More and more I hear the same reaction to stories of systemic racism in America: “It’s just liberals pushing their agenda.” There are certain people I expect to hear it from. I know it’s how they make money, how they continue to support the system. What makes me sad is the fact I’m hearing it from those who should be most concerned with justice: the Church.
First of all, dismissing a story as being part of someone else’s “agenda” quickly dehumanizes those experiencing the reality of the story. No matter how we might feel about those telling the story, we have to remember there are real people living those stories. We cannot just dismiss them as pawns in someone’s political game.
Second, the Church was and is not immune to the sin of white supremacy, the root of systemic racism.
At Catalyst last year, I had the privilege of hearing John Perkins talk about his desire to see truly multi-cultural churches thriving in this country. He spoke frankly of restoration, redemption, and reconciliation—the keys to making this dream come true. Without them, the Church will do nothing to remove the sin she allowed to take root a few hundred years ago.
When slaves first set foot in this country, American churches had to change their understanding of the Gospel in order to justify the capture, sale, and subjugation of other humans. They reconciled themselves to their bigotry by stripping those who were not white of their imago dei, the image of God inherent in all human beings. Good, church-going people convinced themselves these were not humans. They were savages who needed to be enslaved. Experience with treating the Native Americans as savages probably helped to make this vein of thinking easier to swallow.
But in the act of justifying slavery, we stripped the Gospel of its reconciliation power. We refused to see it was meant to tear down walls of division and unite us all as the body of Christ. We refused to let it open our eyes to the sins of racism and slavery. We entrenched ourselves in the idea God was white and Jesus was white and they cared only for white people.
There were some churches who refused to change the Gospel to suit the “economic needs” of the country. Eventually others would join them, and many of the voices calling for abolition would be Christian. But the sin had already taken root, growing unchecked. And it will not be easily removed from the church.
To this day the Church is still very much segregated, a symptom of our long history of racism. And many of us who call ourselves Christians are complicit in the systemic racism plaguing our country, whether by supporting the structures keeping it in place or keeping our mouths shut when our eyes are open to the truth. We label it a “liberal agenda” political issue in an attempt to convince ourselves the problem is “out there” with the sinners rather than sitting politely in our pews every Sunday.
So what do we do about it?
1. Learn your church history. Find out about your particular denomination. What was its position on slavery and abolition? If it wasn’t around in those days, what was its position during the Civil Rights Movement? Were the leaders of your church speaking for or against? Or were they silent? More importantly, find out whether anything has been done to acknowledge and repent of its action (or inaction) during those periods of history.
2. Look at your local church. Take a good hard look at it: its leadership, its ministry, its location. Do the demographics of your church reflect the demographics of the community in which it’s located? Is the leadership diverse? Are people of color invited to be part of the ministry of your church, not just as passive recipients but also as active members whose voices are heard? Has your church been intentional about holding hard conversations on topics like racial reconciliation? Does your church hold up white culture, traditions, and theology as the norm or does it create space to celebrate and include other voices?
3. Get educated about the racial injustices happening in this country. This means getting your news from sources other than mainstream media (Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, etc.). Talk to your friends who are people of color. Ask them to tell you what life is really like for them. And when they tell you, just listen. Enter into conversation with a posture of learning.
4. Ask how you can help. Learn how to become an ally without centering yourself. Raise your voice in support of those who are working to change the system. Stand arm-in-arm with those who are protesting and speaking out. Politely correct friends and family members who share false information, use racist language, or perpetuate stereotypes which dehumanize and distract from the bigger issues.
Until the Church wakes up to her complicity in white supremacy, she will remain powerless to help change the narrative of this country. If God’s Kingdom is to come on this earth as it is in heaven, we have to help build it. Racial justice and reconciliation are cornerstones of this Kingdom. Let’s get to work.