Will this be a moment for racial justice or a movement?
A glimmer of hope among the recent clouds of racial trauma and injustice has been the decision by some churches to respond publicly. I don’t mean, of course, those churches – usually African American – whose liturgies regularly and normally engage with racial prejudice and violence. Rather, I’ve noticed church leaders who’ve generally been silent or just barely audible choosing instead to lead, preach, and lament in direct response to the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Many of these responses are safe and tepid, but I’m choosing to be thankful that small steps have been taken.
I fear, though, that as these stories fade so will any new-found courage to engage truthfully and Biblically with racial injustice. So here are two quick reasons that previously silent churches must make permanent their commitment to racial justice.
First, the New Testament does not imagine a person’s reconciliation to God that doesn’t also include her reconciliation with others. And while those others will include individual relationships, they also include those groups with whom her own people have experienced division, enmity, and prejudice. New Testament churches, as evidenced by their witness and cultural conflicts, expected to be communities made up of those who’d previously had nothing to do with one another.
Lest we think this relational reconciliation was like the inch deep diversity in many of our churches, consider the shift of power that was expected in these churches: women who led; slaves who became family; ethnic minorities who expected the authority to lead. In other words, there can’t be relational reconciliation without relational justice. And though the New Testament churches knew nothing of our racial constructs, we have to assume that our race-based segregation and inequity are exactly the kinds of divisions the gospel is meant to address.
Second, Professor Willie Jennings and others have shown that the racial constructs we take for granted today are rooted in heretical theology from the time of colonialism. Racism is birthed in a kind of supersessionist theology that replaced Jewish particularity with European witness. The devastating results are too many to list here, but they include the invention of racial hierarchies whose logic remains unquestioned in many of our churches. Though most church leaders will be quick to speak against racism, the priorities and assumptions of our missions and ministries make clear that we’re mostly ok with the racial constructs as they’ve existed for centuries.
Acknowledging the central role of Western Christianity in sustaining racial injustice and fostering its earliest beginnings is another reason why previously silent churches must commit to the long work of building just and reconciled communities. Repentance is ongoing and will lead to previously unconsidered and creative possibilities life together as the diverse, reconciled people of God.
It’s good that church leaders are choosing to respond to this moment of pronounced racial trauma. How much better to hear the invitation of this moment and begin to build a movement of racial justice that will bear witness to the God who is reconciling all things.
Photo by Kaleah Merriweather from our Sunday service.