Episode 054 – Knowing the Past to Make a Better Future (With Sarah Sanderson)
Do you know the hidden history of the place where you live? If we want to be part of God’s work of bringing restoration and liberation, we can’t ignore what’s happened in the past. Telling this truth is the only way to get to healing.
- Get Sarah’s book:
- Other Books Mentioned:
- Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair by Duke Kwon & Greg Thompson
- The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby
- Dear White Peacemakers: Dismantling Racism with Grit and Grace by Osheta Moore
- Scroll down for a full transcript of this episode.
- You can also watch and share the video version on Youtube.
More about My Conversation Partner
Sarah L. Sanderson is a writer, speaker, and teacher. Her writing has appeared in PBS Newshour, Blackpast, Christianity Today, and various other journals. She’s a thoughtful human, a justice-minded Christian, and a skilled writer.
- Find Sarah at www.SarahLSanderson.com
- Threads: @sarahlsandersonwriter
- Facebook: sarah.sanderson
- Instagram: @sarahlsandersonwriter
- The Apprenticehip Notes Newsletter – Monthly-ish writing just for you on spiritual growth in the other-centered, co-suffering way of Jesus.
Marc Schelske 0:00
Do you know the hidden history of the place where you live? If we want to be part of God’s work to bring restoration and liberation, we can’t ignore what’s happened in the past, as much as we’d like to. Telling this truth is the only way to get to healing. Hey, friends, I’m Marc Alan Schelske, and this is The Apprenticeship Way, a podcast about spiritual growth following the way of Jesus. This is episode 54. Knowing the past to make a better future.
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About eight minutes down the street from my house is the historic main street of Oregon City. Oregon City is the town at the end of the Oregon Trail. For certain Americans in the mid 1800s, Oregon City was a symbol of hope. It meant a new start, the possibility of land and work, a place to build your family and a future. That vision was so compelling that somewhere between 300,000 and half-a-million people traveled the Oregon Trail in about a five year period. And that vision lies at the heart of how Americans and Oregonians see themselves. Hearty, creative people willing to work hard to succeed. People who will pack up all their earthly belongings and head west across a continent, just to give their families a better chance. This is part of what many of us think it means to be American.
But Oregon City, that city of hope, is also the town where, in 1851, a black innkeeper named Jacob Vanderpool was tried and convicted explicitly for the crime of being a black man. Yep, Oregon. The lovely state where I live was founded as a whites-only state. The Oregon Territory had a law banning black people from remaining in the territory, and later the constitution of Oregon expanded on this with an exclusion clause that did two things. It banned slavery in the territory, but it also prohibited black people from living there. That clause remained in the Constitution until 1926.
When I look around at the state that I live in, I first see the beautiful trees, and the overwhelming beauty of the Columbia Gorge, and the rich, vibrant farmland of the Willamette Valley. That’s all easy to see. But for some of us–people who look like me–it can be easy to overlook that there are hardly any black people here. Officially, the 2020 Census reported that only 2% of the population of Oregon identified as Black or African American, and almost all of those live in a single county in one city. This is not an accident, the stark reality of that matters.
There are folks here–I count myself among them–who believe that the way of Jesus requires an open invitation without discrimination, and that Jesus’ other-centered way leads us to participate in restoration and liberation in our world. But to do that, we need to understand why our world is the way that it is. So, all that’s why I found Sarah Sandersons new book, The Place We Make, so compelling and helpful. Sarah is a neighbor of mine; she lives a few minutes from me. In her beautifully written book, she researches the story of Jacob Vanderpool, that innkeeper who was exiled from Oregon because he was black (and also so that a white man, another innkeeper could eliminate his business competition). During Sarah’s research, she discovered more about how this happened, how similar things happened to the native people who lived on the very land where Oregon City now stands, and even how her own family was involved.
Many of us (most of us, maybe?) have long since acknowledged the harrowing and unjust history that lies behind the mythology of our country. Many of us genuinely want to be part of building a more just community. But those big ideas can quickly become abstract, and as long as they stay abstract, it’s tough to imagine concrete steps we can take to move things forward. Sarah’s book grounds this history in real people and real places. Most of the names I recognize. I’ve stood in many of the places. And as I read, I found the abstractions of this enormous problem dissolving in the local details. I suspect that every community across America could use a book like this. Sara’s goal in this book is not to instill shame, it’s to uncover the truth. Shame is a terrible motivation for change. But as Jesus told us, the truth will set us free. Being able to look at the truth behind the places we find ourselves in is a crucial step to being able to be part of making those places more welcoming and more just.
