Post Author: Askie
I love my congregation, but I’m starting to think I might have to close my Facebook account. I have a few congregants whose postings are driving me crazy! We do disagree politically (I’m more liberal, they’re more conservative), but I think it goes beyond that. I often see them posting racist and Islamophobic things that I find really offensive. I’ve seen vitriolic posts criticizing the #blacklivesmatter movement, things about kicking all Muslims out of the country, and “jokes” based on racial stereotypes, with the comment “I’m sure someone will try to accuse me of racism, but you’ve got to admit this is just funny!” It makes me see red, Askie, and I want to do something about it, but I’m not sure what. So far I haven’t engaged. What’s a pastor to do?
Dear Anti-Racist Pastor,
Unfortunately, you are not the only one. It may be cold comfort, but know that many of your colleagues in all kinds of contexts struggle to respond appropriately to congregants’ offensive and off-putting social media posts.
Many of your YCW colleagues are also serving congregations they largely differ from in political or ideological views. That adds another dimension of difficulty: when our views differ from our congregants’ views, we sometimes struggle to discern which of our views are fundamental to the Christian witness, and which are personal political opinions. When our congregants hold views that are different from ours, it can be difficult to assess where we need to accept the political diversity of the church, and where we need to challenge views that are truly contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Racism, Askie believes, is clearly the latter – so clearly contrary to the Christian faith that it is not only acceptable, but an important part of your role as a pastor, to lead your congregants toward growth and transformation.
There are two major temptations that we tend to struggle with when confronting racism and other “isms”: on the one hand, we might be tempted to just ignore it. It’s easiest to just shake your head and scroll down to the next thing, to pretend you never saw it in the first place. On the other hand, we might be tempted to engage in ways that are shaming, snarky, or self-righteous – ways that feel good in the moment, but are ultimately not helpful. As pastors to our people, we’re charged with loving our flocks and with caring for their souls and helping them to grow, and that means we need to find a third way to respond – neither ignoring nor attacking, but engaging in a loving and challenging way that opens up the possibility of growth and transformation. Only you can know how best to do that with your people, but here are a few thoughts that might guide you as you discern how to challenge the evils of racism and other kinds of prejudice:
Take it offline: Whether you’re confronting racist memes or regular old church gossip, this is important to remember: No one ever wins a fight on a Facebook wall. Your conversation will be more loving and more productive if you have it face-to-face, or at least over the phone. One possibility would be to leave a simple comment on the offending posts: “I’d like to talk about this. I’ll give you a call.” Such a response models to others that racism should be challenged, and that there are ways to challenge it other than internet flame wars.
Do your own work: In this deeply troubled society with its entrenched racial divisions and its past and present of institutionalized racism, it is our responsibility as clergy to educate ourselves about race and racism, to reflect on our own experiences and attitudes around race, and to work for personal and societal change. Psychological research suggests that almost all of us – no matter how well-intentioned – harbor unconscious racial biases. How could we not, given our history, our culture, and our media? We should all make it an ongoing discipline to keep learning about race, to grow in self-awareness, and to work for our own transformation and for racial justice in our society. When we recognize and seek to heal our own unconscious racism, we are more able to humbly and lovingly engage our congregants in the hard work of growth.
Be loving: As infuriating as it can be to encounter our congregants at their worst, our job as pastors is to love them, care for them, and encourage them to grow toward God’s vision for them. Take extra care to love and pray for the congregants with whom you’re struggling – for your good, for their good, and for the good of the church!
Engage with empathy, imagination, and curiosity: Engage with empathy, imagination, and curiosity: As their pastor, you are uniquely positioned to help your congregants grow spiritually. If you engage in a way that is accusatory or shaming, the natural human response is to respond defensively. But if you can find a more inviting way to open the conversation, you may be able to open the door for real change. One African American clergywoman Askie consulted notes that it can be especially helpful to invite stories of ways that the congregant’s own family has been affected by discrimination and prejudice. (Paradoxically, this nation of immigrants has been suspicious of “outsiders” since the very beginning, so most people have a story about discrimination in the lives of their grandparents or great-grandparents, if not their own lives.) Exploring these stories and then expanding to thinking about discrimination in the lives of people of color and immigrants can help congregants grow toward empathy in their own views about race and immigration. Askie’s colleague also adds that it can be helpful to focus on “dismantling unaware whiteness” rather than “pointing out racist behavior.” White Americans are often unaware of the ways that their own racial identity affects their lives and experiences of the world, and helping congregants become more aware of this can offer them opportunities for challenge, growth, and a deeper pastoral relationship. Whether you take this approach or pursue another strategy, imagination and empathy are essential as we seek healing and growth around race and racism.
One final note, Anti-Racist Pastor: while offensive views on your congregants’ Facebook pages are one thing, overt racism in the community of faith is something else entirely. If racist behavior or language should become an issue at church, don’t hesitate to work with your lay leaders or denomination to set clear expectations of appropriate behavior for the good of the body. Prayers for you, as you navigate these troubled (and troubling) waters. May your conversations be fruitful and Spirit-led, and may you and your congregants grow in wisdom and in faith.
Image by: James Clay
Used with permission