the stream, not the fish

the stream, not the fish

the game

A game I call, “Find the Racist” originated on the so-called left. I noticed how widespread this game was during the Trump administration. Many on the so-called right picked up on the game and plays their own version, “Find the Reverse-Racist.”

So what is “Find the Racist”? I call it a “game,” but those who play it do so with utmost seriousness. A video clip or quote will make the rounds, along with TV roundtable or kitchen table commentary about so-and-so who said or did this or that. Then indignation is expressed as ”How could they?” “In this day and age!” and an implicit or explicit, “Well, of course, they’re a racist.”

what’s good about the games?

The people who play these games sincerely, sincerely believe they’re doing good. They want themselves and others to be accountable for the harm caused by our words and actions. They want the harm to stop so healing can begin, for individuals and for society as a whole.

So let’s look at the evidence. Are these games in fact preventing harm and fostering healing?

human bodies

Did you know that when people called white are called “racist” their nervous system reacts automatically, flooding the body with cortisol and other fight-flight-freeze chemicals? All of this is automatic, below the level of conscious control in response to perceived threats of significance of any kind. In this state, it’s very hard for anyone to calmly and rationally see and respond to others and the world around them. In fact, to be called “racist” and to be called “pedophile” produce on average the same automatic physical response.

This is an extreme example of what happens within anyone who is labeled. And we label ourselves at least as often as others label us. Lazy, stupid, weak, a loser, a jerk, a bad daughter, a crummy father…whatever. We can be quite creative with labels.

“Find the Racist” is simple name-calling. Name-calling and labels produce anxiety, hyper-vigilance, depression, anger, defensiveness, suicidal thoughts, aggressive behavior. Never positive change.

In fact, racism’s person-to-person dimension involves name-calling and labels! The Buffalo shooter committed murder with the false self-righteousness of racist labels. No good comes of it!

Zion’s own experience

Before Zion called me, the fear of their pastor condemning them as a racist was very real for at least one Zion person. I know that fear. In general, I know the fear of being called names, labeled, and condemned. And specifically, of being called and condemned as a racist.

Before Zion called me, we went on to have some productive initial conversations about important things, after this fear was expressed. But no thanks to the fear itself, and no thanks to name-calling and labeling. Instead, the thanks for positive conversation belongs to everyone who exercised courage, curiosity, and compassion.

a self-righteous prayer

Remember the parable Jesus tells of the self-righteous Pharisee and the humble sinner?

The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector.” —Luke 18

The “Find the Racist” game and the “Find the Reverse-Racist” game are just like this: acts of self-righteousness. And self-righteousness only causes harm.

Identifying racists does not produce fruit of active love for black, brown, and indigenous people, who are the first harmed by racism. Nor does it express love of enemy, which Jesus calls us to embody. Instead of getting busy building uncommon relationships, understanding the problem, and taking action to heal all people and create true equity, we instead entrench ourselves deeper in an either-or power struggle over labels and a false sense of superiority.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. —First John 1

There’s a better way. As Richard Rohr says, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.” Here’s a parable to orient better practice.

the stream, not the fish

Two fish swim in a stream. One swims with the current, the other swims against it. When you catch and eat them both, which one will taste better?

You don’t need to be a chef or a fisher to know that a fish is a fish and can be delicious, no matter which direction it’s swimming.

In Genesis, “God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.” This includes human beings. In Acts, Peter heard a voice in a dream say, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” People included.

When it comes to racism, the problem isn’t bad fish. God is clear: there are no bad fish. The problem is the stream. It flows in the wrong direction! It carries all of us downstream. It harms everyone, including people called white.

the real struggle

Take this verse, written by one of the Apostle Paul’s students.

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” —Ephesians 6

In other words, our struggle is against the stream, not against our fellow fish.

When labels and name-calling are written into centuries of law, accepted as God’s will in religious doctrine, and used to decide who does and does not get federally backed home mortgages, there is a “stream” that’s much more powerful than the individual fish that swim in it. Well-meaning fish still get pushed downstream.

Some call this stream of racism, “white supremacy” or a “racist system.” That’s their way of saying, our struggle is against the stream, not our fellow fish.

I am a child of God, whether I swim with the stream of white supremacy or against it. In either direction, I remain a child of God. But when I swim with the stream, I ask the rest of God’s children to point out my mistakes and help me turn around! And to do so with love, which excludes name-calling and labeling.

Of course, the reality of the stream is, I cannot swim against it alone. This is the struggle of community together.

Our greater calling is to interrupt and reverse the flow of the stream, the way civil engineers reversed the flow of the Chicago River. Or at a smaller scale, to create eddies, where the stream pushes back against itself. Some call this goal, “racial equity.”

What is redlining?

Redlining is an example of systemic racism in housing, named for the red lines drawn on city maps around majority-black neighborhoods. Federal housing policy labeled and color-coded whole neighborhoods. The outcome? White families got a hand up through homeownership, while black families were excluded from federally-backed mortgages. Redlining increased racial segregation and led to a massive destruction of black generational wealth.


This is a 1936 map of redlining in Zion’s neighborhood. About 15 years after this map was made, Zion moved from 8th & Gaines to 8th & Marquette, across the “red line.” Remember, blame the stream, not the fish.

the School Equity Team

Earlier this year, a group of people from Zion, St. Paul, and other congregations heard our own young people give witness to bullying based on race and sexuality at school. And not once in a while, but regularly. Our own young people say and studies show that bullying does not toughen anyone up but instead creates all kinds of suffering, up to and including suicide.

Together, we formed a cross-congregation “School Equity Team.” Recently, we sent teams to conduct research and built relationships with school administrators in Davenport and North Scott school districts. We’re seeking solutions so the stream of school flows toward respect for truly all. We’re not trying to fish out the problem students, teachers, or administrators—we don’t believe they exist!—because our struggle is against the stream of racism, not the fish. We believe all fish can be part of the solution and all will benefit from the solution. So we aim to create buy in among students, parents, staff, and administration and schools where all can thrive and be their full selves.

This is also the struggle Jesus leaned into in the gospels. You might recognize it better with the churchier word for this work: healing.

Adrianna, a black student and rising senior at North Scott High, led this against-the-stream healing, as she lead the School Equity Team’s most recent research meeting. She asked the principal and assistant principals her burning questions, about the racist name-calling and anti-LGBTI+-labeling she has experienced.

Thanks be to God.

Pastor Clark Olson-Smith