Is Your Church Racist?

This Sunday, one of the freshmen in the youth group asked, “Is our church racist?” I wasn’t sure how to respond–you don’t want to tell a 14-year-old everyone who has raised her is racist, unless you’re really, really convinced that it’s true. (Luckily, I didn’t have to say anything, because I work with excellent co-teachers who are quick on their feet.)

But. Her question provoked me. There are lots of white churches. What makes a white church racist? So I made this handy flowchart.

Slide1

No one wants to be called racist. But racism is like sin (racism also is sin, literally, but let’s stick with the metaphor)–no one wants to own up to being a “sinner.” It’s really hard to navigate the world when you view yourself primarily as a person who does wrong things. But in order to find grace, in order to be reconciled, we have to name the need for reconciliation: we need grace from God because we sin. We need racial reconciliation because we are racist.

My co-teacher said this: “Our church is segregated. Our church began when segregation was overt and acceptable, and it’s stayed that way.” What he meant was, there’s institutional sin and there’s personal sin. It’s easy to look at the church and say “the church as an institution is racist, because it’s a fallen institution–but me, as an individual, I’m not racist.” Look: you, as a white person, saying “I’m sorry Ferguson happened, but I’m still not racist,”–that does nothing for conversation about race relations. It says, “I can see racism, but I’m still pretending to be colorblind.”

But please–please–call yourself a racist. It’s really hard to move forward if you think you’re already at the end. If an individual has no culpability, then he or she is absolved of finding a solution. The person can say, “Look, here’s some broken glass in the middle of the highway. I didn’t break it. Somebody should really else should clean that up.” When individuals don’t bear any responsibility, it leads to conversations like this:

White Person 1: Gee, we’re an awfully white congregation.
White Person 2: That’s true. I guess black people don’t want to come to our church.
White Person 1: That must be it. Well, I wish they would give us a chance. We’re really nice people.

The underlying assumption is that in order for us to change, black people (or other people of color) have to change. The question is: Why don’t THEY come HERE? Why don’t they want to change their worship style and safe space and community so that we can pat ourselves on the back? Unfortunately, this is how many conversations about race go in the white churches. It’s an attitude of “bring them to us,” not “what change do we need to do if we truly are going to ‘meet in the middle’?” (And meeting in the middle is only the beginning of what needs to happen.)

Here’s this broken thing; it’s called race in America. Somebody should really fix it. You’re a somebody. I’m a somebody. And institutions? They’re changed by individuals. Individuals who take responsibility and say, “I’m not going to be part of a racist church. Look, here’s one thing to do that will make it less racist. Let’s do that.”

The secret is: there are a lot of solutions, but none of them are easy. Demanding integrated church is an easy out because it’s unrealistic, and when it fails we can go back and say “well we tried to integrate but the black people wouldn’t come.” Especially when it comes to black church, integration is unrealistic, for now–at least on the week-to-week basis. Historically, even while slavery existed, church was the safest black space in day-to-day life. Church was the place where they could gather with limited policing by white expectations and standards; this is why black church is so different from white church. It’s unfair for the white church to say, “you need to leave your safe space so we can be less racist.”

I don’t have a real solution, not a solid, long-term one. But I have a first step. That’s why the flowchart ends with the statement, “Your church is racist. Go spend some time in a non-white worship space.” You’re racist! What a relief. Now you know you’re doing something wrong. So do something right: go visit a new worship space. Introduce yourself, say “I haven’t been to a black church since I was 13, I live just a couple miles away, I’m really happy to be here, thanks for letting me join you.” I guarantee you: people will respond. If you go seeking grace, you will find grace. And certainly, that’s a place to start.

(Disclaimer: Clearly, this post is written for white people; there’s a whole lot more complications that I chose not to address so that I could actually finish this post. And, I want to be clear: I’m still learning here, too. I’m not sure what’s required of me–in the time and place I’m in–in order to seek racial reconciliation. I don’t have all the answers. But I do like asking the questions with you.)

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10 thoughts on “Is Your Church Racist?

  1. What is a racist? What is racism? Where do we find racism, whatever that nebulous may term be, biblically identified as a sin? How is sin biblically defined? I’ll help with that last one: “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.” (1 John 3:4)

    Scripture is the ONLY arbiter of what constitutes sin. To label anything as sin, it must first be clearly defined. Failure to do so leaves the definition of sin to the arbitrary opinions of fickle and fallible men, instead of the perfect and immutable standard found in God’s law. So again I ask you: what is a racist, what is racism, and where do you find it labelled as sin in Scripture?

