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Bridging the Gap: Racial Reconciliation in the Church

March 14, 2019

 

 

“The problem of the twentieth century [was] the problem of the color-line,”¹ a blurry yet impenetrable distinction that split white from black, free from enchained, the children of one mother from another. Long before that, another line - in the Bible, between Jew and Gentile, between the free and the enchained, the liberated and oppressed.² The first was torn down by the persistent struggle of those who cared; the second took the Son of Man himself. These lines, and many others, had ripped deep into the flesh of humanity, tearing ligament from ligament in a frenzied thirst for power and pain. Everything from freedom to water was given and taken away in a display of society’s ability to forget the human beings it consisted of.

 

Most historians mark the end of legalized segregation in the United States as 1965, or the passage of the Civil Rights Act that ended the Jim Crow laws. Yet, as many have also noticed, segregation doesn’t require a formal legal system to exist. Through systems like mass incarceration³ and urban redlining⁴, both geographic and social communities within America are very much divided by race. Sadly, these lines extend to the church and its para-organizations as well. 87% of Christian churches in America are completely white or black⁵ and only about 5% of churches could be considered racially integrated.⁶ There is an explicit parceling of the body of Christ, chunk by chunk, each bundle with a color label attached.

 

Segregation is made all the worse not only because it stands against an innate desire for equality and unity, but because it explicitly goes against God’s final plan for humanity: an image of all nations and peoples, unified, in a global church, on Earth⁷ as it will be in Heaven.⁸

 

Countless books and articles have been written to diagnose the problem and draw out a solution, using a variety of theological and social frameworks. That will not be the topic of this article - for proof of the problem, see the fall of man in Eden; for a solution, hear the ringing covenantal promises of God; for a reason to care, value the drops of Christ’s blood more, no matter what body they flow through. Rather, my goal is to dig in, away from the systems and theories and history, and simply attempt to explicate this question: What can I do?

 

Though there is much value in a more objective, scholarly take on this issue, that approach stretches the problem past the vanishing point of the self towards the lumbering mass of society -- and frankly, for any responsibility to be had and action to be taken, we must first recognize that we -- you and I -- are not outside of society, but rather in it and of it. Therefore, any action starts from our individual actions, the backbone of any movement or change.

 

Sacrifice Paradigm

 

The practice of authenticity and vulnerability is a crucial one for Christians, and emphasized throughout many churches and organizations. Yet, for many, we are vulnerable only to the extent that we’re comfortable being vulnerable. It becomes a performance of sorts, where our words and actions align exactly and not one inch beyond what we perceive to be the expected requirement for ‘transparency.’ This “fauxthenticity” lets in just enough light to reveal a few hidden corners of our hearts carefully swept clean, save a few strategically-placed crumbs here and there.

 

True Biblical vulnerability is extremely simple, and modeled throughout Scripture. It’s in Abraham’s trusting journey into a foreign land⁹; it’s in Joshua’s demilitarized conquest of Jericho¹⁰; Esther’s forbidden entrance in front of the king¹¹; Christ’s separation from His eternal, never-separated Father.¹²

 

Throughout all these examples and countless more, the display of vulnerability is defined not by the performative aspects - the language, emotion, or action of the individual - but rather by the risk and potential harm involved. And if, as demonstrated, the repeated sacrifice of true vulnerability is to be willing to die, how could anything else be off-limits?

 

It is precisely that willingness - the enthusiasm, even - to give up anything and everything that enables the initial movement to break a racial stalemate. This stalemate is generated by the current brinksman situation of racial segregation: in the modern United States, white communities are not opening up their communities for racial minorities, and those minorities are not willing to risk stepping into those spaces.

 

This stalemate issue is exacerbated by two sets of behavior. The first is within the dominant white communities: they fail to recognize, either intentionally or unwittingly, the non-universality of their experiences, and that racism is real and actually affects people. There are scars from the myriad of colored bodies that history has brutalized, enslaved, laughed at, violated, and despised, and those scars cut deeper than flesh. Some of us may be better at hiding it; some of us have perfected the art of losing ourselves, not for the sake of Christ but for that of acceptance; some of us have caked on whiteface until the skin beneath is rotted and dead. Yet, I would wager that there is not a minority in America, nor the rest of the world, who is not constantly made wholly aware of their differences. This is the foremost and primary thing that must change, and the oppressors must recognize their actions and damage - without that, reconciliation is a dream lost in the wind.

 

The second behavior is self-segregation, and this arises as a defensive adaptation. If being a minority is like being embattled by a storm, then self-segregation is a way to stay warm. In many situations, we coalesce into communities centered on the trait of race, because if we can’t hide it, well, might as well flaunt it. These communities defrost the heart from the frigid environment of racialization: they loosen the tongues that have hidden their mother’s mother’s languages; they taste like the unmeasured sprinkling of spices; they soothe like home.

 

This seems good. But the role of the minority, sometimes almost patronizingly, has been neglected in the discussion around racial reconciliation. It is not fair for the responsibility to be on minorities to repair the sins that have been done to them, for us to have to walk into the storm time and time again, knowing the same bitter pain each time. Yet, a thousand times more, it is unfair for the responsibility to be on God to repair the sins that have offended His name, knowing that each gift of grace will be thrown away, each blessing torn.

 

Underneath a traditional, rational-actor framework, there is no solution to the problem. It’s haunted society through a plethora of issues, from issues of nuclear proliferation¹³ to the prisoner’s dilemma to the fears of romantic rejection. However, through the framework of Christianity, the problem’s solution becomes clear: sacrifice.

