Category Archives: Race and American Church history

The Color of Compromise: Jemar Tisby’s new book aims to talk about the difference race has made on American Christianity

His book arrived in the mail yesterday.  I must confess that it is one of forty books that I have ordered in recent weeks.  New home, new bookshelves, I am creating a library to support my future work on  the raceless gospel.  I want to be surrounded by these conversation partners.  I have also decided that I want to be buried under my books.  Please tell my family to pile them on top of me and now that I think about it, under me as well.

I will rest on pages.

But before then, I will read his book and so many more.  Tisby’s book is where the conversation on race and the church in North America should start: with the realization and acceptance of our role in its existence.  Race is not just a social construct, but an ecclesial one.  Beginning with the bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963, Tisby calls us to account for our complicity.  He writes, “Historically speaking, when faced with the choice between racism and equality, the American church has tended to practice a complicit Christianity rather than a courageous Christianity.  They chose comfort over constructive conflict and in so doing, created and maintained a status quo of injustice” (17).  For him, we must start by owning what we have allowed by letting racial identities persist and racialized injustice to continue in our families, churches and neighborhoods.

Providing a historical survey, this is more than a history lesson but a call to action.  He recounts our sinful past so that we can face this present moment with the assurance that it need not be repeated.  We can say and do something different.  Tisby is convinced of the possibility.  He says, “Christians deliberately chose complicity with racism in the past, but the choice to confront racism remains a possibility today” (19).

From American slavery to the Black Lives Matter movement, the book concludes with a how- to list, which I will not detail here.  You will need to pick up the book.  Detailing the history of race in the making of the church in North America increases the sense of urgency for the healing work required and before we put the book down, Tisby has given us several assignments.  But, these are not ones you and I can simply check off.  The change that race has made on American Christianity will require more of our time and tongue.

Tisby’s words can change how we talk about race and in turn, our Christian faith.  Now aware and accountable, we are empowered to say something different and in so doing, to truly see each other without race and for the first time.

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“Confronting Racism in the Church” with Dr. Drew Hart

Last year, I had the privileged of serving with Dr. Hart at a community- wide event, aimed at race, community and the practice of our Christian faith in Henderson, KY.  It was my first time meeting him and he was gracious.  I had just read his book and been sharing his insights on social media.  To say the least, I was excited to meet him in person and to hear more of his thoughts on subjects dear to both of us.  He happily obliged, answering all my questions and offering support for future study endeavors.

This time, he is closer to home.  On July 22, he will be speaking at the Festival Center in Washington, D.C. at 1 p.m. and from his new book Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism.  It is a conversation that the church needs to have and if we are not prepared to speak, we can at least listen in.

For more information and to register, click here.

Before God Was White: The Rumblings of a Race-less Theology

Image result for Jesus White House“God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

~ John 4.24, NRSV

Halloween is over and yet, it seems nearly impossible to remove the mask of whiteness from the face of God.  Now a spooky, to be avoided, death- wielding deity, this socially colored white God has it in for all oppressed people.  But, this is a trick of race.  God is not a white man.

The social construct of race remakes God in the image of whiteness.

Instead of the Church placing race under the scrutiny of sacred Scripture, she allowed Scripture to be scrutinized by and rewritten from the perspective of race.  Bad Church.  In most if not all cases, our personal theology does not inform our understanding of race but race determines our understanding of theology.  In our minds, the eternal, immortal and invisible God can be colored in.  In our minds, the omnipotent God can be told who to love and to hate according to our prejudices.  In our minds, the omnipresent God can be segregated, partitioned off, cornered by one community of “color.”

But, when did color become all- powerful?  Greater than God?  Greater than us?  Greater than God could ever be?

When did “the future of our race” become the historical narrative and present aim of the Church?   And what of our faith in a past filled with putrid, hateful relationships with ourselves, members of our family and those we would define as “the enemy” reflects the nature of our fellowship? When did the will of race become the will of God?  Why do we color- code our theology?  Why must God be socially colored beige, brown, black, red, yellow or white in order for us to believe that God is with us and for us?  And in turn, that God is with them and those people too?  When did we begin to worship race and to identify God as a colored human being?

I know that this may be hard to believe but there was  time when God was not socially colored white.  God existed (and still does) outside of the segregated categories of race.  God was (and still is) omnipresent and thus, unable to be confined to a community or culture of people.  “God so loved the world…” (John 3.16).  To color- code power, that is white power, black power and so on, is to limit God’s supremacy.  It implies that the Spirit of God can be restricted and somehow harnessed by human hands.  God’s identity wasn’t, isn’t and never will be the sum total of racial attributes.  To racialize God is an attempt to stereotype Mystery.

