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.
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….”
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.
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
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,
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?