The African American Church really irks me sometimes – not all the time, maybe not even most of the time, but sometimes. A lot of those times are because we forget that as Christians, our primary identity is as the people of God and not as black people.
The Caucasian American Church (has anyone ever even used that term before?) irks me sometimes, too. It’s like the other side of the coin. White people, including white Christians, can at times be so oblivious to their own whiteness that they, too, fail to root their identity in Christ.
A Christ-centered identity will result in unity in the Body of Christ. The fact that we have so many mostly-white, mostly-black, mostly-Latino, or mostly-Asian churches, that these ethnic devisions seem so intractable, and that our churches coalesce into racially homogeneous clusters betrays our lack of unity. We can’t look to Jesus long enough and hard enough to worship together or work together to build a better food pantry or stronger youth ministry. How we gather reveals our misunderstood identity.
You know what else reveals our mistaken identity and lack of unity? Controversy, especially racial controversy. You know, things like police officers shooting unarmed people of color or manhandling bikini-clad minors, professional athletes hurling veiled accusations of racism at former coaches, or a white woman pretending to be black and leading a local chapter of a major civil rights organization. Sadly (or thankfully, depending on how you look at it), we’ve been fed many of these bitter pills in very public ways over the past few months.
When we talk about our identity being rooted in Christ, we’re tempted to avoid these issues because we fear they will cause us to focus on other, secondary identities. We don’t want race and social issues to crowd out the message of the cross in our preaching and teaching. We don’t want dissenting opinions to cause further division in the body. However, we can’t really ignore these issues. They’re on our televisions every day. They come up in conversations. We have opinions and feelings and experiences. Not dealing with it doesn’t make us united. It makes us phony, delusional, and still divided.
Galatians 6:2 commands us to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Racism is a real burden. Being saved doesn’t make it go away. Being filled with the Holy Spirit doesn’t make it go away. Over the past few months, we’ve learned about (another) unarmed young black man being killed by police, a black woman dying in police custody, and another black woman being
cavity searched sexually assaulted by police in a public area. Not long before these incidents, the nation mourned the loss of nine worshipers – including a pastor and state senator – who were killed in their historic African American church during Bible Study in the name of white supremacy. In the past week, Straight Outta Compton, a movie that chronicles the rise to fame of legendary rap group NWA was released in theaters – at least the ones that weren’t afraid of black people. The nation was shocked when mass violence didn’t break out across the country because, you know, black people + rap = everybody dies. Last week I was trolled by a racist on Twitter who declared that #ThugLivesDontMatter. Oh, and slavery is apparently a thing again.
How bad is it really? Remember super stat-guy Nate Silver, the one who comes freakishly close to correctly predicting elections? He crunched the numbers and found out that for black Americans, the United States is about as dangerous as Rwanda. In fact, a list of the hardships that black Americans face reads like a very strong refugee application.
Racism is a burden. It’s a ball and chain that people of color drag with them through life. It doesn’t stop us. We still learn and work and most importantly worship, but it’s still a burden. As Christians, if our identity is really rooted in Christ, we should all be bearing that burden together. Of course there’s a large scale and small scale of bearing burdens. On the small scale, I don’t necessarily know the burdens of a small family in rural Idaho, but I may know the burdens of a family in my local congregation. On the large scale, I may not be focused on all of the big issues impacting Christians around the world, but if I know that in my own country, even in my own city there’s a large group of Believers bearing a particularly onerous burden, I need to explore ways that I can empathize with and support them.
If you’re white and a Christian, here’s what I wish you would do. Stop looking at police brutality, racial violence, and institutional racism through white eyes. Do the hard work of understanding what your black and brown brothers and sisters are experiencing. Truly, honestly empathize with out being critical. Then, ask the Holy Spirit to show you what role you play. Do your words and actions add to the burdens? Are you ignoring the burdens of other Christians, maybe even those who attend your church or live in your neighborhood? Are you open to letting what God will reveal to you shift your thinking on difficult issues?
I wish there were more Christian leaders speaking out on this issue. I wish more believers, whether they be pastors in the pulpit or lay persons on Facebook and Twitter, were as hot, bothered, and outspoken about racism as they were about same sex marriage. I wish my social media time-line was filled with articles by white pastors affirming that, yes, Black Lives do Matter, just like it’s filled with stories about the horrors of Planned Parenthood.
While I’m on this topic, let’s be clear: racism is a burden for white people, too. It’s easy for them to feel blamed for injustices and atrocities they’re not directly responsible for. It’s difficult for them to empathize when they don’t understand. It’s hard for them to understand when our mainstream system of education doesn’t provide the proper context. We who are Christians of color must also bear the burdens of our white brothers and sisters. We need to show patience when they don’t get it. We need to extend grace when the conversation gets to awkward. We need to keep our cool when they say what seems to us to be the wrong thing.
Ultimately, we as Christians need to understand that we’re not in a race war. It’s not black vs. white, liberal vs. conservative, or Democrat vs. Republican. As Romans 6 reminds us, we’re involved in an eternal, spiritual battle. Christians of all races and ethnicities are united under the banner of Christ’s blood. Our ability to unite, bear one another’s burdens, and pursue righteousness brings glory to God and testifies of his redeeming work. Our world is sick with sin, and racism is one of its most apparent symptoms. We must come together to offer the ultimate cure: Jesus Christ.
I do want to acknowledge that there are many white brothers and sisters in Christ who are standing up and speaking out in a way that glorifies God and shines a bright light on the Gospel. There are also Christian leaders having candid, honest conversations about race. Let’s make them leaders among many, and not an unheard minority.