North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa to Patoka, Illinois, where it will be linked to another pipeline. Proponents of the pipeline promise that during the construction phase it will create 8,000 to 12,000 jobs. Craig Stevens, a spokesperson for MAIN Coalition, a group supporting the pipeline, is quoted as saying that a delay in construction could have “a long-lasting and chilling effect on private infrastructure development in the United States.” Other advocates for the pipeline suggest that the actions of the Obama administration are a “temporary halt” to the project, which may be completed under a new administration.

The National Congress of American Indians put the development of the Dakota Access Pipeline in a historical context when they called it “another chapter in a long history of constructing hazardous pipeline routes through tribal lands without respecting tribal sovereignty.”

The immediate concern for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is protection of Lake Oahe, a primary source of water for the tribe and people and communities downstream who rely on the Missouri River. The larger but no less important concern is respect of the rights and sovereignty of Native Peoples. Deep solidarity, a phrase coined by Joerg Rieger, is rooted in an understanding that we are all in the same boat. We share the same earth and water. Given that many Protestant denominations have already renounced past efforts to assimilate or exterminate Native Peoples and repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, it is time for us to stand in deep solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. “Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”

David Phillips Hansen David Phillips Hansen is a minister in the United Church of Christ and author of Native Americans, the Mainline Church, and the Quest for Interracial Justice, available for preorder now for delivery this autumn.

Brad Lyons is president and publisher of Chalice Press.

Eric Law on The Gift

From chapter three, “The Gift,” in Holy Currency Exchange: 101 Stories, Songs, Actions, and Visions for Missional and Sustainable Ministries by Eric H.F. Law:

Holy_Currency_Exchange_cover_finalRE_400At the beginning of the new year, I often hear people say with a sigh of relief, “Thank God the holidays are over!” I recall seeing frantic shoppers before Christmas trying to find the right presents for people to whom they are obligated to give gifts. If gift giving is reduced to an obligation and is measured as a commodity, I can understand how it would be a relief to be done with it until the next birthday or anniversary or Christmas.

In his now-classic book, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, author Lewis Hyde shares stories from different cultures around the concept of exchanging gifts. He writes

These stories present gift exchange as a companion to transformation, a sort of guardian or marker or catalyst. It is also the case that a gift may be the actual agent of change, the bearer of new life. In the simplest examples, gifts carry an identity with them, and to accept the gift amounts to incorporating the new identity.

According to Hyde, there are at least three obligations to gift economy—the obligation to give, the obligation to accept, and the obligation to reciprocate. In many of the cultural stories that Hyde examined, the reciprocation may not go directly back to the original giver but to a third party. Sometimes the gift is expected to keep flowing throughout the community and it may eventually return to the original giver in different forms. Hyde wrote, “[A] gift that cannot be given away ceases to be a gift. The spirit of a gift is kept alive by its constant donation.”

For Christians, one of the greatest gifts that we receive is Jesus. To accept this gift is to incorporate a new identity embodied by the words and actions of Jesus. Continue reading Eric Law on The Gift

Brad Lyons is president and publisher of Chalice Press.

Rev. Jennifer Bailey on Daniel Holtzclaw and #StandWithBWG

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On December 10, 2015, Daniel Holtzclaw was convicted of multiple counts of rape, sexual battery, and other charges. Today, he was sentenced to 263 years in prison. Although little media attention has been given to this case, it is important to recognize the brave response of the victims, like Jannie Ligons. In an article for MoyoLiving.org, Rev. Jennifer Bailey reflects on how these events mirror the sexual exploitation of black women throughout history. Bailey shows that there have always been women like Ms. Jannie to resist the mistreatment. Her call is #StandWithBGW (Black Women and Girls).

Brad Lyons is president and publisher of Chalice Press.

