Engaging race in dominant culture American churches

To begin, my prayer is that those who may deem this as an attack would read it with an open heart.

Speaking candidly, when it comes to race, the last few years have been particularly challenging for many black Americans. Bewilderment might even be a better description. Whether it be lack of justice pertaining to police-involved shootings of black men, apathetic attitudes of many white Americans toward the loss of life, or absence of compassion for grieving families, through each of these, we’re reminded our nation still has quite a ways to go as it relates to resolving the racial divide that stems from America’s original sin in 1619 (i.e., state-sanctioned slavery).

The racial divide is perhaps even more pronounced among American churches and its people. Decades after state-sanctioned integration, American churches continue to be segregated, and even churches with multi-ethnic congregations continue to segregate when it comes to where they sit during service and the small groups they attend. That is, while the surface level diversity is promising, the deep level connection is lacking because people are not actually doing life with one another, nor do they have authentic relationships beyond, “Hey, how’s it going?” As a black Christian who just so happens to be an academic who studies race and social change, I often contemplate what the best recourse and answer should be, not so much from a government perspective but rather the responses and actions of everyday citizens. More importantly, what should the church’s response be? We have the greatest standard bearer in Jesus in how to respond, but have we emulated Him to the best of our abilities?

So, why is it that majority white churches (and their members) find it uncomfortable and difficult to confront issues concerning race and the social dilemmas associated with it? Concerned about my experiences and others’, I’ve dedicated the last few months to better understanding the state of race relations in American churches. To that end, this post summarizes what I’ve found via copious study of the Scripture, conversations with both white and black Christians, and a current academic study I’m carrying out concerning race and social change.

“American” Christianity
One thing I’ve gathered in recent months via my conversations is that American Christianity is quite unique, and not necessarily in a good way. Though Christianity did not originate here in North America, many dominant culture American churches (i.e., white, Anglo, middle class) have put a “western” lens on Christianity. Reflecting on my own experiences in church, compared to the churches I’ve visited in various nations spanning three different continents, it seems as if American churches have placed cultural perspectives above their professed love for Jesus. Much of the Scripture was written from the viewpoint of the oppressed and suffering (e.g., Jewish people in Egypt), but then Christianity was embraced by certain groups of people who then used the Scripture to subjugate (e.g., America’s original sin). In the present, dominant culture churches permeate with people who operate from an overly individualistic worldview, so it makes it especially difficult for them to comprehend collective issues regarding the totality of the Body of Christ. For instance, people operating from such a worldview are likely to say the following: “Well, I’m not racist.” “I don’t benefit from white privilege.” I, personally, have never owned a slave. “I, personally, have never taken land away from a Native American.” So, because they, themselves, have not engaged in such activity, they absolve themselves from structural and systematic concerns and are likely to be unmoved by horrific injustices and in some cases blame the victim(s).

Furthermore, those operating from this worldview love power and money and affection for their country is parallel to their love of the Trinity. It’s no wonder now, cries of, “Get out of my country” figure prominent among conservative circles. As the son of immigrants, with an “un-American” name, I’ve become familiar with these cries. I find such chatter ironic, to say the least.

What do we get, as a result? We see apathy and/or coldhearted attitudes toward the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, and those identifying as LGBTQ, among others. The dominant culture lens is also seen in the way we’re taught to (understandably) “Remember the Alamo” and “Never forget 9/11”; however, when it comes to slavery and injuries related to disenfranchised groups, we’re told to stop bringing up the past; stop race baiting. It reminds me of a sermon by Matt Chandler, lead pastor of The Village in Flower Mound, Texas. In his critique, he stated churches such as his own want everyone to conform dominant culture. That is, culturally white, act white, think white, and make decisions like white people. It is my opinion that the progression of this mentality ultimately resulted in an overwhelming majority of evangelical white Christians (81 percent) voting for Donald Trump. And to be clear, I voted for neither Trump nor Clinton for those chomping at the bit to accuse me of being a troll.