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    • Sin means anything that is short of perfection; things are sins because they render us less than perfect, less than fully what God created you to be. Racism is an inherent differentiation between you and the other, it is a segregation of oneself from the other, and to make a distinction. The greatest commandment is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength,” and another, “love your neighbor as yourself.” One does not treat himself as the other; it is a definitional impossibility. In light of that, where one treats another differently, loves another differently, one has failed to live up to the new creation in Christ. That, in a nutshell, is sin; thus, racism is sin.

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      • J, according to your definition, God is schizophrenic. God EXPLICITLY tells us what constitutes sin: it is a transgression (violation) of His law. Anything more is adding to His word, anything less is taking away from His word. Christ called the Canaanite woman a “dog.” Was He racist, and therefor a sinner!?!. We have no authority to use ANY standard other than what we explicitly find in Scripture to determine what is,and what is NOT, sin.

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    • Mr. Price,
      Could you please use the Holy Scriptures and infallible Law of God to show us how racism is not sin? As a white person, it sure would help me to not have to humble myself before God for participating in and propagating the systems and attitudes that keep people like me at the top of the pyramid. I actually believe you may be able to help with this task, as white church leaders have justified and ossified racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other forms of discrimination for hundreds of years.

      The next time you begin a comment with, “What is racism?” stop there. Wait for an answer and become informed before you continue to perpetrate the same sin you want to claim isn’t. In fact, if you have a heart open to understanding what racism us, you will find it strongly condemned in scripture. For just a taste, consider the two greatest commandments: Love the Lord your God… Love your neighbor as yourself. Who is my neighbor? Well, a beaten-down Samaritan makes one great example.
      Meditate on this, and consider scripture from the vantage point of the oppressed. You could even consider studying scripture alongside Christians of color, or any generally oppressed people group.
      But seriously though, with all that Christianese you’re dropping while putting the burden of proof on others to prove your sin, you’re making actual followers of Jesus look bad.

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      • “Could you please use the Holy Scriptures and infallible Law of God to show us how racism is not sin?”

        Thankfully, neither of us are God. His law shows what IS a sin. By your standard, would you please cite from Scripture where watching a football game is NOT sin? Or that riding a bicycle at night is NOT sin? Do you see how this works? If you can’t show where they’r NOT sins, you must be flagrantly promoting sin.

        Presumptuous much? You have made it clear that you consider man’s wicked heart to be the determining standard for morality, NOT God’s perfect, immutable law. You call God a sinner by claiming such Humanistic words as “sexism” and “heterosexism” to be violations of God’s law (the ONLY definition of sin).

        “Wait for an answer and become informed before you continue to perpetrate the same sin you want to claim isn’t.”

        Presuming I am uninformed exposes your inability to think rationally. Your above comment makes the assertion that I am committing the sin of racism, without a shred of proof. That is a Ninth Commandment false accusation against me. You also said I wanted to claim racism isn’t a sin. The ONLY possible way you could know my intention would be to see my heart, something only God is capable of doing. I never made ANY claim, other than asserting that God’s law alone is our ONLY standard.

        “But seriously though, with all that Christianese you’re dropping while putting the burden of proof on others to prove your sin, you’re making actual followers of Jesus look bad.”

        Again, you accused me of sinning, while totally rejecting Scripture in making a false claim (which according to God’s law, IS a sin). It would behoove you greatly to learn the skill of reading comprehension; that is, unless you also consider that a sin. Publicly displaying your lack of understanding is what really “actual followers of Jesus look bad.”

        By the way, why did you feel the need to mention that you are white? Are only whites capable of racism? What race am I? Or was that just another presumption on your part? I’m quite sure that there is significant Scriptural proof that your unjust judgment of my heart IS sin.

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    • “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12.

      Racism can mean many things, but it’s effects are sinful. Treating someone poorly because of their skin tone. Allowing an institution to mistreat people because of their skin tone. Erasing someone’s experiences as a person of color because you have the (white) privilege to ignore those parts of that person’s identity. All are not treating someone as you would have them do for you. Therefore, racism is sinful.

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  2. Black Christian here: Thanks so much for this thoughtful and courageous post.

    My only response/criticism is that I hate the terms “racial reconciliation” and “race relations” so much. Those terms are a huge part of the paradigmatic problem concerning race that you trying to address. The terms don’t account for White supremacy and domination, and instead assume that minorities have just as much responsibility for White supremacy as do White supremacists.

    The Ferguson aftermath has left me so disappointed with/traumatized with the Church. So many racist “Christians” are crawling out of their holes to let Black folks know what they really think about them, and many of them are trying to find justification for the same in the Bible (just as slave masters did…). I thank you for standing up and making an intervention.

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  3. Hey all–just me here. Thank you all for keeping this dialogue polite in your disagreement. I want to nominate this comment thread to the Comment Hall of Fame for the way you’re all engaging each other. All comments do have to be approved by a moderator (me), but I haven’t had to dis-approve any yet–no inappropriate language or ad hominem attacks. Keep it up!