Sarah Griffith Lund on Her 2016 Lent Devotional

The Fellowship of Prayer 2016 Lenten devotional was written by Sarah Griffith Lund, author of the acclaimed Blessed Are The Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family, and Church. We asked Sarah a few questions about this year’s Lent devotional. Here’s what she said:

SarahGriffithLund_FOP16Tell us about the theme for the Fellowship of Prayer 2016 Lenten devotional. How did this theme of “dreams and visions” come together? What inspired you?
The theme for the Fellowship of Prayer 2016 emerged out of my conversations with readers about my book Blessed are the Crazy. In the book I talk about my own personal fears and vulnerability to mental illness because bipolar disorder runs in my family. As a Christian and a spiritual person who has a relationship with God, I have experienced dreams and visions. But because of the history of mental illness in my family, I was reluctant to talk about my dreams and visions, because I was afraid people would think I was crazy. Yet, when I study Scripture and the writings of early Christian mystics, like St. John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich, their writings are filled with visions and dreams, encounters with the living God. So this Fellowship of Prayer is dedicated to exploring the visions and dreams of the Bible, in hopes of opening up conversations about how God continues to speak to us through our own dreams and visions. This theme comes out of encouragement by my readers to break the silence in the church about dreams and visions.

What did you learn through the writing of the Fellowship of Prayer 2016 Lenten devotional? What was your experience like during this project?
I was sincerely shocked by how saturated the Bible is with dreams and visions. I had never looked at the Scriptures through this particular lens before, and I was overwhelmed by the powerful stories of God breaking through ordinary time and visiting people in their dreams. I learned more about the nature of God’s communication, discovering that God historically and continually connects to us through dreams and visions. I learned to trust my own dreams and visions more, and found encouragement in the Scriptures for my own faith journey. Writing this devotional was a real gift to my spirit, deeply immersing me in Scripture, drawing me closer to the heart of God.

What do you hope readers of Fellowship of Prayer 2016 will gain from spending the 40 days of Lent walking through it?
I hope that readers will learn from the witness of Scripture about the ways that God seeks to be revealed to us. I believe that God continues to seek us out in our dreams and visions. Spending the 40 days of Lent walking through Biblical dreams and visions, readers will be encouraged to open themselves up to the Spirit of God … with the hope of transforming us with dreams and visions of new life.

Lent begins Ash Wednesday, February 10. The last day to order copies of Fellowship of Prayer 2016 for your personal use or for your church — in order to ensure delivery by/before Ash Wednesday — is Monday, February 1!

Brad Lyons is president and publisher of Chalice Press.

What Is Your One Word for 2016?

Mihee Kim-Kort, author of Making Paper Cranes, writes:

There’s a sermon that I often heard during the summers of 2002 and 2003.

At the time I was a backpacking guide for a ministry for high school students called Wilderness Ranch. It was my seminary internship for one summer, and an excuse to be in Colorado again for another one. I needed to get out of New Jersey for a few months. For seven days two guides would take a group of high school students from all over – Texas, Georgia, weirdly, New Jersey – through the Rocky Mountains. At the end of the week back at base camp the director, Skeet Tingle, would always do the same talk using the scripture from the Transfiguration.

I remember this as I sit at a table looking out at the lovely Blue Ridge surrounding Montreat, a Presbyterian conference center that hosts college students every year for a few days. How it’s easier to see at a height. How some things begin to make a little more sense up here. How you feel braver and truer when you are surrounded by trees and your Creator. How the air is clearer and you can breathe better.

The topography of a space has to include peaks and valleys, bright sunlight and a large sky, and a nibble of winter for me to come back to myself. Good preaching and the sound of 1100 college students singing Come Thou Fount and the Canticle of Turning helps, too. The epiphanies come like breaking waves and rolling clouds, and like Peter, I am eager to pitch numerous tents to hold onto those revelations. Reality begins to blur a little, and I see signs in the poetry being read on stage, paintings, a still lake, and even my dreams become undeniable.

And so that’s going to be the word for 2016. Dream.

Read the rest on Mihee’s blog

So, what is your one word for 2016?

Brad Lyons is president and publisher of Chalice Press.