Don’t Understand This Sean Feucht Controversy? Stop Talking & Listen.
Right now, when it comes to racial issues, white people, y’all need to learn this… desperately.
So… Portland, Oregon is my hometown, for better or worse.
More specifically, it’s a place that, for a few weeks anyway, was the national epicenter of protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and decrying the Trump administration. I was so enthralled and concerned about this confluence that I wrote a song about it.
Sean Feucht, however, is not from Portland.
He’s a worship artist from Bethel Church, a nondenominational charismatic pentecostal megachurch in Redding, California. Bethel has become noteworthy in part because of its popular worship ministry Bethel Music and its worship band / record label Jesus Culture. Like other white evangelicals, Sean Feucht and many others at Bethel Church have been unabashed supporters of our current president. As a matter of fact, Sean Feucht was so invested in combining his love for Jesus with Republican politics that he ran for Congress, and used his platform as a worship artist to turn his outdoor worship events into campaign rallies.
Since his bid for Congress failed, Feucht has since made it a habit of taking his worship band into cities that have been hotbeds of political protest. In June, Feucht took his band to the site of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis — while the city was still in grief over his killing — to stage a worship event there, to the aghast dismay of many locals.
Just a few days ago, Feucht did the same thing here in Portland. He held a worship rally in downtown Portland, just a few blocks away from where protestors have been tear-gassed, brutalized and unconstitutionally detained for expressing their First Amendment right to proclaim that “Black Lives Matter.”
Now, I understand the desire to bring healing and to usher in the revival of the Holy Spirit in an environment where there has been frustration, anger and discord. Because I understand this, I will give Feucht and many of his followers the benefit of the doubt that they were not trying to be offensive.
But intent only goes so far. Given the context, their efforts were tone-deaf, unresponsive to the needs and mood of the people who’ve been engaging with the hurt and chaos on the ground. Feucht and his ilk riding in from out of town to “bring Jesus to Portland” (a sentiment I’ve heard used repeatedly in reference to these and similar gatherings) is disrespectful to the local Christian ministers of all denominational stripes who’ve been doing their best to live out the words and mission of Jesus for decades.
It’s also an example of what some psychologists call “toxic positivity,” where the traumatic experiences of others are minimized with “feel-good” quotes and rhetoric. Feucht’s worship event was similar to when Passion speaker and pastor Louie Giglio referred to slavery as a blessing, as a way to try to highlight the redemptive nature of God’s will. Feucht’s previous support for a president who’s consistently lobbed rhetorical attacks on protestors, combined with his inaccurate claims about local police supporting their presence, places in stark contrast his stated intent (to bring people together) with the impact of his actions (exacerbating the divide by ignoring the needs of Christians in protest and siding with the state actors doing violence against them).
Feucht’s approach contrasts somewhat with that of JT Thomas, a Black revivalist pastor who moves in some of the same circles and stages similar events. The biggest difference between the two? In the previous linked story, documentary filmmaker Andrew Chalmers describes Thomas’ approach in Minneapolis after George Floyd’s death (emphasis mine):
…the first thing Thomas did was make connections with local leaders on the ground. Chalmers sees Thomas as having a unique ability to “engage with people on both sides.”
That quote explains, in large part, why and how Sean Feucht has failed. In general, he seems either uninterested or incapable of making any kind of meaningful connection with leaders of color who are co-laborers in the faith because they represent the other side of the political aisle. This is why, even though he staged his event in Portland, it was in conjunction with church leaders in nearby Vancouver, a decidedly more conservative area. Had Feucht taken more cues from Thomas’ approach, he would’ve thrown more of his platform behind the “Pray on MLK” event that was scheduled the same day, instead of doing something else that drew attention away from it. (As it was, he mentioned the event on one of his flyers, but that was the extent of it.)
And all of that is without addressing Feucht’s blatant disregard for local protocols regarding COVID-19; unlike most of the local protests, very few of Feucht’s team or his attendees were wearing masks.
Thus, the collective impact of Sean Feucht’s behavior has been to provide downtrodden conservative white people a modicum of hope in Jesus (a good thing!) while simultaneously modeling a combination of blithe ignorance and relentless positivity that enables their worst behaviors and attempts to shield them in faux-martyrdom to escape the consequences of said behaviors (a very, very bad thing).
Now, reasonable people can disagree about the relative merits of Sean Feucht and his charismatic, quasi-political approach to racial reconciliation. I’m sure that there are many well-meaning white people who could read what I wrote above in its entirety and come up with some reasonable clarifications, rebuttals or counterpoints to some of the issues that I’ve brought up.
But here’s the thing, white people… how you do it makes a huge difference.
If several people of color — especially Black people — are upset about something that they perceive to be racist, and you come in with, “well I don’t see how this is at all about race,” THAT SHOULD BE THE POINT WHERE YOU STOP TALKING.
Why should you stop talking? Because you’ve just admitted that you don’t understand! You can’t see something that others clearly can. Therefore, if the next thing out of your mouth isn’t, “so can someone help me understand this?” then again, you should…
Because when you say “well I just don’t see how this is about race, I just think that” [blah blah blah insert your opinion here], what you’re really saying is, “since I can’t see this, it must not be valid or important.”
“I know all of you are saying this that and the other, but since I don’t understand it, and I don’t know any of you intimately, my only conclusion is that all of you are wrong and I am right.”
