3 Lessons on Racism that Churches can Learn from Donald Sterling

On Saturday a recording surfaced of a conversation between the owner of the NBA’s LA Clippers, Donald Sterling, and his girlfriend. This recording contained some very racist comments made my Sterling. It wasn’t that he was calling people names, but his distaste for African-Americans was clear. For instance, he told his girlfriend that he didn’t want her bringing her black friends to Clippers games.

On Tuesday the NBA commissioner announced that he was suspending Donald Sterling from the NBA for life, and fining him 2.5 million dollars. He also believed that the other owners would vote to force Sterling to sell the team. (This article contains a good summary of these events.)

This is not a sports blog. In this post I don’t intend to analyze whether or not this incident has been handled correctly. Here are 3 lessons I believe churches can learn from this mess.

1. Racism is a Big Deal.

Many churches across America ignore racial division in the church. The vast majority churches can be described as black, or white, or Asian, or Hispanic, etc. Remarkably few churches have a membership that matches the demographics of their community. Most churches are unwilling to take steps to change the racial and cultural mix of their congregation.

The lack of urgency regarding the racial mix of churches across America is jarring. Contrast this ambivalence with the urgency the NBA players showed in their response to Donald Sterling’s comments. They were willing to boycott playoff games if they believed the response of the league was inadequate.

Perhaps we get comfortable sitting in our familiar buildings looking at familiar faces. Perhaps we lose sight of attitude shifts in the broader society. But this incident and the immediate public and player backlash demonstrate that today racism is a big issue with very little tolerance for those spewing hate.

While I certainly don’t imagine any churches I know would issue statements like those Sterling made, the lesson to absorb is that we cannot overlook the messages we project regarding race relations because this is a big deal.

2. There are No Excuses.

When this story first broke on Saturday I heard a few comments along the lines of, “Sterling is 81. He’s an old man and his statements reflect the values of the society in which he was raised. We should just fine him and get on with the playoffs.” The ensuing public furor quickly made that approach indefensible.

Churches have many members that lived through the civil rights turmoil of the 1960’s. In predominantly white churches many of these members and their families were opposed to the reforms sought by the civil rights movement.

Today most of these same people love their multicultural neighbours just as God does. But many churches also harbour people who, like Sterling, continue to speak negatively of other races. They may not express these thoughts publicly, but they express them around the dinner table when they see another Mexican restaurant open in town.

I know that we have people in our churches who often passively project a message saying, “I don’t mind if you have black friends at school or work, but don’t bring them to my church.” Churches don’t place signs on the street saying “Minorities Unwelcome”, but neither do most churches communicate the message that minorities will be welcomed.

Some people will say that Sterling shouldn’t be punished for comments he made in the privacy of his own home.

When it comes to God we don’t have any privacy. We can’t make the excuse that although I think racist thoughts and don’t trust or welcome anyone representing a different culture, I’m not a racist because I don’t act badly toward them.

God’s standard is not whether we act badly toward those of other cultures. God’s standard asks us whether or not we love them! 1 John 4:20 won’t allow us to compartmentalise our lives between the way we view the Creator and his Creation, “If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?

When it comes to racism, there are NO excuses!

3. Racism Contaminates Everyone It Touches.

Did you notice how quickly the NBA started the process for removing Sterling’s association with the league? Within four days of the recording becoming public he can no longer enter team premises or attend NBA games, even though he owns the team!

This can potentially be a tough lesson for churches to implement. Churches are filled with sinful people making a journey toward God. Christians bring many sinful habits and attitude to church with us. It is quite possible that someone who attends a wonderful church could make racially insensitive, or even hateful, comments. This will inevitably reflect upon the church. However, churches need to view instances of racism as severe sins and spiritual immaturity. We need to actively work to transform those attitudes into those closer to God’s heart.

For this reason churches must make clear statements about God’s view of race relations. We must articulate that God loves all races and cultures. We recognise and acknowledge the differences between us. We value the diversity of our society as a gift that gives us new eyes through which to see and experience God.

When churches establish a culture that respects ethnic diversity, our community will be much more likely to view isolated insensitivities and statements as not representative of the church and God.  But if churches fail to make clear positive statements regarding the importance of racial harmony our community will clearly hear us making a negative statement.

If you have some additional ideas of ways churches can learn from these recent events, please continue the conversation by leaving a comment.

Immigration is Tough

I took a couple of days vacation this week, so I’m also taking a short cut with this blog post. I recently came across this article on ESPN that describes the challenges confronting Latin American baseball players who’ve been raised in poverty when they move to the US.

“Let’s cut Yasiel Puig some slack”

Yasiel Puig is a star player for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Puig was born and raised in Cuba. He defected from Cuba in 2012 and shortly after signed a multimillion dollar contract with the Dodgers.

