This week, I was in Decatur, Georgia and presented at ChurchWorks, a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship conference for ministers of spiritual formation and education. I, along with several others, spoke about the theological rumblings and ruminations of our shared ministry with Christ. I will present part one of the message here:
“Jesus loves the little children/ All the children of the world/Red and yellow, black and white/ They are precious in his sight/ Jesus loves the little children of the world.”[i]
This refrain from a popular children’s song demonstrates the inclusion of racial identity, the connecting of God’s love to social categories. This song teaches the little children that they are loved according to and/or in spite of the social coloring of their skin. I say social coloring because there are no physically colored beige/ black/ brown/ red/ yellow or white people. It is not seen. Instead, we believe it by faith. We walk by race, not by sight.[ii] And this song splits our vision, divides us and makes us two people— children of color and children of God.
This song also suggests that the love of Jesus and thereby the love of God is determined, informed and influenced by the social construct of race, that God shook and agreed to the social contract of race. We are, in fact, teaching our children to think that Jesus loves them not because the Bible tells us so but in the way that race tells us to.
And it is our singing, our worship that divides us. When asked about our sacred Sunday morning segregation, many people will say as a matter of fact that we worship differently. It’s a matter of taste, of cultural preference. But, no one really wants to say it. Race divides us— believers and churches, “the light of the world”[iii] and “the Body of Christ.”[iv]
Race. The mere mentioning of the word makes us uncomfortable. We hope that no one mentions or acknowledges it, that it rides off into the sunset of history never to be seen or heard from again. Regrettably, we don’t know what to say when it comes to race.
It confuses and unravels us, shames and unnerves us. People who serve the Word- God, the speaking God, are afraid of a word that we created. More specifically, race came from the mouths and minds of Enlightenment thinkers. Practitioners of this scientific racism attached humanity to the “Great Chain of Being,” introduced a second Genesis narrative[v] to account for the different cultures and measured skulls[vi] in order to categorize humanity: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid and Australoid. But, race was not in the beginning with God.[vii]
So, how did we forget that our theology matters and should not be offered up to the false god of race or its progeny, that our spiritual identity in Christ should not be sacrificed for a racial identity though it provides social acceptance, privilege and security? How did we forget that in order for the Church to work, we cannot accept identities that work against our new nature in Jesus the Christ? How do we now focus on spiritual formation when we have invested so heavily in the social realities of race? Bishop William Willimon asked, “What are we to do with a church that speaks to people on the basis of their gender or race, all the while baptizing them on the basis of Galatians 3.28?[viii]
And where did our theology go wrong? Who gave us the directions to race and why do we continue to follow them when in search of identity? We’re going around in circles, coming back to “the color line” because no one wants to stop and say that we are lost, that we have lost the Way.
[i] The words are by C. Herbert Woolston (1856-1927). The music was written by George Root and was originally for an American civil war song according to http://www.cyberhymnal.org.
[ii] This is a play on Second Corinthians 5.7: “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”
[iii] John 8.12
[iv] First Corinthians 12.27
[v] Gossett, 45-47.
[vi] This science was known as anthropometry.
[vii] Genesis 1.1; John 1.1
[viii] William H. Willimon, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 7.