Just Decent Folks

[While the nation mourns the victims of another mass murder and our racial divide is once again in the headlines, it might behoove Christians to contemplate why, when our society has made some modicum of progress in racial desegregation, most of our churches have not. Honestly, walking into most churches these days is like stepping into some kind of time warp. At the risk of repeating myself, I thought it appropriate to reprint part of a chapter of my recent book Christ Held Hostage: the Hijacking of American Christianity. Hope it challenges you.]

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,” our little one 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, “I’m the only one with brown skin!”

Since moving to the American South, my family and I had attended many churches in our effort to find a spiritual home. The churches we visited were all filled with sweet, hospitable people who could not have been more welcoming to us, as a white couple with a bi-racial child. There was just one problem: all of these churches were either white or black.

It was difficult enough trying to sift through the hundreds of good churches in our city. We knew we would not find a perfect one. But having to settle for an all-white or all-black church (we visited both) seemed just plain wrong.

Finally, we thought we had found a church. It seemed like the right decision at the time. Then our daughter gave us that wake-up call to jolt us out of our complacency. As a father I felt both frustration over the racial ossification that so often strides hand-in-hand with Christianity in this country, and conviction over my own complicity in both the wider problem and my 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.[i]

Fifty years later, one wonders if we have made all that much progress. Today, 93% of U.S. churches are still basically segregated—meaning that more than 80% of their membership represents a single race or ethnicity.[ii] Churches here are also ten times more segregated than their neighborhoods—twenty times more than the public schools![iii]

Living in the South, where the subject of race is rarely broached among middle and upperclass whites, one meets few people these days who seem openly “racist.” So what is the problem? The difficulty is that, today, racism across this country is more often tacit than stated, complicit than active. 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. Ironically, this form of racism is more prevalent among the most educated segment of the population—those who would least consider themselves to be racist—since affluence affords people more options regarding where they live and where they send their children to school. In his landmark study, Michael Emerson calls this phenomenon an example of racialization. Racialized societies produce disparate social outcomes for different racial groups.[iv]

How is it that in the twenty-first century, Christians, of all people, can still be so comfortable with the status quo of racial segregation? What seems most shocking is not that there are white churches and black churches, but that most of us seem content with the arrangement!

Some contend that racial segregation in our churches is merely the result of different cultures and worship styles, that human beings are by nature more comfortable associating with those who are like themselves. Others in church-growth circles even go so far as to tout racial homogeneity as a major factor in church growth. Yet in a nation such as ours, with our obvious and painful history of racism, how can we claim that prejudice has no significant role in producing such outcomes? Or how can we deny statistics that show Protestant churches leading all other denominations, and indeed all other religions, in racial segregation? (According to Emerson’s 2006 estimate, only 5% of Protestant congregations are multiracial, compared to 15% of Catholic and 28% of non-Christian.)[v] While many larger congregations are making inroads into the problem and there is hope for change, we cannot escape the fact that half a century after King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, America’s churches have relatively little to show for it.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963), Dr. King writes:

…[T]he 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… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will…We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.

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. Yet ironically, 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 North and South. Jim Crow could not have kept its iron talons so firmly embedded for nearly 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. Yet 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.

Ethnic and Cultural Prejudice in the New Testament

The Lucan narratives in the New Testament are filled with questions and confrontations about racial or cultural prejudice. Jesus seems to enjoy making Gentiles the heroes of many of his stories and healings, a choice he knows will infuriate his fellow Jews. Clearly, he sees his prophetic role is not to massage his listeners’ prejudices, but to explode them. We have already seen how his Parable of the Good Samaritan flies in the face of ethnic hatred.

In Acts 10, even after receiving a clear vision from the Lord, Peter visits the Gentile home of a centurion somewhat grudgingly, and he is not silent about how uncomfortable he is. In his daring letter to the church at Galatia, Paul does not shy from exposing how this “pillar of the church” conducted himself among Gentiles: at first Peter freely ate and drank with them, but then pulled back when a fact-finding delegation from Jerusalem arrived. Even the Chief Apostle learns that prejudice is not something one can merely set aside; it must be crucified.

In Acts 6, Greek-speaking widows are being overlooked by an Aramaic-speaking church, and the decent folks who know about it apparently do nothing to stop it. For the average Palestinian Jew, who spoke Aramaic, there was something inferior, untrustworthy, un-Jewish about diaspora Jews who spoke Greek. For centuries little Judea had struggled to maintain its cultural and religious independence amid the brutal collision of empires—struggled and lost. These Hellenistic Jews, with their Greek language, dress, and customs, seemed barely a step away from being Gentiles.

Faced with a crisis, it may seem that the apostles merely pass the buck to a committee. Yet the larger church shows itself both decisive and farsighted in their choice of disciples to form this task force. Looking at the list of names (6:5), it becomes immediately evident that every one of them is Greek-speaking—a clear statement that the Jerusalem church would not tolerate such intolerance.

Today, we would probably see no need to take such “drastic” action. We might make sure that there is at least “some minority representation” on our committees, while keeping the majority unmistakably in charge. Not the Jerusalem church. They gave the minority 100% representation! They understood that the issue was not just one of language or culture; it was about power. They put a stop to the injustice by turning the power over to the disempowered!

