Editor’s note: Whilst this article is referring to the Church in America there are a number of points which may be helpful also for us to understand in the Australian context, hence our publication of the article.
In the wake of global protests over inequality and police brutality sparked by the killing of George Floyd, many American Christians and churches are now struggling to strike the right note on racial reconciliation. Some religion scholars and pastors also warn that healing can’t happen without first telling the truth about the Church’s record on race. And in a field of varied experiences, competing narratives about what racial reconciliation means, warnings against political exploitation in the search for it, claims of apathy from white congregations and fearful leaders during an election year in the middle of a pandemic, telling the truth and engaging in constructive dialogue on the issue can be difficult to do.
“The Church across the United States probably reflects the rest of society, polarized,” Doug Weaver, professor of Baptist Studies and director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University, told The Christian Post in a recent interview when asked to gauge how the Church has progressed on the issue of racial reconciliation. “I have a Ph.D. student that works with me that says ‘we really shouldn’t talk about racial reconciliation; we should talk about conciliation because the hard work of conciliation never has happened.’ What he says is you can’t really reconcile what you never were together to begin with. And I think that’s a really good insight. The Church has struggled with issues of race from the very beginning of the story of the Church in the United States.”
While the concept of racial reconciliation is expressed in different ways in specific communities in the U.S., Racial Equity Tools explains that it includes public acknowledgement of racist events and crimes such as apartheid or violence against groups of colour. The process may also examine and make public the current impact of such events, as well as their historical occurrence. Individual victims can also be allowed to tell their stories for the record as one part of a healing process while individual perpetrators may also acknowledge their complicity. Formal and serious apologies are also often part of this work where victims can choose to accept or reject that apology.
The William Winters Institute for Racial Reconciliation defines it this way: “Reconciliation involves three ideas. First, it recognizes that racism in America is both systemic and institutionalized, with far-reaching effects on both political engagement and economic opportunities for minorities. Second, reconciliation is engendered by empowering local communities through relationship-building and truth-telling. Lastly, justice is the essential component of the conciliatory process, justice that is best termed as restorative rather than retributive, while still maintaining its vital punitive character.” Weaver said many Christian churches have been taking steps toward reconciliation through initiatives such as the New Baptist Covenant launched by former President Jimmy Carter in 2007, but these efforts have been limited in achieving effective reconciliation.
“They’ve developed programs with white and African churches that may be close by and in communities but have really never done much work,” Weaver said. “I grew up back in the 60s and the civil rights movement. Occasionally you would have white churches and black churches get together on a Sunday. And there might be a worship service and that was certainly progress but it was limited progress,” he said. “Looking at attempts at reconciliation in churches over the last 60 years, much of it hasn’t been good. You could say over the last 60 years there hasn’t been a lot of good work done. I’m encouraged by some of the work that’s being done by people but I also am disappointed especially when you look at certain churches today that have seemed to be so polarized politically,” Weaver said.
Many churches, particularly white congregations, Weaver explained, don’t see racial reconciliation as an actionable priority even though they may acknowledge that it is important. This observation is supported by recent research from Barna, which shows that less than 30% of American churches are actively engaged in addressing racism or racial inequality even though most pastors agree that churches should oppose the social ills. “It’s not that different racial groups don’t think issues of race aren’t important. It’s this question of how important they think it is. If you have a hierarchy of values, which ones are most important to you. I do think that’s where the Church at large can be indicted, and that race has not been at the top of the list even though it should be. Churches tolerate racial discrimination, history shows that,” he said.
Robert P. Jones, founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, argued in a recent analysis how decades of research shows that white Christians are more racist than their secular counterparts and that white Christian churches, as cultural institutions have legitimized the dominance of white supremacy. His analysis is also presented in his latest book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. “A close read of history reveals that we white Christians have not just been complacent or complicit; rather, as the nation’s dominant cultural power, we have constructed and sustained a project of perpetuating white supremacy that has framed the entire American story,” he wrote in a recent op-ed on the book published by NBC News.
“The legacy of this unholy union still lives in the DNA of white Christianity today, and not just among white evangelical Protestants in the South, but also among white mainline Protestants in the Midwest and white Catholics in the Northeast.” He added: “Consider the cultural context in which American Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, was born. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as Protestant churches were springing up in newly settled territories after Native American populations were forcibly removed, it was common practice, observed, for example, at the Baptist church that was the progenitor of my parents’ church in Macon, Georgia, for slaveholding whites to take enslaved people to church with them.
