The Greatest Obstacle to the Gospel Today: Racism and the White Church

At this year’s Annual Leadership Gathering of Campus Crusade in Dallas, Texas, Jemar Tisby, author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, and Daniel Hill, author of White Awake: An Honest Look At What It Means to be White, spoke on racism and its impact on the church in America. Both affirmed that the white church has been historically complicit in causing black pain or has been ignorantly impassive to the reality of black pain.

Using a line from a talk by Dr. Willie Jennings[1], Daniel Hill said:

The greatest evangelistic challenge today is the inability of white Christians to understand the parasitic relationship between white Christianity and white supremacy.

This is not a shock statement, but a documented reality. Research and history indicate that white supremacy is linked to white Christianity[2]. White supremacy is linked to white Christianity. This is not a statement spoken in hyperbole to shock hearers, but a documented reality. Click To Tweet

Daniel Hill said of this relationship that it is hard to figure out “where one begins and the other ends.”

Many white Christian churches say that racism is not their problem: “We only have white people in our church.”

Others state, “We are colorblind, and bringing up diversity and racism just upsets people.”

Churches such as these have little concern for the problem of racism and the reality of black pain. Because of this, the white church is a hard swallow for people of color and an offensive church to many in the younger generations.

A sobering consequence is that many young people are not interested in a faith that has no room for people of color and racial justice. Young people do not understand a church that dismisses, minimizes, or compartmentalizes the truth of the racial divide in this country.

So I offer this with deep conviction: The battle for Christ’s kingdom today, for the hearts and minds of the next generation, is centered on racism.

Younger generations are less racially biased than older generations[3] and are more aware of the systemic and evil nature of the racial narrative—the narrative that defines human value by its proximity to whiteness. Why seek a Jesus who is white and who prefers the white man? Not only does it distort the good news message, it corrupts our ability to conform to the image of Christ.

According to Jennings:

Whiteness is a deformed formation toward maturity.

In other words, one cannot be mature in Christ unless one learns to love, accept, and embrace the reality of persons of color. Norming whiteness as the ideal with the accompanying implicit assumptions that white people, especially white men, are preferred, leads to a profound distortion of God’s Kingdom. Therefore, ignoring the systemic roots of racism in this country results in a stunted spiritual maturity that has crept into the church and its structures.

Jemar Tisby states that racism always leads to physical and emotional violence, because it is not natural.  It is not in our created nature to classify worth by color, because God does not do that. God created us in one common way. Similarly, Jennings declares:

We are joined at the site of the dirt. Dirt is our kin. We are of the dirt. We are creatures bound together.[4]

There is no separate but equal state. Explicitly or implicitly categorizing people’s potential and worth by how white they are distorts our God-breathed identity, so that in doing so, we cannot be whole.

Therefore, if we are to have any good news to tell the next generation, and if we are to become mature disciples of God’s kingdom, racism cannot be an occasional concern of “other” people. It must become the central concern of all people. It is the great injustice of the centuries, and Rachel is wailing for her children—First Nations peoples, Asians, Latinxs, Blacks, all ethnicities. For the sake of our witness and our own discipleship, racism cannot be an occasional concern of other people. It must become the central concern of all people. Click To Tweet

The primary question I hear from white pastors is this: “But how do I engage this topic with my congregation if we have no people of color and if there are none in our neighborhoods?”. I know this is an honest question, because one result of racism is the segregation of our neighborhoods and churches. With no apparent answer, the white pastor often returns to the normal business of leading his church.

But we cannot go back to business as usual.

[Read more here from Rich Villodas, 5 Ways Your Predominantly White Church Can Work For Racial Justice and Reconciliation]

My Own Decision to Speak Up, and One Church’s Journey to Become Active

The following story is offered by Rick Kavanaugh, pastor of Trinity Wesleyan Church in Greenville, Ohio.

I attended a luncheon where racial reconciliation was discussed. One of the black pastors expressed how angry he was about the racialization of our culture and the passivity of the white church. He looked across the table at my two staff members and me and said, “If I say anything about it, I will be seen as an angry black man. You are the ones who have to say something.”

I was deeply convicted. We weren’t intentionally racist, but our passive silence helped to perpetuate a systemic evil. On the way home, we repented and decided we had to do more than talk about it. We had to get involved.

Our first problem was this: We didn’t know any black people. Our community is 98% white. We are so white, black people don’t feel safe driving to our town. We knew we needed to build relationships, but how do we go about building relationships when we are so thoroughly segregated? We prayed that God would open a door to begin a friendship. The next day, my assistant showed me a news story about a black church in a neighboring city that had burned to the ground. We made contact and asked the pastor if we could meet him and his staff for lunch. They tentatively agreed to meet, not being sure of our motives.

When we heard their story, my heart broke. The insurance company was giving them a hard time and delaying payment. They had already removed the charred remains and filled in the hole so that it was a plain dirt lot. Even so, the city required them to place a chain link fence around the field and charged them $8000 to put it up, and $3000 a month until the city said they could take it down. This was a small congregation of about 20 people. They didn’t have that kind of money.

I went back to my church and shared the need. I felt the first thing we needed to do was offer financial help. The amount God laid on my heart was a stretch for our small congregation, but I felt we should give them $10,000. We met the pastor again for lunch and gave him the money. We assured him there were no strings attached.

This interaction opened up a conversation between us about racism. To hear this dear brother share his experiences of discrimination was eye-opening and deeply disturbing. In the short time I had known him, I already felt a love for him and knew we had to do more. Their congregation had found a temporary building in which to meet. They were given the building for $1, but it was rough—hardly suitable for any kind of public meeting. So our church sponsored a workday. We purchased paint, supplies, and building materials. We called our people to bring ladders, power sprayers, scrapers, and whatever else was needed to turn that building into a place of worship.

The day came and our two congregations worked together, black and white, to make that little building beautiful again. The Sunday after our workday, we invited the black congregation to join us in our town for worship. I invited the pastor to preach. I will remember that as a highlight of our church, when our two congregations worshipped together. It was one of the best worship experiences I have ever had.

Since that time, we have continued to meet. The pastor invited me to be a part of a round table discussion among black churches about racial reconciliation. I was the only white person there. As a result, we are planning a gathering of both white and black congregations during Martin Luther King Jr. week, to pray, worship, and open a dialogue in hopes of further developing an intentional relationship.

Obviously, we haven’t fixed the racial problem in our town, but we have taken a step toward love, and we are becoming more like the people of God I believe God calls us to be.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wRvaG9j53g  “Can White People Be Saved?” Willie Jennings

[2] https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2018/03/08/hard-truths-about-white-supremacy-america

[3] https://qz.com/983016/the-data-are-in-young-people-are-definitely-less-racist-than-old-people/

[4] Ibid, Jennings.

[5] Lead Pastor of Trinity Wesleyan Church in Greenville, Ohio

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