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Professor Receives "Movement of Hope" Award

Karen McKinney, associate professor of biblical studies, has built a career on pursuing racial equity and biblical reconciliation.

Associate Professor of Biblical Studies Karen McKinney received the Movement of Hope award from Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota for her work to establish racial equity in the Twin Cities and surrounding communities. She recently contributed to a curriculum called “And Who Is My Neighbor?”—an introductory study of racial equity that has been used in thousands of churches nationwide—and speaks and consults extensively on issues of anti-racism and diversity. She also serves as community liaison for the Office of Diversity at Bethel.

What does it mean to ask the question "Who is my neighbor?"

To see someone as our neighbor, we have to recognize their humanity. Because we have historically belonged to in-groups that are very homogenous, we should start by asking ourselves, “Who we are hating?” That’s who our neighbor is. We look at America today, and it doesn’t look like it used to look. So many people have recently immigrated here, and they’re not just settling in urban areas—rural and small-town America are changing, too. It’s not so easy to love your neighbor when your neighbor doesn’t look like you. But that’s what God asks us to do. God calls us to see the humanity in everyone, because we are all made in God's image.

One of the goals of this curriculum is to address racial inequity in Minnesota. Can you outline some examples of what racial inequity looks like?

In our society, gaps exist along racial lines. People of color have less access to affordable healthcare. Same thing with education. In Minnesota, just 65 percent of black and Hispanic students and 53 percent of Native American students graduate from high school. That’s almost as bad it was before the Civil Rights Movement. Our housing is segregated, and availability of real estate and loans depend on what color you are. Our prisons are full of people of color, and it’s not because they commit more crimes—it’s because they’re more heavily policed. Racial inequity exists in just about every social measure you can think of.

How can we combat racial inequity?

First, we have to look at our history and recognize how we got here—you can’t move forward without looking backward. We need to learn to have cross-cultural dialogues and be open to what people say. And then we have to do an honest assessment of state and federal institutions. Scripture says our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities. Racism is a principality, and we have to dismantle it. In order to change people and institutions, we have to strategize—we can’t educate it away. It will take years, and you might not see the end in your lifetime. But if we really serve a God of justice, this work isn’t optional.

In today's political climate, public opinion is becoming more and more polarized. How do we engage Christians of all political ideologies in this conversation?

Christians have to see this as a faith issue. Two of Bethel’s core values are truth-seekers and reconcilers. We’re very good at understanding vertical reconciliation—reconciling ourselves to God—but we also have to pursue horizontal reconciliation. We’re called to be reconciled to other people and the earth. That’s part of the Christian spiritual journey. So, social justice is not just for liberals—it’s something God has given all of us to do. And we need to get it right, because we’ve gotten it wrong too many times before.

What would you say to people of color who are afraid their stories about racial injustice won’t be taken seriously?

So many times we share and people reject us, or they don’t want to hear our stories because they can be hard to hear. That hurts. But I would say the same thing to people of color as I would to white people: You don’t get a bye just because it’s hard. Standing for justice in the face of injustice costs something. This is a calling, and you have to take risks. People of color also have to stick together and call on one another for support—whatever we need to do to make sure our voices and stories are heard. We all need to sharpen each other on our journey of sanctification.

What would you say to white people who are afraid of saying the wrong thing?

Accept that you’re going to say the wrong thing. Ask for forgiveness, forgive yourself, and keep going. We have to give ourselves space to make mistakes like we do in anything else. And when you encounter anger, don’t let it stop you. You’d be angry, too, if racial injustices happened to you. Allow yourself and others grace, and don’t get lost in guilt. You have the privilege of opting out, but people of color don’t have that privilege. We need you to walk with us.

Do you see progress being made in the way Christian communities engage with race issues?

Yes. When I was first hired at Bethel (in 1996), people would come up to me in the Dining Center and start playing with my braids. When I went to the library to check out a book for the semester (a privilege reserved for faculty), people would assume that I was not a professor. Those kinds of micro-aggressions don’t happen as often anymore, but others do. Bethel has hired more faculty and staff of color and established the Office of Diversity. The Act Six program, which offers full academic scholarships to emerging urban leaders, is a huge step toward increasing diversity. Even the “Who Is My Neighbor” curriculum—which is just a starting place for conversation about racial injustice—has been received well among mostly white congregations. The events in our communities and nation have poised us for engagement and change, and people are open. God has given me this new platform to speak about diversity issues, and it feels good.

Learn more about the "And Who Is My Neighbor?" curriculum and download a copy here.

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