Category Archives: Race and Christian Witness

Resisting Race

Race is a rule of law.  The color line is well- defined as each generation digs in their heels. “We shall not be moved.”  We fold our arms and turn our backs.  We turn on each other and take turns hating the other.

I hate you.  You hate me.  We hate them.  One way of seeing things, one way of treating human beings, one circular argument, we are no closer to concluding that we belong to each other, that we are all sisters and brothers.  So, we step on their toes and our own feet.

We keep creating distance and making up the difference, legalizing our preferences, etching in stone which bodies are at home in the earth.  Then, we wonder why the rocks cry out.  Because this does not praise God.

In the book of Genesis, God breathed out and created us as living souls.  Yet, our words tend to suck the life out.  Reduced to racial categories, we become color- coded beings  recreated way lower than the angels.  But, Ralph Ellison writes in Invisible Man, “Why waste time creating a conscience for something that doesn’t exist?  For, you see, blood and skin do not think?”

Still, our skin and its social coloring determine our social interactions.  It is a matter of fact.  Like a wristband or a stamped ticket, the social coloring of our skin tells us where we belong, where we are allowed to be and what we can do in particular places and at any given time.  “Let me see your skin.”

“Sundown towns” were those segregated cities where African Americans were not allowed after dark.  They wouldn’t be caught dead there and if they were caught, they wound up dead there “at the hands of persons unknown.”  We have turned the darkness inward and determine who we will allow in our own lives, who we will set our eyes on and who we will close our eyes to.

But, I am here to tell you that sometimes what is legal is not lawful, at least not in the eyes of God and that it is time to resist the laws of race and its progeny.  Mostly, I speak to Christians who identify as “new creatures in Christ Jesus,” who claim him as kin yet cannot relate to believers of other cultures unless and until they assimilate to theirs, who eat the Lord’s Supper yet cannot find room at their table for their neighbor, who claim God as sovereign but don’t question white supremacy, who won’t cross the tracks but cross their hearts, who bow their heads in prayer and look the other way when they see injustice, who can find excuses for abuses of power but cannot put their finger on systemic failures (Second Corinthians 5.17).

It is time to resist race and the urge to cover up our complacency with the world as it is.  It is time to resist and reject the comforts of our social and economic categories, time to get up and stick out, to take on the identity of pilgrim passing through.  Because this land is not your land.  My country ’tis of…?  Christians are not citizens of this world but the next.

Let’s move on and move on the fact that race is all wrong about us.  It’s time to buck the system, to live in opposition to its rules, to live a counter- narrative that has no respect for color lines, no interest in stereotypes, no desire to play by rules that regulate bodies according to their physical features.

It is time to resist race and to break with the social arrangements of “color.”  But it is a law and this defiance is dangerous.  There are any number of persons, family, friends and strangers, who will be ready to put you in your place, to make a citizen’s arrest.  Still, you and I must go down fighting against these words of bondage.  Clear your throat and talk back.  Don’t sit down and take it.

Don’t stomach it but throw up your hands and these words.  Don’t take it in.  Don’t give in and don’t give up who you have always been in the words of God for what has only recently come on the tip of a human tongue.  No, no, resist the temptation to believe that this, beige, black, brown, red, yellow and white, is all there is to say about you.  Resist because there is so much more to be said.

Lovers or Liars?

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.

Sunday morning segregation

It’s almost 11 a.m., that holy hour that is concentrated with our hubris, when the worship services are but a reflection of our preferences, when the pews are filled with the people we are most comfortable with.  It’s almost 11 a.m. on this fine Sunday morning where people dress up or down and then sit down and get up unchanged and unchallenged to go out and subvert the kingdom of this world.  Instead, we fall in line and when told, we will skip to the front of the line.  I know that Jesus has an order, “The last will be first,” but this is the way they do things down here.  We act as if Jesus didn’t come down here and show us the way.

Called to turn the world upside down, we don’t feel comfortable touching anything (Acts 17.6).  Just leave it the way that it is.  Just go to work and come home.  Just live according to society’s schedule and its election cycles.  America will change in its own time.  We’ve got plenty of time.  Now is never the right time.

What time is it now?  Oh, we’ve got to hurry up and get to church now.  But, the Church is so late, so behind the times when it comes to race and its progeny.  Jesus came and stood side by side with us.  The miracle of divinity became human just to be close to us.  And yet, we human beings are still not close enough. Not wanting to live on earth together, we divide up dirt.

Human beings have convinced themselves that we come in colors and daily attempt to create distance between each other.  And Sunday morning doesn’t bring us any closer.  The Church in North America offers segregated services. “If you don’t want to worship with those people, you don’t have to.  Hallelujah and Amen.”

