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How Christians Can Combat Racism Theologically After Charlottesville

A pair of scholars bring up a new and old approach.
How Christians Can Combat Racism Theologically After Charlottesville
Image: Chip Somodevilla / Getty

After the gathering of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Americans are re-examining the country’s racial tensions, past and present. It has prompted many evangelical leaders to condemn white supremacy and recommit to combating racism.

CT reached out to a couple of African American Christian scholars to hear how the latest incident—and the surrounding conversation—might impact the church’s approach to healing racial divides.

Enough With Racial ‘Reconciliation’

By Clifton Clarke

After the events in Charlottesville, I received a call from a good friend in ministry. I knew by his voice that he was troubled by the show of force by white supremacists the night before. “I have spoken to some other ministers, black and white,” he said. “We are planning a service for God to heal our racial divide in this country, and we want you to be a part of it.”

As my friend continued speaking, I recalled the first line of Edward Gilbreath’s book, Reconciliation Blues: “I am sick and tired of racial reconciliation.” Gilbreath argues that despite political strides toward racial reconciliation since 1964, many blacks feel that nothing has really changed since Jim Crow days.

As I observed the chilling images of hate-filled protesters fueled by a history of bigotry and inflamed by wild racist and anti-Semitic passions, their blazing torches triggered haunting memories of a not-too-distant past; as I heard the chanting of Nazi slogans in 2017 America, I knew something had gone awry. A new approach to heal the racial divide is needed. Frankly, I, like many, am sick and tired of efforts devoid of intentional and strategic action to change the status quo.

There are some serious flaws with the “reconciliation project” championed by many evangelicals. The term reconciliation itself is a misnomer for race relations in America. Reconciliation implies that there was a time when blacks and whites were “conciliated” or “in agreement.” A Latin derivative, the word conveys the idea of restoration or a return to a past ideal situation. Black people in America—brought here in slave ships—have never had such an ideal with the white majority.

A new approach to heal the racial divide is needed.

The contemporary notion of reconciliation does not carry with it the need for radical transformation. Humankind’s reconciliation to God warranted drastic action (Rom. 5:10). It cost Jesus his life. The social and racial reconciliation we seek—and desperately need in America—comes at a cost: crucifying the sinful self (Gal. 2:20). Racial reconciliation without such commitment merely provides a temporary Band-Aid to the problem.

Talking about reconciliation in the face of events like Charlottesville is usually the first and only thing churches do because it avoids the painful process of confronting the brutality of white privilege that continues to wreak havoc on black and brown lives. When asked if he would embrace white South Africans in a show of forgiveness during the apartheid era, a black South African remarked: “How can I embrace you, when you're standing on my head?”

Before any talk of reconciliation, according to theologian and minister Leonard Lovett, we need to begin with conciliation, the process to “overcome the distrust or hostility.” There is no precedent for racial harmony in American history; we have to begin to create a world that is not predicated on white privilege but on a common humanity.

The conciliation of blacks and whites in America calls for and demands the death of the idolatry of “whiteness,” white privilege, and white supremacy. I place these as gradations of whiteness as I believe they belong on a continuum with people at different stages. I define white supremacy as a historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of people of color by white people, the defending of a system of wealth, power, and privilege as an inalienable right. This remains the white elephant in the room whenever blacks and whites come together as a show of unity each time the beast of racism rears its ugly head.

Evangelical Christians from Jonathan Edwards down to pastors in our modern times have failed miserably to divorce themselves from the vestiges of white supremacy and privilege. The media rightly criticized President Trump for sending coded messages of support to the white extremists in his statements on Charlottesville. In truth, however, the little tolerance most white people have when discussing race, what scholar Robin D'Angelo calls “white fragility,” is tantamount to a soft nod to the white privilege status quo.

Sociologist Michael Dyson incisively states, “You don’t get whiteness from your genes. It is a social inheritance that is passed on to you as a member of a particular group. And it’s killing us, and, quiet as it’s kept, it’s killing you too.” For most Americans, the idea of white privilege does not function on the level seen on the streets of Charlottesville. It is institutionalized. It is politicized. It is propagated. It is one that must be put to death. On the part of African Americans, death is required, too—death to the way “whiteness” has distorted our sense of self and lack of self-love, death to nihilistic tendencies that manifest in black-on-black violence.