I’mma talk about it
I don’t care if the world try to swallow me
I turn my back to ’em, tell ’em all follow me
I know you gon’ label me a hater
But inside you are greater…

Just a social issue or gospel issue?
One thing I’ve also found to be quite prevalent among white evangelicals is the conviction that social issues, such as racism, are not gospel issues. Specifically, this is based on the premise that discussing these issues “divides” the Body of Christ.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

However, if we look to Scripture, we know race figured quite prominently, even predating Jesus’ time on earth. For instance, take the animosity between Samaritans and Orthodox Jews dating back to 722 BC. Every orthodox Jew would bypass Samaria because they had married gentiles. Moreover, in Acts 10, we learn of God’s rebuke of Peter for referring to the unclean nature of something created by God. Having learned form this reproach, later in the chapter, Peter applies this to when he’s about to eat with Gentiles (which was against Jewish law) when he says, “But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28). Accordingly, if we know that racial issues existed in the Bible and God addressed them, can we not address them in American churches? Better yet, let me explain it this way. If one part of the Body (i.e., the church) is hurting, the Body cannot operate to its fullest potential. We can think of our own bodies as an example. When one part is distressed, it affects our performance in other areas. Is it too much to ask to be concerned about your black and brown brothers and sisters in Christ being unjustly adjudicated by the U.S. legal system, as various studies show? Is it too much to ask to have compassion for an individual who has just been shot and killed instead of victim-blaming and saying, “Well, if they wouldn’t have been…”? After all, Christian or not, each of these people were made in the image of God and deserve the empathy and consideration Christ calls us to show for those who grieve (Romans 12:15). And if you are truly “pro-life” in its totality from a Biblical perspective, then you’ll express the same vigor and compassion about black lives outside the womb in the same manner as you “March for Life” for those inside the womb.

Moving forward
Throughout history, we’ve seen the willingness of a society’s dominant culture to desire and fight for change is integral to realizing the success of tangible change. For instance, during the civil rights movement, without the help of white activist and organizers, it is likely the movement may have been viewed as just a “negro thing.” Fast-forward to the current era, we’re experiencing and witnessing rhyming, if not mirroring, times in which calls for changes to established systems, policies, and institutions are plentiful. Psalm 89:14 tells us, “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you.” Dominant culture American churches must learn not to simply judge and assume, but to actually step in the shoes of those they currently deem as the “other.” To influence culture from a biblical worldview, and not just a cultural ideological perspective, Christians must engage the culture, not separate or ignore it. I wholeheartedly believe when this brand of love is demonstrated, it displays to a watching world, particularly skeptics of the faith, the splendor and magnificence of God. We can both celebrate our differences, while simultaneously love Christ in His entirety and not just certain parts that we feel satisfy our comfortableness. Love builds up, as it says in 1 Corinthians 8, so let us not diminish church to weekly meetings of people in brick and mortar buildings, and then go back to our regular days unconcerned about our neighbors. You know when Scripture says, “love your neighbor as yourself”? I think we can all do a better job of that. So, below I’ve provided a few steps I think will be critical to see change in our hearts:

  1. Genuine surrender to Jesus Christ;
  2. Prayer for God to reveal your heart and prejudices;
  3. Demonstrate unqualified love, especially to those who don’t love you;
  4. Seek out authentic relationships with people unlike you (e.g., people from different race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, geographic region, etc.)
  5. Serve His people

Channeling my inner MLK, I have a dream that…

  • One day, white evangelicals will join arm and arm with their black Christian brothers and sisters proudly claim, “black lives matter”;
  • One day, white evangelicals won’t associate the rogue acts of a few to unfairly judge racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, and their associated movements;
  • One day, white evangelicals won’t associate surface level diversity with things being “just okay”’
  • One day, white evangelicals will take the social justice concerns of their black brothers and sisters sincerely and openly discuss race with their majority white members;
  • One day, small group leaders can openly discuss race without the fear of their white members leaving their group;
  • One day, white evangelical churches can be open to diversifying the music, particularly in a minority-majority city.

If not, much of these people are in for a revelation when they come before the “Pearly Gates” of Heaven full of people of “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9; most of which are not white American), led by Someone who is a dark-complected, Aramaic-speaking ‘foreigner’ who perhaps would not be wanted in the U.S. right now.