A while back, I penned some thoughts about questions I had as it relates to issues of race and the church found here. I specifically directed my questions at those who feel like the cause of battling white supremacy takes such precedence that it becomes an overpowering force and actually defeats the purpose of reconciliation. I confess, I was a bit pointed and may even seemed to reject any lingering issues.
To be honest, I did not expect to be writing so much on this topic. I’ve been compelled to write because of concerns that I’ve had regarding the polarization of how issues of race were perceived in such disparate ways that increasingly, many in the church are decrying an urgency in addressing. I suspect that this is partially due to extended weariness and concern that things will never be right.
I want to wrap up some concluding thoughts as I don’t anticipate writing on this topic for awhile, as follows;
First know that I do not want to be dismissive of concerns, especially where legitimacy still exists. I am reminded on a regular basis that prejudices of all kinds still abound, not just on race. Sometimes it is in your face, like the alt-right gathering at Charlottesville. But certainly more subtle and subversive can create standards around acceptably that is centered in Anglo culture. Yes, implicit bias does exist whereby a deviation from the standard is deemed to be inferior and even unacceptable according to that norm as this survey highlighted by a New York Times article points out. Surely, this can happen in churches to varying degrees whereby minority perspectives are disregarded and/or dismissed. I personally know of cases where this has happened.
So I do not want to undermine the very real frustrations that people of color can experience in predominantly white environments, especially in our churches. Though I am still left to ask about the collective conscious of “white evangelicalism” that pervades the church such that people of color are harmed. I continue to see the cries for white evangelicals to disrobe their “whiteness” so minority Christians can feel safe and welcome. But what exactly are the expectations in this regard? What exactly is the extent of harm?
To reiterate what I wrote in that first article, if the goal is to honor one another as equal heirs in Christ and give a voice to people of non-white cultures along with a seat at the table, that is not only a desirable goal, but a biblically mandated one. The body of Christ is to give deference to one another and honor each part equally as the family of God. There is absolutely no place for racial superiority of any kind. But I suspect that abolishing the whiteness has more to do with political affiliations and embracing particular ideologies than it is promoting biblical mandates for church members to simply love one another. These questions give rise to the latter that compel me to continue to ask questions of what is legitimate concern vs. a tribal preference.
It is also not lost on me that different definitions of evangelicalism are being used. To be sure, there is a strain within evangelicalism that have wrapped their Christianity around American nationalism such that Christianity tends to get articulated within a political paradigm. If this is what defines evangelicalism then criticism is rightly warranted not just on racial grounds but on kingdom of God grounds. However, I often wonder how much this gets conflated with all evangelicals such that just being white and conservative makes one guilty of endorsing white supremacy.
I often wonder how much of the very lengthy historical realities temper our discussions today and provide the filter through which all must be viewed. I can’t reiterate enough, that we can’t ignore the deeply entrenched racism that has existed in this country for far too long. We must take ownership of the fact that even our beloved Christian institutions proactively engaged in subjugation of black citizens as non-equal. And yes, this includes the church as I wrote about here.
A few years before I arrived at Dallas Seminary in 2008, an MLK chapel service had been installed in which the president of the seminary would publicly apologize for the institution’s active opposition to acceptance of non-white students. My denomination, the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) recently passed Overature 43, which acknowledged the denomination’s active role in opposing Civil Rights efforts. Look up the history of the SBC and you’ll find the same thing, an institutional disposition towards white superiority and marginalization of black people. Many dearly beloved and praised heros of the faith firmly believe in slavery and endorsed Jim Crow. Let that sink in!
But when I hear and observe our present day discourse, I get the sense that it is often held hostage to these past transgressions. It’s as if the same level of injustice is being carried out today to the same degree and minorities are not welcome in any fellowship unless they scrape and bow down to white supremacy. I actually think that so much historical weight has pressed on the present and informs its condition.
Do we account for the progress? Do we recognize how much has changed since the Civil Rights movement? Not doing so creates binary categories and circumvents honest analysis. I think a telling sign of historical imposition is the immediate punting to slavery and Jim Crow as if that is the norm now. We left the plantation long time ago!
