Tag Archives: the Church and race

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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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).

Three Ways Our Belief In Race Compromises Our Christian Witness

“Racism has used the American church to battle against God’s will and purpose for his people. Racism has accomplished this goal by encouraging numerous rationalizations for the church’s position on slavery and racial discrimination, positions that are inconsistent with the message of the Bible.”

~Norman Anthony Peart, Separate No More: Understanding and Developing Racial Reconciliation in Your Church

Though I disagree with the Peart’s decision to continue using the word race/racism and Peart would agree with my understanding of race saying, “Race is a concept that has been created by our unique history and does not have the same meaning in the Bible… Race is an aspect of how we view ourselves and also shapes our social interactions with others,” I find great truths in his book that warrant repeating. I would add that our belief in race not just our practice of racism has compromised our Christian witness, segregated the Lord’s table and tainted the waters of baptism.

I hold that race is unbiblical and its perspectives and practices are ungodly.  I agree that it is necessary to talk about the concept of race but I also feel it necessary to have a response to race.  For me, it is not enough to talk about race and all of the social ills that are associated with it but one must have a solution to this problem.  The problem is that many of us don’t see it as a problem while others feel that race is so complicated that it is impossible to solve.  This hierarchy has so tied our minds in knots that it seems to be the riddle of all riddles.  How do we rid ourselves of race?

For this question, I have an answer: Be baptized.  Walk more fully into the newness of life that is offered in Jesus Christ.  Take race “down to the water to be baptized” and I assure you, it will not rise again.  It is not a part of our life with Jesus Christ.  God has no use for it.  It is not a spiritual test of our faith but a social test of our assimilation into American society.  Race is spiritually useless and biblically unfounded.  God did not call us black/white/red/yellow/brown/beige or socially position us.  Society does that. Our God, the God of the Old and New Testaments, is not a “Jim Crow God.”

Peart says, “…Many evangelicals of this period (i.e. 1700s) saw the great need for the slave’s emancipation from sin and Satan’s spiritual bondage, but could not see a need for their emancipation from slavery’s physical bondage. The greatest tragedy, though, is that they did not see slavery as also a result of sin and Satan’s spiritual bondage.” I believe that the same can be said of Christians today with regard to race.  The identity of race is one that is socially binding; it has no authority with God. Socially defined white/black/red/yellow/brown/beige people are not closer to God or God’s best example of the human being.  So, the Church should not employ it; it is of no use to God or the Word of God.  In fact, it does more to confound us and to prevent our understanding of the Word and will of God.  Race, too, is a result of sin and Satan’s spiritual bondage.

Believing in race, knowing race and practicing racism does not make us better Christians.  Learning prejudice and stereotypes is not a part of the discipleship process.  Segregating ourselves according to the social construct of race is not a part of our call to holiness.  Race is a god, an idol.  It is another master and if you serve it, your Christian witness is compromised.

God is love and as the songwriter says, “They will know that we are Christians by our love.”  But, race calls for hatred, hatred of self and of others.  Race calls for the employment of hate speech.  The recitations of stereotypes are not a part of our a confession of faith in God.  It is not a creed or a doctrine.  John writes, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And we also have this command from Him: the one who loves God also must love his brother” (I John 4.20-21).  Race is not known by its love and if we believe in it, race has made a liar out of us.  Race will not allow us to love our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.

Our belief in race not only makes us love less and loveless but it also makes us faithless.  The writer of Hebrews says, “Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (11.6). Race challenges our belief in God for if you believe in race, then there are some things that you don’t believe about God.  You don’t believe that your reward will come from diligently seeking God.  Race makes you believe that God loves you more or less and will reward you more or less according to the social coloring of your skin.  This belief is proof that your faith has been compromised by your belief in race.  Race rewards us according to the law, a social law that is based on appearance while God rewards us based on a relationship grounded in love.  It is about knowing Christ not showing ourselves white in appearance, speech and deed. Whiteness is a social marker of perfection while God’s perfection is defined as wholeness.  The rewards of believing in race and the rewards of believing in God are not equal or synonymous.  Race will not allow you to believe who God is.

Race is a mean god, a miserable deity and it calls for its people to be miserable. Race will make you believe that there is no way out, that things will never get better, that we will never be better.  It daily distances us from our true self and impedes the ministry of reconciliation. We will never make sense of ourselves as long as we believe in race.  Its power is unequal; the scales of its justice are unbalanced.  Its opinions are biased.  Race makes us hopeless.  But, we come from a tradition of hope-filled people: “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed, so that he became the father of many nations” (Romans 4.18).  More importantly, we serve the God of hope: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15.13).

Love your neighbor and your enemy.  Believe that God will reward you and have hope because you serve the God of hope.  Be a witness for God not race.  Amen.