Monday, January 27, 2014

The Power of Branding

So this polar vortex has created quite the winter, especially for my dear friend whose car lacks heat!  Naturally, he has been drooling over the idea of a new vehicle, but the tough part is his decidedly upmarket taste in automobiles.  “Why can’t I like a Hyundai as much as a Mercedes?” he wondered.  “The features aren’t all that different.”

“It’s Branding” I reply

“Hmmm. If branding can do that, maybe we should consider rebranding black people!”

+Wieden+Kennedy you up for it?

Sound crazy?  Well, you can start to see how “brands” could apply to people groups based on this definition from the Economic Times: “A brand is a name given to a product and/or service such that it takes on an identity by itself.  It is akin to a living being: it has an identity and personality, name, culture, vision, emotion and intelligence.”

Because brands come with an identity and personality, they can alter perceptions dramatically.  For example, Mercedes has a brand of being the best in safety, comfort and design, so when one breaks down, you may chalk it up to the intricacies of German Engineering.  A Daewoo has the brand of being, well, cheap.  When one breaks down, it is instantly a piece of junk.
Similarly, we place judgments on people’s words and actions based on the brand of their in-group.  Black, White, Latino are not just innocuous adjectives.  They are charged with identity and emotion that paint whomever wears them. 

Now some might say, hey, black folks have a pretty good brand already.  We are assumed to be amazing at sports, asked to sing gospel music at random times because surely we can, and our hair is so awesome that everyone wants to touch it.

It’s the negative bits about the brand, though that are just so condemning.

For example, much has been made of the whole Richard Sherman controversy, and even more with comparison to the recent arrest of Justin Bieber.   What makes it socially acceptable, even natural to refer to a Stanford grad and elite athlete as a thug?  Branding.

And sometimes, the power of brand can be deadly serious.  Not once, but twice in the past 6 months, African Americans have been involved in automobile accidents, then shot and killed while seeking help for their injuries.  In September, Jonathan Ferrell crawled out of his back car window and made it to the nearest home after a serious accident.  The woman in the home promptly called the police.  When police arrived, Ferrell ran towards them for help only to be met with deadly force.  The officer who shot Ferrell 10 times was recently indicted.

In November, 19-year-old Renisha McBride was fatally shot in the back of the head by a homeowner while seeking help after a car accident.  McBride was intoxicated and injured at the time of the shooting.

What makes you decide if the person at your door is a victim or a threat?  Branding. Per a 2002 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, both White and Black Americans given a video game simulation in which they have to identify and shoot “armed” suspects are faster to shoot African American subjects.  The most common mistake observed in this simulation was shooting unarmed African Americans.   No matter our race or background, every one of us keep unconscious biases in our heads.  These pre-developed brand identities turn a Mexican American into an illegal immigrant, a beautiful Asian woman into a sex object, the private schooled Caucasian teen into a spoiled rich kid, or an African American student into a criminal. 

Of course, this is nothing new.  Christ himself faced a negative brand identify related to his city of origin.  Nathaniel, one of his future disciples, was quick to judge on this basis, exclaiming “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”  However, after his first encounter with Jesus, he instead proclaimed, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”  You see, Nathaniel could easily decry the redneck, backwater of Israel as a place where no good could originate.  When he came face to face with his Good, his brand perception was instantly and irrevocably altered.

And for us, church, the same can happen as we come face to face with the Christ in diverse others. Changing the brand identity we hold of an out group doesn’t take a 30 second spot or a digital campaign. Neither The Man your Man Could Smell Like nor Momsong will be required.  The best way to change our perceptions is through contact. This is where our multi-ethnic and multicultural churches play a tremendous role. Diverse individuals in our pews become part of our friendship circles.  When we have a number of close relationships with persons of different ethnicities, the generalizations in our heads are replaced with a very specific knowledge of and love for those in our church families.      

A second and also important way of changing our brand perception is by slowing down our way of thinking.  In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman outlines how our “fast system” of thinking makes snap, unconscious judgments based on past experiences and perceptions.  Our “slow system” however, is capable of conscious, rational thought.  We must decide to access our slow system when it comes to judging others.  The next time you find yourself placing a snap judgment on someone due to their words or actions, slow down your thinking a moment to consider:

- Would I think the same thing if this were a person of a different ethnicity?
- Would I think the same thing if this person were a woman/ man?
- Would I think the same thing if this person were a member of my family?
- Under what circumstances might I behave similarly?

You might surprise yourself by finding your perception had less to do with that particular person’s actions and more to do with how you perceive their in-group.

Brands are powerful, but God has the power to wreck our human constructs.  When Christ came, he promptly obliterated every brand perception his contemporaries held dear.  From the value of women to the piety of the Samaritans, from the wisdom of Galileans to the faith of Gentiles, nothing was left untouched.  Through the Spirit of God, the church can do the same by including every ethnicity, race, and culture in every one of our local churches.  Through fellowship, we will come to know and celebrate each person for who they are.  