As late as the 1940s, urban Catholic parishes in major cities such as New York still required Black members to sit in the back pews and approach the altar last to receive the bread and wine of the Eucharist.” In the wake of George Floyd’s tragic killing, Christian leaders of all stripes expressed outrage and it sparked a flurry of repentant acts of charitable giving and, activism and prayer meetings seeking forgiveness for racism. Floyd’s killing also prompted President of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), J.D. Greear, to endorse the black lives matter movement as a Gospel issue while denouncing the organization behind it. Greear’s declaration attracted much criticism from many in the ranks of the SBC who conflated his support for the issue with support for the organization that also promotes a far-left agenda along with their advocacy for racial justice.
Weeks later, Pastor John Onwuchekwa, a black lead pastor of the diverse but predominantly black Cornerstone Church Atlanta, would announce that his congregation voted to leave the SBC even as the denomination highlighted data on how it was working on issues of diversity. Onwuchekwa publicly raised concern on social media how differently white and black church leaders see the concept of racial reconciliation. “I’d say the best way to enter into conversations is do your homework beforehand. One part is understanding that even the concept of racial ‘reconciliation’ is often a majority culture concept aimed at reconciling the races. While reconciliation is the ultimate goal, so many people treat reconciliation as the pathway as if the solution is as simple as reconciling two people that have an argument,” Onwuchekwa said.
“While the majority culture is often concerned with racial ‘reconciliation,’ minorities (who already have a ton of reconciled majority culture relationships) are concerned with something different, namely racial equality and justice. The gospel in action is needed to address these issues. And in order to understand how the gospel needs to be applied, there needs to be understanding as to what exactly is the problem. A proper diagnosis is needed,” he insisted. “In other words, (as stated above) before any conversation is helpful it’s important that both parties that come to the table are able to define the problem the same way.” Studies show significant gaps in the way people from different ethnic groups view racism.
A 2016 Barna study showed, for example, that while 59% of black U.S. adults strongly disagreed that racism is a problem of the past, only 39% of white adults strongly disagreed. There was also confusion on whether the Church specifically contributed to that problem. While six in 10 U.S. adults somewhat or strongly disagreed, black Americans were nearly twice as likely as white Americans to view Christian churches as complicit. For scholars like the Rev. Brenda Salter McNeil, associate professor of reconciliation studies in the School of Theology at Seattle Pacific University, who says she agrees with Onwuchekwa’s point about engagement on the issue, Christians listening to concerns about issues of racial justice in America is long overdue and she hopes the current dialogue will result in positive change.”
“I do think that we’re at a tipping point. I do think that we’re in the middle of what I call a catalytic event or some people call a Kairos moment. One of those kind of undeniable, life-changing moments in history where everybody regardless of how we feel about it we won’t be able to not say that had an impact on us in some way shape or form,” McNeil said. “There are certain times where whether we agree or disagree, it’s undeniable that this is a historic, strategic time that we are living in right now. If I had to say what I make of it, I think we’re living in a strategic moment in history that will become a defining moment. People will ask us, where were you? What were you writing about? They’ll be saying to me, what were you preaching about, they’ll be asking the church, what did you do?”
It was a mild day on Oct. 29, 2015, when McNeil publicly warned more than 1,000 Christian leaders in New York City that the Black Lives Matter movement’s message on racial justice should not be ignored by the church after she, along with other clergy, met with some of the organization’s leaders in Washington, D.C., and they complained about the church’s hypocrisy on race. “The ways we have not shown up for these young people who see us as inactive and lacking innovation. You see in every generation, there are seismic cultural shifts that wake us up to the reality that what’s going on in the world around us must be paid attention to. Such is the case with the Black Lives Matter movement,” McNeil said at the time during the Movement Day 2015 conference, hosted by the New York City Leadership Centre at the Hilton Midtown Hotel in Manhattan.
A year earlier in 2014, protests had erupted across the United States over the police killings of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner, 43, who died tragically after he was placed in a chokehold by now former NYPD police officer Daniel Pantaleo. The public response to their deaths catapulted the Black Lives Matter movement to national prominence. While the lack of connection to the church among those behind the movement was troubling for many conservative Christians, McNeil suggested after meeting with the group’s leaders that God was using them to speak to the issue of racial reconciliation. “God’s talking to these young people. And these young folks have something to say and we might not like how it’s packaged, but I believe God is breaking in and saying something,” she said at the time.
