Our church sits atop a hill in a little town in western Connecticut. Our population is fairly typical of a rural church—we skew toward members over the age of sixty, and we see about fifty people in the pews on a given Sunday morning. There are the “church widows,” who only appear to have husbands on Christmas and Easter. There are the people with predictable prayer requests: Jodi always has a friend with a physical ailment; Bea always has a concern for a population in need somewhere far away. Everyone else fills in with various aches and pains of the body and spirit. On Sunday mornings, we pray together. We worship together. We eat the bread and drink the cup and try our best to care for one another.
We span the gamut of professions from plumber to accountant to teacher to hedge-fund manager, lawyer to writer to masseuse. Our church membership is almost entirely white, just like our town. Some of us are passionate progressives while others are fervent conservatives. Still, we typically adhere to a common understanding not to bring our political leanings into the sanctuary.
But after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis and demonstrations erupted around the nation, our pastor asked whether we wanted to make a public statement to name the injustice of his death and express solidarity with the protestors. After some discussion, our church council (of which I am a member) decided not to say anything. We have never made a statement about national events in the past, and our church members would certainly feel divided about how to respond. Why provoke controversy now?
In our church community, as in many predominantly white churches across the United States, the issue of how Christians should respond to our current moment of reckoning with a history of racial injustice has bubbled to the surface of our collective consciousness. What tools do we have at our disposal?
If we look to our culture, there are two bandwagons inviting us for a ride. There is the wagon of individual responsibility that denies systemic racism in the present moment and celebrates our nation’s founding as a land of freedom and opportunity. And there is the wagon of anti-racism, which advocates for lifelong participation in the work of undoing the harmful systems and structures on which our nation was built and by which we still operate. Some Christians have chosen one or the other. Many others feel quietly uneasy before the limits of both options, but can’t quite explain why.
The Scriptures warn against thoughtless acquiescence to the world’s norms du jour. At the same time, they and the historical witness of the church encourage Christ’s disciples toward discerning political and social engagement in whatever land they inhabit, made all the more urgent when questions of human dignity are at stake. Faced with the dueling temptations to ignore political “issues” on the one hand and to baptize every current of popular opinion on the other, it is incumbent on those who follow Jesus to learn how to bring the scriptural, spiritual, and social resources of his gospel truth to bear on the political and cultural moment in which we live, including that which we’ve simply inherited. What might Christian moral reasoning and reform look like in this complicated hour, and how do we recover these depths in our churches, practices, and broader public conversation?
The World Is Borrowing the Church’s Language. Do We Remember How to Incarnate It?
Our nation is publicly wrestling with racism and injustice in a way we have not seen since the 1960s. Confederate monuments and symbols are toppling. Icons of consumer culture like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are being reconsidered as companies take a critical look at their brands. Anti-racism training is on the rise.
In the midst of these attempts to shift cultural norms in almost every sphere of our public life, many Americans find themselves leaning on spiritual concepts to frame the need for broad-scale change. The institution of slavery is referred to as “America’s original sin.” Popular books on the topic of racism lament the harm it does to the “soul” of America, and point to the “angels” and “demons” of our collective nature. Even social critic Ta Nehisi-Coates, an atheist, resorts to religious language, calling for “a spiritual reckoning that will lead to a national renewal.”
What might Christian moral reasoning and reform look like in this complicated hour, and how do we recover these depths in our churches, practices, and broader public conversation?
Our world is crying out for real-world pathways to address what even the secular culture acknowledges as a spiritual problem. While American culture does not acknowledge Jesus as Lord, it has been nonetheless touched by a Judeo-Christian vision of human dignity that still finds expression in both our celebration of personal responsibility and our more collective movements for social justice. It is not an accident that the richest language our public prophets have to move civic hearts toward a vision of equality stem from those Christian leaders and preachers who led the movement to abolish the institution of slavery, as well as those who led the civil rights movement a century later. These leaders worked in the social and political spheres with a distinctly biblical understanding of human sin and human dignity. They embodied both the love and the courage of Jesus to advocate on behalf of the most vulnerable, to reject political systems of oppression, to pray for and forgive their enemies, and to turn the other cheek in the face of violence.
