Empire and Racial Power

by John Lee


How does the issue of empire and racial power manifest itself in the United Church? I would like to share a story from a few years ago, when the Ethnic Ministries Committee (EMC) of Toronto Conference held a workshop on anti-racism followed by a discussion on whether there is racism within our United Church. The answer from most of the participants was a strong “no.” One of the participants said with hesitation, “I think I did experience some discrimination. But it was because I did not speak good, fluent English.” A few others agreed by quoting seemingly justifiable reasons, such as, “I was not fully ready” or “Maybe I misunderstood.” The participants were then asked, “Is there any visible body within the congregation, presbytery, or Conference where anyone can report an experience of racism and get help to resolve it?” All acknowledged that there was none. 


In 2000, the United Church’s Anti-Racism Policy was adopted by the 37th General Council. Around the same time, there was a motion in EMC requesting that the Conference form an Anti-Racism Task Group. But no one stepped forward to second the motion, and so there was no further discussion.


After the meeting ended, a few expressed their uncomfortable feelings by such statements as: “We, the ethnic minority community, receive support from the ethnic majority people.”  “I don’t feel comfortable naming ‘racism’ within the church.” “I have built a good relationship with mainstream people and I don’t want to be misunderstood by supporting the anti-racism work.” Later, at the Conference’s Church in Society Committee, which was at that time composed entirely of ethnic majority members, the task group proposal was presented and the motion was approved. This proposal was taken again to the EMC, and this time it was approved there also. Finally, the Toronto Conference Executive approved the formation of an Anti-Racism Task Group.


This story reveals the passion and compassion of the ethnic majority people who supported the formation of a relevant body to respond to underlying needs. At the same time, this story tells us how ethnic minority people value the relationships they have built and how seriously they hope to sustain them without hurting anyone. Both these feelings have ramifications at all levels of the United Church, right down to the pastoral charges.


A History of Facing Diversity

Our United Church of Canada has been seriously dealing with diversity in terms of race and culture since the turn of the 20th century when Canadian society became increasingly culturally diverse through the influx of immigrants. Interactions between ethnic minorities and the church’s mainstream were mainly to guide and help new immigrants in adjusting to life in the new land of Canada.


By the establishment of the Ethnic Ministries Council as one of six divisions in the General Council Office in 1996, different perspectives and new voices were presented.  In 2002, the Ethnic Ministries Council became the Ethnic Ministries Unit, as one of the restructured five units in the General Council Office. Recently, the 39th General Council adopted a new vision for the United Church to become an intercultural church valuing cultural differences. This new vision, for it to work, requires empowering ethnic communities and actualizing racial justice.


Living Out Racial Justice

Jesus’ ministry was an ongoing challenge to the dominant group in his society—the Roman Empire. We know that Jesus included different ethnic people in his teaching because he told parables and stories such as the parable of the Good Samaritan and the story of the woman at the well. Jesus encouraged the disciples to be open to these differences. As a confessional church, our United Church has reflected extensively on how to recognize and value ethnic minority peoples and their perspectives. We ask ourselves: With whose perspective and in whose way are we doing God’s mission? The challenge is whether we are willing and ready to follow through with action.


In this age of globalization, change is drastic and unpredictable, and the powers of  modern empire compete for profit and authority. Within this context, systemic power is held mainly by the ethnic majority of society, which continues to dominate the ethnic minority.


Racism in these systems of empire is so subtle that it becomes internalized and its existence is even denied. There are many power groups with differing thoughts and ideologies that claim their own truths are the best. In this world of many differences, there are clashes of value systems in different cultures, traditions, and races. The churches, as well as secular enterprises, are paying keen attention to diversity and are making an effort to work with it.


When there are numerous interactions between different ethnicities, racism can be a major cause of discord. Racism is often invisible to people who have not experienced it and therefore they can perpetuate it. Identifying how racism develops at the institutional and individual levels is critical. It is the first step in eliminating racism and creating a more inclusive, safe, and welcoming environment.


We have to ask ourselves if our actions reinforce only the past “good old experiences” while suppressing others’ new and different ways.  Or have we found ways to adopt new approaches to ministry for a new and changed world? To live and work with different races, we have to recognize that there are as many different ways as there are different races, cultures, and communities.


We need to recognize that the perception of racism encompasses a wide range of the aspects and dimensions of ministry within the church. As an example, any joke or statement with racially degrading connotations should be considered a problem. On the other hand, insisting on one’s own way without listening to other voices by the dominant group can be considered as an act of racism as well.


"Black and Beautiful"


What’s in a Word?

Chapter one, verse five in The Song of Songs is worth pondering and reflecting on whether we ourselves have racial prejudice or not. The New Revised Standard Version translates this verse as, “I am black and beautiful….” Most other versions translate it as, “I am black, but beautiful….”


Many of us may not have noticed the difference between these two translations. However, through the eyes of non-Caucasian people, there is a huge difference.


We might try imagining ourselves saying, I am Chinese, Filipino, Jamaican, Japanese, Ugandan … and beautiful, rather than but beautiful. 


This is how we can dream of a future ministry. This is the ministry of Jesus that embraces a diversity that creates the power to build and sustain the genuine household of God.  



Living out racial justice seems to be very complicated and hard work. A simple, wise way to deal with this matter is to ensure a safe place for people who have different ideas and different ways of thinking and working. It’s crucial to discover how we can embrace each other, forgiving and forgetting the other’s faults, which may have unknowingly or unintentionally caused pain. Education and experience will help. But they have their limitations. We also need to look at our differences with love and compassion.


Taking a New Road

As we strive for a holistic ministry, the United Church plans to take a new road to become an intercultural church that is open to God and all people. This journey requires mutual respect in a ministry of different races and cultures. It means reflecting on the ministry of Jesus, who travelled from Galilee to Jerusalem, moving together with, and including, different ethnic peoples. This is the vision of the reign of God, the new heaven and the new earth, where all peoples gather as one body. This is the source of eternal life.


In the midst of empire, we are called to transform the separating power of racism into the embracing power that is revealed in Jesus’ ministry. This power is the power of trust. This power is the power for our future ministry. It grows as we proclaim God’s good news through the recognition of differences and through valuing them as God-given gifts. Only then will we hear God’s voice proclaiming, “It is good. It is very, very good.”


—Rev. John Young-Jung Lee is the minister at Dentonia Park United Church in Toronto and a former president of Toronto Conference.



How Can You Use This Article?

Provide copies for a congregational outreach committee meeting or a church council meeting. Use it as the basis for a discussion on being an intercultural church. Read the article to presbytery or Conference for the same purpose.


Questions for Discussion

  • Talk about where you’ve seen and/or experienced racism, subtle or overt, in your life.
  • How did it make you feel?
  • What would you do if you experienced it today?
  • What do you think it means for the United Church to live out its commitment to becoming an intercultural church?
  • Why do you think it was difficult for Toronto Conference to set up its anti-racism task group?





         This theological reflection is published in the United Church magazine, Mandate, mission theme special edition 2008

For further conversation, please email to John Lee: johnleeucc@sympatico.ca





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Updated March 26, 2008