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Queen Elsa, Fear, and Love: Building Relationships in the Multi-Ethnic Church

As mom to a 4 year-old- girl, my only choice for favorite movie this season is Frozen. We’ve seen it twice and the soundtrack is on repeat constantly (not a terrible thing given the presence of Idina Menzel).  In everything, though, there is a lesson if we are looking for it.  I can see in this movie a beautiful analogy for relationships in the multi-ethnic church. 

In Frozen, Queen Elsa has the power to create snow and ice.  When Elsa is afraid, her winter creations are jagged, contorted crystals.  As her fear melts away, she instead produces happy snowmen, shimmering staircases, and ornate ice castles.  In our racially reconciling church, I see again and again how fear distorts our best efforts at relationship. For example, my husband recently posted what he thought was an innocuous status on Facebook.  “I've noticed that when it snows, high income neighborhoods get cleared immediately low income neighborhoods do not get cleared. Why I don't know.”  Thirty-two emotional comments later, he learned that such an observation means different things for different people!  Many felt my husband was trying to make them feel guilty for having plowed streets while others went without.  In reality, there was no intent of the sort- as one commenter rightly mentioned, we live in a neighborhood where the streets are plowed before it even stops snowing. Still, we learned that fear of being made feel guilty caused even people who had been over to our home for dinner to react strongly.

Fear is hard to admit and recognize because it is a charged emotion that takes so many forms.  To identify whether fear is playing a role in your multi-ethnic relationships, check out these three statements below typically associated with fear. 

1. I hate being uncomfortable- This is the starting position to those who are new to the multi-ethnic church or to deep relationships with diverse others (racially, ethnically or socio-economically).   Starting here is perfectly natural, but staying here will end our efforts at unity before they start!  Sociologically, “religious groups exist to supply members with meaning, belonging, and security.” These factors tend to be greater amongst a group of people with similar characteristics, and so homogeneous congregations feel more comfortable. This is because our political leanings, lifestyle and even worldview are less likely to be challenged in a group that looks and lives like us. However, in order to display the unity Christ called for in John 17, we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and even with having others being uncomfortable.

2. I’ve been burned before- For those who have moved past the idea of discomfort in cross-cultural relationships and into the experience of it, past hurts may become the barrier to moving forward. Relationships in diverse congregations are not always easy.  Examples of misunderstandings I have heard just in the past couple of months include:
  • A West African upset that he has been introducing himself to the same people for the past 5 years and they never remember his name or his family’s names
  • A Caucasian who offended a Latino by wiping his hands on his pants after a handshake (his hands were just sweaty!)
  • A younger African American who offended an older African American by not offering a proper greeting on Sunday morning. 
We bring into every interaction our own cultural norms.  When these come into contact with the norms of others, offense may very well result until we come to understand each other.  When not addressed constructively, this offense can tear apart old relationships and make us afraid to begin new ones.
3. I don’t want to feel guilty (admit that I have privilege)- This may be one of the trickiest fears to deal with. Especially for majority or socio-economically advantaged populations, coming into contact with diverse others may mean confronting advantages others don’t have. When you build diverse relationships you will get to know the boomer adult who can’t find a job, the better qualified woman who was passed over for promotion in favor of a man, the ambitious teen stuck in a terrible school or even the person with unplowed streets who can’t get to work.   As we see disadvantages others face, our narratives about success and life will be challenged.  This is a scary prospect that can push us back into the comfort of homogeneous relationships.

The Solution: So what do we do when we recognize these 3 fears subverting our cross-cultural relationships? In Frozen, as well as in our relationships, the answer is love!  Love is the opposite of fear, because while fear focuses on self-preservation, love values the other as primary.  Just as Christ loved us enough to face the fear of Gethsemane to mount the cross of Calvary, so we must become self-forgetful to build a bridge of reconciliation for others.  When I step out of fear and into love, I am willing to be uncomfortable, challenged, and even hurt if only the object of my love can have their needs met.  When we try to enter into multi-ethnic relationships but still harbor the above fears, it won’t be long before our efforts become twisted. Through love, however, we stay in relationship through the difficult bits.  We work at relating across divides.   We grow to love and value others for who they are.  We build the bride of Christ across every fracture of human origin.

And why is it worth it to face my fears?

  •  First and foremost because it is a mandate of, and apologetic for, the gospel to unite- every tribe, tongue and nation.  (John 17:20-23, Revelation 7:9)
  • We grow as Christ followers when we open our hearts to other perspectives- God is infinite and the cultural perspectives of every Christ-follower have something to contribute to our understanding of Him.
  • There is something missing when we have only homogeneous relationships in our churches.  The New Testament church is many parts and one body.  We are not complete without each other. (1 Cor 12) 

So this week, consider if fear has been a factor in your relationships and step out of it into love! You can do this by following the advice of Philippians 2:3- to value others, even at your own expense.  You will likely find a beautiful creation, a new shoot of the church like heaven, springing forth from your efforts and you will be richly blessed.

