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/

How Progressive Christians are playing catch-up

Every once in a while, small publishers think about big media and how to overturn the tables in the temple.

A few weeks ago, Publishers Weekly’s Lynn Garrett asked for my thoughts on Progressive Christian publishing given the electoral insanity beginning to unveil itself on our national and state stages. (There is still sanity at the county and municipal levels, thank God. Let us unite around quality trash collection!) That article, “Justice a Hot Topic for Religion Publishers: Books on racism, immigration, and poverty are more relevant than ever,” was released on Inauguration Day, and it looks across the broad religious spectrum. It’s a good read about the state of the industry.

Here’s the quote Ms. Garrett used:

“Progressive Christians now have the sense of urgency that the Evangelical church has had for a long time. Conservative Christians built their movement through a variety of media, and book publishing has been a key part of that. Now it’s the progressives’ turn.”

Need evidence? Driving across southern Missouri last Sunday, I couldn’t find the Packers-Falcons game[1] – one of the NFL’s penultimate games, two teams playing for a Super Bowl berth – but I could find half a dozen evangelists trying to save souls through the AM dial. For at least 40 years, Evangelical Christians have learned how to organize and how to spread their message, and now they dominate the political stage, the airwaves, and the bookstore shelves. Progressive Christians haven’t had that multimedia ambition, and we’re paying the price.[2]

One would think the Republican Revolution of 1994 would have been enough to jumpstart the liberal/progressive multimedia boom. Or the 2000 election. Or the rising tide of resentment in the Tea Party eight years ago. But here we are, a quarter-century later, lagging far behind, with the highlights being Air America and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Both secular, and both just memories now.

But what good is a multimedia network if you have no clear message? Let’s not dwell on the Evangelical with-Jesus-or-against-Jesus mentality that can be wonderful or terrifying. Let’s think about the message of the Progressive Christian media. The Jesus of Progressive Christians welcomes the immigrant; shows mercy and tangible support for the downtrodden; and celebrates the iconic American belief – and Christian belief – that in our uniqueness, we are all beautiful in God’s eyes. Progressive Christians need to teach that Jesus[3], the scorned Jesus who weeps when 30 million Americans lose their health care, when refugees are sent away, when LGBT persons are treated as third-class citizens.

And what will the multimedia network empower us to do? It will train a new generation of Progressive Christians in the art of opposition and organization; teach the language of protest, conflict resolution and compromise; and reframe for the world the oft-ignored fact that Christian values come in many forms often the polar opposite of what the high-profile, media-darling Christian leaders assert.

There is room on the airways, in the bookstores, and in the places where power resides, for all points on the theological spectrum. But we can’t just hope that equal time will materialize out of thin air. It will take action, it will take money, it will take commitment, and it will take courage.

So far, we’re all set on courage. Saturday’s global Women’s March included all the issues dear to progressives; we may finally feel the urgency. The tide might actually be turning. The time is right for a Progressive Christian media explosion. Now it’s the Progressives’ turn to put in some grunt work and build our movement. Religious publishers can be a key part of that new movement, but that will require having those books more widely available and visible, and people will need to buy them. And, I think, people will buy them … AND put them to good use.

Let’s get to work.


[1] Thank goodness. I was wearing Green Bay green, and the afternoon did not go well. Not at all.

[2] And without mass media sharing the inclusive message of the mainline church, it shrinks rapidly as the Evangelical church grows. I can’t help but think there’s a connection.

[3] Have no doubt that our Islamic siblings would say the same of Muhammed, our Jewish siblings the same of their prophets, our Buddhist siblings the Buddha, and so on. Bar a few folks dealing with severe mental illness, we’re all on the same side — of peace and justice and freedom, despite what the fear mongers want you to believe.

 

Brad Lyons is president and publisher of Chalice Press.

Uncertainty

Few of us are fans of unbridled uncertainty.