Many white churches in America are painfully aware of the problem of Sunday-morning segregation but have no actual strategy to change it. If they are waiting for that day when twelve families of color magically walk through their doors, they will be waiting a long time.

Recently, I performed one of the most painful exercises I have ever undertaken. (No, I am not talking about barbell lunges.) In an effort to find a local church with a more racially diverse congregation, my wife and I went through almost the entire phone directory and looked up the various churches on the internet. Websites can be very revealing. Photos even more so. For example, a friend had recommended a certain large church downtown, claiming that an inner-city church must surely have a diverse body. We looked at the church’s website, but saw no evidence of people of color in the photos. Not one. Then we looked at the church staff page and realized why. I am sorry to say that of the twenty or so ministry and administrative staff positions, all of them were filled by white people. Every single one. The only people of color were on the custodial staff. (If you spent the time to scroll down to the bottom of the page, past the elderly lady who makes the sermon CDs, you might see them). What a statement! Sadly, in many parts of America, this is only too common.

As white pastors, why would we expect a person of color to feel welcome or comfortable in our churches if we make no effort to reflect diversity in our staff, or at the very least in our worship team, announcements, or what we present from the altar? Progress in this area, or the lack of it, speaks volumes about what we value as a congregation.

Regardless of what one thinks about President Obama’s performance in office, or his credibility problems among communities of color, we cannot get away from the fact that electing a black president for the first time in our nation’s history has been a powerful and empowering precedent for African-Americans. It has begun to shatter centuries of paralyzing racism that claimed such positions of power as a white privilege.

Some pastors of white churches may complain that there are no people of color in their congregations to promote to levels of leadership. That is rather a passive argument. But let us suppose we have done all we can to reach out to and attract minority communities without results. Another option would be to hire someone. Why is it we can employ a janitor with dark skin, entrusting him with all the keys to the building, but we cannot add qualified persons of color to our staff? Or even hire someone to make announcements from the pulpit, or lead worship? Of course, if we really want to follow the Acts model to the letter, we could make all our deacons people of color in one sweep! Too drastic? All right. But I wonder if we truly grasp the gravity of our situation. If our churches were on fire, would we not do whatever we could to extinguish the flames? Racism, even the passive variety, is a deeply rooted issue; it requires a deeply radical approach. And remember, the key is giving away power.

One church in Orlando, Florida has experienced explosive growth in addition to breaking down the color barrier. The congregation had been mostly white and middle-class until they decided they wanted to be more inclusive. They began by reaching out to people of color. Yet once inside the door, the visitors were invited to do more than fill seats. They were encouraged to serve in positions of responsibility. “It’s not ‘I love you and sit down,’” said the pastor. “You let them be in leadership.” Within five years the church quickly grew to about 50% minority representation, with a membership of over 4,000![vi]

Another reason people of color may visit white churches but never stay long may lie in the tone and content of what is presented from the stage or pulpit. For example, churches wishing to break through the color barrier may need to consider a wider range of worship styles. People of color may also feel that whites have no concept of how they live and the things they deal with on a daily basis. They are right. Many white churches spend time praising the United States of America as if it were the greatest thing since aerosol cheese. This is a great country, but it is not so for everyone. It may seem hard for whites to believe, but many people of color actually find it difficult to make it here. Understandably, they may not celebrate America’s history with quite the same unqualified enthusiasm. During a recent sermon in my city, one white pastor expressed high praise for America’s war on drugs. I could not help thinking how a person of color might feel hearing this, given that their communities are so disproportionately targeted, not to mention convicted and incarcerated.

Certainly, the system seems great if it works for you, but that is because it is engineered to work for white people, especially the affluent ones. In reality, there are two Americas, one for the white and rich, and one for the poor and people of color. If we white pastors really want people of color to stay in our churches, we need to get to know that other America. We need to immerse ourselves in the issues and challenges they face, to talk about things like racism, economic disparity, and injustice. It will do us and our congregations a world of good.

People of color also tend to vote differently (you mean it’s possible to vote “the other way” and still get into heaven? Amazing, isn’t it?) It is time to break out of that white conservative bubble, with its narrow agenda and talking points, and see how the rest of America lives!

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[i] King, “Social Justice and the Emerging New Age,” Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, (18 December 1963).

[ii] Michael O. Emerson, People of the Dream: Multiracial Congregations in the United States, (Princeton University Press, 2006), 35-36.

[iii] Michael O. Emerson, William A, Mirola, Suzanne C. Monahan, Religion Matters: What Sociology Teaches Us About Religion in Our World, (Allyn & Bacon, 2011), 161.

[iv] Michael O. Emerson, Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, (Oxford University Press, 2000), 7.

[v] Keith A. Roberts, David Yamane, Religion in Sociological Perspective, (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2012), 5th ed, 242.

[vi] Jeff Kunerth, “Race and Religion: Has Segregation Really Changed Since MLK?” Orlando Sentinel, (16 January 2010). Web. orlandosentinel.com

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