While McNeil agrees with Weaver that conciliation is a logical prerequisite for racial reconciliation, if the issue is being examined from a biblical perspective, she argues a higher level of reconciliation, at least conceptually, can be arrived at. “If conciliation has to do with what we’ve done historically in this country, there has not been any conciliation, therefore you can’t reconcile that. But God, I think, has called us to an ideal that is not rooted in history. It’s an ideal that is rooted in the Imago Dei. It’s rooted in the Kingdom of God and God at the beginning said when creation was made, declared ‘this is good,’” McNeil said. “We are reconciling that. We are reconciling ourselves to what we’ve been called to be by God and how far we’ve fallen from it.
That’s the calling of the Church, I think, to reconcile ourselves to the call of God that all people would reach their full God-given potential. We don’t do it but that’s what we’re trying to reconcile. That for which God came and for which God created the Church, this multiethnic, multinational, multilingual group of people who represent the Kingdom. That’s the call of reconciliation.” As many churches seek out practical ways to express racial reconciliation, McNeil explained that facilitating multiethnic churches managed the right way are a step in the right direction. “You do need to have people from diverse backgrounds together who know each other in order to have some sense of empathy for what each other experiences. So diversity and multiethnic churches have helped to create more senses of people having connections to one another,” she said.
When it comes to racial reconciliation in the Church, McNeil also argued that it should not stop at just relational connections. “When we create just relational connections and not move that relational connection to then mobilize us toward systemic change, then what we’ve created is more like a Kumbaya club, where we look diverse but it’s still in the terms of white dominant culture,” she explained. “It doesn’t matter that we sing songs in Spanish or that we eat with chopsticks or do things that demonstrate that we’ve got a diverse worship leader. That’s not enough. What we’re really looking for is those relationships to mobilize, to then care about what’s happening to people who represent those racial groups.”
The Seattle-based professor noted that in order for racial reconciliation to be effective, churches need to offer reparations like simply telling the truth about what’s broken. “This is why young people don’t believe in the reconciliation movement because it’s been relational and it’s had nothing to do with repairing what’s broken. I think what people have said about reparations, it’s almost like ‘just give us our money.’ I believe there is a biblical call for reparations,” she said, pointing to Isaiah 58:12. “You know in the Old Testament the Bible says ‘and you shall be called the restorers and repairers of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in safely. I believe that reparations means to repair what is broken. I believe that it begins with telling the truth about what’s broken and who broke it. And then to make a commitment to fix that,” McNeil said.
“We have broken the process of voting for people. Black people were not permitted to vote in this country. To tell the truth about that would be to say, we did that, white Americans forbade people to register to vote. So how do you repair that? You repair that by registering, actively working to register people of colour to vote. That’s reparations,” she continued. “Reparation is fixing what was actually broken. Every time we keep not telling the truth about what’s broken in our country, redlining where banks would not give loans to black people or people of colour. That’s just true. So the economic system, or the G.I. Bill, favoured white men who came home and did not let people of color, to get the same home loans. So the real question is to tell the truth that the United States did that and then to say what would have to happen to repair that.”
When asked why many churches were not actively involved in educating their congregations about issues of racial reconciliation, McNeil acknowledged that some pastors were afraid of raising the issue. In June, for example, Bishop Scott Volland and his wife, Debra, reported they were booted out by The Heights Church in Columbus, Mississippi, for supporting the idea that “black lives matter (as a human fact)” and standing with protesters against racial injustice. Fear of repercussions like the one faced by the Vollands, said McNeil, contribute to outcomes like the recent Barna poll showing that even though most pastors oppose racism or racial inequality, less than 30% of American churches are actively engaged in addressing the social ills.
“They know how to do racial reconciliation. The problem is they will get put out. Their congregations will vote against them,” McNeil said. “That’s people knowing if I bring this up in my church, that’s why we’re silent. We know that nobody should be strangled for nine minutes. Nobody whose hands are handcuffed, who is begging for their lives should be killed on the street. Nobody. If they say that, the churches will put them out of their jobs. So they struggle with the tension of knowing that most white churches will fire that pastor and he will lose his job. So they find themselves caught between pleasing their congregations and staying someplace in the middle or completely silent about it,” she explained.