In his book America's Original Sin, Jim Wallis offers a prophetic and deeply personal call to action in overcoming the racism so ingrained in American society. He speaks candidly to Christians—particularly white Christians—urging them to cross a new bridge toward racial justice and healing.

The first step in this process is a defiant public rejection of the type of white supremacy that was on display in Charlottesville.

Clifton Clarke is associate dean of the William E. Pannell Center for African American Church Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary.

A Gospel That’s Big Enough to Heal the Racial Divide

By Jarvis J. Williams

In the aftermath of the recent racial violence in Charlottesville, many Christians and churches are rightly asking with more urgency, “How should we respond to white supremacy and racial injustice?” Race relations are bad in America. Yet, churches may be tempted to think the message of the gospel is irrelevant to the problem of race relations or that racism is a “social issue” instead of a “gospel issue.” But this impulse reveals a small understanding of the gospel—one that offers no hope for overcoming white supremacy in our churches or in society.

If churches desire to offer any help to those enslaved to racist ideologies … they must first see the gospel as the basis for our response.

As I wrote in One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation in Pauline Theology, the gospel announces (among many things) that Jesus died for the sins of diverse groups of humans and that God raised him from the dead (John 1:29; 3:16; 1 Cor. 15:1-8). Jesus now reigns with the Father over all things in heaven and on the earth (Eph. 1:20-22).

Though all have sinned (Rom. 3:23), God has acted to unify all things and all people in Christ (Eph. 1:9-3:10), who died for our sins to deliver sinners from this present evil age (Gal. 1:4). Racism is part of this evil age. By faith in Christ, Jesus’s blood and resurrection reconcile a diversity of humans into one transformed and ethnically and racially diverse Christian community (1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 5:9).

Thus, all kinds of racially and ethnically diverse people can be justified by faith in Christ (Rom. 3:21-4:25); repent of and turn from their sins (Acts 2:1-38); and be reconciled to God (Rom. 5:6-10) and to each other (Eph. 2:11-22). Throughout Scripture, we see that the gospel demands this diverse community intentionally to pursue one another in love (John 13:34-35; 1 John 2:10; 3:10-11, 14, 16, 18, 23; 4:7-12, 20-21).

When Peter, for example, stopped associating with Gentiles at table-fellowship in Antioch because of their identity as Gentiles, Paul says his behavior was out of step with the gospel (Gal. 2:11-14). If churches desire to offer any help to those enslaved to racist ideologies, like the ones recently on display in Charlottesville, or to those who suffer from white supremacy, they must first see the gospel as the basis for our response.

The Bible teaches God originally created only one race, the human race, in his image (Gen. 1:26-27; 11:6). A beautiful diversity of one human race created in the image of God came from Adam and his offspring (Acts 17:26).

However, churches must work to understand the American construct of race, racism, and white supremacy and the many ways—both personal and systemic—that these forces work against the gospel.

Many agree that race in the American experience is a social and ideological construct. White supremacists sinfully used this construct to establish a racial hierarchy that prioritized whiteness and dehumanized and exploited black and brown people. The impact of this racist construct is still felt in many parts of American life—including American churches.

Christians and churches must intentionally think carefully about how the gospel of Jesus Christ applies to white supremacy and racism in our communities. This at least means we must listen and learn from those most affected in our churches and communities by racism, while also considering practical ways we can love and serve our diverse neighbors as we pursue racial unity through the gospel.

As we do these things, we must fervently and regularly pray in our churches for God to unify all things and all people in Christ and to convert and transform racists through the gospel. We must also pray for ourselves and our churches to repent of our complicity in individual and systemic racism, while looking for ways to be agents of racial unity in our churches and communities.

Churches need a robust understanding of the old gospel and how it demands us to pursue racial harmony. We also need an informed understanding of race, racism, and white supremacy and the intentional and unintentional ways in which they work in our churches and in society. Then, our churches need to create specific goals and a plan by which to pursue racial harmony in our churches and communities.

May God, the Lord Jesus, and the Holy Spirit give Christians and churches courage to lead their churches to pursue racial unity so that our churches would be agents of racial healing in these racially divided times and beyond.

Jarvis J. Williams is an associate professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. With Kevin M. Jones, he is the co-editor of Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention: Diverse African American and White Perspectives (Nashville: B&H, 2017).

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