In 1902, Chicago humorist Finley Peter Dunne coined a phrase that over time evolved to become: “The role of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
By the mid-1940s, the phrase had been adopted by some progressive preachers: “The business of the church is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Into this mix, the prominent 20th-century theologian Karl Barth is apocryphally credited with saying, “One should take the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”
The news and the Gospel (literally “good news”) are deeply interconnected. My role as a pastor is both to comfort and to afflict. Along with most preachers I know personally, I try to do both. Pentecost is a major festival day of the Christian Church, with its roots in the Jewish festival of Shavuot.
On May 31, Pentecost Sunday – the same weekend as massive responses to the murder of George Floyd arose around our nation and around the world – I leaned into the affliction of the comfortable. I named racism as an addiction of our society. Each of us lives in a racist society. This disease infects everyone and everything we do.
Like addiction, racist behavior often manifests in individuals generation after generation. This is bigotry. Like addiction, the system which generates the behaviors in individuals is hidden and normalized. This is enabling. Like addiction, we cannot begin to recover until we acknowledge that something is fundamentally not right.
Racism is fundamentally not right. Racism is at odds with the understanding that God’s nature is self-giving love, that creation is an outpouring of God’s love, and that to be human is to be the image and likeness of God. Racism is an affront to Jesus, who was a brown man living under an oppressive occupying regime. Racism is an affront to the Spirit, who troubles and comforts and inspires. The good news is that God has no favorites and accepts no bribes. The good news is that we can also be anti-racist while we are working to recover from racism.
One colleague described Pentecost this way: “A massive crowd gathered after having recently witnessed the brutal, humiliating, public execution of one of their own kin. They had suffered dehumanizing repression under violent rulers for centuries. Fire arose in their midst and they called out in ways some could not understand. Some onlookers said their expression was illegitimate, that they must be drunk. But those who had endured so much scorn for so long ignored the derision and took care of each other, sharing what they had. They encouraged their youth to dream dreams and their elders to share visions.”
We are in a Pentecost moment in our society — a moment of crisis and potential for profound change. We have many choices to make about who we will become. We could try to go back to the ways that were not working for most people – especially people of color. Or, as we emerge from quarantine and isolation, we could strive to do the hard work of overcoming racism. As a white person, I am learning to listen, to lean into the discomfort of releasing privilege, and to let people of color take the lead, while not expecting them to fix me. I am learning to release some of my comfort and accept some affliction. This is the work of followers of Jesus in our time and place.
If we don’t know what to say, listen to the voices of people of color. If we don’t know what to do, donate to causes promoting equity and transformative justice. If we don’t know where to stand, take a step back and learn how we are ignorant and complicit in the same breath. Privilege comes at great cost that has been paid by others.
White privilege has been paid for over generations with Black lives. A great debt is owed.
Paul Mitchell has been pastor through Vashon United Methodist Church since 2016. He practiced architecture for 17 years before entering pastoral ministry in 2002.