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August 9, 2022

Chris Furr: Truth telling, confession and redemption

In a conversation with a fellow pastor and friend, the author of “Straight White Male” discusses his book and the path away from patriarchy and white supremacy that the church could offer.

Mycal Brickhouse and Chris Furr have been neighbors in ministry for almost seven years. In that time, the two Cary, North Carolina, pastors, one Black and one white, have also become friends and are working to understand how to build real, deep and intentional relationships.

Through their friendship and their professional collaboration, they hope to help create transformation in their local community.

Brickhouse is the senior pastor at Cary First Christian Church and a managing director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity. Furr, the pastor of Covenant Christian Church, recently released “Straight White Male: A Faith-Based Guide to Deconstructing Your Privilege and Living With Integrity.”

Furr’s book is deepened by essays from four contributors — the Rev. William Barber II, the Rev. Melissa Florer-Bixler, Robyn Henderson-Espinoza and Matthias Roberts — who offer commentary from the perspectives of their identities.

Brickhouse and Furr spoke in July about the book. The following is an edited transcript.

Mycal Brickhouse: Reading your book, I was struck by how much your life experiences have really strengthened your eye to see not only the privilege that you carry but the way that you respond to that privilege and enact defense mechanisms to sustain privilege. Part of the work that you had to do is really disarm yourself of those defense mechanisms.

It seems as though you’re on this journey to help others recognize the privilege that they carry and then understand how to be responsible. How to walk in integrity with this privilege. How to open the door for other people, and how to sacrifice that in the times that you need it.

Could you talk about your journey and the experiences that have gotten you to this place where you thought, “I need to write this”?

Chris Furr: I feel a lot of responsibility because of the experiences that I’ve had. The people that have poured into me, the people that have been mentors to me, the people that have brought me alongside them have given me a gift.

I feel a certain responsibility to do the kind of ministry that gives honor to those experiences and to those people who shaped me. All of the things that have shaped me, all of the ways that I’ve come to see myself and see the world around me — all of those things have added up to my trying to figure out what the right posture is.

“Posture” is a word that I come back to, because when I enter into a relationship, a collegial interracial relationship that builds into a friendship with someone like you, I have to know the dynamics of that relationship, the background that each of us brings to it, and come to it with a certain posture that isn’t arrogant or paternal or all the other things that we straight white men are bred to be.

I don’t mean just a physical posture. I mean a social, mental, emotional posture that I take in relationship that allows for the possibility of growth and for trust to develop. I have to earn trust.

Most folks who look like me take for granted that they will be trusted — and [need] to acknowledge that in certain places they’re not, for good reasons. It requires you to take a different posture. You can either be defensive about that, or you can be open to it to see where it takes you.

My responses aren’t always as rational as I’d like them to be. If I’m in a meeting and I’m feeling defensive, I can either act out of that feeling or I can examine it and say, “Why do I feel this way?”

When you start to think about, “Why is my body responding this way to being challenged by a Black woman in this meeting? Is there a good reason for that?” — if there’s not, maybe I can respond differently than I might if I just reacted without examining the posture that I’m taking.

MB: As you use the word “posture” and the examination of posture, it seems you’re arguing in the book that this is a spiritual practice for you. The art of examination, the art of confession and the art of truth telling are built around being a spiritual practice that ultimately leads to your transformation.

CF: If you just take for granted that when I enter into this room or enter into this relationship, the people here trust me, then I assume that our relationship is being built at one level. But if there isn’t trust there, which in lots of cases there isn’t, especially when it comes to men in collegial relationship with women, or straight folks in relationship to LGBTQ folks, or white folks in relationship to people of color, there isn’t trust, because of the harm that’s been done.

When you realize this is how the other people feel when I’m in the room, regardless of what’s in my heart — regardless of what I feel is my true internal identity, my body carries with it certain associations. When I’m in the room, it changes the equation for some of the people there, because of what I look like and the associations that come with it. “Welcome to the world,” so many other people who are judged by their external features say.

I realized that there’s something that keeps us from being in a true relationship with each other. As long as that veil exists between us of distrust, mistrust, then we can’t really be in the kind of relationship that God has called us to.

If I realize that I can’t live in the fullness of relationship with my neighbor because of these things that exist between us, then my spiritual practice to grow closer to my neighbor and therefore grow closer to God is to find the kind of posture that allows for those veils to come down.

There are all kinds of other things that we bring to the table in our relationships that we might not necessarily have been the inventors of, but they’re there, and we have to deal with them honestly.