So, I’m thrilled to introduce you to Sarah and her book. I recommend her book wholeheartedly. Sarah is a writer, a speaker, and a teacher. Her writing has appeared in PBS News Hour, Black Past, Christianity Today, and various other journals. She’s a thoughtful human, a justice-minded Christian, and a skilled writer. In The Place We Make, Sarah quotes Mark Charles, a pastor who is also a Native American and a Native American activist. He said, “The heart of our nation’s problem with race is that we do not have a common memory.” This seems to be the driving motivation for her book, and so I asked Sarah to talk about what that means for her.
Sarah Sanderson 10:15
Yeah, that quote was really powerful for me. The way that we, as white people, think about our past and talk about our past is different from the way people of color think and talk about their past. And it feels a lot of time like we’re just talking past each other, especially with recent laws that have gone in–I touch on in the book, and they’ve only gotten worse since the book was published. These states that are removing African American courses from their curriculum, they’re removing standards…,
Marc Schelske 10:50
Sarah Sanderson 10:51
And I don’t know if you saw this little clip of an animated video that they’ve created–Prager University has created to show in Florida?
Marc Schelske 11:04
Sarah Sanderson 11:04
And the little Christopher Columbus saying, “Before you judge, just remember that in those days, slavery was no big deal.”
Marc Schelske 11:11
Right? Right. Exactly!
Sarah Sanderson 11:12
It’s like, that is the epitome of this lack of common memory. Who are we talking about, when we say slavery was no big deal? Clearly, we’re not talking about the people who were enslaved, because it was kind of a big deal to them. So can we, as white people, move closer toward understanding what is it about a person of colors holding of their history, rather than moving farther apart? So that the divide keeps getting bigger and we keep talking past each other? Can we move closer toward understanding? “Oh, yeah, it was a big deal, and I need to look at that, honestly.”
Marc Schelske 11:56
Man, that’s, I think, a really helpful frame. I know, in my own personal experience–this is not to make any of my suffering analogous to slavery–but the emotional experience of having something bad happen, explaining that to somebody else, or responding, and having them tell you, “It wasn’t a big deal.” That emotional experience is rough. It’s not fun. And it’s not fun even when the issue at hand is not really a giant situation. My emotional response to being told I’m overreacting is never, “Oh, you’re right. Thanks for illuminating me.”
For me to imagine that the specific trauma that we’re talking about is not only slavery, where individuals and families were forced to work without pay, were treated brutally, their lives were treated as not valuable, they weren’t given care that they needed, often killed. You know, it’s not only that, but then that is embedded in a larger system, at that time, that narrated to the world, “OK, not only is it okay, this is what has to exist, this is the only way that we can have an effective economy.” Think about all of the pressure during the final phase of the COVID locked down. How there was so much pressure that we have to get back, because if we don’t, the economy will collapse. And then, multiply that across the billions and billions and billions of dollars involved in the slave trade, and listen to the voices of white people–not all white people owned slaves, but all white people participated in the economy that slavery allowed–and so then, for those people to say, “Well, the economy requires this.” Right? And then generations later, to be told when an African American person speaks up and says, “There are still traumatic consequences of this in the world and in our lives,” when they speak up and say that, to be told, “It’s not that big of a deal. It didn’t actually happen to you. Why are you reacting this way?” How do we end up in that place? How can a children’s curriculum like the Prager U curriculum that you mentioned, say, without being ironic, it just wasn’t that big of a deal?
Sarah Sanderson 14:14
Yeah, you’re touching on another thing that I really wanted to get at with my book, which was that history has shaped now and it’s still with us now.
Marc Schelske 14:26
Sarah Sanderson 14:27
And so you know, you can’t just say like, “Well, these things happened a long time ago. Why are we still complaining about them?” Because the things that they did are still here, you know? The processes and the systems and the, you know… as you mentioned, like who lives in Oregon today was shaped by what happened over a hundred and fifty years ago. And so for us to really look at, how is our history still with us? And for me, it was a lot about examining my own heart as a white person, and things that I didn’t realize were still with me. And to look at, “Okay, where is white supremacy culture showing up in my own heart?”
