3 Criticisms of Michelle Higgins’ Urbana 15 Talk that are Gifts to White Evangelicals

Michelle Higgins, Director of Worship and Outreach at South City Church gave a riveting talk on justice, race and the Black Lives Matter movement at Urbana 15. In this article I attempt to respond to the three most common overt or implied criticisms I encountered from white participants. What I write certainly applies to non-black people of color who felt similarly. If the shoe fits, feel free to wear it.

“Why couldn’t she be more balanced in how she said things?”

For some, Michelle Higgins’ message seemed to lack balance but in reality it was an important disruptive word challenging those who have failed to deal with race except at the most cursory level.

If you are reading from a white perspective (or from a non-black perspective) leveling this same criticism, I want to invite you to take a long hard look at what is behind your demand that Rev. Higgins say things in a more balanced/nicer/slower way.

Michelle’s talk was prophetic. A prophetic word disrupts! It points to the kingdom in the midst of the sheer urgency of the circumstances. I am struck in listening to her again that she cannot be dismissed as shrill and unbalanced. She was bold, she was raw, she was tough and she called whites out but she was not cynical, snarky or rude.

Prophetic words tend to strip us of the defenses we use to inoculate ourselves against the devastating evils around us. Balance does not even enter the equation in the face of such urgency and what an urgent three years (and longer) it has been for black people!

I have often used this metaphor to describe my own pain and tiredness on the race journey. It seems like people of color and some whites are in the deep end of the waters, treading, swimming, fending off the sharks. Most whites I know, tip toe into the shallow end and shy away. They want to ease in slowly at their own pace and any attempt to invite them to take a plunge into the choppy waters of race is met with resistance. What I am saying is that the problem does not lie in the speaker but perhaps in the listener.

Gentle words, subtle hints, soft nudges, nuanced rhetoric and slow on-ramps have not worked. In my experience in the white evangelical church, these are met with a deafening silence. It takes a disruptive word such as Michelle’s to awaken.

The demand for a comfortable rhetoric around race can also be a subtle move to change the subject or control the conversation. It becomes more about how something is said rather than what is being said. That is a power move. The sheer shock at facing a disruptive word is understandable but deflecting it is unacceptable.

In short, the demand that the gift of the disruptive word that calls whites out of apathy regarding systemic sin should be gentle in tone and accessible in pace is a sign of privilege. It is a refusal to be stripped by the word of God shining forth in its ability to split bone from marrow.

That was the gift of her talk:  A disruptive, prophetic word.

“She proof texted the scriptures”

This was a second critique I heard about Michelle’s talk, but in reality she had a well-honed Biblical Hermeneutic characteristic of the black church.

Sister Higgins wore her hermeneutic grid (interpretive lens) openly for people. She quoted Deuteronomy, Revelation and Hebrews and drew on the book of Genesis. Having participated in the life of a black church for several years and being challenged by black colleagues at the University, I have come to be healed by the black church’s hermeneutic.

Her first interpretive lens is one of community.

"We are family. I hope you will hear my story and think of your    place in it...We have space in one another's stories for each other..."

God’s word comes to ALL His people as a community. It has been my sad experience (as an Indian Christian) that for many whites and westerners, the primary hermeneutic is individualism (me and Jesus spirituality).

Her second interpretive lens is that of suffering as she draws on narratives of injustice and pain. This differs sharply from the theology of comfort that I experienced in my college years in the US evidenced by a disproportionate emphasis on inner healing and recovery in the then mostly white Vineyard movement. “Jesus heals my brokenness” became the watchword and we focused on healing lepers without taking on the systems that promoted the marginalization of the same.

Her third interpretive grid is that of history. Michelle called everyone repeatedly to take our stories seriously; even the difficult parts.

..what happens when we avoid parts of our story...what happens? We forget our story.. We change our story and brother and sisters, we end up believing a lie..."

For some whites to read the scriptures aside from history (not just Jewish history but our own racial history); a hermeneutic practice, which is common in many white evangelical churches is to depreciate the incarnation. The Word has descended into human history and through the resurrection the Risen Christ stands as the Lord of all peoples and all history. Sometimes I wonder if to be evangelical is to be a-historic. For some, after Jesus came Paul and then Billy Graham with nothing much happening in-between.

Michelle was offering us a hermeneutic of the scriptures through the lens of community, suffering and history that challenged our oft-used evangelical grid of individualism, brokenness and a-historic attitudes.

Lastly, Michelle sang and spoke words that were poetic (from her tradition too). In Luke 1, the Blessed Virgin Mary, exposits Hannah’s song from 1 Samuel and instead of explaining it in a 3-point sermon, sings it back into the world. That’s what Michelle did.

"I read the Bible and say it back at you.....That’s what good       preaching does”.

And it undid us. You may express discomfort at her exegesis, homiletics and style but it certainly wasn’t proof texting.

To read scripture within our own monochromatic communities leads to rigid interpretations and spiritual myopia to the breadth of the plan of God. We need others; diverse others to point out the areas of scripture we gloss over or neglect. To not listen to the word of God through the lens of diverse voices would be to compromise our holistic understanding of the word.  Our Bible is at stake!

Michelle gave us the gift of a holistic hermeneutic.

“She blamed whites”

In response to this third criticism, I would say in reality she freed whites and offered them the invitation to their restored humanity.

The misuse of power dehumanizes. It dominates a human person created in the image of God and makes them a victim. The part that we do not often emphasize is that there are two dehumanizing acts that occur in injustice. The first is the victim. But the oppressor also is dehumanized because they have tried become God and in doing so have lost touch with their own humanity. The end result though seems freeing initially for those in power, ends up a weary and burdened existence.