“Jesus was crucified and Jesus was crucified by religious people. It was religious people who crucified Jesus and they know that religious people will kill them, will kill their career, will kill their retirement benefits, will kill their ability to get another church.” When asked if pastors should be blamed in part for the state of church culture on race, McNeil said even though the fear she sees in churches makes her sad, pastors like all humans should be offered grace when faced with difficult situations. “I think we’re human,” she began. “I feel so sad because I think that the Church was supposed to be this radical countercultural community that represented what God was like on earth as it is in Heaven and somehow we were supposed to be this courageous community of Christ followers who would demonstrate the Kingdom of God, but we’re human.
We’re like Peter who said I’ll never forsake you and when it’s a life and death situation, he denies Jesus. “I think that we are more human than we know and so we try to find a middle of the road place to be where we’re not evil but we’re not really good. We’re not against it but we’re really not for it. You know that place? How you find that kind of compromise place?” “That lukewarm spot?” this reporter suggested. “Right. That’s what I think,” she said. “I don’t think people are bad necessarily. I think more people are lukewarm and I think that this time that we’re living in, I think lukewarmness is being demonstrated for not being helpful. I think that’s why Jesus said I’ll spit you out my mouth. I think this is a place where you are either for it or you’re against it. And you can’t play the middle and I think too many Christians have tried to play the middle.”
The times, said McNeil whose new book, Becoming Brave: Finding the Courage to Pursue Racial Justice Now, are “demanding” that Christians choose faith or fear. “I think Christians are scrambling because, for a long time people have been able to be successfully in the middle. This time is demanding that we choose a side,” she said. “I used to think that the opposite of faith was doubt. No. You know what keeps us from walking by faith? Fear.” Pastor Francisco Vega, leader of the A.R.C. (Awakening and Reformation Centre) in Atlanta, Georgia, and co-founder of Conservative Clergy of Colour, a nonpartisan group that seeks to restore faith in government and serve as surrogates for Christ in the culture, agrees that fear has kept many pastors from tackling difficult cultural issues from their pulpits such as race, abortion and homosexuality.
“I want to encourage pastors that when we have weak preaching, it would produce weak disciples. But if we have strong biblical teaching, we are not afraid to walk the tightrope of truth in addressing issues that are prevalent in our culture today. And we ensure we have a loyalty to express biblical values and it’s not our own personal opinions and people could see that from God’s Word, they love God more than they love their pastors, their presidents, their congressman their politicians, and many love God even more than their own opinions,” Vega said. “If every pulpit got fearless and spoke the truth from God’s Word about cultural issues today scripturally, this whole situation in our country could be turned around in six months. We need pastors who are fearless, who are bold who will stand up against cancel culture.”
While the Black Lives Matter organization has helped to bring attention to an issue his group affirms, Vega urged Christians to ensure that they maintain a Gospel-centred narrative on racial reconciliation and not one bereft of it. Pointing to the work of Christians in abolishing slavery, the Church, he said, despite its tortuous history with slavery, has also always been a part of the reconciliation movement. “There’s a misnomer circulating that the Church in America has been silent and complicit regarding race relations and that all progress has been some secular movement outside of Christian influence. Historically, that’s inaccurate,” Vega said. “Abolitionism was pioneered even in England before we established our colonies in the Americas.
There has always been Christian leaders who have influenced racial reconciliation movements, many of us don’t realize, as Christians and conservatives of colour or otherwise that we may be in chains today if it wasn’t for not only black Christians but white Christians and white abolitionists, brothers and sisters who actually pioneered abolitionism, trained former slaves to read and to write,” he said, pointing to historical icons like abolitionist Frederick Douglass. “They did it because God’s Word inspired our Constitution and our Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. And there were genuine Christians in our nation fighting from day one, for racial equality and so the Church has been on the frontline whereas CNN and MSNBC and others come with one-sided narratives or broadcasts that seem to implicate the Church’s silence.”