Marc Schelske 15:16
Yeah, the question that you just asked, I think, really is the heart of this whole conversation. It’s the heart of both what needs to be said and the heart of what I think a lot of people reject and react to. “What is the place of white supremacy in my heart?” Because I have not had personal relationships with a white person who identifies as a white supremacist. In our minds, when we hear that phrase, we imagine a sort of very visible, stark figure whose life is oriented around violent racial behavior. So we think of the KKK. We think of cross burnings. You know, maybe it’s dressed up a little bit, and we think of like David Duke, and how he was running for president some years ago–and that seemed crazy to some people. And so all of that is so very easy to push away across a line, that it belongs to other people, that belongs to bad people, that belongs to hateful people. And I mean, honestly, I don’t think most any of us identify ourselves as hateful.
Sarah Sanderson 16:18
Marc Schelske 16:18
And certainly, very few would say, “Yep, I am a white supremacist.” That is a label that’s attached to things that we don’t necessarily think of for ourselves, most of us. So when you ask the question, “how do I see white supremacy working in my own heart?” I don’t think what you mean by that is, “In what way am I a participant in the KKK or desiring to do racial violence?” I don’t think that’s what you mean. So what what does that mean?
Sarah Sanderson 16:46
It’s a good question. I got so familiar with the language in my own head, and my mom read the book, and she was like, “Are you sure you want to tell people you’re a white supremacist?” Like, well, that’s not what I’m trying to say. No, I don’t belong to the KKK. But it was a literal hierarchy of white people at the top, and then this, and then this, and then black people at the bottom. What are the ways that this thinking has seeped into my mental framework, without me even being aware of it?
I was very much a person who thought that I loved everyone and wanted to serve everyone. When I was 20, I went off to Malawi, and… you know, I wanted to help little African babies. I mean, my whole narrative of myself was “I’m a person who’s doing the right thing for the right reasons.”
Marc Schelske 17:40
Sarah Sanderson 17:41
And then, when I got to Malawi, the first morning I was there, I looked out the window and the first thought that flashed into my head was, “This is a dangerous place.” And then I realized, I only think that because these people are black. And I did not know that lived in me. I had no idea that I was equating black skin with danger. But as I thought about it, of course, that’s the lie that had been fed to me my whole life.
Marc Schelske 18:15
Sarah Sanderson 18:15
And you see that lie everywhere! And so, to be willing to say, “OK, yes. This lie exists, and, it has affected me.” That’s not the same thing as saying, “I’ve signed up for the KKK,” but it’s saying, “How can I deconstruct the lies that are swimming around in my head without me even knowing that they’re there?”
Marc Schelske 18:36
That’s the insidious part. Because, I think, if the idea that white supremacy exists in the neighborhood of people who want to do racial violence, I can discount it as nothing to do with me. And I can even think that what is necessary to fix that is that the people who have those feelings need to have their feelings changed. They need a heart change, right? It’s a sin problem. They need to have Jesus change their heart so that they love everyone.
That pushes the whole conversation into a very individualistic space, where the solution is for individual people to decide in their heart to be loving and kind. Well, certainly, I am all in favor of individual people deciding in their heart to be loving and kind. The trouble is that when it comes to things like mortgages, we don’t get to have a mortgage by deciding in our heart to be someone who is a responsible mortgage holder. There are gatekeepers who evaluate us on certain standards, some of those standards we know and some of them we don’t. And they decide whether we can get a mortgage, or more realistically, they decide whether we can get a mortgage that is in an affordable range for us, which is the same as deciding if we can get one or not. But it never involves them telling us no, right. They just say, “Oh sure, you can get a mortgage with a 21% interest rate.” And you’re like, “Well, I guess that’s not going to happen,” and you move on. And so that isn’t an individual thing. There’s a system in place.
So then when we back up from that system, and we learn about redlining in Oregon, where there’s neighborhoods that explicitly would not allow people of color to get a mortgage. I have church members who live in those neighborhoods now, people who own mortgages in neighborhoods where black people didn’t get the mortgages, right. And so while that individual may not have been racist in their explicit thoughts, it’s conceivable to say that there was a benefit that occurred to them that goes all the way back.
You know, you’ve got this beautiful painting… picture, wood cut, or painting of Oregon City at a certain date on the cover of your book. I can see those places. I’ve walked on those streets, and to realize that that city exists there at the expense of an indigenous community that was removed. Yeah, that’s not something you see when you’re walking down Main Street, Oregon City, stopping at the coffee shop, reading a book in the bookstore? You don’t have to think about that.
