Is your church perpetuating the problem of racism without even knowing it?

A conversation I’ve been following is the public ‘coming out’ by rapper, Lecrae. This podcast interview, coincides with his new album All Things Work Together, describes Lecrae’s loosening ties with white evangelicalism (where he spent formative time). Some have lashed out in the expected cruelty that religious fundamentalists are known for. Others 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 own identity. My story is different, however, as I’ve been fortunate to lead a brand new multi-ethnic church that’s starting to lead on some of the divisive issues of racial identity in the church. In a sense, I had to create my own belonging.

Why is this an important topic? The issue of racial identity is exposing deeply seated racism and privileged in white evangelical churches.

Racism in the church (in North America) has entered a period of popular notoriety. This issue isn’t new, but it’s been at the forefront of our attention for close to a year. I would attribute this exposure to the association of white evangelicals and the election of the 45th President (and what that President has embodied during his tenure). What has come after are a slew of conversations and exposés on the privileged white church.

Many white churches have concluded before a conversation even starts that they aren’t part of the problem, that the white evangelical church isn’t racist. 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 or full of racists. We are saying your church is a participant in perpetuating systemic problems of racism, whether you care to acknowledge it or not. You also have a role to play in righting these systemic injustices. But first, we have to get over the hurdle that there’s even a problem. If we don’t expose racism in the privileged church, we risk losing evangelicalism and the witness of the church as a whole.

Racial Identity (or the lack thereof) in the Church

Don’t believe racism is a significant issue in white churches? Read the comments (or don’t, a lot of racist tirades are within) from a reply to John Piper’s open letter to rapper Lecrae. It gives you an idea of where the church, and the people within, are at. Answer: it’s all over the map, but overt racism is rife throughout.

Ray Chang, who wrote the article on Christianity Today (get the link while you can, I believe you require a subscription after a certain time), articulates 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

The question the unassuming white evangelical may ask at this point, “what’s wrong with being a white church?” There’s nothing wrong with being white, but this is a casual yet frequent demonstration of completely missing the point, or in this case the privilege. White churches developed, and currently function, through a lens of systemic privilege both from the state and out of Christendom. This has formed the current identity in the white church.

Who Belongs?

Conversely, one thing people of colour need to do in white church is largely deny their identity publicly in order to fit in. There’s a general ignorance and even a lack of compassion to the systemic problems people of colour go through. For example, whether it’s #blacklivesmatters, #takeaknee, or #idlenomore, these issues are not given significant attention that may impact prevailing culture. The protest is met with, “that was a long time ago, or “why are they 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?

The racist will say, no, and is proud to triumphantly uphold white exclusivity. But here’s the thing. You don’t have to state, “white only,” to perpetuate problems of systemic racism. You can merely be a quiet benefactor and recipient of the system.

You may be thinking, “that’s not my church”, and maybe you’re right, but consider this….

What did your church do in the days or weeks after the public events in Charlottesville, VA? 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 the events in Charlottesville? How did that event change your church for good? The answer is probably, “it didn’t.” That answer is not OK. After all, the proof is in the proverbial pudding–what you DO to right systemic racism, not your feelings towards it.

Evangelicalism is Now Fundamentalism

The responsibility to change the story of indifferent churches largely falls in the hands of its leaders. Right now, contemporary white evangelicals are stuck talking amongst themselves and, ironically, playing the victim card to everyone who disagrees with them.The result is a degradation of white evangelicalism, largely due to the association with white nationalism and the recent Presidential election. This has simultaneously ruined the witness of the evangelical church. But the situation is much worse, to the point I suggest we change the nomenclature lest we lose everything good about evangelicalism. The reason being, the most vocal and public contemporary leaders in the white church, the one’s responsible for appealing and swaying white congregations, reflect white fundamentalist coupled with white nationalism. These are decidedly un-Christian qualities.

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 it’s left wing counterparts decades ago, have sold their soul to the guise of secularism. Have you felt the divisiveness?

The Local Church Leaders

But the issue won’t resolve if we remove the platform from fundamentalists. It goes all the way down to the local church pastor.

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 thought this was a profoundly ignorant statement to make (in Part IV of this series I will explain why). I replied, “I don’t think that’s a fair comparison.”

He then told me a story about growing up in Winnipeg. He was the target of verbal and even physical abuse by aboriginals because of his whiteness. In his worldview, aboriginals can be racists too, which he falsely equivocated to systemic racism perpetuated over centuries at the hands of the government against indigenous groups.

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 has no catalyst to change. The result is a church stuck perpetuating racism and oppression without even knowing it.

Clinging to the Story of Privilege

What about the potential for change?

The church (your church) is complicit in reflecting structures of inherited 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.