Friday, December 13, 2013

A National Forgiveness For Slavery

A very short month ago I had the privilege of attending the Mosaix 2013 conference.
 Wow.  Over 1,000 leaders from all over the country, at different stages on the multi-ethnic church continuum, learning and growing together!  There were many thoughts that have come with me from that conference, but one was from an offline conversation between my Pastor, Chris Beard, and David Anderson who were both speakers at the conference.  Chris asked David “what do you believe it would take to really break the back of racism in our country.”  David thought and finally answered, “a national forgiveness for slavery.”

Right, national forgiveness.  This might seem premature, after all the House and Senate couldn't even come into agreement on their national apologies which were offered in 2008  and 2009, respectively.  However, a simple discussion drove home its importance to me.  In Sunday school recently, I was talking with the 6th graders (adorable) about the power of forgiveness.   One boy mentioned there was one person he could not forgive- for leaving and for hurting his mom.  I took that in, took a deep breath and remembered that the Bible is still true no matter how your heart wants to agree with the pain of a young boy.  I took him to the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:21-35) and by the end of it, he could see that unforgiveness will always turn us over to the torturers, just as happened to the unforgiving servant in the end.  The person we fail to forgive doesn't hurt- it’s us that suffer.

Slavery isn't a debt easily forgiven. Its long-term consequences are far from mitigated as understood by  those of us who research them or live them-
Consequences such as lower life expectancy, less favorable criminal justice outcomes, lower income by education level and the like are all differences by race that persist even when controlling for other factors.  I won’t detail the threads here, but these impacts can be clearly traced back through American history.  Still, neither the millions of lives lost, nor the injury done to many more, nor the persistent impacts of slavery rival our debt in the light of a Holy God.  It just can’t.  As the body of Christ we should embrace that truth and lead the way in forgiveness as a tool to build multi-ethnic churches that look like heaven.

1. It relieves a natural tension- The reason why the Senate apology for slavery never passed the full Congress was due to language about reparations. However you may feel about the topic, it is easy to see that the very mention of reparations brings up strong emotions and sharp divides.  Guilt, resentment and anger aren’t far behind.  By offering forgiveness without preconditions, negative emotions are defused.  It becomes less about “what do you want from me?” and more about a shared future.

2. It begins a conversation- Many Americans do not feel that they need to be forgiven for slavery.  They are unaware of its legacy or its benefits to those who built wealth from it (which in some ways is all of us).  Offering forgiveness also offers a non-confrontational way for those who are unconsciously ignorant (not a negative word, just a matter- of- fact one) about racial issues to learn and to grow. 

3. It puts the onus on the other party- Being offered forgiveness softens hearts in a way that promotes a response.  Just as it’s God’s kindness that leads us to repentance, our kindness to each other will bring us into closer relationship.

Now some will ask, what gives us standing to forgive?  
1.Philosophical literature generally extends the right to forgive to not just the direct but also the indirect victims of a wrong.  All Americans have been hurt by the sin of slavery to the extent that it has served to keep us racially separated, particularly in our churches, and in fact created racism as we know it through the slave trade.Furthermore, forgiveness is always appropriate where deep hurt exists. I have had more than enough conversations to know the pain of slavery remains- this on its own gives standing to forgive.

2.The second question is: who needs to be forgiven anyway?  Well in some ways we would be forgiving our great country for the great contradiction of promoting liberty and freedom while denying it based on skin color.  In some ways, we’d be forgiving Americans of all shades who remain ignorant of the contribution slaves made to building the country.  We’d be forgiving the evangelical churches who sanctioned slavery, were silent during Civil Rights and continue to be mono-ethnic today. And we’d be forgiving those who don’t recognize the momentum of history and its impact on our lives today.
Some attempts have already been made at just such a forgiveness as found at this link: .   It would be wonderful if a document such as this became an initiative of the Church.

The imperative to forgive becomes even more pointed as we mourn the passing of Nelson Mandela this week and celebrate his legacy.  His capacity to forgive and include his oppressors makes my jaw drop.  He taught himself Afrikaans while in prison to communicate with those in power saying “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.  If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”  He deepened in empathy and compassion while in prison instead of in hatred.  And although South Africa still has a tremendously long way to go in terms of bringing about complete equality, Mandela’s outreached life of reconciliation stands as a shining example to us all.

Forgiveness is not about others’ need to be forgiven; it is about the hurting needing to heal.  And I believe we need complete healing to move forward as one church: multi-ethnic, multi-racial, worshiping across every division of human origin.  I am more than willing to forgive.  I pray we collectively don’t forget.