Unfortunately, many Christian institutions in America have not modeled this boundary-crossing care, instead bearing the scars of racial discrimination and segregation. As Michael Luo has recently written for the New Yorker, American evangelical Christianity has a “white supremacy problem.” According to Luo, in contrast to progressive secularists and Christians who are people of color, most white evangelicals see no relationship between the history of racial discrimination in our nation and the treatment of African American men and women in our society. Luo quotes Robert P. Jones, whose book White Too Long further documents this relationship between white American churches and racist ideology and practice. According to Jones, “If you were recruiting for a white supremacist cause on a Sunday morning, you’d likely have more success hanging out in the parking lot of an average white Christian church—evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant, or Catholic—than approaching whites sitting out services at the local coffee shop.”
I’m pretty sure I count as an “average white Christian,” and I desperately want those words to prove untrue. But after President Trump was elected back in 2016, and Christians seemed even more divided than ever about racial justice, I accepted an invitation to fast and pray one day a week about justice, mercy, and healing across our nation. I thought it would be a time to pray for all the people “out there” who needed help and healing. Instead it became a time for me to see my own sin in this area. I saw my own sense of cultural superiority. I saw my own hard heart in the face of the suffering so many of my brothers and sisters were experiencing. I had not behaved as though my black and brown brothers and sisters in faith were part of the same Body, and that if they were in pain, by extension, so was I. It took me decades to connect the prophetic writings in the Bible about justice to the plight of men and women wrongfully imprisoned in our country. I saw conversations about racism and injustice as peripheral to the primary work of evangelism, which is to say, preaching a gospel of personal salvation from sin.
Before we can engage with integrity, compassion, and effectiveness in the public square, we need to apply the truths of Scripture and biblical theology to our own lives and institutions. We need to take a hard look at the legacy of passive and active complicity in racist practices, so that we can lament, repent, and forge a path of restoration and renewal.
Many American Christians are late to the cultural action when it comes to political and social advocacy on behalf of marginalized people, and we have lost much credibility when it comes to offering a moral vision of social healing. That’s not to say God’s redemptive action hasn’t been visible. Black Christians have been leading this work for hundreds of years—tracing back to the prophetic witness of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, through the courageous faith put into action by heroes like Rosa Parks, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Congressman John Lewis, and continuing today through the faithful work of activists and scholars like Bryan Stevenson, Dominique Gilliard, Lisa Sharon Harper, Natasha Sistrunk Robinson, Jemar Tisby, Esau McCaulley, and so many more. What would it look like for white Christians to follow their lead, to listen and learn, and to link arms in shared commitment to the bloody body of Christ, the regenerative power of his wounds, and the promise of a resurrected humanity?
Although Jesus and Paul did not speak in contemporary language of racism or anti-racism, they both offer a shockingly inclusive vision of God’s ongoing work to bring the peoples of all nations, all ethnicities, and all sectors of society into the same family while maintaining their distinctive identities. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is devoted to the idea of unity in Christ, and applying his words to our day exhorts believers to engage in work to dismantle historical and contemporary racism within the church and the society at large.
According to Paul, God intends to be Father to all—both Jew and Gentile: “The mystery of the gospel . . . [is that] the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel.” It doesn’t seem remarkable to us now that non-Jewish people are welcomed into the family of God. But to Paul, and to any Jewish listener in his day, this message is at best “mysterious” and at worst a grave offense. Indeed, salvation history up to that point had traveled through a people commanded by God to be separate, to stand apart. But the advent of Christ introduces a most scandalous invitation: All nations who had previously been cut off from Israel are now welcome to enjoy that most intimate of all possible relationships—that is, the family of God. The mystery of the gospel is that the love of Jesus Christ pierces through our social hierarchies, and the practices, systems, and prejudices that have maintained those social divisions. God’s family—both Jew and Gentile together, both white and black together—is called to live out that work. Unity among diverse believers is a mysterious and beautiful indication of God’s Spirit.