Oh sure, there are exceptions. Game Seven. Jon Snow: Dead or aliveTonight’s winning numbers.² But the impact of those gambles on our own lives are generally quite limited. Whether a team wins or loses, whether a fictional character lives or dies, most likely won’t impact the next days. It’s manageable chaos. Most of us appreciate having our affairs in order, know how the day will probably turn out, and look forward to that bit of manageable chaos with our kids’ sports or binge-watching.

"In gratitude I present you this offering of cookies and milk. If you want me to eat them for you, give me no sign. [Very short pause] Thy will be done." No uncertainty for Homer -- he knows what God wants, right?
“In gratitude I present you this offering of cookies and milk. If you want me to eat them for you, give me no sign. [Very short pause] Thy will be done.”
Chaos, uncertainty, and I have had a rough relationship over the last few years, and this week was marked by an hour of horrific uncertainty. At 10:50 Wednesday morning, my cellphone rang with a call from the school district my kids attend. It was a robocall, but it was flagged as an emergency phone call. They were informing us the high school was in lockdown and that the other schools had locked the doors and weren’t letting anybody in. That was all they could tell us. Uncertainty.

I quickly texted my sophomore son, “You guys are on lockdown?” An uncomfortable amount of time passed before he responded, “Yup.” I read that as nonchalant. I read that as “can’t say much right now.” I read that in the mindset of a parent in the post-Columbine days, and my pulse shot up. Uncertainty.

Once a journalist, always a journalist. I understood why the school district couldn’t tell us more — they believed they had an active threat and were working the problem, and sometimes too much information can be problematic in an investigation. But I immediately jumped on social media to see what the scuttlebutt was, knowing full well that the information had a high chance of being unreliable. What was true? Unknowable.

Damn the uncertainty.

For an hour I sat at my desk, reloading the district’s social media feeds, looking at local news websites, hoping for the best. Two more calls came from the district telling us they didn’t have much to tell us. Finally, almost an hour later, they tweeted that the lockdown was over and that the school day was resuming as usual. I exhaled, a bit, relieved that whatever had triggered the lockdown hadn’t come to a violent manifestations. My son and I talked about it that evening, and his biggest complaint was the boredom of being in a dark classroom for an hour. May he never feel the anxiety I felt this morning.

The uncertainty in life. It kills us slowly sometimes, and we want it to end as quickly as possible. Rip off the bandage. Tell me the bad news first. Text me when you get there so I know you’re OK. A terrible side effect of the Information Age is when we find ourselves cut off from information. We are alone, abandoned, forgotten.

Here’s the catch: As a Progressive Christian, my faith lives in the uncertainty. Living this life means accepting ambiguity, appreciating the gray patches that fills our lives, and frequently admitting to ourselves and those with the courage to ask that we don’t know the answer — and that we may never know the answer.

Yet despite which choice we make, there’s always somebody saying there’s only one way to read scripture. Funny how that person usually disagrees with us, isn’t it? Chaos versus order, ambiguity versus certain, my way or the highway.

Must be nice, having the answers to the quiz. Except there’s not necessarily one answer.

At Chalice Press, we get our fair share of criticism from the conservative side of the church. Despite our feisty tendencies, usually we let it roll off our backs, chuckle amongst ourselves “he didn’t read our Company Profile,” and move on. But we approach our books and our ministry this way: We strive to ask the right question, then to give our response an option, a suggestion — but not an answer. We don’t dare claim we speak for God.

We Progressive Christians look at scripture and read between the lines, discovering the layers of interpretations in the words translated over the centuries and presented to us in the writing style we find most engaging. We see the morals established by Jesus and try to apply those to our own lives and our own society. We try to live out those morals even when there is a tremendous amount of ambiguity. God is very good most of the time at not giving us any firm signs whether we’re making the right choice or the wrong choice, at letting us make our own decisions and deal with the consequences.

Sometimes, uncertainty is the correct choice. Sometimes, it’s the only choice.

¹ Re Jon Snow: Be honest — we knew all along what the answer would be, right?

