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[Originally published in Unity Magazine Mar/Apr 2022 issue.. Pic via HURCA!/Adobe Stock]
Contrary to popular belief, or intention, spiritual communities are ripe breeding grounds for fear. To borrow from Buddhist teacher and author Tara Brach, fear is the anticipation of future pain. The problem is, we don’t always know when we’re being influenced by fear, or what we’re even afraid of.
Take last November’s local and state elections. If you can remember that far back, there was one issue that galvanized many voters: Critical Race Theory (CRT). The over 40-year-old academic concept that rose from a framework for legal analysis proposes that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies. The idea mostly only circulated in academia and publishing for decades. It hit the mainstream a couple years ago when Christopher Rufo, a shrewd conservative activist, rebranded and weaponized it as a blueprint for teaching children that it’s bad to be white.
Parents, especially white suburban women, flocked to the polls and, in the instance of the Virginia gubernatorial race, elected the candidate who vowed to ban CRT from public schools, even though it had never been part of the K-12 curriculum. A viral meme summed up the reaction of much of white America to CRT: “So the folks who tried to prevent a black girl from going to school in 1957 are opposed to their grandchildren learning about how they tried to prevent a black girl from going to school in 1957.”
What allowed them to hear and respond to this particular racist dog-whistle? Fear. More specifically, the fear that by being exposed to the realities of racism in American history (and present), their children would have to grapple with the uncomfortable truths that their parents would rather ignore, or worse, maintain.
Some parents believe their young children don’t even know what race is. Children know more than we give them credit for. Research has shown that 3-month-old babies prefer faces from certain racial groups, 9-month-olds use race to categorize faces, and 3-year-old children in the U.S. associate some racial groups with negative traits. By age 4, children in the U.S. associate whites with wealth and higher status, and race-based discrimination is already widespread when children start elementary school (American Psychological Association).
CRT may not be the biggest trigger issue in churches, but conversations around racial reckoning stoke similar fears and discomforts, which in turn fuel older well-established anxieties: "We don’t come to church to feel uncomfortable"; "If we talk too much about this we will lose congregants and income"; "We aren’t racists because everyone is welcome here so there’s no need to talk about this"; "This is a divisive issue, we teach Oneness and Love."
The notion that churches should not be places of discomfort betrays the true intention of any spiritual movement. We are supposed to be challenged, and it’s in the tension of discomfort that growth happens. Jesus did not make comfort a priority. He even threw insults, calling some people fools, hypocrites, snakes, and vipers. His approach was not antithetical to love. As James Baldwin reminds us, "Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up."
Hardly anyone is comfortable talking about racism. Spiritual growth and healing comes when we individually and collectively face our fears, as well as lean into the discomforts they generate.
Let’s remember to love each other while we do.