The spiritual test the church is failing

There is hope for forgiveness and racial reconciliation in this country. But if it’s going to happen, it will take courageous action from God’s church to change the tide.

By Trey Lyon

A recent study reported last week in ABPnews pointed to a growing gap in racial attitudes and experiences in the United States. This report was deeply disturbing, but not all that surprising, and I suspect the predominantly white church in America is largely to blame.

Not long ago I attended a conference where a number of Baptists were invited, including leadership from both majority-white and historically African-American denominations. The meeting was exciting and there was some real enthusiasm about the chance to come together and chart a spiritual way forward together.

During a panel discussion, an African-American denominational leader born in 1950 spoke of growing up in racial isolation in California, only meeting a white male when he was 18 as part of a “Brotherhood Exchange” between the high schools where they each served as student body president. He said when they got back in the car his teacher told him Martin Luther King was shot and killed earlier that morning.

Listening to this, I considered my own context — a church that is culturally diverse but hails from a denomination that was created because slaveholders in the South wanted to keep their slaves. We’ve made some progress, though I’m not exactly sure how, and there are many places where, to paraphrase Dr. King, “11 a.m. is (still) the most segregated hour in America.”

The panel offered a few suggestions, but it was the honesty of this panelist that most struck me: “I don’t think my generation can do it.”

He explained that after experiencing firsthand the atrocities of the Jim Crow South and hatred and vitriol spewed from white Christians during the Civil Rights Movement, he doubted his generation could get past those memories toward a fully integrated vision of church.

His children and grandchildren, he continued, not only could, but are. He spoke of the variety of shades and colors, ethnicities and cultures, represented in his grandchildren. Though I’ve never seen their faces, it sounded like what some would call the Beloved Community.

A few weeks later my wife and I saw “12 Years a Slave,” a film both brilliant and disturbing. No cinematic punches are pulled. The horrors of slavery are gruesomely depicted, along with the frequent complacency of supporting characters. More than once a drunken plantation owner lashes a slave while quoting Scripture that enshrines his power to hold slaves as property and treat them accordingly.

The film’s protagonist, a free musician who is drugged and hauled off to a slave market, never joins in the spirituals the other slaves sing until the burial of one of his fellow slaves who was tortured to the point of death. His pain, grief and sorrow wells up and he begins singing about “the river Jordan.”

The scene is staggering, and a crystallization of something I have wrestled with my entire life, and continue to struggle to understand. How did Christian faith, which was often wielded simultaneously with the oppressive lash of the white slaveholder, also become the faith of the oppressed slave receiving the sting of that whip?

It is a difficult and painful question, but one we must ask. The genius of the African-American faith tradition is that it heard a subversive message beneath the distorted use of Scripture. With their promise of deliverance and idea of a Savior “well acquainted with sorrow,” these courageous men and women were better theologians than their plantation-owner counterparts could ever be.

Out of this robust religious tradition grew a movement, the African-American church, that was to be further forged in the fires of civil rights struggles and movements for equality.

It is tempting to view this as all in the past, focus on “how far we’ve come” or think we are on the verge of a new post-racial era, but not so fast. Make no mistake, the reason our denominational divisions exist in this area is because of a legacy of slavery and domestic terrorism against African-Americans most often carried out by whites claiming to be Christians.

Many white Christians reading these words will say, “That isn’t me or the type of faith I represent.” For that I am grateful, but what that means is it is time to do something about it.

In calling out the predominantly white American church as a reason for this widening gap, I am not just naming an institutional evil. I’m talking about our direct complicity.

The survey said 10 percent of surveyed white respondents think about their race daily, while 52 percent of African-Americans every day consider the implications of their race. The best definition of privilege is the thing you don’t know you have. The fact that as a white male I do not have to consider my race places me in a majority culture and a place of privilege, whether I acknowledge it or not.

So if you are reading this and worship in a predominately white church, let me be as explicit as possible. It is time to do something. Your neighborhood, your child’s school, the supermarket, the passengers next to you on that business flight all likely reflect a greater racial diversity than the sanctuary space you occupy one or more times a week.

Don’t hire a consultant. Don’t go look for a book or call the local college or seminary and get a Wednesday night speaker. Find an African-American leader in your community and set a lunch date. Build a relationship. Listen. Seek to understand rather than to be understood.

You might forge a relationship where you can share your own vulnerabilities and stories of race and find a place of true reconciliation and forgiveness. Then help your congregation find similar ways to do it.

Remember Dr. King’s words: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

The Kingdom of God was never a monolithic group. That first group of disciples included both a tax collector for the Romans and a Zealot who carried a knife to kill any Roman soldier he could get near. Yet we find them eating, laughing, learning and sharing life together alongside Jesus.

Related news story:

Study says race perception gap widening

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.