Revisiting That Which Is “Too Political”
As stated earlier, our culture offers two ways to respond to the inequity we see all around us: an ethos of individual opportunity and hard work, and an ethos of systemic change to power structures currently known as anti-racism. Christians have an opportunity to acknowledge the truth inherent within both of these responses while at the same time living out and offering a distinctive, gospel-centered vision of redemptive possibilities.
The gospel is a story of humble, sacrificial love overcoming the cosmic powers of sin and death. It’s a message that includes the personal nature of both sin and salvation, and extends beyond. White American Christians have typically been baptized—literally and intellectually—into a purely individualized understanding of who and what Christ was sacrificing himself for. And this is not a complete error. It is vital that we honor the radical Christian turn to uphold the dignity and worth of every human being—to think first as personalists. History is littered with dangerous examples where this imago Dei of the individual was made subservient to the collective. And indeed, it’s part of the irony of American history that one aspect of our very exceptionalism as a country stems from a Christian understanding of individual dignity as undergirding our founding documents, an understanding that has played no small role in shaping salutary pursuits of justice throughout much of the world.
But when Christians only attend to the rights of the individual, we end up segregated from one another, with a privatized faith divorced from the public square. We fail to live out Jesus’s invitation to all the nations and all the peoples to feast together at the banquet table of God. And we become complicit in perpetuating systems of injustice.
Scholar Jemar Tisby has documented the history of this complicity in his book The Color of Compromise, starting with missionaries who made agreements with plantation masters to tell enslaved people only about the personal transformation offered by Jesus, but not the implications of the gospel for their social liberation. Missionaries often decried the treatment of enslaved people. Still, those same missionaries knew slaveholders would not allow them to preach if their preaching would result in their converts advocating for freedom. In Tisby’s words, “European missionaries tried to calm the slave owners’ fears of rebellion by spreading a version of Christianity that emphasized spiritual deliverance, not immediate liberation.”
When Christians only attend to the rights of the individual, we end up segregated from one another, with a privatized faith divorced from the public square. We fail to live out Jesus’s invitation to all the nations and all the peoples to feast together at the banquet table of God.
Centuries later, the “white moderates” highlighted by Martin Luther King swam in this same stream when they urged King to wait patiently rather than agitate for voting rights. Today, this complicity in racism persists when white Christians refuse to consider the historical and structural causes of ongoing racial inequities. Again, Tisby demonstrates the rift between Christians of different racial backgrounds: “Sixty-two percent of white evangelicals attribute poverty among black people to a lack of motivation, while 31 percent of black Christians said the same. And just 27 percent of white evangelicals attribute the wealth gap to racial discrimination, while 72 percent of blacks cite discrimination as a major cause of the discrepancy.”
Christians in predominantly white churches today will continue this pattern of complicity unless we address the problems of our individualized gospel. But does this mean we should join today’s anti-racist movement?
There are a range of viewpoints here. Taking Ibram Kendi’s definition, anti-racism is support of policies that undo the harm of previous injustices and provide equal opportunity for all racial groups in the future. Conversely, racism is support of policies and systems that, intentionally or not, oppress one racial group and elevate another. Another way to frame it is to see anti-racism as active opposition to racist behavior and policies. Throughout the Old Testament, the God of the Israelites includes and welcomes the foreigner, the ethnic “other.” Jesus was opposed to racist behavior and policies. Paul was opposed to racist behavior and policies. The broader arc of the Old and New Testaments reveals a God fiercely committed to justice and healing. By the time we get to the closing symphony in the book of Revelation, John gives a supernatural vision of that multiplicity of voices and identities and cultures coming together to worship the Lamb that was slain, the healer who wipes every tear from their eyes.
Black Lives Matter has become the most visible advocate of anti-racism, and Christians have disagreed about whether to support a movement with roots in Marxist ideology and assumptions about family and sexuality that contradict a traditional Christian perspective. But these concerns can also serve as a convenient way to sidestep the call to expose injustice both within the church and outside of it. In light of the gospel imperative to work toward overcoming social divisions, Christians need to be less afraid of anti-racism, and consider—scripturally and in conversation with diverse siblings in the faith—what a Christian fragrance would bestow. “Christian anti-racism” will not look the same as its secular cousin. In fact, if we are willing to face our own history of segregation instead of unity and our ongoing complicity in racism and injustice, we will be able to offer an invitation not only to racial healing but to salvation as well. A Christian understanding of anti-racism goes further than an active opposition to injustice and oppression. Christian anti-racism is the work of living out God’s beloved community.
