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My sister-in-Christ, Gaye Clark, offered a reflection on what it was like for her to be surprised when her daughter courted and later married a Black man. Clark’s piece is not the first of its kind, even at The Gospel Coalition. Trip Lee wrote about his marriage to a white sister in the Lord. And it’s no secretive conversation among African Americans, as this piece by Phillip Holmes indicates. The promise and peril of inter-ethnic dating and marriage has been a long-standing conversation in African-American communities, once because it was dangerous and illegal, then because it was socially frowned upon, and now because we’re slowly crawling toward some vision of ethnic conciliation.
But many people felt that Clark’s piece gave evidence to a massive blind spot—her failing to fully confess what appears to be deeper racial prejudice and her depiction of her son-in-law in a way that suggested he became “less Black” to her as she grew to love and accept him. Add to that the rather “teach-y” tone of the piece and many felt it was condescending as well as blind. The requisite internet furor resulted. Clark received the withering criticism so easily thrown at people online, but proved herself better than most of her detractors by listening, replying kindly, and eventually removing the piece.
I have asked TGC to remove my article from their website. I am profoundly grieved over the hurt and harm it has caused. Would covet prayers.
— Gaye Clark (@ClarkGaye) August 10, 2016
When I learned she’d decided to remove the piece (a move I respect but wish hadn’t happened), I decided someone should say something in praise of this woman and what happened. Having never met or spoken with her, here’s my feeble attempt. I hope it encourages her, her family, and the Church as we work through these things.
Taking the Risk
First, I want to express appreciation for Mrs. Clark for even writing the post. Let’s all be honest. There’s not much upside to writing something like this and there’s a whole lot of pitfalls along the way. Mrs. Clark stepped into one of those pitfalls, but her effort was commendable. In an age when so many African Americans rightly call on white brothers and sisters to enter the fray, Clark took the risk. She should be appreciated for doing so.
The other thing to note is her spirit in the post. Yes, it was “teach-y” in a problematic way. But that’s only at one or two points in the piece. The overwhelming bulk of the post sought to be God-centered, redemptive, and even helpful to those who might face the same challenge. Now, we could ask, “But why should it be a challenge in the first place?” In God’s kingdom it won’t be. But on earth, in the Church, among the fallen, it is. And Clark sought to be redemptive amidst all the ugliness we know still exists on this issue. I praise God for her.
Third, Clark didn’t have to write a post that excavated her own life. She could have written a post that took the detached, “objective,” professorial approach. She could have simply exegeted a few texts and “remained above the fray.” So I think it’s important to note that she actually laid bare a part of her own soul and life that no one is likely to give her any credit for. Who gets points for describing their latent or active prejudice? We tend to act as if no one should ever have believed those things ever, as if we’re not all works in progress. So when someone unearths the ugly of their lives for public consumption, it is not only courageous; it’s deeply honest. And while some of us would have loved a deeper reflection and confession, we all have to start somewhere. Clark started with her heart and in the process modeled for us why we should start with ours too. I thank her for that.
Taking the Heat
I truly admire Mrs. Clark for weathering the blowback she received. She set out to do good but pretty quickly folks began to speak evil of it. More often than not, social media types then double down. Rather than listen, we try to explain our intentions or offer hasty apologetics. Rarely do folks listen. And rarer still are apologies that communicate genuine understanding of the hurt caused. Ms. Clark did both. That’ll never satisfy the never-satisfied crowd, but it ought to be appreciated by all of us who know we too have flopped with our tongues. Mrs. Clark did all of this with Christ-like poise, grace and charity—thus proving the spirit behind the original post.
Advancing the Conversation
The reason I’d hoped TGC would not remove the post is the post actually triggered much-needed conversation. It wasn’t the conversation the author anticipated. But it was a meaningful one about how we describe our experiences and how we see each other. It was a much-needed conversation about affirming people as made in God’s image, and not having that image shrouded by either our own prejudices, ignorance, or expectations. The post, with its flaws, was probably doing more for the conversation than if it would have simply affirmed everyone in their presuppositions and left our weaknesses unchecked. I’m genuinely happy for any way anybody advances these conversations with the kind of grace Mrs. Clark did.
Appreciating the Church
Very few people are likely to have known much about Mrs. Clark’s Christian witness and discipleship. Many of us would have rushed to assumptions based upon this one post. We would have been tempted to place her in the box we have for “such people,” slapped the lid on, and slid her in the attic with all those “others” we don’t want to hear from. While I don’t know Gaye Clark personally, I do know her pastor and her church. And I know the kind of courageous leadership her pastor shows on these very issues on the regular in his church. He has African-American pastors and preachers in regularly—exposing his congregation to the gifts and perspectives these leaders bring. Leaders like K. Edward Copeland, who works on justice issues on the ground in partnership with local law enforcement, the community, his church and many others, and who speaks prophetically and unapologetically on the “platforms” the Lord gives. In other words, Mrs. Clark’s willingness to speak to these issues must surely come in part because she’s being discipled by white gospel leaders who willingly have the conversation as a matter of pro-active care for their members and for people affected by injustice. When we throw Mrs. Clark away, we risk throwing away a good church and good men trying to do good work in the name of our good Lord. I’m learning to speak a little less critically at first and more carefully at length.
There’s more that could be said about the various strengths and weaknesses of the post. But it’s perhaps best to simply say not one of us has “arrived” on these issues such that we speak without flaws. If that were true, we’d be the perfect persons that bridle our tongues that James seems to think doesn’t exist. I don’t want my sister to be vilified for doing what we’ve all done and what we’ll all likely do in the future. I hope we can remember her for making an honest attempt and giving a humble response when challenged.
A final thing for those who see the reaction to Mrs. Clark’s post and think, If that’s how I’m likely to be treated, why bother? Well, you bother not because you anticipate good treatment. You bother because it’s the right thing to do and it honors your Lord. And you bother because you know that if that’s how they treated Jesus for doing good, then that’s how they’ll treat you. And you bother out of love for your fellow human beings and your brethren in Christ. Let love constrain you even when there’s no praise to maintain you. After all, your ethnic brethren who dare speak of these things are quite accustomed to receiving a lot of vitriol, “push back,” condemnation, accusation and the like when we speak. And there was a time we even would have been killed for speaking. We’ve made progress, but for further progress you’ve got to put some skin in the game and not quit. Man up. We trust in Christ that it’s worth it.