Two Reasons Churches Must Pursue Racial Justice

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.

 

Speaking Tentatively After Orlando

Is there anything to be said by Christians like me in this moment?

Early Sunday morning, as I was editing my sermon, I saw the news from Orlando. By the time our service began there was still a lot of confusion about the extent of the tragedy, but it seemed likely that the nightclub had been targeted for violence because it was known as a safe and welcoming place for the gay community. I said as much before the sermon, asking our church to remember that – regardless of what warped theology was given a microphone later in the week – there was nothing of God’s heart in these murders. I also asked the church to remember our Christian responsibility to speak up anytime LGBTQ people are slandered or maligned in our presence, to use any influence we have to create safety for those with good reasons to wonder if such safe places exist for them.

And that’s all I said- all I knew to say in that moment.

Yet with a few days having passed, with the killer’s hatred toward gay people becoming increasingly clear, with the slain men’s and women’s names and stories being voiced, I need to say just a little more. I might be wrong about this; maybe quiet listening and lamenting is a more faithful posture in this moment. But as a straight white man who pastors in a church and denomination which hold a traditional Christian position about human sexuality within a church (“side b” in the language from the Gay Christian Network) and who holds such a position* myself, I’ve come to believe that the onus is on me to renounce clearly the evil that took place on Sunday morning. I know many LGBTQ Christians will find anything short of a shift away from the traditional Christian belief to fall very short of a meaningful repudiation and, though I sorely wish this wasn’t the case, I accept it as part of this particular tragedy along with the countless less visible tragedies inflicted upon LGBTQ bodies by churches over the centuries.

Those of us pastors and congregations who are unable to step away from the historic and global churches’ teachings on sexuality find ourselves in a complicated moment in this country. There are people I care about who didn’t believe they could be at our church and I’ve worked with them to find a congregation that preaches Jesus and holds the “side a” position. It’s painful and complicated. But the complexity cannot keep us from speaking with great clarity about God’s love for LGBTQ people. It cannot keep us from publicly lamenting the great evil that was done to particular LGBTQ people on Sunday morning and, by devastating extension, to communities of gay people around the world. It cannot keep us from doggedly pushing for legislation that will make gun violence against all vulnerable people less likely. In cannot keep us from confronting fellow-Christians whose faux-outrage about gender-inclusive bathrooms and civil rights legislation makes this country less safe for LGBTQ people. And the complexity must not keep us from confessing and repenting – time and time and time again – for the many great and small sins that we’ve committed against people who are lovingly created in the image of God.

*I don’t mean to make this sound simple. It’s not. I don’t know how to talk about sexuality without talking about God, bodies, hospitality, vocation, culture, etc. And I still have much to learn.

Header Image: Community Vigil for the Victims of the Orlando Shooting (Governor Tom Wolf).

 

White Christ and Black Oppression

“To suggest that protest activity is irrelevant to Christ is to suggest that Blackness is irrelevant to Christ.”

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“The Black Crucifixion” by Fritz Eichenber, 1963.

To claim that a minister’s responsibility is to save souls and not to become involved in social justice issues is consistent with the religion of the White Christ. The White Christ is based upon the understanding of Christianity that minimizes the significance of Jesus’ ministry. The Christian is called to believe that Jesus is God incarnate, not to carry forth Jesus’ liberating work. There is little, according to this interpretation, to compel a Christian to participate in social justice movements. Protest activity is incidental to what it means to be a good Christian. Such disregard for protest implicates White Christ in Black oppression.

Black identity is inextricably linked to protests resulting from being non-White in a society defined by White racism. To suggest that protest activity is irrelevant to Christ is to suggest that Blackness is irrelevant to Christ. Further, the passivity in relation to social injustice, which the White Christ fosters, allows White racism to go unchallenged.

This is Kelly Brown Douglas in The Black Christ (1994) in a section about Martin Luther King Jr. I’m reading Douglas and a few others in preparation for a paper about Christology and embodied reconciliation, but these paragraphs reminded me of some of the misunderstanding our church has experienced when engaging in acts of protest in our neighborhood and city. Those who are confused by protest, typically white Christians, seem to think that protesting injustice is at best a peripheral and occasional act by a church and at worst a distraction from our primary responsibility “to save souls.”

What Douglas points out is that the skepticism about protest is theological in nature, linked to the conception of a White Christ who is disconnected from the mess of history. When white Christians and churches ignore or oppose those who protest injustice they are perhaps saying more than they intend- about the nature of Christ as well as the value of those who share our faith but not our race.