Some thoughts on Racism and the Church

I was recently included on an email thread related to a book on the subject of Racism, mostly related to Conservative Evangelical attitudes to it. The thread also was a response to a new banner hung in the building of the church I attend which reads “Be the Church, Fight Racism.” I was struck (still processing how), by the new banner in the church building. In a conversation, just after seeing the banner, I was told that “it is impossible for a white person NOT to see know they are a racist.” I was struck by that comment too. But blindness comes in many forms.

To be clear, I was raised in central Los Angeles, and watched as the school I went to, from elementary through high school, became more and more less integrated. When I graduated from high school I was the only WASP in my class. 95% blacks, some Asian and Hispanics, and me. I was raised in a home which was as socially liberal as it comes, all persons were treated with dignity and value no matter what their ethnic, social, economic, disability, color, might be. People are people.

I was also raised to think, read, have conversations, and ask questions about how things got to be the way they are whether this was scientific, sociological, historical, economic, or engineering in nature. The goal was to understand all “things” through critical engagement. I all too often go “too deep too fast!” (As some friends of mine can confirm).

What does this all have to do with this thread? While I agree that racisim is “alive and well,” the question is what is the “church’s” responsibility toward it? How do you separate an individual christian’s response from the church’s? What is the “christian” response over against a secular, social justice response? etc., etc., etc.

My first exposure to this issue, other than the picture I painted above of my public educational years, was my first year in seminary. I needed to do an internship as part of my credits to graduate. I was accepted by an American Baptist church in central city Los Angeles. It was typical of many center city “white” churches, dying. Thriving Korean and Hispanic congregations shared the same historic and massive facilities called “Temple Baptist Church.” A primarily black homeless community “lived” in the neighborhood. The “white” congregation literally would not give up the sprawling spaciousness of its “sanctuary” to allow either of the other congregations to escape the cramped and limiting lessor rooms they were allotted. Any outreach to the homeless was seen as unbecoming of a privileged church. My New Testament Professor, George Ladd, had been a member of the English speaking congregation in the 60’s and had left when it became clear the “white” congregation was not willing to take a more christian attitude toward the changing multi-racial community of the central LA area.

I struggle with this issue of racism and the church for several reasons.  

1. The individualist view of salvation in the Protestant church has placed the assessment of ones values, ethics, and theology, too much on people who do not have the theological, let alone biblical understanding to make those assessments. The current conservative “evangelical” movement is a serious example of that. People need a stronger covenantal and ecclesial framework to understand the conflict between culture (any) and the “kingdom of God.” That is, the accommodation of the church to societal orientations is founded on an inability to understanding the biblical witness and the “calling out” of a people, called the “Church” to a new way of being human in the world.

2. The church’s view of transforming society along biblical lines is also problematic. The whole historical biblical witness of being “in” but not “of” the world, as demonstrated by God’s election of a people for God’s self, is too little understood. Hence, the attempt to “educate,” “program,” “protest for,” even “fight” for some value or ethic we view as biblical is almost putting your cart before the horse, or throwing your pearls before swine. The Gospel is hardly a fragrant aroma to those dead set on power, right, and privilege, of whatever color, ethnicity, or nationality.

Christians and the Church, or theologically more accurate, the Church and Christians should always act lovingly and with grace, without regard to anyone’s human attributes. All persons are “in Christ” and therefore “in us.” Our relationship with all persons is grounded in the relationship Jesus, in the flesh, has with all persons. He is the “true light who enlightens all humanity.” Jesus’ “way of life” is the form through which our light should also shine. Racism is not acceptable in the community of the One who has died for people of all races. And the redemptive path of showing that “acceptance” is a part of the Church’s calling. But it is a calling within the framework of what it means to “be the church” (as the banner suggests) but with the same approach which Jesus took, Love, not “fighting,” “dying” not winning. I get the nature of language and the attempt to be dramatic and intentional about the path forward. But form and substance are integral when it comes to the spread of Gospel truth. St Paul may call us to “fight the good fight” but that surely is a metaphor for being valiant, focused, and practicing perseverance. He is not recommending the violence of a crusade to “win souls for Christ,” or self-harm in order to manage sin. When the banner says “Fight Racism” what is intended? What actions will be taken? Does the sword imagery not beget a sword response? Is it that we have forgotten the power of Love so that “Be the Church, Love” sounds to trite? Or “Be the Church, lay down your life…” sounds to passive.

I write all of this to set a context to my disagreement with the tone of the banner. How the church responds to societal issues is not a “program.” A banner, whatever it says, is, in one sense, merely a banner. What is needed is a serious discussion of both the nature of all human societies’ inability to be humane, even democratic ones, and therefore equitable towards all, and the nature of the Church as the alternative “society” through which the power of the Gospel as lived by the community of the One “in whom there is no slave or free, Jew or Greek…” breaks down all social barriers. But first we need to get rid of the beam in our own eye before extracting a splinter from societies’.

Like the Barmen Confession in Germany, any societal dysfunction needs to be called out for what it is and what the Church says in response. And the form that that “call” takes must be consistent to invoke faith and transformation in some and alternatively further love of darkness in others. And finally, The Barmen Confession was as much a “call” to the churches (today’s “evangelicals”) as it was a call to those of the Third Reich. The “call” is always the power of the Gospel as expressed in love, mercy, grace and truth.

Thanks for listening… 

Author: Paul H Mannes

Paul is an IT Professional in DC area. He was theologically trained at Fuller Theological Seminary in the mid-70s and has continued to read, write, teach, and think about the relationship between the bible and life. Paul is married to a talented and professional Psychotherapist names Susan. We have 4 grown children, 1 grandchild (so far).

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