Minnesota Nice is Killing Us
1 John 1:5-10
5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7 but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
When I was young, my family belonged to a private pool club called Lakewood, just outside of Springfield, Ohio. It was this huge, historic complex: three different pools, an arcade, a pond stocked with fish, miniature golf, Frisbee golf, a huge water slide and high dive. It even had a large pavilion where the Beach Boys and Four Seasons once played, decades ago. It had everything. Or so we thought.
But around 7 years old, we stopped going to Lakewood. I couldn’t understand why. This place seemed perfect. The new pool we started going to was okay, but no water slide, no putt putt. It couldn’t compare to Lakewood.
So finally I asked my parents why we couldn’t go to Lakewood anymore. They told me that me they started realizing something about Lakewood they hadn’t realized before. To be a member at Lakewood, your entire family had to show up all together to the office to apply. Even the children. Lakewood management wanted to see every person in the family before they could be members. This seemed odd to us, but since we were already members our family didn’t question it.
And then my parents heard why Lakewood did this. Lakewood wanted to make sure every family member was white. There was no official “whites only” policy made by Lakewood, but if you ever visited it, white families were all that you would see. The final straw for us was when my parents had heard of another family’ trying to join Lakewood. Originally, they had been told they could join. But when they brought one of their kids, who was not white, to the office to apply, all of a sudden there were no spots available for them any longer.
This was not apartheid South Africa or the Jim Crow south. This was Springfield, Ohio in the 1990s.
And if I’m being perfectly honest, I think that we as a family saw some clues of it at Lakewood years before we left. But we didn’t want to pay too much attention to them. We didn’t want to face them. We didn’t want to ask too many questions. Because we liked what was nice, what was comfortable, what gave us privilege.
One of the biggest challenges of racism is that we do not want to face it. It is a sin and an evil that is part of us all. All of us, as human beings, have racial stereotypes and prejudices. But instead of confronting it, confessing it, and working for healing from it, we hide from it. We don’t talk about it. We pretend it exists only in some far away galaxy a long time ago.
In his book, “White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son,” the author Tim Wise talks about a meeting with college students in Minnesota. He was there to lead an anti-racism workshop for their diversity day. Tim very quickly realized that at the event, the students who showed up were pretty much entirely white and liberal. They denounced racism in theory. They could quote King, they talked about equality as a philosophy. But they had a much harder time facing actual racism in their own lives and own communities.
When Tim asked the students if there were any racial issues going on in their college, these students answered back, “We really don’t have any racism on campus.” Tim, knowing full well how prevalent racism is in all of us, was perplexed. How could you not have any racism at all on an entire college campus? This seemed impossible to him.
But the students went on to say, “Well, it’s sort of this thing we have here… We call it Minnesota Nice.” They went on to explain how everyone in Minnesota is nice and polite, doesn’t get angry, and doesn’t say anything offensive. Everything is cordial. So there is no racism.
The next day, Tim met again with students on the campus. But this time, instead of it being a mostly white crowd, he sat down with black and Latino and Asian, and Native American students. And when he asked them, “So tell me, what’s up with Minnesota Nice?” these students responded far differently. They said back to him, “Minnesota Nice is killing us.” They told him that buzzword masked over real issues of race going on in their communities. The same students who were Minnesota Nice to their faces, they would overhear say racist jokes to their friends or offensive comments in class.
And because everyone in Minnesota was supposed to be nice and cheerful, when these students of color saw racism at work, they weren’t allowed to be angry about it. Minnesota Nice gave no room for looking at historical racism in the state. It gave no room for addressing stereotypes. It gave no room for people of color to lift their voices and share their experiences of racism and ask hard questions about systems of power and privilege. Because that wouldn’t be nice. That wouldn’t be the polite and comfortable thing to do. Minnesota Nice wasn’t solving racism. It was hiding it away.
Far too often, we as the church universal practice “Minnesota Nice.” We are friendly people. We welcome all. We hold doors open. We ask how your week was. We share coffee and cookies. And all that is great. But we don’t like talking about race and racism, especially in our own communities. And especially in ourselves.