 

The sacrifices that can resolve racial segregation in the church cannot be “fauxthentic”; they must find their root and value in loss. The problem of brinkmanship, or parties pushing towards the brink of a mutually-destructive conflict, can be reinterpreted as the problem of contractual sacrifice: I fear making the first sacrifice, because there is no binding imperative for the other to do the same.

 

The Christian sacrifice must be the opposite. It is a sacrifice in which the expectations are already achieved by Christ on the cross, and the lack of a result is an expectation factored into the original decision to sacrifice. As a minority, for me that looks like being willing to always be a little uncomfortable, always see my skin in tints of yellow, always feel the hints of lisp burn at my lips, and know that there may be no gain from it all. For a dominant individual (in the case of the United States, generally white), it looks like being aware and sensitive to the point of self-burden, working to end systems and cultural codes that are self-beneficial, and approaching it all with a sense of radical humility and deference.

 

None of these  actions have any guaranteed success. However, that is the core of the paradox, and the loose end within the Gordian knot¹⁴: only by being satisfied with failure can we ever achieve success; only through dying to ourselves can we bring life to others. These are unfair burdens to carry; a perfectly reasonable question for a minority to ask would be, “Why should I have to suffer more to end someone else’s problem?” Similarly, a reasonable white individual might assert, “Race is just an issue that doesn’t affect me much, and I can devote my time and efforts to something else.”

 

Both of those are completely reasonable statements, and yet, look at where that’s gotten us. If we want different results, we must think and act counterintuitively. We have to be completely satisfied with nothing, even the addition of more pain and inconvenience - and it’s only in this sacrifice, ironically, that we can arrive at a solution. In no way does this imply a toleration of the status quo of racism or any other oppression; rather, it involves a reframing of those issues from the language of personal harms towards one that seeks justice for the Other, constantly, even when that Other doesn’t include the self.

 

Dissolution and Process

 

The transition away from the status quo, with ethnic-centered Christian communities, must necessarily involve the dissolution of those communities as formal entities, where the racial identity is considered an integral part of the organization. The very existence of that formalized concept of race as a guiding community principle creates a dangerous isolationist situation, where those minorities begin to strongly identify with their racial identity not as simply part of them, but as a shared identity. Therefore, those of that race who are not in that group are led to feel a sense of departure from that shared identity. To move from a situation like that to a multiethnic Christian community would require the individual to not only give up comfort and security, but also a static, rigid collective identity.

 

In addition, there will only be some number of Christians in a campus or region, and only so many of them who are minorities. White churches and parachurch organizations have a lot of room to grow in creating more inviting, less homogeneous atmospheres, but all of that effort, if deployed perfectly, creates only a space for minority students to fill. If that space isn’t filled up, then like an opened door that receives no guests, it’s only understandable that the impetus for creating those spaces dissolves.

 

For a white organization to be able to determine how to improve and reconcile, it’s necessary for minorities to engage with it in the first place. Therefore, the existence, establishment, and furnishing of ethnic-centered Christian communities creates a pull factor on minority individuals away from entering diverse unified spaces, through creating a “race-drain,” where that alternative minority-centered space is increasingly appealing. In comparison, seeking integration not only remains uncomfortable, but carries a higher opportunity cost of forgoing that separated community.

 

That being said, any effort to curtail and eventually dissolve a mono-ethnic Christian community must necessarily take into account the historical and societal reasons that drove its formation in the first place. The legacies of structural racism, alienation and discrimination, seeping down from the law to even the smallest cracks of our culture, must be always considered and rooted out. A majority white organization cannot, with good conscience, make a request to minorities without first putting full effort into remedying the issue. The process must be constantly rooted in clear Scriptural truth when it is clear and explicit, and in the lived experiences and feelings of minorities when it isn’t. The transformation must start from the top of the organization and be pushed wholeheartedly down through its members. Anything that is rooted in Scripture should and must stay, but everything extra - from the choice of musical style to the leadership selection committees to the food offered - should be viewed with skepticism, for it is some permutation of these things and attitudes that has historically driven this racialized wedge. In addition, a diverse church is just as distinct from a minority-centered church as it is from a white-centered one; in fact, given the extreme whiteness of most of America, I would wager that a properly-diverse church should feel almost minority-centered in comparison.

 

Finally, in the complicated and error-prone process of dissolution and reconciliation, a delicate and sincere empathy must be practiced. In his oft-quoted letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote  that “perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait."¹⁵ Perhaps, it is time to stop waiting, and time to move.

 

References:

1. DuBois, W. E. B. (1903). The souls of black folk. Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co.

2. Galatians 3:28, New International Version

3. Alexander, M. (2010). The new jim crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: The New Press.

4. Jan, T. (2018). Redlining was banned 50 years ago. It’s still hurting minorities today. Washington Post.

5. Vischer, R. K. (2001). Racial segregation in American churches and its implications for school vouchers. Florida Law Review, 53(193).

6. Deyoung, C. P., Emerson, M. O., Yancey, G., & Kim, K. C. (2004). United by faith: The multiracial congregation as an answer to the problem of race. England: Oxford University Press.

7. Zephaniah 3:9

8. Revelation 7:9

9. Genesis 12:1-4

10. Joshua 6:1-5

11. Esther 5:1-3

12. John 19:30

13. Powell, R. (2003). Nuclear deterrence theory, nuclear proliferation, and national missile defense. International Security, 27(4). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

14. Andrews, E. (2016). What was the gordian knot? Ask History.

15. King, M. L. (1994). Letter from Birmingham Jail. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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