This post was written in October 2017, and reposted with updates here.
A podcast interview on the ‘coming out’ of rapper Lecrae, describes his loosening ties with white evangelicalism (where he spent his formative years). White evangelicals didn’t appreciate his honesty. 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 like my own, growing up in a white evangelical church, searching for identity and belonging. My story differs towards the end, as I’ve been fortunate to land in my current multi-ethnic church. Although there’s a place I can finally belong, I had to build it from scratch, which is not something most people can do.
Why was it so hard for me to find a suitable place in the contemporary church? Turns out multi-ethnic, IBPOC, or other marginalized people have a lot of work to do in order to assimilate to the standards of white dominated spaces.
I actually check all the boxes to “belong” in the tradition that I grew up in–white evangelicalism. I’m seminary trained, know all the songs, doctrine, beliefs, but there’s one thing I can’t shake–I’m not white. Since I’m multi-ethnic I don’t even have an ethnic church to fall back to. White churches (we just call them “churches” without the racialized term) in my region are exclusively led top to bottom by white men. That’s how it’s always been, and not to be outdone, is a reflection of nearly every major church tradition/denomination on the continent.
Christians of colour have often tried to push the boundaries in white dominated spaces in search for equity to no avail. I’ve taken the cue from the generation ahead of me to not even bother putting blood, sweat, and tears attempting to shift an inert institution away from its cherished center of white hegemony. White Euro-centric theology, white (male) leadership, systemic racism in culture, all combine to create the foundational formation of the church since (and prior for that matter) colonization.
Ray Chang wrote an article on Christianity Today 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
In the context of unchallenged whiteness it’s perhaps a blessing I didn’t try to fit in more. Eventually the shoe would drop and I’d wake up one day to realize dominant evangelical culture steeped in “whiteness” wasn’t going to permit me to live out my full giftings. Whitenesss creates invisible barriers of belonging where someone like me needs to assimilate in order to belong. Even then, however, I would hit the ‘racialized’ ceiling despite the best efforts of playing the part. Although there are exceptions (which is a necessity in white supremacy–the one Black friend), leaders of colour are not leaders in white churches. We’re good enough for our own ethnicity, but not for the whole.
In my city, up until last year, there was no lead pastor of colour for a non-ethnic evangelical church. That’s not empirical data (there might be someone hidden somewhere), but it’s accurate.
Exposing Racial Boundaries in the Church
The issue of ethnic identity and systemic racism is being exposed at a faster pace in 2020. COVID coupled with George Floyd protests are exposing deeply seated racism and privileged in institutions. Some churches are struggling to acknowledging there’s division which is ironic. White Christians are always at the forefront ready to decry any notion racialized injustice even exists. “Stop being divisive, don’t you know we’re all one in Christ?” they bemoan. Sure we do, and the deafness to the continued cries of injustice in the present by brothers and sisters of colour speaks volumes to the willingness of white Christians to listen and respond.
As the 2020 narrative of racism shifts, churches, specifically white churches with institutional power, can no longer avoid repentance. White churches can no longer conclude they aren’t part of the problem. They are benefactors and participants in the maintenance of systemic racism. Just like the different forms of racism, systemic and systematic, racism can longer be understood as single actions by one bad actor. Rather, you have to think about how, over the course of history, how your church and denomination are benefactors unjust systems. I’ll explain further.
It’s easy to decry the involvement of mainline denominations for participating in the horrors of residential schools. That’s the past, but the impact of forced assimilation of First Nations children continues to be felt generations later. Or consider contemporary churches. The coolest ones aren’t doing anything particularly racist but they are definitely steeped in whiteness. So are they racist? If your church is today, and has always been, developed and led by white men, then your formation and culture are white. That in itself may not be a sin (debatable), but it becomes a problem when everyone else is required to match the dominant gaze of whiteness in order to belong. Don’t forget, MLK Jr said it and it hasn’t changed since, Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. Or how about a more current example. Many denominations have released statements following #blacklivesmatter protests across the globe. It’s one thing to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism, but it’s quite another to do the introspective work to see to what level the body has benefited from that racism over time and do something about it.
When I talk about racism in the church I’m not saying your church is racist. It’s not an indictment that white people are inherently racist (but if you’re aren’t doing anti-racism work then maybe you are?). I’m saying is your church is a benefactor of racist systems, perhaps a participant in upholding this worldview, and if you’re not acting to dismantle these systems you’re part of the problem.
Will White Churches Do Something?
In order for ethnic minorities to to fit into white churches they must deny their full identity and act “white”. There’s a general ignorance, and even a lack of compassion, to the systemic problems people of colour have to put up with. For example, whether it’s #blacklivesmatters, #takeaknee, or #idlenomore, these issues historically are not given significant attention in white churches. And why would they? It ruffles too many feathers and frankly white pastors haven’t done their own work to properly lead the dismantling of patriarchy and white supremacy.
The recent explosion of attention to amplify Black voices and dismantle anti-Blackness is new momentum, but will it sustain? 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?” or “All Lives Matter”. The chief concern will be to what degree white churches and parishioners will commit to the work of reconciling?
After Charlottesville, VA (*update, or during white supremacy attacks in Quebec or New Zealand (*update update Ahmaud, Breonna, George))? 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 little to 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.
I wrote that last paragraph 3 years ago. What systemic changes have happened since then? Not much. Will this time be different? That’s up to you.
3 years ago it didn’t take long for white leaders, branded to American exceptionalism, exposed their underlying racism and that of white evangelicalism. For example, Jerry Falwell Jr., was most concerned about the strength of corporations, war with North Korea, and making comments on Charlottesville that bemoaned ‘both sides’. Franklin Graham explicitly supported white supremacists, their ideology (favouring to keep their monuments), lambasted local black politicians, and praised 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.
Is this going to change? Are fewer people putting up with the racist diatribes by celebrity church leaders?
The Local Leader
Thought leaders in white evangelicalism aside, the solution to reconciliation must start from the bottom up.
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 church lacks a catalyst to change. That change will have to come from the pew. It will have to be demanded from the pew. And if not, the pews should empty into the streets to join the protests.
Don’t Cling to Privilege
The church (your church) is complicit in retaining structures of racialized power. Churches have lost broader cultural privilege but it hasn’t lost its calling to stand for what is just. 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.
Instead, we prefer to be preserve an image we comfortably create for ourselves.
Action to dismantle racist systems in the church requires awareness they even exist. That starts with a posture of humility (listening), and an approach that considers the whole picture. Being alert (or woke) to systemic racism and its impact on the church and culture today is crucial because righting systemic injustices involves you. Repentance is also the precursor to reconciliation, and that starts, again with you and your crew. That doesn’t mean finding a token minority in your community and having them assuage white guilt. Rather, this is a lifelong process of learning and unlearning as kingdom work for a more just word