This entire series can now be read here:
- PART 1: #CHANGETHESTORY – The Problem of Racism in the Church
- PART 2: A Conversation on Racism #CHANGETHESTORY
- PART 3: YOUR RACIST CHURCH – Multi-Ethnic and White Evangelical Churches
- PART 4: RACISM AND YOU – Reverse Racism, All Lives Matter, Just Get Over It
- PART 5: RACISM: The Light is Winning
This podcast interview on the ‘coming out’ by rapper Lecrae, describes his loosening ties with white evangelicalism (where he spent his formative years). The response has been furious, particularly by white evangelicals. Some have penned open replies in an effort to make sense (and ultimately control the narrative) of his departure, like this piece from John Piper.
Lecrae’s story is very much my own, growing up in a white evangelical church, searching for my identity. My story is different, however, as I’ve been fortunate to lead a new multi-ethnic church that’s immersed in the issues of of racial identity in the church. In a sense, I had to create my own belonging. What I have not been able to do is exist within dominant evangelical culture steeped in “whiteness”. “Whitenesss” won’t welcome me fully based on imaginary racial boundaries. Hence why this topic is so important. The issue of racial identity is exposing deeply seated racism and privileged in white (evangelical) churches, a problem that some won’t even acknowledge.
Case in point, simply using language such as “whiteness” is triggering to white people who “don’t see” their race. I see this all the time and it ultimately proves how effective systemic racism–or white supremacy–is at work. The “system” that maintains supremacy for “whites” works with such precision that it’s invisible. White people are subconscious participants in a system designed for their success.
In a sense white people are right, they shouldn’t see “whitenesss”. Race identity based on phenotypes is a made up construct. Yet preference or desires are irrelevant. Quoting Galatians 3 on unity is irrelevant (and stupid). It’s not our current reality, a reality who’s powers and principalities need to be dismantled.
Racial Identity (or the lack thereof) in the Church
It doesn’t help that many white churches have concluded, before the conversation even starts, they aren’t part of the problem. The white evangelical church is not a benefactor, let alone participant, of systemic racism. Keep in mind this conversation must begin in a posture of humility (listening), and an approach that considers the whole picture. I’ll include a longer note in a future post, but when minorities talk about racism in the church, we’re not necessarily saying your church is racist. It’s not a statement that white people are racists. We are saying your church is a participant and benefactor in racism systems, whether you are aware of it or not.
Being alert (or woke) to systemic racism and its impact on the church and culture today is crucial because part of righting systemic injustices involves you.
You don’t have to go far to find the latest controversy of white dominant churches/conferences/denominations being exposed by their habit of assuaging white fears and guilt when faced with conflict of racial reconciliation.
Ray Chang wrote an article on Christianity Today (get the link while you can, I believe you require a subscription after a certain time), articulating the issue.
For all of evangelicalism’s existence, a disproportionate burden has been placed on communities of color to adapt, adjust, assimilate, and acquiesce to the white expressions of Christianity. This is why evangelicals of color broadly understand the adjective “white” being added to evangelicalism, while white evangelicals have a hard time seeing how their evangelicalism is white. – Raymond Chang
White evangelicals may ask at this point, “what’s wrong with being a white church?” The answer is nothing. But it’s also missing the point, or in this case the privilege. White churches are formed, exist, and function out of privilege. The church is a ready participant and benefactor of the system of white supremacy. It is therefore deeply formed by this thinking. It’s this formation that needs dismantling and revision.
In order for non-whites to to fit into white churches they must deny their full identity. There’s a general ignorance and even a lack of compassion to the systemic problems people of colour put up with. For example, whether it’s #blacklivesmatters, #takeaknee, or #idlenomore, these issues are not given significant attention in white churches. White fragility emerges as whiteness is exposed, only to be met with counter protests of false equivalencies or trite pass offs like, “that was a long time ago, or “why are you always complaining?”
This begs the question: is anybody other than white people permitted to belong in white churches? Does a house of exclusivity sound like a place Jesus would call home?
White supremacy would state at this point that blacks should stay in black churches (you have your own place to belong), Chinese to Chinese churches, and so on. But division along racial grounds is decidedly unbiblical. It’s indeed the church of all tribes, tongues, and nations, we read about in Revelation 7. Not the white church with a bunch of sub-dominant churches playing catch-up.