So much of the world distrusts straight white men, for very good reasons. That means I’m cut off from the image of God in some profound ways. I don’t want that. As a person who seeks to be in God’s presence, who seeks to follow Christ, I don’t want to be cut off from my neighbors, because to be cut off from my neighbors is to be cut off from God.

MB: You’re pastoring a congregation that has been diversifying over the years. How do you seek to cultivate removing the veil or examining posture in the relationships within your faith community?

CF: That’s where truth telling and confession are so important. I could obscure truths about racial inequities, gender inequities, all the things that we know are realities in our society yet we try to keep out of our conversations in the church. I could try to keep those things out. To be confessional, to be truth telling in my own life, to try to model that in my ministry has a kind of disarming effect.

One thing that is so difficult for people of privilege of any kind to accept is that you might need to receive challenge or correction. If I am afraid to be challenged or if I’m afraid to have my ego wounded, if I’m afraid to lose some advantages that I possess, then I would shut that down, right? I shut that down, shut it off, and our relationships begin to break down. We come to a place of stagnation and division.

As the author, that’s why I wanted to have contributors in the book. I said to the contributors, “If you feel like there’s some aspect of this that you need to challenge in what I’ve written, I want you to write it, and I want us to print it.”

I want to model the idea that it’s OK to receive correction or challenge, to realize that you’re wrong and to take that in and live to tell the story, live to see another day. It seems counterintuitive for people of faith — who talk about sin and forgiveness, grace and forgiveness — acknowledging that we’re wrong.

When you get specific about things that we’re wrong about or when another person challenges us on something, then we tend to shut it down. Then we can’t examine ourselves; we can’t examine each other. We can’t be in full community together. Modeling that and saying, “This has been my journey; this has been where I see people who look like me stepping out of place” — it’s something that I didn’t realize the power of until I started doing it.

About our community diversifying itself, I had people come to the church and say, “I’ve never heard somebody who looks like you say what you’ve said.” I don’t think I did anything special; I just said the truth. But owning the truth about me and my own people is a gift to people who have been gaslighted their whole existence. Realizing that you know the truth, even if it’s difficult truth, you can live through it.

There’s actually a lot of freedom in it when you’re not trying to defend it or cover up. Think about all the ways right now we’re trying to construct lies and reframe our history to just obscure the truth. If we just deal with the truth, it requires a lot less effort than trying to hide it or trying to build systems where we don’t teach it or we don’t hear it or we don’t use words or we don’t tell our kids the truth about the legacy they inherit.

If you just own the truth about yourself, about each other, then redemption is possible and renewal is possible. There’s life on the other side of it.

MB: I read this, clearly, with a lens of being a Black man in America. There were areas in the book where I felt you were calling to task every reader who has an aspect of privilege and has used that privilege for self-advantage and/or in a way that disadvantages someone else.

What you’re talking about doing — living a life of integrity and truth telling and confession — is risky business. This is risky work. Why would you say it’s worth the risk for people to deconstruct the privilege that they carry?

CF: There’s no word [in the book] that has gotten more response than “privilege.” People react so strongly against that word. Why? Mainly because the Protestant American work ethic is “you get what you work for” and “this is a meritocracy” and the American myth that we have about that. If you imply that I have something I didn’t earn, then I’m not living up to that American ideal.

Lots of us who have certain kinds of privilege — whether it’s economic privilege or racial privilege, gender privilege — we live pretty well. Who lives in a nice house and takes the house apart? Who deconstructs the system that benefits them?

That doesn’t make any sense, unless you follow Jesus, who says, “Those who will lose their life for my sake will find it.” “Pick up your cross and follow me.” “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor.” The things that Jesus says, the counterintuitive things Jesus says — the more you can let go of the material advantages you have in your life, the greater freedom you will feel.

What I wanted to get across is that the more I find myself able to let go of those things that are built-in advantages for me, the more I realize that I want to live in different kinds of relationships with my neighbors. The more I feel called to work for just outcomes in our community, the freer I feel.

We talk about the cost of discipleship and the cost of deconstructing. The cost of taking it apart. I feel freer in my own skin now than I ever have before. I hope that will always be the case. I’m on this progression, this growth in Christ that leads me to a freer and fuller expression of who I am, apart from all the other things that might define me.

MB: You argued that the end goal is redemption. What would you say redemption means?

CF: One of the reasons that I set out to write the book was because I felt like there were a lot of things you could read about the harm that patriarchal white supremacy is doing in the culture. I’m not going to stop being a straight white man, so how do I live this out? I can own the toxicity that’s been, but how can I carry these identities in a way that brings redemption and healing to the world rather than continuing the harm?

