Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
I was reminded of a John Wesley quote the other day while reading a FiveThirtyEight piece on (mis)perceptions of the racial wealth gap.
For those who don't know, the wealth gap between White and non-white Americans is striking: one federal government survey found that "the typical White family has eight times the wealth of the typical Black family and five times the wealth of the typical Hispanic family." Yet, as the FiveThirtyEight article points out, Americans consistently and dramatically underestimate that racial wealth gap.
The article, entitled "Why Many Americans Can't See the Wealth Gap Between White and Black America" and written by Neil Lewis Jr., argues that one of the major reasons why Americans do not have an accurate sense of the racial wealth gap is because of de facto residential and social segregation. Lewis argues:
"The nature of segregation in the U.S. means that we only end up seeing and learning about what our own groups experience, making it hard to understand the lives of people outside of our own group. This explains, in part, why Americans have such a hard time understanding just how unequal our nation is, and moreover, the racialized nature of that inequality."
It struck me that Lewis' assessment of the situation mirrors perfectly John Wesley's assessment of the failure of the rich to understand the plight of the poor in 18th century England. In his sermon, "On Visiting the Sick," Wesley wrote:
"One great reason why the rich, in general, have so little sympathy for the poor, is, because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is, that, according to the common observation, one part of the world does not know what the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it; and then plead their voluntary ignorances an excuse for their hardness of heart."
One could easily substitute "Whites" for "the rich" and "Blacks" for "the poor," and this quote could describe the problems with making progress on racial justice in the 2020s United States just as well as it did class injustice in Wesley's England. It captures the separation of social networks and the ways in which the privileged are quite comfortable in maintaining that separation, lest their privilege be threatened in some way.
The importance of connection to understanding of racial injustice and motivation to address it is also a major conclusion in Michael Emerson and Christian Smith's landmark study Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Emerson and Smith argue that one significant reason why white evangelicals fail to understand the systemic nature of racial disadvantage in the United States is because they are not sufficiently connected to networks of people of color from whom white evangelicals could learn about the experiences of their lives.
Emerson and Smith are not optimistic about the power of religion to address this form of racial misunderstanding driven by social distance. Indeed, they write that "religion, as structured in America, is unable to make a great impact on the racialized society. In fact, far from knocking down racial barriers, religion generally serves to maintain these historical divides, and helps to develop new ones." (p. 18) By "structured," Emerson and Smith are referring to the racialized nature of most congregations and denominations in the United States.
Emerson and Smith do not examine in depth the role of Christian mission in addressing this problem. But Wesley was convinced that the practice of mission could help build understanding and empathy across differences. That was the point of his sermon. And many missiologists have emphasized that point since Wesley: mission can be a force for building understanding across racial boundaries, understanding that can then be used to work for greater racial justice.
Nevertheless, for mission to be successful in this regard, that increase in understanding must be an explicit goal, and those engaging in mission must have the right spiritual attitude. Wesley preached, "Whenever, therefore, you are about to enter upon the work, seek his help by earnest prayer. Cry to him for the whole spirit of humility, lest if pride steal into your heart, if you ascribe anything to yourself, while you strive to save others you destroy your own soul."
If White people practice mission as charity to Black people in a way that reinforces their own sense of racial pride, not only will it fail to produce greater understanding, it will destroy their own souls! Humility and openness, then, are requisite to this process of learning about and from other perspectives.
There is much in American society that conspires to prevent this type of cross-racial learning, and missiology as a practice and a discipline has not been without blame in this regard, as David Evans and Otto Harris have demonstrated on this blog.
Yet for those who believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of equality for all persons, there are additional resources and practices in the faith to be used to advance that understanding of the gospel. Building cross-racial compassion through webs of relationships is one such important resource.