On a recent Good Faith podcast, Rev. Justin Giboney and host Curtis Chang discuss how the Black church provides insight on the limitations of the progressive/conservative labels for all of us. Justin and Curtis also share candidly from their own experiences, giving everyone an intimate window into the complexities of racial identity and faith.
In this lightly edited transcript, they discussed how the church should — and should not — respond to the shifts in the cultural conversation surrounding race.
CURTIS CHANG: Explain to our listeners the relationship between the Black Lives Matter movement and the Black church, because I think that’s a complicated relationship as what I can observe from the outside. Can you let us into that relationship and what’s going on in it and what can we all learn from how that relationship is playing out?
JUSTIN GIBONEY: There’s some overlap, all right, so they’re not completely separate. I mean you’ll find people in the church who have marched and who may be a part of local Black Lives Matter organizations. You’ll probably be hard pressed to find a mid-size or fairly large church that doesn’t have people who kind of interact with both. One of the ways that I’ve tried to put it is, the truth of the matter is, the church as a whole, Black Lives Matter filled a void that maybe we weren’t filling at that moment, so they had to step up and do what they did because there was something the church wasn’t getting to it as quickly or maybe there was something missing from the message. So there’s something there that we can learn from, while at the same time saying that there are certainly some stances that come from Black Lives Matter that are counter to the gospel, and we need to be able to, again, take the merits and kind of leave the things or have a larger discussion about the things that we think aren’t so helpful to the community.
CURTIS CHANG: Can you break that down a little more? Like what would be some examples of things in the Black Lives Matter movement, the secular movement that as Black Christians and as Christians in general that we should be like, well let’s be careful or cautious, or at least circumspect in what we adopt wholeheartedly?
JUSTIN GIBONEY: I think the treatment of extended and nuclear family in the way that is essential to the thriving of the Black community. That’s something that was taken from us during slavery. I don’t understand why any organization that supports Black people would almost want to commit the same things themselves to take that from us again, and so that’s where we would really push back. Somehow before we even solved many of the police abuse issues in the Black community, it became more of an LGBTQ conversation which was very odd and strange to me, and so I think there would be pushback there. While we can, there are certainly rights that we can all come together and fight for for that community, I do think it became something that wasn’t necessarily serving or helping the Black community or the initial problem at hand. So those things I think the church will push back against while at the same time saying that this isn’t something we need to completely throw away. There was something that was being said, there was something that was done that was helpful for the community, and how do we double down on that, support folks on that even if we have our differences.
CURTIS CHANG: Got it. Justin, you’re providing such helpful insights and perspective for all of us. Sometimes, we bring guests on Good Faith that just trigger in me and in the past we called this a rant alert. I’m going to give you a rant alert here. What you’re telling me is causing me to think about some things. What you’re describing in the Black church is describing for me as an Asian American this tension that I’ve had as an Asian American growing up in this country, and the best way I can put this tension, it’s the tension from that I feel like the larger society wants to either boil away my racial identity, so boil away my racial entity to make it almost go away, or to boil me down to my racial identity, to reduce everything to my racial identity. So this tension I feel between society wanting to boil away my racial identity or to boil me down to my racial identity, I’m sensing kind of those same strains in a lot of the narrative that you’re telling. For me, the boiling away, it really occurred a lot in my youth growing up. I grew up in a all-white suburb of, mostly all-white suburb of Chicago, heavily Jewish. All my friends were white Jews. What was your background?
JUSTIN GIBONEY: I was born in Denver, Colorado, and so I was raised in a suburb called Aurora. I always around fairly diverse groups. And so I went to school, sometimes I went to school and that was one of four Black people in the class, three Black people in the class, but generally, Denver had quite a bit of diversity where I was.