A theology that is racialized, that describes God as a beige, brown, black, red, yellow or white man, is not talking about the God of the Christian faith but the God of the American faith.  It is faith in skin, white skin mostly and not in the salvific work of Jesus Christ achieved on a cross more than 2,000 years ago.  God is not involved in a race war but is fighting for our salvation.  God is after souls not the social coloring of skin.

 

Reflect on the statements below and consider where you may have painted God white.  May they cause a rumbling in your theology as well.

God is not a white Person.

God’s goodness is not whiteness.

God’s power is not white supremacy.

God’s blessing is not expressed in white privilege.

God’s love is not based on the social coloring of skin or any other real or imagined physical attribute.

God is Spirit and consequently, cannot be segregated, redlined and thereby, captured by one socially colored group, particular community or culture.

God is not a member of a race.  It is a social construct and God is self- existent.

“The Racial Context of Christian Churches in the United States”

 

tell_truth_xxlThis is the title of a chapter of Rev. James Ellis III’s newest book Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil: Stories about the Challenges of Young Pastors, where he served as the editor.  It is a book that includes a number of true stories from clergy who may differ in denominational affiliation but all wear the same collar and experience many of the same challenges.  The above- mentioned work was written by Dr. David F. Evans, an Assistant Professor of History and Mission at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  The truth that he shares with readers is about race’s place in the church in America. 

While I don’t want to spoil the book, I thought that I would offer some teasers, a few quotes from his work that would challenge us to think more clearly and to pursue truth more passionately.  Dr. Evans writes:

  • “Race in American churches is not a neutral issue.”
  • “Race matters in US Christianity.”
  • “The stained- glass windows of churches often reflect the expectations of the dominant society in which they exist.”
  • “The racism that exists in churches is deeper than outward appearances.”
  • “Racial arrangements, while visible and audible, in the architecture and artistry of images and hymns were only outward expressions of deeply held beliefs and practices.”
  • “Is the Christian religion, with its rituals and beliefs, powerful enough to root out the fear and violence of racism in its churches?”
  • “Future ministers and church members cannot afford to pretend that the religion of US Christianity is pure and undefiled from systemic evil or that racism only exists in some white supremacist congregations.”
  • “The foundations of US Christianity were constructed with the same tools and materials that made the US a white supremacist nation.”

I pray that his words help us to look more closely at the ways in which we practice our faith and to examine the traditions that we share and pass down to each generation.  Have a race-less day!

 

 

 

 

Burning Churches Again

635713006015361010-fireThis morning, I learned of a seventh African American- led church set ablaze.  The cause for the burning of Mount Zion AME church in Greeleyville, South Carolina is still under investigation.  But, before the smoke signal of this latest burning reached the news, six others in Florida, Tennessee, North and South Carolina were struck with matches.  Three of them have been attributed to arson though it is still unknown as to whether the motive was racial hatred or in response to the recent murder of nine members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina by self- professed white supremacist Dylann Roof.

Needless to say, there are many who are disgusted, outraged and shocked by this new but old and familiar story of the destruction of sacred spaces where African Americans gather to worship.  And this is not the first time that it has happened to one of the churches.  Mount Zion AME Church was burned down by the Ku Klux Klan twenty years ago.  Added to continued cases of police brutality involving African Americans, the fight over the Confederate flag and the recent comments of presidential candidate Donald Trump who spoke derogatorily about persons of Hispanic descent, it is clear that we are not as progressive as we might hope and that we cannot even begin the work of reconciliation.

There is much work to be done not just in courts but in our communities, not just in churches but in our conversations.  We need to talk to persons of other cultures to establish genuine relationships and friendships.  Don’t count them; just create them. There is not a quota.  According to a Stanford study, “making friends across racial lines lowers prejudice.”

We also must challenge would- be friends of cross- cultural relationships to speak up and speak out when persons make racist comments or comparisons, remarks or jokes.  And we need not make excuses for those who make their prejudices and stereotypes known.  We cannot give them an easy way out but must hold people accountable for their false conclusions and judgments of others.

African American- led churches are burning again and again and again.  We are repeating the sins of our fathers and mothers.  Lord, forgive us.  God, help us.  Amen.

Resources

Jim Campbell, “America’s Long History of Black Churches Burning”

Emma Green, “Black Churches are Burning Again in America”

Ron Hall, Denver Moore, Same Kind of Different as Me

Sarah Kaplan and Justin Wm. Moyer, “Why racists target black churches”

Same Kind of different as me