Sarah Sanderson 21:00
Right? Yeah. And I think that a lot of times the knee-jerk response of people who don’t want to deal with this issue is to say, “Well, it’s too big. We can’t give Oregon City back. So why would we even bother?” Right? But like figuring out, first of all, what happened? And then second of all, how was what happened–like you say–showing up today? And then, what piece of it can we take responsibility for? And you’re right, it’s got to be both big and small. Major laws have to be changed. And whole systems have to be turned upside down. But also, there are small things in each of our local locations that can be talked about. When we look at the local things, it starts to suggest what a path might be to respond.
Marc Schelske 22:02
I’m interested in hearing about that path of personal response. Let’s move in that direction. But first, before we do, you were involved in this project for quite some time. You have your head in these books and this research project, you’re getting familiar with these characters, coming face to face with, not only the events that happen historically, but even how your own family is entangled in that, Talk about what that was like for you. What personal insights came to you while working through this project?
Sarah Sanderson 22:33
When I began, I just simply was curious about… My brother had just told me, “Hey, Oregon was founded on anti-black exclusion laws,” and I had no idea. I was shocked. I wanted to know more. I came across Jake Vanderpool ‘s name on a website and something just kind of pulled me in. I wanted to know more about this one person, I think because it was one story. It felt like it was maybe possible to wrap my hands around this one person who lived really close to where I live today. Then when I got into it, I realized that my own family members had been part of the story, which I didn’t know when I began. My family members lived there at the time that Jacob Vanderpool was there, and so then it became personal for me. My family members were witnesses to this. And then I found out that I’m related to Theophilus McGruder, the guy who pressed charges against Jacob Vanderpool. Not only did they witness it, but they made it happen!
The concept that kept coming to me was when Nehemiah stands…Nehemiah and Ezra, in Nehemiah, chapter nine, they bring all the people of Israel, they’re coming back from exile. And it says they stood in their places and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors. And I think that’s something we don’t really know how to do today. We don’t want to confess the sins of our ancestors; we don’t really even want to confess our own sin.
Marc Schelske 24:12
Sure. Sure. Well, the issue then is that we have such a an individualized view of identity, and that has tracked into the way that Christians talk about the gospel. And so of course, sinners need to confess their sins, particularly if they get caught, right? So that’s very focused. An individual did a bad thing. Part of the process of restoration, reconciliation, and ultimately, forgiveness and salvation is that they own it, confess it. I think most people nod their head at that. But then because our cultural worldview is so individualized, the idea that I would be held responsible in some way for something that somebody else did is just alien to us. In the culture that you mentioned, the ancient Hebrew culture, the ancient Near East, and that time, the Bronze Age era, they did not have… they did not share with us that individualized worldview, they had a collective worldview. They believed that the family, the tribe, the nation were bound together in in very explicit ways. And so for them, confessing the sins of their ancestors made sense, because they had a mechanism to explain how the trauma of the present moment could be connected to things that I didn’t personally do but that happened in the past. That is something that just simply doesn’t exist in the current culture that we live in, except for voices that are beginning to say, “Hey, look, this isn’t about you pressing the button…
Sarah Sanderson 25:50
Marc Schelske 25:50
…This is about you being the fruit of a tree. And that tree has significance for what’s going on around you.” As I read the book… you know, I drive down McLaughlin Avenue probably every day. I go by buildings that have his name on them. The structure of the town of Oregon City, these people had a hand in what buildings went where and where the streets lie, and ultimately, who got to own those properties. Johnson Creek is right up the street for me and it sort of defines the map. And it’s named after this guy Johnson, who did some really horrible things to the native women who lived in the area. Johnson Creek! I see that… you know, all of this stuff. it’s so present. And so the way that I want to separate myself from it by saying, “Well, I’m not individually responsible for those things,” that wall gets gets thinner, more fragile, because I’m beginning to see “No, no, no, there are ramifications for things that happen that are playing out in my life currently.” And the issue is not that I need to confess my culpability for what happened 250 years ago. The issue is am I willing to acknowledge that some of the benefit that has come to me today that I benefit from is the result of those people’s choices? And not only that, some of the benefit that has come to me, would have gone to other people, maybe Native people, maybe black Americans, if those people up the family tree had made different decisions.