CURTIS CHANG: Okay, I didn’t have that. So when race would come up as a youth, the most common response I got was, “oh gosh, Curtis, when I see you, I don’t see a Chinese person. I just see Curtis.” And it was well-intentioned. I think there was well-intentioned sentiment, but I always felt like, oh my gosh, you’re like boiling away some part of who I am, because when you say you don’t see a Chinese person when you see Curtis, you’re telling me that you don’t want to see some very important parts of my identity, of the reality that as a three-year-old, I immigrated to this country with parents and myself not knowing a word of English and having to navigate this new world and new language, and that’s part of me, that’s Curtis. Or, that I spend some of my most joyous moments with my family eating Chinese food and talking to each other in Chinglish, and that’s me. Like you can’t really understand me if you don’t see that, or that growing up, I suffered the experience of other kids surrounding me and making like slanty eyes, the white kids making slanty eyes at me and saying, “ching chong, ching ching ching chong,” things like that. That’s all part of who I am growing up, and frankly, God has used all those experiences to shape who I am, and so when you say I don’t see a Chinese person when I see you, Curtis, I feel like you’re just trying to boil away all these essential realities, both good and bad, that were used by God to form who I am. So I’m curious, Justin, in your own experience, what’s the version of that for yourself or for other Black Americans this pressure to boil away our racial identity?
JUSTIN GIBONEY: Yeah, and I think what you’re getting at is kind of colorblindness versus a kind of identity idolatry or a racial essentialism, so to speak. And so, being from diverse spaces meant that sometimes I would be mostly with Black friends and mostly with white friends, and I think the experience of people saying, “hey, we don’t see your race is almost saying you fit in with us, like you’re kind of one of us. Aside from who you really are, you kind of fit in with us.” And so while it may be well-intended, it is, at the end of the day, somewhat insulting because they’re saying there’s more to me and my goal isn’t really just to fit in with you. Can we acknowledge our differences and appreciate each other within our differences?
That’s really what we need to focus on whereas on the other side, many cases, and I think to your point, this is where we would disagree with some of what some folks from Black Lives Matter would be saying. Martin Luther King talked about the content of character, but it’s almost in some instances that we’ve gone against that, that we said no, “I know everything about you just based on your racial identity.”
That is so far from the truth. People are so much more than what comes to the eye and what their racial or ethnic identity might tell you. I mean, that really can put us in a bad place, just like colorblindness can, because when you try to say that you’re colorblind and you don’t see race, you’re not going to consider some of the things that you should consider based on racial disparities, based on historic and current disparities that really do need to be addressed, things that may offend someone or things that may sound one way to one group and then different to another. If you say you’re colorblind, then you don’t pay attention or consider those things at all, and they need to be considered. So, we do have to find the space where we can acknowledge difference but not make difference the primary thing, right, not make race, so not go into this kind of racial essentialism where we think we know everything about somebody and what they’ve been through just based on ontology, racial ontology.
Here’s the thing. I don’t think we have to create a false dichotomy. Like it’s not me being a Christian or me being a Black man, right? The most important thing to me is making sure people hear and see the gospel through me. That’s generally going to come through my expression which much of which comes from the Black church, right, and so that’s going to be the expression that they see, but that shouldn’t override the true message. And so we don’t need to completely separate the two, because we were born into these contexts. We speak and see the gospel through these contexts. We can have this sort of identity idolatry which would cause us to put that context ahead of the actual substance of the gospel.
I just always want people to say, “well okay, I’m going to see his context, it’s not going to be able to separate, completely separate him from the context.” My whole thing is to say, “here’s what we’ve gotten wrong.” And so one of the things I think that comes with identity idolatry is never to admit that your culture has gotten certain things wrong or that your culture may have some pathology.
The gospel gives everybody a responsibility to be gracious. There’s no position that you can be in in society or no class you can be in or race you can be in where you’re not responsible for treating people right, being gracious and spreading the gospel in a way that people can receive it, and I think if our identity, if we start to think our identity exempts us from some of that, or somebody else’s identity means that they don’t suffer somehow, then I think we do miss the gospel and so that’s how I try to make sure that the gospel is being heard, even within the context that I bring or the background that I bring to the conversation.
The Good Faith podcast comes out every Saturday on The Dispatch. Listen and subscribe here or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Curtis Chang is the founder of Redeeming Babel.
PHOTO CREDIT: Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash
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