When you’re socialized in the way that straight white men are socialized, how can I break that cycle, break that pattern, so that there’s some way for me to feel like there’s a place for me in all of this work and that I can be who I am? I can carry all the things that my body carries, all the associations that it carries, but I can do that in ways that bring more redemptive outcomes than harmful outcomes.

Redemption, I think, means finding a way to live your life in the affirmative rather than in the negative. For me, the book couldn’t just be about all that’s wrong. Let’s offer some steps where we can wear these things, wear these identities in ways that are more hopeful, more positive, offer the possibility of healing to the world.

When you leave people in the negative, when you deconstruct, you have an unformed mass, and it can become all kinds of things. That’s a lot of what’s happening in our culture right now — people pushing back. If you’re telling me that I’ve got to use different language right now and I’ve got to figure out this different way of operating in the world, then I can either embrace that [or] if it’s a difficult road for me, then I’m more apt to rebel against it, push back.

Then I retreat further, because you’re not giving me an alternative. I don’t see any imaginative identity that I can claim, so I’m just going to become the most extreme version of this white guy that I can be.

I think that’s what we’re seeing a lot in our culture. We’ve articulated the problems, and this is where I think the church is really important. It is offering people a path. There’s a way that you can take apart the whiteness that’s in you, the patriarchy that’s in you. There is an alternative that you can claim.

In that deconstruction period, for so many people, there’s anxiousness. You’re asking me to depart from ways I was taught by my parents and grandparents, by people that I love, to see the world and understand the world. I take apart all those things, and there’s volatility. What will I be if I’m not that? If you don’t give me an alternative, then what I become is so defensive that I’m going to be the most extreme. A lot of the rise of patriarchal white supremacy that we’re seeing in some circles is because people see a confrontation but they don’t see an alternative.

MB: What are some areas or signs of redemption that you are seeing in your local community or even within your life in this season?

CF: One thing that gives me hope is seeing affluent, predominantly white people being willing to be led to address minority issues in the community and to simply hear what the issues are, hear what the challenges are in our community, hear the things that are facing them.

Rather than feeling like they have to have ownership of it — this tendency that especially big-steeple, white churches have always had to feel like we’re going to be the ones in charge — instead to take our cues from the people who are really being affected, to hear the voices of the people who are really being affected and to just show up, be alongside and be advocates. To be led by folks in our community, whereas in the past, those efforts might have been co-opted or not taken up at all, because they were inconvenient to me.

When you think about in Cary, what’s happened here among the churches, it’s actually fairly remarkable. We have in a very affluent community — that has all the reasons in the world to act in self-interest and to grow as a community that benefits only the wealthy — an effort among people to make sure that those at the bottom of our communities are not trampled on.

That’s a sign that people are beginning to see the kind of ministry that Jesus calls us to — that what benefits me individually may not be what grows the kingdom of God. That’s a remarkable thing to see unfolding in our community, and how it’s changed the narrative to some degree in our community, too.

MB: As a result of someone reading this, what’s your hope that they walk away with?

CF: A desire for more. [The book] was a product of lots of other exploration on my part. I hope that somebody who would read that would then feel called to that same kind of exploration — to go read and to understand the dynamics of their own community. How has patriarchal white supremacy shaped the community I live in? How is it shaping it now? How has it been enacted in my family history? How has it unfolded in my life?

A couple of hundred pages on race, gender and sexuality in the complexity of American culture is not enough. There’s much, much more work to be done. Go forward from it with some curiosity.

I hope they’ll leave with some practices. I try to be specific in the second half — here are some things that you can do, that you can remember, whether you’re a pastor or you’re a real estate agent or a mortgage broker, a doctor or a manager. There’s something here that you can take in, put into your life, that could mean more equity in more places where you live and work. I hope that people come away with that.

And I hope that people come away with a belief that the scriptural story that we have — for as much as the church has in so many ways been the architect, the enabler, the enforcer of patriarchal white supremacy, we are still stewards of the scriptural story — no matter how we twist and no matter how far we stray from the scriptural story or from the message of the gospel, that remains.

If we look in the story, if we search the character of Jesus, then we find there the tools to face the truths about ourselves and about each other that we don’t want to face. For those who might say, “If we want to fix these issues, the last place we would look to do it is the church” — look at how the church has trafficked in them. But there’s hope to be found, at least in the scriptural story, among the people who still hold that to be true and hold it to be sacred, that they would find some hope there. That the church would realize that we do have tools that we’ve been given by God for the moment that we’re in.

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Faith & Leadership

This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program is a service of Leadership Education, which designs educational offerings, develops intellectual resources and facilitates networks of institutions.