² Re the lottery: Be honest — we knew all along what the answer would be, right?

Brad Lyons is president and publisher of Chalice Press.

Odd ducks

ON THE WAY HOME FROM SANTA FE – I’ve spent the past few days at PubWest, an annual meeting of the publishing industry based in the western part of the U.S. and Canada. Western is interpreted loosely as “west of the Hudson River.” Name a genre, and you could probably find at least one publisher. Chalice was one of only two Christian publishers at the event; the other was Ave Maria Press out of Notre Dame, Indiana. (Indiana is, after all, west of the Hudson.)

As a PubWest first-timer, I enjoyed the diverse nature of this group. Introductions typically contained statements like, “we publish literary and children’s fiction” or “we publish outdoor guides” or “we publish books about national parks,” and it was easy to see their mission. Then I would explain Chalice Press’ mission, but then, because we’re a faith-related publisher, I was asked to go a step further and explain our ministry, because clearly among this crowd, faith-based publishers are odd ducks.

“We’re 105 years old, based in St. Louis, we’re affiliated with a Protestant denomination blah blah blah,” I’d say quickly before seguing to, “but we know faith is changing, so Chalice Press plans to be the go-to publisher for Progressive Christians.”

The phrase Progressive Christians generally elicited one of two different looks:

  • confusion, because they could guess what that meant but weren’t entirely sure they were correct, or
  • a blank stare, meaning they couldn’t even begin to process what I’d just said.

At least nobody just turned and walked away. And better yet, nobody slugged me.

Then I would unpack the meaning of Progressive Christians: We’re inclusive and welcoming of anybody who wants to have a personal relationship with God through the teachings of Jesus Christ, and we know there are as many ways to relate to God as there are snowflakes in an avalanche. We support the LGBT community. We’re broadening our offerings on social justice in areas such as gender equality, the environment, education, criminal justice reform, a living wage, and voting rights. In everything we do, we want to empower our readers to change their world in ways that make it a better, more caring place. Once I finished that definition, I got a lot of smiles and “cool!” and “that’s really great!”

What stuck with me, though, is that time after time, I had to defend Christianity while at the same time critiquing it. It’s a fine line we Progressive Christians walk, isn’t it? You know the conversation: The divisive, nasty, incendiary garbage cloaked as faith drives people to be blasé about religion in general but, even more so, hostile specifically to Christianity. And I don’t blame them.

Try this exercise to view the world like a publisher: When you look at bookstore shelves, you see what readers are most likely to buy. Most of the time, the books you see represent the market pretty well. Now, in that bookstore you’re envisioning, walk over to the Religion and Spirituality section. The books you’re likely to notice first are from conservative pastors, often proclaiming social-morality agendas, or megachurch pastors powered by multi-million-dollar marketing budgets. When publishers see which books represent Christianity, no wonder they think Christians are all so ridiculously conservative!

The great thing about publishers and editors and marketers and designers and others who work in the publishing industry is that they are all, at heart, curious. They gave me the opportunity to explain Chalice Press’s work and mission, and then they asked thoughtful, challenging, but respectful questions. And in the end, I didn’t meet a single person who criticized what we do. My favorite response was “I knew there were some good Christians out there!”

I cannot report any baptisms or conversions or speaking in tongues at PubWest, but I can report that a good number of people may go home from Santa Fe remembering that there is at least one Christian publisher doing things differently, working to tell the world that our diversity can unify instead of divide. I return to St. Louis with new friends, new counterparts, and new insights, but also knowing that what we are doing — and by we, I mean not just our crew at Chalice Press and our authors, but also our readers, so that includes you — is holy work, and it is making a difference in the world. Progressive Christianity in 2016 is a challenge, no question about it, but know that there are people you will never meet who are thankful for the work we all do.

Grateful to be your partner in ministry,

Brad-signature

(Here’s Publishers Weekly’s article on PubWest.)

Brad Lyons is president and publisher of Chalice Press.