Sarah Sanderson 27:33
Yeah, there’s a book called, Reparations by Duke Kwon and Greg Thompson. They give as analogy of if your dad stole a car, and then died, and left you the car, it would still belong to the person that it was stolen from, right. Like, the police could still come to you and say, “No, this is theirs. You have to give it back.”
Marc Schelske 27:56
Sarah Sanderson 27:56
And so, even when it’s been stolen, many generations before, there’s still a sense in which there’s something that rightly belongs to someone else. And so how do we as a community decide to… not that we are responsible, right, like, I didn’t actually do the things 150 years ago, but can I take responsibility? Can we as a community take responsibility for this stuff that happened all these years ago? And say, “No, we don’t want to keep holding the bag of the stuff that was passed down to us, we want to set this right.”
Marc Schelske 28:36
And so then that raises the very difficult and complicated feeling question of “OK, then what does it look like to set it right?” Because, as you said earlier, whether or not giving Oregon City back to the native people who lived there at the falls, whether or not that’s the right thing–which people will argue–the system that we have, and the way land is owned with mortgages, and all of this, all the stuff that’s tied up over a hundred and fifty years, is not going to allow that as a simple solution.
Sarah Sanderson 29:09
Marc Schelske 29:10
OK. So then it it’d be easy to just take a deep breath and say, “Well, we there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Sarah Sanderson 29:18
Marc Schelske 29:18
So, the situation with Jacob Vanderpool maybe feels slightly more manageable. Because you could say, “All right, Jacob Vanderpool is a Dude. We can track down his family tree. And we can do some calculations and figure out what his grant-great-great grandchildren ought to have had, if his Inn was allowed to prosper. And we’ll do a fundraiser or GoFundMe or a government program, and we’ll help them with that advancement. So even though a lot of people would argue that and say, for various reasons why that’s not good or just or fair, at least as a solution, it feels slightly more conceivable then “Let’s return all of Oregon City to the native people who lived at the top of the falls,” and yet it still feels enormous. And so once again, I’m left in a place where even good-hearted people that want to say I see how restoration requires ownership and acknowledgement and confession and repentance, and… you know, the scary word you said in the title of Kwon’s book, reparations, which is just rooted in the word repair…
Sarah Sanderson 30:27
Marc Schelske 30:28
…that we have to do something to repair the damage done, I can see that. But I’m just at a loss for how to do that in a way that is is doable and just.
Sarah Sanderson 30:39
It is a huge question. It’s not like you and I are gonna sit here and figure out the answer, right? This is this is bigger than all of us. Honestly, here’s what I’m praying for, Marc. So I think a lot about Nehemiah and the people who confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors. I also think a lot about the Egyptians when the Exodus happened. They’re on their way out the door, they’ve just had the very first Passover, the pharaoh has said, “Go, get out of here.” They’re going to the promised land. And it says that God moved the hearts of the Egyptians to give them gold, just shower them with gold. And I don’t know that every white person is called to just like empty their bank account for every person of color, but can God move our hearts to desire justice? I don’t know what it’s going to look like. But I’m praying that there will be a softening of hearts.
Marc Schelske 31:37
Yeah. How did that look for you?
Sarah Sanderson 31:40
Yeah, one simple thing is that I just knew that I wasn’t… I couldn’t take the money from this book. It’s not like I’m sitting on tons of money and I’m just giving away… but it just felt like I can’t take the money for this. There’s also the sacrifice of of my time. But these are like, small personal thing.
Marc Schelske 32:00
Sarah Sanderson 32:01
So, I don’t know what it’s gonna look like for every person to do small personal things like that. Like shopping at a black-owned business, or whatever it is. But I also think that collectively, as a nation, we need to have a conversation about our history. There does need to be some… I mean… I don’t want to say reallocation of funds or you know… people are gonna say communist or whatever, I should probably not even… we should probably go back and erase all of this. But we have to be willing to look at our history, to have these messy conversations: What has happened? How has it shaken out? And how can we enact laws and systems that begin to repair?
There’s one thing I did not talk about in the book. I live in Gladstone, which I didn’t say in the book, because there’s Proud Boys in Gladstone, too. I don’t want them to show up at my front door. But in Gladstone, just down the street from me, there’s a piece of property that once was used in 1922 as an initiation for the Ku Klux Klan. A hundred and ten people were initiated into the KKK at a spot that’s just six blocks down the street from where I’m sitting right now. In the newspaper, this 1922 newspaper, it says that two thousand people came out to witness this. And so you could say like, “Well, that happened a long time ago. What are we supposed to do about it now?”