Vega described the progressive Black Lives Matter organization as a Trojan horse seeking to exploit the issue of racial inequality to pursue an anti-biblical, political agenda. “We believe it was ingenious to employ the term ‘black lives matter’ because it would almost impute anyone who opposes it because it would seem they would say, if you oppose certain ideologies or approaches, protest models, that you are actually affirming racism because you’re saying black lives don’t matter,” he said. “We actually believe that was an ingenious manipulative ploy to draw universal support for that organization, which the founders have openly championed that they are trained Marxists.” He then referenced Manning Johnson’s book, Colour, Communism and Common Sense to highlight the agenda to exploit black pain.
“He spoke about rising through the ranks and he revealed even back then in the ’60s how there was an intentional movement to draw African Americans toward Marxism and to try to ideologically transform the nation. He wrote an entire book about how communism and socialism try to engender and constitute black pain and plight for perverse politics. And he wrote in that book a masterpiece exposing that,” Vega said. Vega also pointed out that the Black Lives Matter organization sought to ideologically destroy the nuclear family, which every Christian needs to oppose. “When they assault the nuclear family, every born-again Christian should be very aware that they are trying to reinvent and revise the image that God Himself inspired in the book of Genesis for the nuclear family,” the Atlanta pastor said.
Vega noted that while not highlighted in mainstream media like Black Lives Matter, there are many Christian movements like the Atlanta-based OneRace, that’s focused on racial reconciliation through Christian revival. “Through prayer and fasting, relationship and collaboration, OneRace exists to displace the spirit of racism and release a movement of racial reconciliation across the nation. God desires a young adult movement that will counter the tide of racial division in our cities and nation. “For years and years, pastors of different colours, black, white, Asian and Hispanic have been meeting and actually eating in each other’s homes,” said Vega, who supports the work of the movement co-founded by two pastors, one black and the other, white.
OneRace co-founder Garland Hunt, who is black, is a trained lawyer and serves as the senior pastor of The Father’s House. Co-founder Billy Humphrey, who is white, has served as the director of IHOP Atlanta since 2004. “We believe racial reconciliation can’t just be an event. Racial reconciliation has to be a lifestyle where you are integrating and appreciating each other on a daily basis. Whether it’s happening with conversations in middle schools, high schools, on campuses at universities, if you’re intentionally reaching out to what is different and diverse from you, you are honouring it, you are appreciating it and so that’s something that I know that they do,” Vega said. He explained that through the multiethnic group, believers have come together in prayer and taken action like fundraising around justice issues and working with legislatures to effect change.
Rather that focus on justice as it relates to just one racial group, Vega said, OneRace works to lift all boats in a Gospel-centred way. “Anyone who lifts their ethnic identity, their earthly ethnicity above Christ, that is ethnic idolatry,” he said. Vega also urged churches not to forget their purpose in America, which is to be the conscience of the nation. “I believe personally that when you look at American history, you see a healthy respect of clergy and our elected officials. Martin Luther King (MLK) spoke about that. The Church is not the state and the state is not the Church because the Church is the conscience of the state,” he said. “He (MLK) warned that if we lose our understanding of our role as being the conscience of the state then we will devolve to country clubs.
What he was saying is I think where we went wrong in America is that evangelicals have to be reminded that as born-again Christians, we do need to seek elected officials that represent Judeo-Christian values or standards of morality in the highest offices of the land but we also cannot only focus on the religious spheres of influence when it comes to transformation through the Gospel,” the Atlanta preacher explained. “What you see is ultimate movements like the LGBT movement and other movements who were effective 20 years ago through a strategy saying, we’re going to take the arts, the media, we’re going to take music. The Church cannot just focus on elections … they also need to have a strategy to influence music and the arts and culture.”
Despite the tense discussions that have arisen about the Church’s role on the issue of race, Prof. Weaver said he hopes the difficult events of 2020 will mark a turning point for the nation on race. “I think we all hope it’s a turning point. One of the issues about the civil rights movement is that it has lost momentum and some will go ‘well, that’s in the past. And we don’t need to worry about that anymore.’ But I think the death of George Floyd is hopefully a turning point that shows the civil rights movement needs to be ongoing in the battle against the oppression of black people and minorities in the country,” Weaver said. “What I hope is that this is a turning point and that those people who have been reluctant to worry about racism, have moved it up, looked at the Bible and said ‘wait a minute, this is something we have to do and it has to be part of our life.’”
Source: By Christian Post Reporter Leonardi Blair
Print This Post