Instead, I suggest that the Church in North America close its doors until Christian leaders work up the courage and the nerve to point persons to the narrow way, to preach the life of Christ that is a tight squeeze, that would not allow our racialized, hyper- politicized, capitalized prejudices in.  If not, it makes no difference as a generation has closed its ears to what the Church would have to say.  The Church isn’t getting any younger as the members are all turning gray.  They were turned off by pastors turned entrepreneurs and worship spaces that became little kingdoms unto themselves.  Or, they took note of the Church when it did not chime in or hold her hand when she told stories of sexual predation, harassment, abuse and rape.  Or, they circled their absence when the bodies of unarmed African American children, women and men were being outlined with chalk.  Despite testimonies and video surveillance, they managed to preach a manacled gospel that suggested God was with some of us.

Let’s hurry along now.  Get in the car and pray that no one is parked in your spot or sitting in your seat when you arrive at church.  Pray that the choir sings songs that you like and that the pastor’s sermon is one you like, that it is one that is sweet and polite, that she not say anything to upset you or cause you to sweat.  Pray that the service doesn’t go more than an hour because that would be ridiculous and you might have to change your plans.

It’s 11 a.m. and time for a nap, time to stretch out in our pew- cribs, time for songs that sing our soul’s passions to sleep, time for sermons that redirect our callings to the marketplace.  Don’t start any trouble.  Don’t say anything that might trouble our conscious or renew our conviction that we are sisters and brothers.  Just leave well enough alone as if this society has ever been well, like all of us have ever had enough.  Let’s just say our prayers but then sit on our hands and in effect hold back the answer to them.

It’s that time again, that special time when Christian believers go into our color- coded corners for worship and come out swinging.  We all have an understanding, a memorandum of understanding regarding race though most Christians don’t have an informed understanding of race.  Our meanings for the social construct vary and are more than a little shaky.

But, we don’t need to know what it means.  We know what it means for us.  We have experienced racism, prejudice and privilege.  No need to question the impetus behind the biased or preferential treatment as if our skin explains this treatment.

We do not challenge our belief in the differences associated with our skin’s pigmentation.  No, we will confess that God is the Creator of all, that Jesus is our kinsmen redeemer, that the Holy Spirit blows upon all flesh and then hate the person standing right next to us for no reason at all.  All buttoned up, clothes, lips and all, we think that we can worship God and hate our siblings.  But, this is not love at all (First John 4.20).  It’s a lie and all who would live it are liars.  It should be illegal, this Sunday morning segregation.

Asking for a generation

What could the Church in North America do if it put its hands together across cultures, if it desegregated its pews and pulpits, if it reflected the changing community outside its doors?  Who would we become and what witness could we offer the world if we chose our baptismal identity in Christ over and against racialized identities, if we adamantly rejected this superficial categorization of flesh?  What would we be saying if we lived within the counter- narrative of belonging in spite of class, gender and cultural lines, if we did not remake Jesus as a politician or political party leader?  Where could the Church in North America’s leadership go if it did not masculinize leadership, if we really believed that God was in control?

These are genuine questions because I don’t understand the color- coded scenarios of our relationships, these skin- incentivized experiences in North America and specifically its Church.  Segregation is illegal.  But churches break this law every Sunday at 11 a.m. and in some places three times on Sunday.

We sit in so- called white churches and black churches, segregated while identifying as the body of Christ.  We sit in so- called white churches and black churches, worshipping God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4.24).  We sit in so- called white churches and black churches, claiming to be siblings in Christ and all apart of God’s family.  Then why the continued separation?

Oh, I know.  It’s the worship style.  We like our music this way.  It is about control.  Because Christianity in America has a paternalistic bend with persons who feel the need to oversee the movement of other Christians.  “Don’t clap.  Don’t respond to the preaching.  That’s not what we do here.”

The question of why the Church in North America remains segregated is fully answered by Henry Mitchell in his work Black Church Beginnings, where he offers priceless intel.  The “Black Church” was started under the surveillance of so- called white people.  Their time for worship was managed, no longer than two hours.  Their messengers were predetermined and approved by European American spiritual overseers, as it were, to ensure that the narrative of their conditional belonging in America was not questioned or challenged.  Their churches were funded by these spiritual overseers, another means of control and manipulation.  Dependent upon their financial support, African American people in “leadership” did not stray from the scripted responses of race, which brought the plantation into the Church.

Things haven’t changed.  There remains the mindset that African American bodies need to be controlled, evident in the continued murder of unarmed African American people who are “living while black.”  There is a continued devaluation and judgement of their worship practices, style and length of their spiritual services.  There is also a financial dependency in some denominations for their survival that maintain the roles of American slavery.  In my opinion, the Church in North America has yet to be started.

The colonizers did not seek to bring God’s kingdom near with chattel slavery as its foundation.  Those persons called “founding fathers” gave birth to nothing new but reproduced the slavery of their homeland, though far worse.  And while there are those who would shake their heads in agreement with me, their mouths tells a different story.  They continue to accept the answers that race gives them while what I hear is largely questionable.

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.