I recently completed my final report for the Louisville Institute. These generous partners in ministry awarded me a grant to study the sociopolitical construct of race, Clarence Jordan’s Koinonia Farm and why persons fear Christian community. I visited Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia. It was Clarence’s “demonstration plot.” He would create his own world, challenging segregationist laws in the 1940s. The community was intentional, sharing in a fair wage and a common purse.
The farm was bombed. The business was boycotted. The members of Koinonia Farm were ex-communicated from their church. Because they loved their neighbor, their African American neighbor at a time when it was not socially or politically advantageous to do so. Clarence is my kind of Christian.
So, I set out to learn as much as I could in the year and a half I had allotted. I registered for conferences, signed up for workshops, ate fellowship meals, had tough conversations. I asked hard questions of myself and those around me. I dug deep and nearly scraped the bottom of my soul.
I conducted interviews and read a small library of books about the sociopolitical construct of race, intentional community, the life, work and witness of Clarence Jordan on Koinonia Farm, multi- cultural/ cross- cultural ministry, forgiveness and reconciliation. I took copious notes, wrote extensively, preached the message of community faithfully. I even redecorated my office in D.C. to reflect the work that had reshaped my life. It was all about community- building.
I was being transformed, emphasis on the I.
In the end, the results were not what I expected. No statistic or story could have prepared me for the narrative that would emerge. Long story short– Christians are afraid of Christian community. While there are those who would point to those who are doing it right (“See, we’re not all bad.”), there is a long and troubling history of Christians in North America who do not follow Jesus in the way of love, who refuse to integrate socially with persons of other cultures, who refuse to integrate their faith and life. As it was during American slavery so it is now. Bible in one hand and a whip in the other, European Americans are shamelessly able to oppress others while claiming to espouse the liberating words of Jesus Christ.
Call them what you will. It makes no difference because at least they are white. And in America, whiteness pays. It pays to play.
It must be said that those who agree to the conditions of whiteness (that is, the oppression of other cultural groups so that they might have privileged access to wealth, the land and its resources) are a serious impediment to the healing work required for reconciliation in the Church. You simply cannot build an authentic Christian community where whiteness and its interests are at the center, if socially colored white people do all the leading and none of the following, if they control the resources and determine the ministry emphases, if they influence the votes to ensure that it always goes their way in business meetings. Because the identity of whiteness is protected at all costs. Put above the cross of Christ, who persons are as white people and as the model citizens for the world in appearance, behavior and conduct is to be defended.
But it takes the place of Christ’s body and his work. Or, is it that there are those who think that their body is his? The work of race is complete in these cases, swapping out Christ’s body for their own, deifying their flesh and nullifying the work of his.
To be sure, this is not a matter of identifying with Christ’s body or doing what he would. This is proof that America’s created identity of whiteness is wedged in between the cross and the crown for many European Americans. The kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God are at odds but there are those who believe that they are one and the same, that if you have seen a socially colored white person, then you have seen God. Skin “color” long associated with good and evil and used to determine the heathen/ barbarian/ uncivilized versus the civilized/ cultured, the same is true for the Church in North America. The social coloring of skin separates the righteous from the unrighteous. It is not a matter of separating goats and sheep but “white” people and all the other “people of color.” The Church has a color line.
Christians, who claim to be made in the image of God, live in and through racialized identities. They create segregated sacred spaces, somehow walking in the footsteps of Jesus while avoiding marginalized and oppressed people who are victims of race and its progeny. The theological disconnect could not be more obvious.
Persons will close ranks and churches will close up shop in a community that is experiencing cultural change before it will integrate. They will take their Bibles and believe somewhere else. Christians need for power, all while worshipping an all- powerful God, cannot be underestimated. The impact of colonialism, American slavery and its other versions of domination continue to determine and influence the ways in which we relate to each other. And even for persons of faith, they cannot get the colonizer out of their head.
John said, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (First John 4.20). In my estimation, there are only two choices, only two kinds of people. Love is the deciding factor. Because you cannot love God and not love everyone that God has created. It is a package deal. Take it or leave it.
So, Christians, if there is hatred in your heart for your brother or sister, the one you won’t speak to, who you dodge at the grocery store, whose food you don’t like though you’ve never tasted it, whose clothes you wouldn’t be caught dead in, then you are not a lover but a big, old liar. John is pretty clear that there are no little white ones. There is no question about it.