But then, I found out that in 1980 twenty kids came to Gladstone High School, which is where my kids go, dressed in KKK hoods and gowns for costume day. They weren’t sent home to change. Their picture was taken and put in the yearbook. We had this thing in 1922. A hundred and ten people were initiated into the KKK. But then in 1980, people were showing up to high school dressed in KKK hoods and gowns. That still… like okay, that’s in my lifetime, but it’s not in a lot of people’s lifetime yet, right. But then, like my, my son’s best friend, he’s biracial. He was sitting in Gladstone High School just a couple of years ago watching a basketball game. And all the kids around him started pulling his hair and calling him the N word.
It’s about both. It’s about the legal and economic systems, and it’s about how are we going to reach the hearts and minds of the seventh graders who are sitting in the bleachers at Gladstone High School, and they don’t even know the history that they’re stepping into. They don’t know that the KKK was initiated down the street and their parents or grandparents came to school in hoods in 1980. But somehow it’s filtered down in the water to them. I don’t know what the answer is for the economic whatever, but in order to have the collective will to do something economically, we’ve got to get honest about how those things that happened a long time ago are still here in our hearts.
Marc Schelske 35:08
Right, exactly. Right. And the property that you mentioned is still a gathering place. It’s property that’s owned by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It’s used for large Annual Convocation gatherings. People go there for special religious events. And so what does that mean? What opportunity is opened if that organization were to understand this history? Would they be able to say, “We are the stewards of this place now, and maybe we weren’t a part of that event, but is there a way for us to, as you say, take responsibility in a way that leads toward healing and hope and restoration?” What could that look like?
Sarah Sanderson 35:53
Marc Schelske 35:54
Could an event happen? Could there be some way that that could be commemorated? Could there be some way where that could be named, so that people, like those seventh graders…
Sarah Sanderson 36:05
Marc Schelske 36:06
…are able to hear the story and be told, “This is not who we want to be?” Because saying to a seventh grader today, “this is not who we want to be” is actually running direct resistance to McLaughlin and McGruder, and all those guys who literally said explicitly on paper, signed by witnesses, “this is who we want to be. We want to be the kind of people that exclude African Americans, we don’t want them here.” That is our heritage. I can’t undo what those guys did. But I can be a part of saying, as a community, “that’s not who we want to be.”
Sarah Sanderson 36:46
Exactly, yes. So I’m meeting with them in a few weeks. I’ll let you know how it goes. I have a vision for some kind of a gathering. What if we could get more people to come out for a reversal of that thing that happened in 1922, then came out for the initial thing? And you’re right! We have to say it explicitly because we haven’t yet. Explicitly, in history, it was said, “White people are better. And we’re going to not listen to these people. And you can own these people.” Yes, we’ve, we’ve overturned some of those laws, but we haven’t had a moment where we’ve said, as a nation. “This happened and we don’t want to be that anymore.”
Marc Schelske 37:31
Yeah. All right. So there’s another group of folks who are resistant to this conversation that you and I are both part of, and that’s the church. There are folks in the Christian church who will say that these kinds of conversations may be necessary to have, but they aren’t Christian conversations. Some folks will be even more extreme than that. They’ll say this kind of conversation is a distraction, or this kind of conversation is “woke,” where they’ve taken an African American term and turned it into a pejorative, and said, this is you getting drawn into some kind of secular liberal agenda, this is not what Christians should be about. So you’re a follower of Jesus. You may have even had people express these sentiments to you. So in your journey with this book, and now that you’re talking about it, how does this whole thing fit for you within the gospel work of Christian people?
Sarah Sanderson 38:22
Yes, I have had some people come to me with concerns like that. And for me, that’s why it’s important to get back down to where is this in my own heart. That’s pretty hard to argue with. Is there racism out in the world? We can debate that…
Marc Schelske 38:42
We can; certain people will not.
Sarah Sanderson 38:44
Marc Schelske 38:44
Our African-American friends will not debate it with us. They’ll be like, “The only reason you’re debating it is because you don’t want to acknowledge or take ownership.” Right? It’s not debatable.
