Category Archives: Race and the American Church

The Church needs an epistle on race

“Christianity has been almost sentimental in its efforts to deal with hatred in human life.  It has sought to get read of hatred by preachments, by moralizing, by platitudinous judgments.  It has hesitated to analyze the basis of hatred and to evaluate it in terms of its possible significance in the lives of the people possessed by it.  This reluctance to examine hatred has taken on the character of a superstition.  It is a subject that is taboo unless there is some extraordinary social crisis– such as war– involving the mobilization of all the national resources of the common life to meet it.  There is a conspiracy of silence about hatred, its function and meaning.”

~ Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited

On August 11 and 12, a Unite the Right rally was held, which resulted in persons viewing images gut- wrenchingly similar to the Ku Klux Klan rallies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Images found only in history books and in black and white photos are now in full color.  We could see and hear expressions of hatred on wide screens and with high definition.  (Today, I am watching video that has surfaced of the attack of counter- protesters that resulted in the death of Ms. Heather Heyer and more than a dozen injured.)

With torches burning bright, persons who identify as socially colored white, walked the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, exchanging sheets and hoods for baseball caps, t- shirts and stonewashed jeans.  The image was jarring and disorienting.  I wondered, “So, this is what a hate group looks like now?”  Ironically, it is the torches alone that show me who they are.  Without them, they can fall back in line and into the shadows of society.

Hate has gotten a makeover and while the results are not surprising, this display of bravado causes concern.  I, along with many others, have seen hate in plainclothes but the appearance has never been televised.  Still, this transformation is an external remodel, namely a new wardrobe and name.  This attempt to rebrand does not change the ideology, which is deep- seated, historical and violently protective of a belief in the superiority of socially colored white people and consequently, their domination of the world.

The torch is a symbol much like the Confederate one persons at the Unite the Right protest rallied around that tells me not only what they believe in but what they believe about persons who are not socially colored white.  And the sentiments are not warm and fuzzy.  With the irrational fear of loss of personhood, position and property, of being replaced by persons from other countries and different cultures being repeated among them, these persons feel emboldened to take back their country and take lives in the process.  For them, sharing is not a possibility; it is all mine or nothing.

Believing that the world belongs to socially colored white people and that they are all- powerful, what is the Church’s response to white supremacy?  Because God is the only Supreme Being, the only One who can claim to be all- powerful, right?  How then shall the Church preach after the rally in Charlottesville?  Will the Church denounce white supremacy?  Will it remind followers of Jesus of the community- building efforts of God’s love and Christ’s cross?  Will the Church demonstrate the Spirit poured out on the church in Acts who had all things in common (cf. Acts 2.44; 4.32).  Can we not believe this together?

Will a discussion of racially- motivated domestic terrorism be placed on the liturgical calendar?  Will it be placed on the agenda in our business meetings or will it be business as usual?  Where in the biblical story do we find ourselves and where is Jesus?  Is he in Charlottesville protecting the Confederate statue or does he stand with those who want it removed?

Divided by politics and along socially constructed racial lines, the Church in America is largely divided.  We may worship well together on Sunday morning.  But, on Monday, we put down our cross and pull up our bootstraps.  We return to our worldly ways of rugged individualism, cultural isolation and self- segregation.  We enter shouting matches about the God of love but whisper in our corners of the world about our hatred. Because “good Christian people” don’t talk about that.

So then, I must ask what purpose does the Church serve if it does not speak to injustice?  What does the Church have to say if it falls silent here?  Where can it stand if not with the marginalized, poor and oppressed?  Where does it find its footing if not in places of persecution– unless we deny Christ’s cross?  What books, what letters of the Bible is the Church reading that enable this silence, the absence of introspection and an excused absence when it comes to social engagement and protest?  Because if the Church can’t say that white supremacy is wrong and disavow the social construct of race as antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ and a supreme heresy to our shared conviction that people are made in God’s image, then perhaps the Church needs an epistle on race.

But, I’m not looking for words; I am looking for living epistles (Second Corinthians 3.2).

Good Skin

Bad skin.  Good skin.  A larger problem than pimples, blackheads and an oily T- zone, the social coloring of skin and the meanings we associate with it are important.  We talk about our flesh as if we expect it to behave or perform in a certain way, as if it represents our character and can somehow let us down.  Ah, but in America, it can and it does.

The social construct of race says that my skin defines me, tells you what my presence means not just in this present moment but for the rest of my life.  Much like how we look at fruit and inspect it for ripeness, I am expected to believe that solely by looking at my appearance one can determine if I am good or bad.  Worse still, persons can toss me aside based on their observations without ever having a personal experience with me.

Wanting the preferred “color,” many of us train our epidermis with bleaching creams and lighteners, change the skin around our eyes, nose and lips to look right and consequently, to be right.  We are then the right kind of person.  We are socially acceptable.  We can show our faces here.  Our bodies are safe and safe here.

And we have made the process of identification very simple.  We have color- coded good and bad people.  And all we have to do is look at persons to tell the difference.  Goodness also comes in degrees.  Consequently, the lighter the skin color, the better the person.

Still, the social construct of race is a troublesome invention.  It is a meddlesome creation that gets in the way of our humanity.  It restricts the way that we see God, ourselves and our neighbor.  This is why our declarations of the race-less gospel of Jesus Christ is so important.  This is why we must repeat again and again that we are not children of color but children of God.  Again, we are children of God not children of color.  Because there is a difference as race is not our creator; it is not the beginning of us.  Because there is life after the flesh, it’s salvation is limited.