One reason is that we as the church don’t know what to do with anger, even righteous anger. We think of church too often as a comfortable community, a quiet community, a community where everyone is polite and nice. We don’t think anger and faith go together.
But if we look at scripture, we get a far different picture. The prophets speak of God being angry when the poor are mistreated, the widow forgotten, the foreigner abused. The Psalms are full of prayers that are angry. They don’t filter out their anger, even when it is directed at God. They trust that God wants them to be honest and is able to receive all of their prayers, even if some are not very nice or polite. And when we look at the life of Jesus, we see a Savior who is not afraid to respond with anger when the time calls for it, whether it to be Pharisees belittling outsiders, or moneychangers abusing their power in the Temple. When something is wrong, when people are mistreated, Jesus gets angry. We as the church need to be more okay with anger and listening to angry voices, even if it makes us uncomfortable.
The second reason, and probably the larger reason, is that we don’t like facing our own sin. So we make racism about other people, not us in this church. We think because we don’t wear swastikas or hide under white robes that we don’t have racism inside us. I’ve got news for all of us. It’s in us. Everyone here has had experiences of racism, whether it be privilege or oppression or a mix of both. Everyone here has stereotypes of others. Some of these we might think of as positive stereotypes. Some might be more negative and hurtful, and those we try to hide as much as we can. But that doesn’t mean they are gone. That doesn’t mean we are healed from them.
We have deep wounds of racism in our nation and in our community. And they can’t be healed by hiding them under a band-aid.
The apostle John tells us, “If we say we are without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” As Christians, our first step is to face racism. Face it in ourselves, in our stories. Face it in our history. Hear the voices of others. Read the parts of our history not always told in history textbooks.
That can be a scary step, because it means we need to change some things about ourselves. We also worry that if I face racism in myself, if I am as honest about it, others will not accept me. In my experience, it has been the opposite. Those who tell me they need to grow, they need to learn, they have made mistakes and hurt people in the past, those are the people I want to spend more time with. Not those who say they are without sin.
So often we make race and racism into a debate, trying to prove I am right, I am good, and the other one is wrong. That is not healing. That’s not the gospel. The gospel is that we all have sinned. And we all need to be redeemed. And when we can get past trying to prove that we aren’t racist, then we can take real steps towards healing and grace.
So how do we move forward, as a church, and as a society, from “Minnesota Nice” to real healing and transformation from racism? First, we remember John’s words to us: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Confession. Looking inward. Sharing it with God. Trusting that God’s grace is ready for us when we take racism out of the closet and bring it into the light of day. One practice I did my first year of ministry was to write my race biography – what were the messages I heard growing up about race? What did my interactions in school, in my neighborhood, around friends, condition me to think and assume about others? What are my assumptions and biases still today? It’s not something I would share with everyone. But I needed to face it, and I needed God to speak to me through it.
The second step is a willingness to engage and learn. Giving space to voices that are angry. Hearing messages that are uncomfortable. Reading about the parts of our past not always taught in school. Reaching out, not saying I have all the answers, but saying, I need to learn from you and with you. God often teaches us through the stories and faces and words of other people.
Thirdly, a willingness to speak up and act when we see something is wrong. As Christians, we can’t just be neutral bystanders when we see something wrong with the world. And that is especially true with racism. If my family kept going to Lakewood Pool after we realized it was for whites only, that would not be simply being a bystander. That would be supporting something we know is evil and wrong. One area I have been challenged lately is to not let words that are hurtful or prejudiced go by. Both in myself and in others. When I hear them, I need to follow up. Ask, “Where did that come from? Why are you assuming that? How would you feel if someone spoke about you that way?” I’m still not very good at this. But the power of grace invites me to keep trying.
We live in a messy, broken, sin filled world. And in this world, racism is not dead. It is very much alive. In response, we don’t need more “Minnesota Nice,” We don’t need to pretend everything is fine. Instead, we need John’s words. We need honesty. We need confession. We need engagement. We need light. “If we walk in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.” There is real healing out there. But takes us coming out of the shadows and facing this sin together. Amen.