Book Review: Under Our Skin
Getting real about race
Book review by Will Turner
I had heard this story before. Harvey* sat at our dining room table recounting once again his experience of being in the army down South. He was off base one day with a friend when a bunch of white men drove by in a pickup and yelled out: “We got your n———!” Later he found out that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated only a few hours earlier.
This was a definitive moment in Harvey’s life. He has shared this story with me on many occasions. Whenever I bring up Christ, he cannot get past the fact that many who claim Christ have been complicit in racism.
Benjamin Watson’s Under Our Skin is a book I’d like Harvey to read. What strikes me most is how remarkably balanced it is. Watson’s central idea is that the problem of race is first and foremost a problem within. It is not about our skin. It is under our skin. It’s a sin problem.
Under Our Skin is a fleshed-out version of a short Facebook post Watson wrote after the trial of Darren Wilson (the cop who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014). In response to the outcome of the trial, Watson—a Christ-follower—wrote that he was angry, introspective, embarrassed, frustrated, fearful and confused, sad and sympathetic, offended, hopeless, hopeful, encouraged, and empowered. He dedicated a chapter to each of these subjects.
The church needs to listen to what Watson writes. We need to hear his anger. We need to try to the best of our ability to understand his frustration. When one part of the body suffers, the entire body suffers. We need to learn how to suffer together.
Under Our Skin is a sad book—sad that it is so desperately needed. But it is also a hopeful book. Hopeful in that if we would listen and act upon what Watson discusses, we would find ourselves, the Church, in a better place. The world is seeking answers. The world is watching. What does the segregation of our churches say to the watching world? And what does it say to our brothers and sisters in Christ?
As much as I appreciated this book, I do have one complaint: I wish Watson had tied-in the gospel story more closely. He often mentions sin and Christ, but sometimes sin is referenced as if it is understood and readily accepted; and Christ is referenced as if He is Savior, but not always redeemer of the world and king of all kingdoms.
How does the gospel relate to our anger over racism and segregation? How does the hope of Christ relate to being fearful, confused and sad? How does the gospel make us, as followers of Christ, both sympathetic and offended, both hopeless and hopeful? There’s a lot more room for exploration here.
The best way to use this book is to see it as a conversation starter. It is a good place to begin, but it is not an adequate place to end.
The problem often faced in the white evangelical world is that we give lip service to the problem of race, but very little action. We need more action. We need to enter into each other’s story.
What do I mean by that? First, I’m primarily speaking to whites. African Americans have been entering into our story—our world—for a long time, but the opposite is rarely true. When my African American brother goes to work, the likelihood is that he is a minority. When my African American sister goes shopping at the Target where I live, she is a minority. And I know many brothers and sisters who are a minority in their churches.
How do we enter into another’s story? Maybe God is calling some of us to live in a place where we are the minority, or work or worship in a place where we are the minority. Maybe God is calling us to serve in some capacity as a minority. (And the key word is serve.)
At the very least, we need to listen. I write from the perspective of a white pastor who lives and pastors in a predominantly African American context. I see things differently now because I am the minority. I have entered into a story that is not my own. And as much as I fail, I to strive to become a better listener.
The next time I see Harvey, I am going to give him a copy of this book. And I am going to listen.
*not his real name
Will Turner is pastor of Redemption Church (EFCA) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.