It’s selfish, and also more than a little racist.
Now look… Black people can be wrong about stuff too! We can jump to conclusions and use errant logic just like anyone else. But white people have been conditioned NOT to see issues of race, because it’s to their benefit to be clueless on the subject. How can you be held accountable for something if you don’t know what it is that you’re doing wrong?
Because this is the case, if you’re white, I can’t trust your conclusions about racial issues if you don’t adopt the posture of a learner! When you wade into a racial issue comment thread that’s already 30 strong with your hot take, it’s likely that you *literally* do not know the first thing of what you’re talking about.
Now, the above sentiment was something I recently posted onto Facebook, and I got some understandable pushback. In particular, one presumably white person (I couldn’t be 100% sure from their profile pic) said this, in response to what I’d written:
…he gives no value to a persons opinion simply based on the color of their skin. He says, if you’re white, I can’t trust your conclusions about racial issues unless one meets specific expectations according to who’s threshold? His? Someone else? An approved opinion committee?
Here’s the thing, though. I’m not saying that being white means that you’re wrong. I’m saying that being white puts you at a disadvantage at understanding the situation as it pertains to race.
Therefore, if you stroll into a comment section with the confidence that you’re right and all the other people wrong, then before I’ve heard the content of your opinion, I’m already prone to distrust it. That might not be fair, but that’s the way it is. Unless you are aware that you’ve got potential blindspots in this area, it’s likely that you’re going to say something ignorant and have no idea that it is, in fact, ignorant. To have the attitude of a learner is not predicated on doing or saying exactly what I prescribe. It’s demonstrating a baseline level of humility in the context of your objection.
(The person making this argument was a mutual friend of someone I met at a previous job. This is what I said in response to this friend accusing me of prejudging white people.)
The reason why white people tend to have these blind spots is that white people, by and large, are not the targets of racism. They did not have their land stolen from them because of their ethnic or racial identity. They didn’t have to endure lynchings because of their racial or ethnic identity. They weren’t the targets of systematic exclusion by banks and educational institutions because of their racial or ethnic identity. I could go on and on, but you get the point.
It doesn’t mean that no white person has ever received discriminatory treatment because they are white. This does happen from time to time, but it doesn’t happen on the same scale or with the same frequency that it happens with African-Americans and other people of color.
Because of this, it is absolutely ludicrous to expect an average white person to understand some of the nuances of how racism affects people of color, unless they have intentionally done the work of reading, listening, being in relationship, and digesting many of these issues and stories across a long period of time.
In my experience, the white people who become more learned in these ways tend to evince a baseline level of humility, in that they understand both that there is a lot that they previously didn’t understand, as well as that there is a lot MORE that they still might not understand. This kind of reaction is actually common in accomplished people across a variety of fields, from the humanities to areas of science. The 2004 documentary “What the F*** Do We Know?” is a great example of this. Its title comes from a bunch of doctoral-level theologians and physicists discussing the mysteries of quantum mechanics. When you get deep understanding on a subject, it reveals a greater understanding of the breadth and depth of an issue, and you become more acutely aware of just how much is out there that you do NOT know.
Now obviously, I wouldn’t require everyone who wades into a Facebook conversation to have a PhD on the subject. I just want them to have a modicum of humility, to approach the topic as a learner.
The person objecting also said:
If the tables were turned on that comment, he might not find that terribly objective but more likely objectionable.
I’m assuming he meant the old chestnut, “what if a white person said something like that? You’d say it’s racist!”
Well guess what? White people HAVE said similar things to me, and I had to deal with it. Were they targeting me and saying “if you’re black you don’t know anything?” No, that would be dumb.
But when I was training with Multnomah County’s 911 agency BOEC, I heard a variation of this expression over and over from the mostly white people who worked there … “unless you’ve done this job for a while, you don’t know what it’s like, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
AND THEY WERE RIGHT. Now, there is still a lot about the job that I don’t know because I was only there for about ten months, just long enough for me to figure out that it wasn’t going to be a good fit (which was a very difficult decision). But when I heard those white people say that, it signaled to me that I needed to be aggressive about learning, and that whenever I spoke, it needed to be in service of gathering more intel, learning more jargon, and picking up more and more nuances of the job until it made more sense to me.
If I stood up during my training and said, “this procedure doesn’t make sense, and I don’t understand it!” … that statement should be a cry for help, not a protest. If I said that statement, and then spent five minutes describing all the ways that I think it should be done differently, my supervisor would’ve rightly pulled me aside and said, “Umm… who the hell are you to be making those pronouncements?”
This is a similar issue, except it’s bigger than just one job or one field of expertise. The issue of racism touches ALL OF US in different ways, but until recently (like maybe the last decade, if I’m being generous) most white people have been conditioned by the culture around them to assume that everyone has been treated equally and that racism was solved back in the 1960s. How many times have you said or heard another white person say, “I don’t see race” or “I’m colorblind”? This was the prevailing culture doctrine about race issues in the 80s, 90s, and into the early aughts.
So you may think that I’m being unfair, but I’m just being logical. If you’re white, it is LOGICAL for me to assume that there are some things about racism you don’t understand, since, for the most part, you are not its target. Therefore it’s REASONABLE for me to require white people to have a baseline level of humility on the subject if they want to be taken seriously.
In conclusion, neither whiteness nor ignorance are qualifications of competence.