Do White Christians Care Enough About Racial Justice to Make it an American Reality?

Successful movements for women’s ordination and gay ministers have swept through Protestant churches, but the movement toward racial reconciliation is mixed, at best.

This past July, Episcopalians from all over the country gathered in Philadelphia to commemorate a groundbreaking event: the 1974 ordination of 11 women who defied church tradition and canon law to become priests. Forty years later, it’s hard to imagine the denomination without women priests. There were celebratory speeches, of course, but what I took away from the day were the words of the African-American panelist, elder stateswoman, and prominent local Episcopalian Nokomis Wood: “The Episcopal Church was just beginning to talk about racial equity and racial justice. The conversation about women’s ordination just allowed [the church] to put it back further.”

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Nokomis Wood, prominent Episcopalian who serves the diocese of Pennsylvania. Courtesy of 40 Years Ordained.

I caught up with Wood at lunch, and asked her to amplify what she meant. She told me that the issue of women’s ordination had “derailed” the denomination’s nascent conversation about race. While there continued to be “parallel” dialogues, the challenge of racial injustice took a back seat to other social issues.

And so it remains. What happened to the passion of the 1960s? What happened to the multiracial coalitions that fueled, often in the face of tremendous violence, the quest for racial justice for the descendants of slaves? Where are the prophetic faith community leaders advocating for biblically-based justice and structural social change? Who today is standing against persistent racism among many in Caucasian enclaves? Why is Sunday morning still, almost 50 years after the Voting Rights Act became law, the “most segregated hour in Christian America”?

“It’s time for whites to give up power”

A few weeks after my lunch with Wood, unarmed teen Michael Brown was shot by white policeman Darren Wilson in the mostly African-American St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. The killing, and the unrest and protests that have followed, has spurred some church leaders to prayer and others to prayer and action.

Archbishop Robert Carlson of the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Louis visited Brown’s memorial and held a mass for peace and justice at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. National leaders, including Lutheran Church Missouri Synod President Matthew Harrison, called for prayer and rallied local leaders for a faith community-based response. There were round-table conversations, marches, and other gatherings sponsored by individual churches and local faith-based organizations. But among church leaders and religion scholars, it’s not at all clear that the statements and marches will result in anything resembling the racial coalition that fomented action 50 years ago.

“The 1960s were an extraordinary time, and there was a reason for people to get together,” says Anthea Butler, associate professor of Religion and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Now, with so many issues clamoring for attention, a distracted nation isn’t paying that much attention to matters of race, she says. “I don’t think white Christians think it’s a problem for them, because it’s not happening in their community and they don’t see enough black people to care.” “If you have this (black) skin, and you have to deal with it, you know what kind of America we are living in. A lot of white people don’t get it — white church people especially, I think.”

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Anthea Butler, associate professor of Religion and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

On the other hand, as she notes in this recent commentary in the British media outlet The Guardian, she is hopeful that a more organized, broader movement for social justice may emerge on the left as clergy band together to address issues like policing and immigration that affect the daily lives of their congregants.

Associate pastor at New York’s Park Avenue Christian Church, activist, and author Peter Heltzel echoes Butler when he says, “Whiteness is being a beneficiary to privilege and power, and a lot of my colleagues don’t want to give up their power and privilege.” On the other hand, Heltzel, who heads the faith-based organizing program the Micah Institute at New York Theological Seminary, says that Brown’s death and its aftermath can be a catalyst for change. “It’s time for whites to give up power, to share power, and to sacrifice in order that all God’s children can have a living wage and an affordable home to return to, where they can love and be loved. In awakening the moral imagination, what happened in Ferguson can be “an occasion for the reconstitution of an interracial, interreligious collation for justice — and I for one will do everything in my power to make it happen.“

Will evangelicals care about racial justice?

While there is no dearth of commitment to racial justice and reconciliation among mainline Protestant congregations and clergy, says Christian ethicist David Gushee, their influence has waned substantially over the last 50 years. “A lot of the energy and power has shifted to the evangelicals,” says Gushee, who heads the Center for Theology and Public Life at Atlanta’s Mercer University. “Tragically, speaking as an evangelical, some evangelicals have a racial justice and reconciliation agenda, and some don’t. . . . To the extent that evangelical pastors and scholars have attempted to disciple their communities to be more racially inclusive . . . they have only partially succeeded.”

In fact, says Gushee, in many parts of the white evangelical Christian world, “the more visceral politics of culturally reactionary white racial thinking seems to trump whatever Christian instruction may be happening, if it’s happening at all.” Gushee concluded that overcoming a history of 400 years of discrimination, segregation, and alienation is a complex process, requiring that participants be in it for the long haul. He believes reconciliation works include the components of study, prayer, multicultural friendships, and a deliberate attempt to build partnerships with people of other races.

“What I would like to see happen would be for emerging leaders in politics and religion who can help the former racial majority come to terms with being part of a multiplicity of races,” says Gushee. But, he adds, that’s going to be a hard transition for some people to make.

Using an “intercultural” rather than “multicultural” lens

The Rev. Cass Bailey, an Episcopal priest in Charlottesville, Virginia, heads a multi-racial church that can trace the roots of its evolution back to the ferment of the 1960s, when clergy and congregants at area Episcopal churches worked purposefully to reach out across the dividing lines of race and class.

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The Trinity Episcopal Church choir. Courtesy of TEC.

A historically African-American parish, Trinity Episcopal Church is now approximately 60 percent white, says Bailey, who is making an effort to bolster the African-American population. “The more long-term systematic work of the 60s wasn’t incorporated into our theology,” says Cass. “Most mainline churches don’t operate from a theological framework that says the body of Christ is incomplete unless it includes a diversity of people.”

Like Nokomis Wood, Bailey suggested that churches have addressed issues of justice by “segmenting” them into categories like race, gender, or orientation, instead of examining the meaning of justice itself and how defining it affects both society and local communities. “It’s the philosophy that there is a limited pie, and the more groups among which you divide it up, the more diluted the pie becomes. It’s the opposite of the way that Christians should look at stewardship. We serve an abundant God.”

Given that perspective, and taking into account the classic debate about how much the church creates culture or follows its lead, Bailey says he expects progress to come in fits and starts. “As human beings and as social institutions, sometimes, we can only move forward in steps and can’t get to the end all at once. The civil rights movement moved us forward in a giant leap, and (while) I think the next social movement will move us forward, it won’t be the end.”

In the meantime, Bailey is exhorting his congregation to now use an “intercultural” rather than a “multicultural” lens to deepen their community.

“How can we come together as a group of racially and economically diverse people, and be real, and experience the fact that we cannot be who we are without the other”? Though some may be tempted to find the events of Ferguson a call to retreat to their individual bunkers, says Bailey, his hope is that leaders instead will seize the opportunity to address the crisis — together.

Image courtesy of Elvert Barnes.

Elizabeth Evans
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