The social construct of race offers salvation through the social coloring of skin.  However, this is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.  As Christians, it is his nail- scarred hands that save us– not the color of our own.  Because if whiteness is our salvation, then what does it atone for?  If all we have to do is be born in the right skin, what is socially colored “white” skin, then what salvation are we secure in?  If the social coloring of skin saves us from suffering and/or affords unearned privileges, then why believe in the work of Christ’s cross?

The fact is, our belief in race does not supplement our faith in Jesus Christ; instead, it supplants it.  The message of race does not affirm the good news of Jesus Christ.  Because who needs a good God if you have good skin?

Saved Together

I am often discouraged by the nature of our fellowship, by the obvious hypocrisy of the Church in North America.  We claim to be the body of Christ while socially coloring in his hands and feet so that he is one of us– and not them.  Black Jesus.  White Christ.  Emmanuel, God is with us– and not them.

I am left to wonder if we will ever be known by God’s unconditional love when we have divinized the segregation of holy space.  Black Church.  White Church.  And before we begin the finger- pointing to say who started it all, I am looking for hands raised to end the reality that some churches are “for white people only” and others are “for colored people only.”

How the Church can claim to represent the spiritual reality of “God with us” when we have allowed race to come between us is dumbfounding.  How can we be siblings according to our faith, one family under God and base our fellowship on the social coloring of flesh– instead of Christ’s cross?  No need to make the claim of being an alternative community because there is more of the same behind church doors.  “This church is my church.  This church is your church.”  We do not worship well together.

I lament the theologies that support the doctrine of race and its progeny.  I am saddened by the calculated and polite distance between churches of different cultures and ethnicities.  I am surprised by our level of acceptance and comfort with this social arrangement.   Because this is not what God wanted.  This is not God’s kingdom on earth but our own racial empire.  Made in America.

And where is the authentic conversation about the social construct of race and its progeny?  Where is the vulnerability and the willingness to show our wounds, to share what we have witnessed and to wonder aloud, “Why are we so divided as Christians?  Why can’t we come together?  Why aren’t we in this faith together?”  These questions bear repeating until we have answered them with transformed lives.

This afternoon, I was rereading the words of Eugene Peterson in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society.  He writes,

“Our membership in the church is a corollary of our faith in Christ.  We can no more be a Christian and have nothing to do with the church than we can be a person and not be in a family.

… There are Christians, of course, who never put their names down on a membership list; there are Christians who refuse to respond to a call to worship each Sunday; there are Christians, who say, ‘I love God but I hate the Church.’  But, they are members all the same, whether they like it or not, whether they acknowledge it or not.  For God never makes private, secret salvation deals with people.  His relationships with us are personal, true, intimate, yes; but private, no.  We are a family in Christ.  When we become Christians, we are among brothers and sisters in faith.  No Christian is an only child.”

Peterson reminds me that we have been saved together, that one culture does not have an inside track on salvation, that God made no back room deal that allowed one people group to be more or less saved, less loved, less blessed than the other.  Because there is but one cross, one Christ, one blessed sacrifice, one reunion around one throne, one banquet table with seats for us all.

God undivided but shared with us all so that we could be saved together.

What should the Church do about race?

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“Of all the major institutions in our society, the church is still the most segregated.  Americans of different races work together, play together, study together and entertain eachother.  But seldom do they pray and worship together.”

~ David R. Williams

“A great many black Americans view their white fellow citizens with anger.  And a great many white Americans view their black fellow citizens with fear.”

~ Jacques Barzun, Race: A Study in Superstition

“Among large numbers of Christians, racism has been the other faith or one of the other faiths.”

George D. Kelsey, Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man

If there is one thing that I do not like about the Church, it is the fact that its members have incorporated the doctrine of race into the practice of our faith in Jesus Christ.  Though we claim to have experienced the freedom found in him and proclaim it from week to week, we are quite comfortable with the yoke of race.  We confess that we are all God’s creation, that we are all made in God’s image.  Yet, when we describe persons racially, we define them in ways that would attempt to erase the fingerprints of God.  We confine them to our eyes and we believe that we have put our finger on identity when we call her or him a color.

Being colored people imprisons us, unable to move beyond the flesh to the spirit.

How we ever agreed to use the flesh as a measurement of one’s acceptance to God while confessing a faith for which Jesus’s flesh and blood paid the price, I will never understand.  Nowhere in Scripture is the social coloring of flesh and to that end, our physical appearance ever used to determine our relationship with God or proximity to the presence of God.  See all heart references.  That hierarchy is purely a figment of the social imagination.  Our skin and our sins are two different things; they are synonymous or indicators of good and evil.

Being colored people and being Christians are mutually exclusive.

But, we did not stop there.  We subjected God to our belief in race.  Consequently, God was now socially colored beige, black, brown, red, yellow and white.  Either all at the same time or perhaps separately as there have been books written to that end with the suggestion of a “Black Jesus” and a “White Christ.”  We have allowed race not only to pull us apart but to pull Christ apart, crucified afresh (Hebrews 6.6).

Supremely spiritual, the Invisible, Immortal and Eternal, we called God a white and a black man, put God on our side and against those we were opposed to.  But, there are not enough crayons, markers, pens or paints to color God in.  God’s presence is endless.  Our colors will run out before God does.

Being colored people binds us to our flesh.  Perhaps, we are actually afraid of becoming spirit.  Maybe this is an attempt to keep the Spirit in and to keep us out.  Separated again.

So, what should the Church do about race?  Get rid of it.  Crush this idol.  Flee from it and don’t look back so that we can look at each other again and see the face of God.

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