..That is a burden that none of us can bear, especially my white brothers and sisters, let me talk to y'all and tell you, God wants to relieve you of the burden of being in control..

Michelle shifted the locus of power. She gave it back to God, acknowledging his authority as supreme and called whites to return their usurped power back to the one who alone defines, dignifies and loves. In doing so, she did not strip whites of their dignity but restored their humanity. Humbling perhaps but not humiliating!  Whites listening carefully can hear a pleading invitation to stop trying to be God and thereby receive His freedom.

The gift of humanity!

In conclusion

Michelle Higgins prophetic talk was needful. Being brown these days is a liability and her talk helped me as a South Asian man acknowledge the weariness of my journey, turn over control again and continue forward in becoming “the evidence of things not seen.” But her preaching was NOT a series of  jabs aimed at white Christians, rather it was a disruptive, biblical, freeing call to the same, made from the deep end of the waters with hopeful invitation: JUMP IN!

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19 thoughts on “3 Criticisms of Michelle Higgins’ Urbana 15 Talk that are Gifts to White Evangelicals

  1. Thanks for your words. I knew what she was doing, but I knew it would take someone other than her father to explain it.

  2. The church is about “dealing with race” in the same way that publicly traded mining corporations are about charity. It’s something that can be done, but it’s generally irrelevant, and sometimes hurtful to the core mission.

    1. How is it irrelevant when a part of the body, the family, is hurting and we’re supposed to be on mission together? If the church don’t “deal” with race then how are the lost supposed to believe we even know what we’re talking about? The Body of Christ has always been diversity in unity, under one spirit. We can’t be on mission together if you’re not united. And If we don’t come together in unity are we really the Church? Jesus said the world would know we are His followers by our unity. Are you His? If you are then this concerns you. If we don’t deal with race and the affects of prejudice, racism, and stereotypes in the church, then we’re saying it’s OK to have division in the church; it’s OK for one part of the body to be hurting and the other not care. That’s not family. And that’s not Jesus. And THAT is detrimental to the mission of church because the “core mission” of the church is for ALL, regardless of race, ethnicity, social status, etc, to come to know Jesus. If the church can’t learn how to love and care for each because of a temporal thing like race, how are we gonna reach the world, as God commanded us to?

  3. “The misuse of power dehumanizes”
    I wonder if you really mean “the use of power.” What modern is capable of submitting to authority? America itself is founded on the premise of “You can’t tell me what to do, Britain.”
    By talking about the misuse, but not pointing out what constitutes valid power structures, you are in effect attacking all current power structures, or at least, that’s what the modern mind is apt to hear. As such, it should be obvious why whites, the ruling class, feel attacked.

  4. I love your point particularly about the holistic hermeneutics. Really helpful to have that broken down. I really appreciated her prophetic word and appreciate your challenge to dig deeper.

  5. Well done! Agree, agree, agree with your responses to the three criticisms. I share the view that Michelle’s words were of that rightly disruptive, prophetic sort.

  6. Reblogged this on crossing oceans bridging cultures and commented:
    This blog-post is a must-read for anyone seeking truth and healing on the journey of biblical racial-reconciliation. I am thankful for the organization I serve with, InterVarsity, and the courage to press in to a much-needed but painful dialogue about our Nation’s birth defect of racism which continues to mar us today. Ram, a colleague of mine in the Mid-West, stands as an Indian-American advocate for the cause of African American brother’s and sisters in the #blacklivesmatter movement. He comments on a talk given by a prophetic voice, Michelle Higgins, whose comments on Ferguson, the Black Lives Matter movement, and a need for racialized America to be healed was certainly disruptive. It was disruptive because that’s what we, the American church, and especially those of us in the majority — white Americans — need in order to LISTEN. It is time for us to listen, to pray, and to act. To be silent in a time like this is to repeat the failure of the white church in the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement. At the time, white Americans felt the movement was too disruptive and African Americans should wait for a slower process of change… but in hindsight, I only hear church members affirm the just cause of the movement. So let us not repeat this mistake by hiding beneath a protective shell of comfort and privilege, but let us awaken, listen, and act in justice and mercy. May His Kingdom Come!

    Thank you Michelle Higgins & Ram Sridharan for the gift you have given us in speaking TRUTH in love.

    1. “I only hear church members affirm the just cause of the movement” because those member who do not affirm the “just” cause are dead, or wise enough to keep their mouths shut. We racists know what others think of us.

  7. Thanks, Ram for great reminder of the prophetic tradition found in the Bible. Many of us would like to think we would have listened to God’s prophets had we been the audience but I confess I would have thought them unbalanced and crazy, especially Ezekial and Hosea (and of course, Jesus)! Michelle seems pretty mild compared to them!

  8. Hello brother, an IV alum referred me to your thoughtful response. I’m one of those non-black people of color who observed Higgins’ prophetic disruption and her broad-brushing of white evangelicals. As I know from my own IV experience, a prophetic word can be a confusing “gift” to whites, to be sure, and I hope I offered some clarification in my response. As I swim in uncomfortable waters also, I realize more and more that a message’s being uncomfortable is beside the point if what it ultimately accomplishes is alienation, resentment, and misunderstanding. The problem may be with the listener, but the speaker always has it in her power to avoid needless confusion.

    http://cogitatingduck.com/2016/01/05/arguing-about-race-and-justice-an-apologists-perspective/

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