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  4. This is a response to T. Edward Price’s question “what is a racist?” and “where do we find racism biblically identified as a sin?”:
    I’m going to take my least favorite approach–deductive reasoning. I’d much rather argue my thesis first before stating it. Nevertheless, I’m going to propose we look at the issue of racism and ethnocentrism through the lens of ‘identity.’ When we do, I want to argue you see racism is a hidden sin. It’s hidden because it strikes and originates at the very deepest core of a person–identity. In Scripture, this is often captured by imagery of the “heart”–remember Jesus’ words, “whatever comes out of a person defiles him, not what goes into a person.” Elsewhere He says, “The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil.” We don’t realize it, but we’re always appropriating certain distinctions from our experiences and environments to make up our identity. (That’s probably part of why Scriptures tells us to guard our heart with all vigilance for out of it flow the springs of LIFE.”) Whenever we notice differences, our flesh (our human nature) wants to side with either this or that. In other words, you learn to identify with things (X) and likewise disassociate yourself with other things (Y) all because you’re operating on an either/or system, which is what happens when we processing comparisons. So our basis for making distinctions operates on the either/or system. I also think, that due to our fallen nature, we make false distinctions. In other words, we divide things when we ought to unite them, and unite things when they ought to be distinguished. After the fall, you see the relationship between male and female (husband/wife) torn due to enmity (which divides) and you also get the unnatural and inapporpriate union between the sexes. So the entrance of sin turns things upside down and backward and now things are not the way they’re supposed to be. (Likewise, Christ “reverses the curse” and turns things back into the way God intended His creation to be).
    You get racism and ethnocentrism and genocide and segregation when you notice a distinguishing factor in people (which is not evil and wrong in itself–it’s a fact I have white skin and she has black skin) but then make a division due to that either/or system. This results in the “us-them” paradigm. And instead of uniting and accepting, there’s division and rejection. Not only that, but there’s high time idolatry of one’s own distinguishing features and/or natural identities we subscribe to. And that is a very biblical sin. Moreover, the idolatry is fed when people live in segregation. Sin is hidden, and thus accepted. I know this one well. And churches become corrupted and hypocritical in this way when they remain segregated in lifestyle while preaching the good news of reconciliation and even proclaiming themselves ministers and instruments of the gospel of reconciliation. I believe a lot–too many–churches in the US are really preaching what I call “Separate but Equal Christianity.” In theory, we all SAY and even believe we’re all equal (just like the laws of this land said in 1890) but in word and deed, we will LIVE separate. But as many well know, separate is NOT equal. “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18).
    I think when we see racism, segregation, and ethnocentrism as a poisonous mixture between false paradigms, corrupted distinctions, and idolatry, not only is it a (hidden) sin, but that we are all guilty of it. No man is righteous and innocent here; no not one…and it starts with me. If you’re interested, I share my own story of growing up in what was to me two separate (segregated) worlds–Romanian ethnic world (family and church) vs American (public and school life) on my blog here: https://abeautifulinheritance8.wordpress.com
    You can also read more my “Separate but Equal Christianity” post at the very bottom.
    But in there, I also share what I want to propose here is the ONLY cure to bringing true unity IN diversity; and it is no human, manmade effort. If and when man tries to diagnose and change men, it only leads to judgmentalism, hypocrisy, and just more hostility…which creates more dividing walls of more hostility. Our hope and answer is the gospel of Jesus Christ–Romans 1 says the gospel is the POWER of God to save and to reconcile. And that was Jesus’ very own mission. He was both God and man in order to reconcile both God and man and then man to man. In Christ, distinctions and dividing walls of hostility are torn down just like Ephesians 2 says when talking about Jews and Gentiles–two VERY racist rivals in the 1st century:
    “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” Paul also says in Galatians 3: “There is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female–we are all ONE in Christ.”
    When we see ourselves and our IDENTITY as in Christ (Christian) first, not only do we experience our own peace between the tensions or even rivalries of those other cultural/racial identities within ourselves (such as Romanian-American, for me), but we actually have peace between each other.
    We all need to answer the question “Who am I?” And whatever your first response is to that betrays what is at the core of who you are, and thus what drives your life, and what will come out of your mouth.
    The Apostle Paul is a good example: he was a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Roman citizen, with a Greek education. Who was he? Because he saw himself in Christ above all things, he was able to connect with and minister the salvific gospel to Hebrews (Acts 18), the Greeks (Acts 17), and Roman authorities, even Caesar himself (Acts 25). Instead of experiencing war between these tensions and very different cultures within himself, he was enabled to use them as opportunities for expressing his true identity–in Christ–and to invite others into such reconciled relief.

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