Yasiel PuigIn June 2013 Puig made his major league debut. Since then he has seemingly made a habit of attracting controversy and criticism. Off the field he’s twice been arrested for driving 40-50+ mph over the speed limit. On the field he’s been criticised for some of his decisions and effort. His attitude toward the media  has also lacked cooperation at  times leading to more criticism.

If you’re an American member of the media, or coaching staff, or fan, you look at his behaviour and evaluate it based upon standards and social expectations with which you’re familiar. In this article Dan Le Batard does a good job of explaining all the adjustments Puig, and other Latin American players, go through when they find instant wealth in a new country.

I share this article here as a reminder that many industries have to work through the cultural challenges that arise in a multicultural environment. Churches can learn from these businesses and industries. Over time Puig will undoubtedly become more familiar with American expectations and customs, but in the meantime he will continue to fumble his way through social situations and probably offend some people as well.

This article reminds me that often we know very little of what’s going on in  a person’s life that motivates their behaviours and attitudes. We need to  exercise care not to simply criticise behaviours without making and effort to understand what’s going on int he bigger picture of their life.

I remember an elderly lady in my home church who emigrated from Germany after World War II. Fairly regularly she would drop an expletive into a conversation. She was a wonderful Christian so this always seemed very strange. One day I learned that her husband had been killed by the Nazis and she’d emigrated on her own. She’d found work wherever she could get it and worked in the fields harvesting crops for many years. In that environment she was exposed to a lot of course language at the same time she was learning English. She simply didn’t have anyone in her life to help her navigate the social acceptance of particular words. Knowing that back story really helped to understand conversations I’d had with her!

The Conference Conundrum

Late last year I came across an article describing the lack of racial diversity among speakers at major evangelical conferences around the US.

Since I can be a pretty skeptical guy, let me get the limitations of this article out of the way:

  • The numbers are not serious research as they were determined simply by the author scanning names and photo’s of speakers at the various conferences. (I expect they should still be pretty close to accurate.)
  • The article’s bottom line that only 13% of conference speakers represent minorities is skewed by some conferences with many speakers but low minority involvement. In fact about one-quarter of the conferences listed have 20% or higher minority speakers.
  • The numbers do not reflect the percentage of “unique” speakers, either white or minority. It could be the same 5 black and Hispanic speakers at each conference!
  • Some of the organizations that host these conferences serve mostly white churches. The speakers reflect the target audience.
  • The evangelical movement is largely a white movement. As the article itself points out 81% of evangelicals are non-hispanic whites. Wouldn’t we expect their conferences to be largely white?
  • This is not just a white issue. The religious landscape is scattered with black denominations, hispanic workshops, etc.

Despite the limitations listed above I thought the article raised a valid point on whether these significant and influential events among evangelical church leadership should better reflect the goal of racial diversity.

In a similar analysis Mark DeYmaz concluded that based upon US population distribution at least 25% of conference speakers would be non-White. He’s not arguing for quotas or compromising the quality of speakers, just more awareness of this issue and the racial landscape of the United States.

I’ve never organized or hosted a major conference. All my reflection should be understood through that lens.

These major events that attract thousands of church leaders have an easily generalised goal of influencing the church to be more passionate and effective in carrying out the mission of God. In many ways these conferences seek to model what local churches can look like, and inspire them to move in certain directions.

If a conference rolls out white male after white male speaker, it implies that these white men are the keepers of God’s word for the church today. It discourages minorities from attending the conference as their social context and cultural perspective will not be represented. It further insulates the “white church” from the influence of other people groups and thus perpetuates the issue of segregation within the church.

I’m not at all blaming conferences for the segregation of the church. I am criticising these conferences for not leading the movement toward racially integrated churches. I see this as an opportunity missed.

Because I know some people will quickly point a finger at the various workshops and conferences catering to minority groups let me address that topic for a moment.

Some of those conferences need to exist to serve a particular language group. Some of those conferences exist because they function as identity preservation for a particular cultural group. (If there was a conference for “Australian church leaders working in the US”, I’d try to get there!) Some of these workshops allow issues specific to Asian-American immigrants to be addressed by those familiar with the issues.

I’m not trying to argue that all conferences should offer a melting pot of speakers and attendees.

However, even within the workshops that cater specifically to non-White populations it seems that many of the arguments for greater diversification still have some validity. I would hope that all church leaders across the racial spectrum agree that we can learn from each other.

If there isn’t room for racial diversity in our iconic events, then there’s unlikely to be room for this enrichment in our local congregations.

Thankfully, DeYmaz could also reflect, “With this in mind, we should be encouraged as trends are moving in a positive direction.

If you’re interested in multi-ethnic conferences here are a couple to consider: