The General Commission on Religion and Race has challenged United Methodists to spend the month of September “dismantling” racism.
In response to this challenge, I will be sharing experiences from over 25 years of United Methodist Ministry that involve structural racism. I joined the UMC in 1990 as a student at the University of Texas, and soon thereafter, found myself working in Mexican Methodism as a volunteer in mission. Over the past 25 years, I have served within three different annual conferences located in the San Antonio Episcopal Area of the UMC, the Southwest Texas Conference, the Rio Grande Conference, and the Rio Texas Conference.
Before I begin, I want to be very clear concerning what I will be sharing and what I am not sharing.
The focus here will be on structural racism, not for the most part the crude, personal manifestations of individual bias and prejudice often associated with racism and racist character. Instead, the focus will be on tactics deployed at the institutional level that prevented an anti-racist structural reforms or outcomes.
Few of those responsible for deploying those tactics are keen to show the traditional features of racism associated with hate groups or prejudice. Some may even be persons of color.
The focus here is on behavior of the institution and this at the level of the annual, jurisdictional, and general conferences, not the local church, not the individual, and not the world. Structural racism exists where the structures are made.
Racism will refer to practices, assumptions, policies, and structures that perpetuate disproportionate privilege, power, control for White United Methodists over persons of color inside and outside the church. We consider the lack of representative inclusiveness at all levels of membership and leadership to be a feature and consequence of structural racism.
Throughout my 25 years of service, the membership of the UMC within my South Texas episcopal area has been around 80% White within a context that is less than 40% White.
Having served as chair of the Board of Global Ministries committee on Hispanic Ministries, as vice-chair of a Conference Board of Hispanic Ministries, as district missions chair in the former McAllen District, as a new church pastor, as a campus minister, as a member of the Unification Steering Team, and for the last seven years, serving as senior pastor of one of our historic Mexican-American Congregations, and as one who has consistently advocated for the inclusion of Hispanics, I have developed a unique perspective on how the institutions of the church maintain a status quo of racial and economic inequity and bias. As a straight white man, my experience is going to differ from women, people of color, and other vulnerable groups who have experienced direct bias, abuse, and violence. It is very much structural in nature.
Twice during these 25 year years, I have been part of many efforts to raise the consciousness of the delegates of my annual conference concerning the disparity between church and community demographics.
On two historic occasions, the delegates of my annual conference voted overwhelmingly to develop a plans or structures for comprehensive change that would intentionally direct the church’s agency into the mission field. The first such vote took place around 2002 in the Southwest Texas Conference, mandating a “comprehensive plan” to reach the Hispanic majority population. The second such vote was the adoption of the Unification Plan in 2014 that merged the Southwest Texas and Rio Grande Conferences under the promise of a “bold new conference” that would be pro-Hispanic. In both instances, the efforts were undermined, the comprehensive changes did not take place.
Over the next few weeks, in response to the challenge to a daily dismantling of structural racism, I will share what I have witnessed and experienced. The focus here will be on tactics: specific, strategic behaviors and practices within the institution that have been deployed to undermine and prevent anti-racist change.
Externalization is utilized by those with power to externalize our perception of the issue of racism, directing our attention to instances of racism in society at large, away from matters of racial inequality or injustice within the organization. Externalization can over generalize the “issue” of racism or focus the church narrowly on a particular event associated with racism such as an instance of violence or discrimination. Either way, the notion is removed from the constituency, experience, and agency of the church. Racism is vice, while the church is holy. Externalization can present racism as something so ubiquitous as to seem impossible to reform, or as a specific, external instance provoking a single and momentary witness or reaction.
Race bias has always been internal within the church. For this reason, externalization is a tactic of structural racism akin to denial or hypocrisy. Ethnic bias is as old as the primitive church, where Greek-speaking persons complained to the Aramiac-speaking apostles of discrimination in the distribution of food. It is as old as Jesus deciding whether or not to let a Syro-Phoenician woman have the crumbs that fall from the “master’s” table.
Racism has always been internal to Methodism. The Book of Discipline contains more provisions mandating inclusiveness of committee members than any other moral concern. Why is such language needed? To what normative and dominant population is such language directed?
John Wesley expressed ethnic bias in his sermons. Early Methodists manifested racial bias toward their African-American siblings and toward indigenous peoples. Methodist churches could not resist receiving wealthy enslavers into membership, first as members, then as clergy, and ultimately as bishops. The scandal leading to the split between the MEC and the MECS was triggered not merely by the injustice of enslavement, but encroachment of impunity into privilege, a bishop who owned slaves, a conflict between branches of church government. Methodists were active agents in the displacement of indigenous peoples and the expatriation of freed slaves to Africa.
We experience externalization most commonly in public declarations and letters responding to external events. Externalization often utilizes the language of we and them, with “we” almost always being a White church that is good and kind in spite of some bad manners that could be misunderstood as racist. Them includes the perpetrators and victims of racism.
Externalization allows us to monitor, observe, judge, and opine over what is happening in race relations or racial justice with little to no consequences on our own status or the structures that maintain that status. The voice of externalization is never the voice of the oppressed.
Our witness against injustice is necessary, but that witness cannot be externalized in a church that participates in structural racism.
Externalization failed in the 19th century and it is failing today.
When the Trump administration adopted the sadistic “Zero Tolerance” policy at the border, intentionally kidnapping children from immigrant parents in order to terrorize others from seeking asylum in the United States, the principal enforcer of this policy was a United Methodist layman, former Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions. As a U.S. Senator, Sessions was known for circulating racist and xenophobic propaganda and opposing immigration reform.
In response to the abuses of family separation, immigration advocates within the Rio Texas Conference mobilized to pass a resolution that framed this action in the language of the chargeable offenses of the Book of Discipline: child abuse, crime, racial discrimination and harassment. It called on the Attorney General to rescind the policy.
When he refused and mocked his “church friends,” hundreds of members of other annual conferences filed formal complaints challenging his status as a United Methodist member in good standing. News of these charges came out on June 19 (Juneteenth).
In this instance, the external issue, government oppression of immigrant families, was framed as an internal issue, the conduct of a church member. In response, the institution went into high gear to externalize it.
On June 20, following the President’s decision to stop mass family separation, a small group of UMC bishops serving in the area impacted by the separation released their own statement.
We are heartened to see President Trump sign an executive order today ending his administration’s policy of separating families at the border. Furthermore, we commend him for taking this action and putting the needs of these children at the forefront.http://ctc-email.brtapp.com/files/fliers_non-active_downloads/bishop/joint+statement+from+texas+bishops+on+separated+families+(002).pdf
The humanitarian and moral crisis that has escalated during the past several weeks along our southern border has been difficult to fathom.
The moral and humanitarian crisis was not at the border. That’s where the victims were. The moral and humanitarian crisis is inside the church, a church that felt a need to use the passive voice “has escalated” and commend someone who had ordered and escalated a campaign of kidnapping and terrorism against the poor. The crisis was not at the border. It was inside the established structures of privilege and power.
Weeks later, as advocates expected, the disciplinary complaints against Jeff Sessions were dismissed. The language of this dismissal follows the logic of externalization:
The judicial process of The United Methodist Church cannot be used in the matter of United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions to address political actions. A political action is not personal conduct when the political officer is carrying out official policy. In this matter, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was carrying out the official policy of the President and/or the United States Department of Justice. It was not an individual act. We believe this type of conduct is not covered but he chargeable offense provisions of The Book of Discipline…
Consider the radical quality of this dismissal. If a political action is not personal conduct, and if collective, systemic conduct is outside the authority of church discipline, then the church has no authority to address matters of systemic, political, or personal racism in the public sphere even when its own members use their power and privilege to unleash terrorism against innocent children.
To prevent one of the most powerful white men in the UMC from being legally confronted, disciplined and potentially excluded from the membership of the church, the system externalized his office and his conduct. So doing, they also externalized and marginalized his victims and their advocates.
At an immigration forum following these events, a man sitting at my table fumed against the entire action regarding family separation. In casual conversation, he said the resolution and charges were a “publicity stunt.”
I asked him, “If it was a publicity stunt, who got the publicity? Who was responsible? Who made a name for himself?” He couldn’t identify who it was. For him and for the system, the anonymous advocate, not the named agent of racism, was the hypocrite, the irritant, the agitator.
As a tactic of structural racism, externalization creates a safe space inside the church for structural racism to persist while offering those with privilege a platform to wax eloquent against the evils of racism even as they absolve those responsible for it.
We must look outside, but when we do, it is to help us better understand and to address what is inside.
Externalization avoids the question, “Why does this also happen in our organization?” By moving all perpetrating structures outside the church, externalization absolves the system of responsibility. By moving the entire dynamic of racism outside, it also tacitly externalizes those who are oppressed by racism, even when they are our own.