Why this heightened attention on race all of a sudden? I think it’s safe to say it has much to do with the increased focus and calls for social justice. I observe this has increasingly become the barometer by which whole congregations are judged. Does your church actively speak on social justice?, has been the rallying cry.
But let’s consider what is meant by this: taking a particular stand in speaking out against police brutality and white supremacy. I think it’s pretty say to say that this attention began with the police shooting of Michael Brown that quickly gave rise to the prominence of Black Lives Matters. Did not the greater cultural calls of rampant racism and white supremacy that quickly spawned broad brushed hubris begin to infiltrate the church especially when other well publicized instances of police shootings occur? I don’t have any hard empirical evidence but just based on observations, I believe the issue of police brutality and injustice against black folks, infused by the election of Trump, and instance of Charlottesville began to be the defining factor of why the issue of white supremacy in churches became the clarion call.
Again, here is where I believe the unfortunate historical record has intruded on the present and disabled sound judgment. Given what minorities have endured in this country, there are valid reasons that such events evoke visceral reactions, bringing up feelings of uneasiness and distrust. It makes sense that police shootings of unarmed black men raise suspicion. Unfortunately, this has tempered the expectation for how people, and particularly white Christians are expected to respond. If there is any questioning that these incidences were anything less than racially motivated, any call for examination of evidence, any consideration of what part the victim played, you can bet that white Christian is going to be deemed a perpetrator of white supremacy and against the cause of the minority.
In reality, there are various factors at work in the dynamics of police shootings, which may or may not be racially motivated. Even further, an examination of evidence will yield that police shootings of unarmed people not only occur with Whites (this number actually is greater) and other minorities. According to this information available as highlighted in this Newsweek piece, Blacks comprise about 1/3 of fatal shootings (less than 1,000 in total), with a grand total of 16 being unarmed. That’s out of millions of police encounters. My point in bring up this simplistic evidence is in no way to minimize unjust instances of police shootings but to ask if we have created hyperbole and around these instances and then hold the church hostage to it? We are not talking about widespread systemic injustice that pretty much barred every black citizen from enjoying the equal fruits of citizenship, but a very small percentage of questionable cases. Are your white brothers and sisters deemed the enemy simply because they seem to be indifferent when in actuality it could be they are evaluating the evidence and not seeing the same level alarm? Are we really saying that the church that doesn’t flip over tables at police brutality is really endorsing white supremacy?
Please hear me clearly. I’m not saying that white supremacists attitudes no longer exist. I’m not saying we don’t need to address any kind of dominant cultural superiority in our churches and flat out racism where it exists. What I am saying is that it would be good to take some sober judgment on the criteria for which white Christians and churches are being spurned because it’s perceived that they don’t care about social justice, primarily because of the way it is being measured.
It’s rarer now that people of color are actually barred from fellowship though it does exist in spots. But let’s be honest, with this heightened focus on on social justice and emphasis on police brutality, along with the tensions it brings, how much of our separateness is due to self-segregation because we honestly just don’t want to deal with those white people? Have we just given up and said no more, it’s too hard to do the work of reconciliation especially when perpetually bearing the brunt of the work along with the requisite patience that goes along with it? Are we putting the needs of our own cultural and ethnic preferences over the biblical call? I truly do get the pushback against white normativity as the arbiter of what is acceptable. But at some point we do have to drive a stake in the Christ-centered ground and say his supremacy matters most.
There’s more I can say, particularly about the Trump dynamic that has only exacerbated increasing tensions. But the post is getting long. Regardless of what is going on in the broader culture with all its cries, I continue to have a conviction that the church must rise above the noise and be a transcendent voice, bearing with one another in love.
 Even though the PCA was not formed until 1973, the push from conservatives within the denomination that prompted the split from the PCUS was directly tied to the rejection of the growing liberal concerns of the larger body. In other words, it was the same group that rejected efforts towards civil rights, lumping those efforts in with the larger framework of the liberal theology they were refuting, that initiated the formation of the PCA.