The Church at Its Racial Turning Point

Five ways forward after the recent tragic events.
The Church at Its Racial Turning Point

The resounding dissonance left by the deaths of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and five police officers in Dallas represent a dark moment for America. A surge in violence against police suggests that society stands on the brink of a chaotic response as a result of racial turmoil unmatched since the 1965 Watts Riots, which resurfaced in the 1992 Rodney King riots. The current crisis highlights the disconnect between black and white perspectives on race relations and exposes a growing impatience in minority communities with persistent and systemic forms of racism. The potential for positive change seems more distant now than any time in recent memory.

Yet, despite a pervasive sense of gloomy pessimism, the light of opportunity continues to flicker. Recent events offer the potential of generating a new, meaningful and action-inspiring conversation on race in America. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”

In this moment, American churches face the challenge and opportunity of addressing what some consider America’s “original sin.”

In this moment, American churches face the challenge and opportunity of addressing what some consider America’s “original sin.” A 2012 survey found that most evangelicals believe “one of the most effective ways to improve race relations is to stop talking about race.” More and more Christians realize that in order to do something, we cannot avoid these discussions or remain silent as society around us grapples with such an embedded issue.

Nearly all American evangelicals—94 percent in a Barna Group survey earlier this year—believe that the church has an important role to play in racial reconciliation. For many, the desire to act abounds, though direction remains unclear. The most pressing question facing Christians today in the area of race relations is “Where do we go from here?” The church has potential as a catalyst for God-honoring, positive social change in the area of race, and taking several steps can help us realize that potential.

1. Learn About the Experiences of Ethnic Minorities

Ignorance about the realities facing ethnic minorities serves as one of the most challenging barriers to productive racial dialogues. Well-meaning brothers and sisters often respond to allegations of racism by attempting to refocus the situation on black-on-black crime, fatherlessness, or the need for personal responsibility. These are serious issues to address, but focusing on such topics to reorient a conversation regarding racial reconciliation and social change clearly illuminates a misunderstanding of the problem. For example, the “absent father” persists as one of the most dominant stereotypes of black men like myself. Though growing up without a father in the home has been linked with various social risks, research suggests a more nuanced picture. Psychologists Rebekah Levine Cooley and Bethany L. Medeiros found that among fathers of children living in broken homes, black men are more likely than any other demographic to remain involved in their child’s life. More than that, African American dads were reported to “increase their efforts at providing involved and responsible parenting when their children show escalating problem behaviors.”

When it comes to systemic racism related to law enforcement—the targeting of communities of color, unlawful arrests, police brutality—most would not be solved through paternal presence as such. As a black youth, I did not receive a pass on harassment because my father was present in the home. Michelle Alexander’s powerful book The New Jim Crow offers a well-researched perspective on the deep, structural inequalities in the criminal justice system. She points out, “African Americans are not significantly more likely to use or sell prohibited drugs than whites, but they are made criminals at drastically higher rates for precisely the same conduct.” The disproportionate mass incarceration of poor African Americans in particular has effects across the entire community and, she writes, unfairly bolsters the label of black men as criminals. That is a stereotype that black men, regardless of their own criminal, educational, or economic background, are up against. Alexander’s book and Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning trilogy on the civil rights movement serve as excellent starting points to learn more about the contemporary realities and historical foundations of race in America.

2. Imagine Our Churches as Sites for Cross-Racial Engagement

As an undergraduate student at a small Christian college in the South, I remember inviting white classmates to attend my predominantly black church. With few exceptions, they routinely declined, expressing extreme apprehension at entering a space in which they would be the minority. Far too often, black and white churches, in particular, remain isolated from one another. Despite the fact that most churches lack significant diversity, about three-quarters of churchgoers participating in a 2015 LifeWay Research survey report satisfaction with the ethnic diversity of their congregations. Our identity in Christ calls us to cross racial boundaries to share our lives, faith, and goals with brothers and sisters in Christ who look differently than us. Individually, this call pushes us to move past our comfort zones and grow more intentional about cultivating meaningful relationships with people who look different than us. From a congregational standpoint, opportunities to cross racial boundaries include occasionally holding joint services, pursuing ministry partnerships, and uniting for dialogue with congregations featuring different demographics.

3. Embrace the “R” Word

Charges of racism create discomfort. To de-escalate the tensions surrounding the term, many say, “It’s not a race problem; it’s a sin problem.” This is a problem for multiple reasons. First, race and sin are not mutually exclusive categories. As Christians, we name sins like lying, greed, and lust because we recognize that different sins call for different responses. Second, shifting the focus away from racism limits our ability to respond with accurate and productive biblical solutions. When we avoid critically engaging the issue of race in our preaching, when we avoid having honest and open discussions about it with our brothers and sisters in Christ who are different from us, when we treat it as if it doesn’t exist, we will fail to hear what God might be calling us to do specifically in response.

4. Speak Out Against Contemporary Forms of Racism

Evangelicals enthusiastically embrace the cause of the unborn. This fervor stems from belief in the sanctity of life. This same concern lies at the heart of #BlackLivesMatter. But they often fail to notice how black and brown youth are treated as less than human, how they face the inequalities in education, employment, and health care. Their plight fails to generate the same level of righteous indignation as abortion. Many churches recoil from issues of race. If churches want to respond to the current crisis, we must speak out against all forms of oppression against human life. This means decrying injustice, protesting alongside minorities, pressuring politicians to do justly, and challenging racism when it rears its ugly head even in their local congregation.

5. Foster Dialogue Between Minority Communities and Law Enforcement Officials

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a “Stop the Violence” picnic hosted by Midway Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta. In addition to drawing attention to pervasive forms of violence plaguing urban communities, the picnic provided a context for law enforcement officials to interact with the people that they serve. Captivating images of white police officers playing volleyball with black youth testified to the potential role of the church as a conduit for reconciliation. Events like this foster productive relationships between groups previously at odds. In the face of broken trust, the church brings minority communities together with law enforcement officials. The deaths of Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, and countless others have crippled law enforcement officials’ ability to provide protection and service within minority communities. The church must actively work to facilitate dialogue and restore broken relationships. The ministry and message of reconciliation form an important part of Christ’s vision for the church (2 Cor. 5:16–21).

In his 2008 book, God and Race in American Politics, evangelical historian Mark Noll wrote that “together, race and religion make up… the nation’s deepest and most enduring moral problem.” Our current crisis suggests while this problem endures, it is paused as a potential inflection point for our country. The question remains whether we will meet the challenge of the present. God has called us to defend the truth of gospel in all areas of individual and communal life. It’s time to report for duty.

Theon Hill is an assistant professor of communication at Wheaton College where he researches and teaches on the intersections of race, religion, and society.

December
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The Church at Its Racial Turning Point