Drew Hart recently released his first book Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism. We sat down with Drew to talk about his book and his hopes for the church.
You call yourself an Anablacktivist – what is this exactly?
The term Anablacktivist has 3 components. The first is Black Theology as communicated from James Cone and others that explored God’s special presence, identification, and solidarity with the oppressed. The second component is Anabaptism, which includes the ongoing living Anabaptist tradition as it flows out of the 16the century and into contemporary belief and practice, asking us to truly follow Jesus’ life and teachings in our violent world. The last component is activism. We must take collective action in our everyday lives and discipleship. This could be protest, but it also could include simple daily choices like mentoring or organizing in your neighborhood.
Trouble I’ve Seen is now available for purchase. Why did you choose to tackle racism and the church in this book?
In some ways, it was an awkward time for me to try to write the book I did. I was studying and prepping for my Doctoral dissertation when I was asked to write on race in the church. I went through all the reasons that I shouldn’t do it and how it was terrible timing for me- but in the end I said yes. It was right after Mike Brown was killed and Black Lives Matter took off on the national scene, and I wanted to write something practical for the church. The church seemed to need to have truthful conversations on race and racism. So few Christians have thought about what these issues mean for their own lives and what it means for their Christian faith. And I offer a different perspective as an Anablacktivist, as well as interpretations through a sociological and theological lens.
The subtitle of “Trouble I’ve Seen” is Changing the Way the Church Views Racism. How does the church see it now and how should we view it?
Most people in the church have a thin understanding of race and racism; by this I mean they think of it as primarily about individual prejudice. They have a very personal and individualist understanding like burning crosses and the KKK, but I want to push people to have a thicker understanding of race and racism. I want to draw our understanding from the dictionary and from sociological understandings. These thicker definitions move away from the individual and are more focused on systems, structures, patterns and widespread phenomena. Some of these things we can actually observe in society and are not just something that happens in the heart. When we have the thicker definition of racism, we can name that we have a racialized society. In America, we’re all a part of this 400 years of history, and we need to navigate what that means for us today.
When you use the language of “white supremacy” most white Americans think of the KKK. For those who may feel put-off by this term, what does white supremacy look like in our modern day-to-day context?
People hear the term “white supremacy” and judge it against where we were 50 years ago. 50 years ago there were many things white people accepted without question – lynchings, segregation, widespread use of the “N-“ word, etc. So we think that if we’re doing better than that, we’ve moved on.
What many of us mean when we talk about white supremacy is racial hierarchy. There was a time when Europeans created a hierarchy based on race to categorize who was fully human and who was not. The African was imagined at the bottom of this hierarchy. And we are still socialized to believe whiteness is good, beautiful and right, and that blackness is bad and less-than. Studies in the 40’s had white and black children pick the “beautiful” doll between a black doll and a white doll. No one was surprised that the white kids named the white doll. But the black kids had the same responses. Everyone had internalized that same racialized hierarchy. Then the children were asked to name what doll looked like them, right after naming what they defined as beautiful or ugly. The black children said the black doll looked like them.
These studies have been duplicated again and again in the 21st century and we have gotten the same results. This racial framework is subtle but it shapes the way we see the world.
A simple example of how this plays out is stop and frisks. In each city I have lived in, black and brown people are more likely to be stopped by the police and frisked, and national studies reflect this trend. While most of these stops are to catch low-level drug crimes, studies show that white youth and black youth are using drugs at the same rate, yet we still give the benefit of the doubt to white people. White youth in suburban neighborhoods are not routinely being targeted on their way back and forth from school.
The lives of black and brown people are not valued in the same way as white lives.
White supremacy isn’t about “good” and “bad” people; it’s about a racialized society. We have 400 years of history, and deeply ingrained frameworks of racial hierarchy – we can’t just blink and make it go away.
On your book site, you ask, “What does it mean to pursue a Jesus-shaped way of knowing the world?” How does our Jesus-shaped way of knowing the world connect with how the church addresses white supremacy?
One of the chapters in my book is “Don’t Go With Your Gut”. I explain that for the first 350 years starting in 1619, almost everyone would agree that white people got race issues wrong. Even up to the mid 1900’s we can see this: in 1940, 7 out of 10 white people believed that “Negroes are being treated fairly”. We can all see now that wasn’t right because of segregation, church bombings, lynchings, and horrific treatment of people of color. In those 350 years, white people had been socialized in such a way that they couldn’t interpret their racial reality. They were being raised in dominant culture. However, black people knew that things weren’t right and they weren’t being treated fairly.
So now, what is the likelihood, 400 years in, that white people all of a sudden have a better understanding and are getting it right on racism, and that black people are getting it wrong and are not understanding their own experience? When you are being socialized in dominant culture, it actually blinds you from the things you are complicit in.
So the answer is to think about Jesus’ own life. He was a poor Jew living under Roman occupation. He had a cousin who was grabbed by the authorities and killed. Jesus was given a state-sanctioned execution. Jesus was on the margins of society, and if we take up his way of seeing from the underside, we see that God is always uniquely with the vulnerable and the marginalized. God chooses the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
We must ask: Do we know things from the perspective of Caesar or from the perspective of Jesus? If we are going to follow Jesus in our everyday lives, it requires a different way of seeing and knowing in the world.
In your book you offer anti-racist practices for churches to adopt. Give us an example of one of these practices.
Life together is at the center of the Christian life. Generally, the Christians who care about race and racism focus on multiethnic and multicultural churches. This usually means emphasis on a single service together on Sunday morning, but not day-to-day life together. If this is our focus, then we continue to do Monday through Saturday with racialized lives that conform to the norms of society. But life together is a life gathered around Jesus that disrupts the typical way we belong to one another in the world.
Practically, think about life together as a life gathered around the kitchen table. Who do you see from day to day? Who do you share meals with?
A second way is to link arms with those in the struggle and resist the forces of dominance that are harming and killing people. If we are to disrupt the accepted hierarchy then we have to fight it with this type of activism. How can your church be engaged in that work in your hometown? Join one of those groups, but resist the urge to need to lead it. Learn how to be a listener and follower.
What scriptures draw you into the work of reconciliation and keep you going when you’re weary?
Philippians 2:1-11 is a key Scripture for me. This is a different way to understand unity in the church. Sometimes people’s desire for unity throws a blanket over the issues, and can prevent people from talking about power dynamics and our history of oppression. But this passage is a call to be one in Christ. Its focus is on Jesus’ refusal to take advantage of his equality with God and his move towards vulnerability. He emptied himself and not only took on the form of a human, but specifically of a slave, the vulnerable in the world. Jesus is not just a universal man. There is a particular way in which he enters the world. This can help us navigate many of these issues.
Often there is a fight between the particular and the universal. But without the particular, the universal blankets and covers up the true reality of things. It’s only when Black Lives Matter that All Lives Matter. This is a true unity – but it can only exist when the most vulnerable among us are affirmed and their dignity is recognized.
Jesus affirms the humanity and dignity of the most vulnerable before God.