Dismantling Whiteness in Evangelicalism
What did your church do in the days or weeks after the public events in Charlottesville, VA (*update, or during white supremacy attacks in Quebec or New Zealand)? Was there a statement at the end of the service on that Sunday? Prayers of lament? Tell me this, how many white evangelical churches embodied their witness around the righting of systemic injustices as a result of violent white supremacy attacks? I can say most in Canada did nothing. A few had a prayer or two. Essentially none are working to right systemic problems. This reality is not OK. After all, the proof is in the proverbial pudding–what you DO to right systemic racism matters, not your feelings towards it.
The first step, and one that I won’t get into detail here, is being alerted to the system of “whiteness” that befalls us all. For churches, the responsibility to change the story of indifference largely falls in the hands of its leaders. Is there a Gospel sized hope for reconciliation after ages of systemic dominance? Or will we continue to see a degradation in white evangelicalism as nationalism infects the witness of the white evangelical church.
This brand of leader provide all the evidence needed to expose an underlying source of racism in white evangelicalism. For example, Jerry Falwell Jr., excited by the celebrity as the President’s spiritual advisor, is most concerned about the strength of corporations, war with North Korea, and making comments on Charlottesville that bemoaned ‘both sides’. He will ban anyone, including praying Christians, from his campus if there’s any hint of dissent. Franklin Graham is another example. Graham explicitly supports white supremacists, their ideology (favouring to keep their monuments), lambasts local black politicians, and praises the President who continued (continues) to fuel the renewed boldness from neo-Nazis and the KKK. He also has a massive following who religiously consume and propagate his diatribes as canon.
This is just the snapshot of the daily rhythm of right wing fundamentalism, which like its left wing counterparts decades ago, have sold their soul to the guise of secularism. Have you felt the divisiveness?
The Local Church Leaders
Thought leaders in white evangelicalism aside, the solution I think starts from the bottom up and relies on local church leaders.
I remember having a conversation with a young pastor on the topic of racism. It was when the #idlenomore protests were at its height. He wondered why such a protest would even exist. “It’s challenging overt systemic racism against Aboriginals,” I said. We didn’t get very far until the oft cited reply from someone who doesn’t routinely connect with cultures different from his own came out.
“Well aboriginals can be racists too.”
I was momentarily at a loss for words. “I don’t think that’s a fair comparison,” I replied.
He told me a story about growing up he was often the target of verbal and even physical abuse by aboriginals because of his white skin. In his worldview, aboriginals are racists, just like those white supremacists shooting up mosques on TV. He falsely equivocated violence with systemic racism perpetuated over centuries. His worldview is woefully inadequate, stuck in an echo chamber, and damaging to the witness of his mostly white church.
The scary part is he’s hardly alone in his worldview. When our pastors can’t even acknowledge systemic issues of racism, the white evangelical church simply lacks a catalyst to change. That doesn’t surprise many people of colour who’ve been doing work in race and reconciliation for years. But it’s still hard to see so many churches stuck perpetuating racism and oppression without even knowing it.
Clinging to the Story of Privilege
How do we change?
The church (your church) is complicit in retaining structures of power. The loss of Christendom has stymied many churches because they’ve lost their assumed privilege and don’t know how to act or serve those who look and think differently. This hasn’t placed the church in a posture of repentance and humility, as it should. Rather, it’s emboldened some to dig deeper into division, strengthening the thickness of church walls to define who’s in and who’s out. (I.E. Look no further than the Nashville Statement.)
When it comes to racism, one can only go so far as their own story will take them. An identity sustained by people who look, think, and earn as much as we do inoculates us from the potential of renewal.It’s alarmingly easy to stay entrenched in exclusivity, consuming what fits your ideology. We assume our worldview is not only right, but the only right. When individualism and the self-preservation of privilege become key attributes of the church, we in turn deny the embodied characteristics of Jesus.The one who calls us to die to our self and pick up our cross daily in our pursuit of holiness. That pursuit stalls when we cease to become peacemakers and advocates for the meek and oppressed. Moreover, it reveals our disinterest to be transformed into the image of the Creator.
We prefer to be preserve an image we comfortably create for ourselves.
If your leaders/pastors aren’t leading the charge against the evil of racism, maybe it’s up to you? The next part in this series will look at the individual–you–and the degrees you’re a part of the system of racism and oppression. Once we can capture an honest portrayal of the current state of the culture, only then can we change the story to resolution. We’ll look at resolutions for the church in part 5 of this series.