Sarah Sanderson 38:53
But I mean, those people who have like… those people who say, “That’s woke, we shouldn’t be talking about that,” like they can debate that.
Marc Schelske 39:00
Sarah Sanderson 39:01
But for me to say, “No, I was afraid of black men because they were black. Because I grew up in a society that taught me that black men were dangerous.” How can you argue with that? I’m telling you; that’s how I feel, have felt, and I’m working to overturn. So there’s… that’s one aspect of it, getting down to the real confession of what’s really in my heart.
And then, you asked about the gospel piece. I think, what enables me to disclose that is that I know that I’m loved and forgiven by Jesus, because I had so much fear and so much shame. It was really hard to sit down and write this book, especially that chapter where I uncover my own personal things that I’ve discovered in myself that I didn’t even know were there. So much shame and fear. And the only way I was able to do it, was because I knew that Jesus loves me and forgives me, and I had nothing else to lose. So Paul says we have to boast in our weaknesses. And we’re free to do that because we’re loved. There’s no other way that you can boast about your weakness and your shame and your failure, and not boast, as in, I’m proud or happy that this is here, but boast in the sense of like, “I’m going to be honest about this, even though our culture does not want to admit that these things are still here.”
Marc Schelske 40:41
Christians ought to be able to be at the forefront of of owning this, of saying these things are true about me and our community and, and taking steps to name that. And we can do that because of grace and forgiveness. But that still leaves it in the location of the individual heart. So what would you say about the place of this larger conversation about racial justice and the systems of racial discrimination? How do you see that connecting with the work of the church?
Sarah Sanderson 41:16
Well, I mean, when we when we’re talking about repenting, naming our own sins, naming our collective sins, the white church has a lot to repent of. In Jamar Tisby’s book, The color of Compromise, he does a great job of laying out in all these different denominations, and all these different churches throughout American history, the church has engineered and been complicit with white supremacy for hundreds of years. I think every town can do the work of finding out what its history is, and beginning to ask, “How can we repair this?”
Every family can do the work. Every church can do the work of asking both denominationally and locally, “Who are the people that founded our church? And what did they believe? And what did they do?” Is it easy to pull skeletons out of closets? No. But it’s important. I mean, I don’t know that I’m convincing your person, your mythical… not mythical… but your your person that you’ve invited into the room with us.
Marc Schelske 42:28
I don’t know that they’re going to be convinced, but I do think that it’s something that we need to talk about. Because when you think about younger Sarah, or similarly, younger Marc, being members of the Christian community, maybe even in roles of influence or leadership, being people who, as you said earlier, really thought we were saying and doing and believing the right things, really desiring, longing, to be of benefit to folks in the world, right? And even, like your trip to Malawi, even taking steps to do what, at the time, felt like constructive ways of making a difference. Those people also exist now. And in the same way that you said it was scary for you to think of naming these things as functioning in your own life, many folks in our peer community in the church are in that place right now. We have to invite those people to courage, right?
The people that are standing opposed to this are not going to be convinced by this. They’re not going to read your book, unless the Spirit does some amazing thing and transform the situation. That’s not who we’re talking about.
Sarah Sanderson 43:48
Marc Schelske 43:48
Right? We’re talking to the folks in the average church, down the street from where I live, who think of themselves as good people who want to do the right thing, who want to be part of God’s work in the world, but who are afraid to push into this space because of the social risk.
Sarah Sanderson 44:09
Yeah, I mean, that is a real fear. And I’m hoping to offer in my own self, someone who doesn’t have all the answers, but who’s willing to step into the conversation anyway. I don’t think we need to feel like we have to have all the answers before we step into the conversation. Because the conversation is both speaking and it’s also listening. And so maybe the first step for people in that position who are feeling afraid, not knowing what to say, the first step is to do more listening.
Marc Schelske 44:43
To help us with that gift, as we close, why don’t you name some of the specific books and resources that people who might be listening to this podcast can go to if they are people who have that interior sense that they want to be in this conversation… it feels like the right thing to be in this conversation, but maybe they’re afraid to ask or don’t know where to begin. What are the authors, the books, the resources, the people that they can pay attention to on social media that you might recommend as a starting point?
