The Church, Society and Race: Part 4 (Introducing Racism)

This is a multi-part series. Read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 5, part 6, part 7, and parts 8a and 8b.

It is no secret that the United States has a long and checkered history of racism. And it’s no secret that the white American church has an equally dubious track record in confronting racism and racist ideas. It is also clear that, while significant structural advances have been made in our country, not all is well. There are some who believe that we have entered into a “post-racial” society – yet the reality is that our society is still very much “racialized.”

This phrase, advanced by Emerson and Smith in their helpful study Divided by Faith, describes a society “in which intermarriage rates are low, residential separation and socioeconomic inequality are the norm, our definitions of personal identity and our choices of intimate associations reveal racial distinctiveness, and where ‘we are never unaware of the race of a person with whom we interact.’” In short, “a racialized society is a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships.”1

Now, this 18 year old definition may be self-evident for some of us, it may be controversial for others, and perhaps even surprising for yet others. After all, we’ve twice-elected a black president – how can it be that such a reality still exists? And yet, the discussions of race in the media, the emergence of movements such as Black Lives Matter, and the surprising appearance of a joint rally of real-live white supremacists last year shows us that something is still deeply wrong our society.

It is my conviction, of course, that Emerson and Smith are absolutely right. The roots of racism run deep in our society, and continue to shape and influence the American way of life. For many African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and Asian-Americans, this is as unsurprising as the day is long. But for a white American such as myself, it can be remarkably difficult to see and understand – simply because I exist in a system historically designed to generally favor people like me.

But we’re not going to just assume any of this. My goal is to take you on a journey over the next several posts. It has taken years of awkward experience, the gracious explanation of patient teachers, reading, thinking and wrestling for me to arrive at my current understanding – one which is still very much in-process as I continue to learn and be humbled, saddened and increasingly aware of the depths of the brokenness caused by sin in our world.

1. Why Are We Talking About This? #

Why are we talking about this at all? Why now? Why not talk about how the church should address issues of sexuality or abortion or free speech? There is a place for these, and we do/will address them. However, a robust discussion of our racialized society has been conspicuously absent (or at least minimally discussed) from my work at Village. Over the years, I have felt increasingly convicted that we cannot bypass this difficult and necessary issue. There are several reasons.

1.1. A Personal Story #

The perhaps most fundamental reason is a biographical one.

I lived near Los Angeles during the L.A. riots of ‘92. I was nine years old, and don’t remember much, except someone named Rodney King and the fact that a bunch of people caused a bunch of destruction. I recall taking a field trip into L.A., and seeing one of the burned buildings and feeling a pang of fear. It was the first time my little suburban life was met with the possibility of unrest.

Five years later, my parents moved with me and my siblings for one summer into south central Los Angeles, having joined World Impact, the inner-city missions organization they continue to serve with. I recall one of my Sunday School classmates making a snide remark about how dangerous it was; I was simply excited to join my parents on mission. In the city, poverty became humanized. My world and notions about reality continue to be challenged and stretched.

It was shocking, then, to move to northeastern Pennsylvania, to live at a camp for inner-city kids. The culture of Scranton was rural, and white, and held a kind of ignorant racism incipient in the culture there. My senior year, my siblings and I attended a small Christian school. This racism was made markedly clear when my English teacher, in making a comparison meant to be shocking, asked the female students in our class, “I mean, girls, what would your parents say if you brought a black man home?”

I balked. Perhaps a bit self-righteously. Having come from southern California, and having participated in inner-city missions, I was used to living among diverse communities. It was easy to be indignant at ignorance and ideals apparently trapped in the 1960s.

However, as I moved into college in downtown Chicago, interacted with ideas bigger than myself, and began to listen to the groanings of culture, I found myself confronted with the spectre of American racism. And there was this incipient resistance to the idea. My English teacher was for sure racist. But much of the conversation that I heard seemed to want to hold all white people accountable for the sins of my fathers. That was my grandfather’s generation’s problem – not mine. I wasn’t racist.

Some years later, I was rocked by a friend who accused me of treating him unfairly because he was black. He was angry and I was hurt and confused. “How could you accuse me of being racist?” I dismissed his accusations (and him) as being overblown and unfair. But this exchange unsettled me. It stuck in my brain and my heart and rattled my world. In retrospect, while I didn’t harbor explicit and overt prejudice, I now realize that I certainly fell into the trap of forcing this person into my white vision of “normal.”

This exchange left me bruised, and I remained skittish about entering into the cultural conversation about racism. Until, that is, I took Dr. Peter Cha for his Social and Cultural Exegesis class at TEDS a few years ago. When I saw that we were going to discuss American racism, I was initially nervous, but knew I needed to enter in. He had us read Emerson and Smith’s book, and faithfully and patiently introduced categories and concepts which I had never considered before. It was as though I had been wearing glasses which filtered out other colors in the landscape around me. He helped to remove them and slowly, I began to see other lines and colors along the landscape which I couldn’t see before.

As I have continued to learn and research, I’ve been stunned by the fact that no one ever taught this massive part of American history to me. Or maybe they did, and I just wasn’t listening. Either way, this I don’t want this important history to be absent from my family or the church’s body of knowledge.

But the impetus goes beyond my own experience.

1.2. The Influence of Society on the Church #

This issue is important for us to study, understand and engage because, as mentioned a few posts ago, our culture influences us as Christians. Though we may not want to admit it, we are influenced by the culture around us. One only needs to look at the nearest seeker-friendly megachurch to see the influences of culture permeating “how we do things.”

But this is particularly important for our thinking concerning race-relations. Martin Luther King Jr. remarked that the most segregated hour in America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning. LifeWay research conducted a survey in 2015 that showed that 8/10 congregations are made up of one predominant racial group, and that a majority of people are satisfied with the results.2 But this begs the question: why is the church still grouping around ethnic or color lines? I tend to think that there are cultural factors at play.

Furthermore, a study of American church history reveals that Christians in the America have often failed rather dismally to address racism. We’ll talk about this a bit later, but it’s well known that Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield – the renowned theologian and preacher of the Great Awakening – owned slaves. Furthermore, the association our church was planted under explicitly denied fellowship to a black pastor in the 1950s. These are not anomalies; they are the result of culture influencing the church. Therefore, it is important that we consider these issues, because as we will see, ours is a racialized culture.

1.3. The Influence of the Past on the Present #

Related to this is the influence of the past on the present. We will be exploring a brief history of racism in the next few weeks – and it can be tempting to groan at such an endeavor. After all, why do we need to cover “all that bad stuff” when we’ve made improvements? The answer is simple: just as understanding our family trees help to explain how we got where we are, and why we have certain features and personalities, so understanding our national history gives context for how we’ve arrived where we are.

We did not enter 2018 in a vacuum. The 18th century was shaped and fashioned by the 17th; the 19th century was driven forward and given form by the 18th; the 20th century came tumbling out of the 18th; and so on with our 21st century. If we would understand this moment, we must understand what came before us.

1.4. The Influence of the Church on Society #

On the flip side, if the church has a responsibility to influence society – to do good to all people for the glory of God and the good of mankind – then we should do our homework in understanding how we can best influence society. If ours is indeed a racialized society, still divided along color lines, then we should eagerly work to see justice roll down and the image of God respected and valued equally regardless of color, social location or point of origin.

In our next post, we’ll begin unpacking racism proper in greater detail.

  1. Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 7. 

  2., accessed February 28, 2018. 


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