After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.—Revelation 7:9
“I hate it,” my four-year-old protested, as she listed her reasons why she refused to go to Sunday School that morning. “It’s boring,” she continued. “No one plays with me!” she added. We were still not impressed. Then, like Clancey, she lowered the boom, blurting out tearfully, her little lower lip quivering, “I’m the only one with brown skin!”
Since moving to the South, we have attended several churches in our effort to find a church home. They have all been filled with sweet, hospitable people. They could not have been more welcoming to us, as a white couple with a bi-racial child. They have all seemed theologically balanced. The preaching has been of high quality. There’s been just one problem: most of these churches are white. Not just mainly white, mostly white, or predominantly white. They’re so white they look like Lands’ End catalogues. Looking from the altar, you could go snow-blind.
It has been frustrating enough trying to find a church where we feel comfortable as charismatic evangelicals. (Churches here are mostly one or the other. A ridiculous choice, like having to choose between Jesus and the Holy Spirit.) But having to choose between an all-white or all-black church is just plain wrong. At one very large all-black church I visited, I thought I could get lost in the crowd. Fat chance. (Yes, I was stared at–exactly what a black person must feel in attending a white church). We also attended a Spanish church—our daughter was so excited to see people with brown skin! The people were great, but the language barrier was a problem.
Finally, we thought we had settled on a church. It was the best we could do, we thought. Then, our daughter gave us that wakeup call to jolt us out of our complacency. As a father I felt both frustration and conviction. Frustration over the racial ossification that so often passes for Christianity in this country, and conviction over my own complicity in both the wider problem and my own daughter’s pain.
In response to a question as to why the church was not taking more of a lead in the struggle for desegregation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remarked with sadness ,
We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning, when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this.
Fifty years later, have we made much progress? I have to say that after a year and a half living here, I have met only a few people that I would consider openly “racist.” So what’s the problem? Perhaps the problem is that racism is more often tacit than stated, complicit than active. These days it is expressed more in what we do, where we live, the relationships or schools we choose, than in what we say or consciously believe.
How is it that in 2013, we Christians, of all people, can still be so comfortable with the status quo of racial segregation? What bothers me the most is not that there are white churches and black churches, but that we all seem okay with that!
Of course, King struggled with this too. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963), he wrote:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Ah. People of good will. Just plain, decent folks. Where would the world be without us? We are the mainstay of every culture, a bulwark against moral depravity and anarchy. Without us, things like democracy could not survive. Yet ironically, sadly, tragically, these same quiet decent souls are the very backbone of racism in this country—always have been and always will be. Frothing segregationists and white robed supremacists may capture the headlines, but in the end they are but a carnival sideshow compared to the mighty, destructive power of the decent folk like me, whose pressed white shirts and green lawns mask a savage indifference, a ruthless, murderous passivity. Slavery could not have endured so long without us, so warmly tucked into our beds in South and North. Jim Crow could not have kept its iron talons so firmly embedded for near a century. Eight million Jews could not have been so tidily eliminated without the blind complicity and willful ignorance of us, the infantry of inertia, the stalwarts of the status quo.
There are many kinds of racism. There is the loud-mouthed, ignorant, bullying kind, like Commissioner Bull Connor, who loosed attack dogs on little black school girls. There is the cowardly kind, who move in packs at night protected by white sheets. There are those possessed of a dangerous eloquence that can sway millions. But none of them could last a day without the silent blessing, apathy, or votes of us decent folks, whose passive kind of racism outsmiles, outlabors, out-Herods all the rest.
We’re not giving up, even if it means planting a church ourselves, or at least finding one where the leadership has a vision that both reflects and celebrates the cultural diversity of the kingdom of God.
“And a little child shall lead them.”