Sarah Sanderson 45:16
These are my top two books for Christians who… books for white American Christians, who want to get involved in this conversation, and they’re not sure how to start. So this one is Jamar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. So this is more of a history, and it’s pretty short. It’s not a comprehensive history, but it’s a history of where the American… the white American church has gotten it wrong. This book, Dear White Peacemakers, by Osheta Moore, is a lovely… there’s memoir, there’s some self-reflection, but there’s also a lot of speaking specifically to white Christians, and saying, “I know you’re afraid I know you’re scared. I know you don’t know how to speak into this. There’s grace for you.”
Marc Schelske 46:14
I’m a white, middle class American Christian man. As I close this episode, I want to talk for a moment, to those of you who are like me, just a white Christian, talking to other white Christians for a bit.
Like Sarah, I grew up in the church with an authentic desire to do the right thing, to love like Jesus loves, like Sarah talked about, I would never have considered myself to be racist, precisely because I was told that racists were hateful, violent, wicked people. And because I didn’t think I was hateful or violent or wicked, I couldn’t see how my life was deeply formed by attitudes and assumptions about the superiority of white people like me.
It’s taken a long time, a lot of listening, a lot of paying attention to the lived experience of black people in America, and a lot of setting aside my own self-defensiveness, for me to see what I had not been able to see. Whether I like it or not, there are significant differences between the way I experienced this country, and the way that black Americans experience it. It took paying attention to hundreds of little puzzle pieces: how I felt when I got pulled over for speeding, the tone with which I felt comfortable addressing the officer, the ease with which I move in so many spaces, just acting like I belong there, just going wherever I want, the way that I’ve been able to easily get a mortgage to live where I want to live, the way my financial creditors have been willing to work with me when I had hard times, and so many more little details.
And then there was noticing the justifications I had adopted. You know: my life was easier because I was educated, I followed the plan, I was a good Christian, or because I followed the law, or because I had the good fortune of having two parents in the home. Now certainly all those things made a difference in my life. But I wasn’t able to see that there were many black and brown people with the very same qualifications I had, who didn’t get the same opportunities I got. It took a long time to understand that I’m the beneficiary of a system that was built, brick by brick, over 400 years expressly to benefit people like me. And that system has been in place for so long that it had become invisible to me. And because the system was invisible, I was able to believe that all of what I have, I have on the basis of merit and hard work alone.
The truth is I have worked hard, but so have many black and brown people. I’ve put in the time, but so have many black and brown people. I’ve kept the law and played by the rules, but so have many black and brown people. Look, I know how difficult it is to admit that there might be such a thing as a system of white supremacy that has structured this nation since its founding, since before its founding! I know how painful it can be to acknowledge that I’ve been the beneficiary of that system. I know how much anxiety there can be around this conversation. I know it’s controversial. I know it feels enormous. I know it feels too big to handle. But use your compassionate imagination for a moment. If the issue of racial disparity and injustice feels too big to handle for a white middle-class American Christian like me, like many of you, than how much more painful does it feel for the people that aren’t the beneficiaries of generations of benefit of the doubt?
The ethic that shapes the way I see the world is the other-centered co-suffering way of Jesus. The apostle Paul summarize this by saying that when we bear one another’s burdens, we fulfill the law of Christ. Well, my white brothers and sisters, there is a burden being carried in this nation by black and brown and indigenous people. And that burden is heavy. It is costly. It is unjust and it is not their problem to deal with alone. It seems clear to me, that for us to fulfill the law of Christ in this time and place, we have to join in bearing this burden until we find ways to relieve it.
It was white people, like me, who stood up in Oregon and said, “We want to be the kind of people who exclude others for our own advantage.” They said it outloud. They said it with white hoods in a public gathering space about 10 minutes from my house. They also said it in writing in the Oregon constitution. Like I said to Sarah, I can’t undo what was done in the past, but I can step up and say, “I want our community to be different.” Does that align with your heart? Then begin thinking about how you can be part of bearing this burden and repairing it. In our conversation, Sarah said, “I don’t think we need to feel like we have all the answers before we step into the conversation. Because the conversation is also listening.” She’s right. If your heart is moved, if you feel that something must be done, but if you’re not sure where to start, then make a commitment to start listening and see how the Spirit leads you. Will you step into this conversation?
May you find the courage to enter into this hard work, and may the Spirit guide your imagination to see how you can be part of repairing what was done, so that others can experience the fullness of life.
Thanks for listening. Notes for today’s episode, and any links mentioned can be found at MarcAlanSchelske.com/TAW054.
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