The Way of the Cross
As our secular prophets have noted, America is in the midst of a spiritual crisis when it comes to our racial divisions. The church can offer language, practices, and beliefs to equip people to heal, but only if we are willing to face our own history of segregation instead of unity and our ongoing complicity in injustice. In his book The J-Curve: Dying and Rising with Jesus in Everyday Life, Paul Miller asserts that Christians who follow Jesus are called to follow him into suffering and death and then be raised up by God. It’s a motion that looks like the letter “J.” Miller suggests that there are three ways we enter that J-Curve—suffering, repentance, and love. A suffering J-Curve happens when evil comes to us. When we have done nothing wrong, and we suffer illness or injustice, we are nevertheless invited to walk with Jesus toward the cross and hold out hope for resurrection. The black church in American has emerged out of this type of suffering.
A repentance J-Curve happens when we recognize our own sinfulness. Here we follow Jesus to the cross as we die to our own self-centeredness and the harm it causes to us and to others. We suffer whatever consequences come from the humiliation and pain of sin exposed. And we wait for the Spirit of God to bring resurrection. Many American churches have an opportunity right now to repent of our complicity in racist practices throughout our history, even as it will mean painful, perhaps even humiliating exposure of our sin, even as it feels like a hopeless descent into death.
We follow Jesus to the cross as we die to our own self-centeredness and the harm it causes to us and to others.
The third type of J-Curve is a love J-Curve, when we choose to lay down our lives out of sacrificial love for others. Again, we follow Jesus to the cross until that same love leads us to glory. American churches with historically and predominantly white populations need to learn how to lament, repent, and take loving action to heal social divisions and advocate for justice. Only then can we bear credible witness to the full gospel of dying and rising with Jesus Christ.
The church has both the language and doctrine of sin to help us understand the comprehensive and collective nature of the cosmic brokenness, oppressive systems, and evil individual choices that have led to our social divisions. We have the practices of lament and confession that offer ways for individuals and communities to mourn our participation in the injustices and brokenness of the world. We have been invited into the life of Jesus, a life of dying and rising again, a life of sacrificial love on behalf of others, a life that includes suffering and humiliation before it leads to joy and peace. Our theological understanding of society can equip us to expose injustice and seek to rectify it in the public sphere with grace and truth rather than shame or rage.
My own Christian practice has been shaped by decades of participation in faith communities that have offered solace to my soul but that have been disconnected from active engagement in bringing justice, peace, and joy to our land. But I am starting to learn how to ask questions and seek answers alongside diverse fellow believers when it comes to education, criminal justice, and affordable housing and fair zoning laws, to name a few. I am broadening the scope of theologians and lay church leaders who inform my thinking rather than continuing to depend solely on the perspectives of older white men. Jesus’s inclusivity and Paul’s “mysterious” gospel that breaks down social dividing walls have convinced me that I need to relearn and enlarge my understanding of sin and salvation while bearing public witness—in word and deed—to the reconciling, healing, empowering, loving work of Jesus.
Despite the earnest questions many Christians are currently asking about how to participate in undoing systemic racism in our churches and our country, the history of predominantly white churches suggests that the disparities and injustices between black and white communities will never heal. Nearly sixty years after Dr. King first said it, Sunday mornings remain one of the most segregated hours of the week, and that ecclesial divide is also reflected in the disparities in how white and black Christians vote and speak out in the public square. But the history of the people of God suggests that the Spirit will work among fallen, stubborn, sinful people just like us. In this moment of reckoning, white Christians have an invitation to repent of our complicity in racist structures, follow the lead of our black brothers and sisters, and engage anti-racism in the public square from a distinctly Christian perspective that upholds human dignity.
In my own church context, we did not make a statement after George Floyd died. But our pastor did invite members to read and discuss Tisby’s The Color of Compromise. We joined other local churches in a webinar about racial injustice and the harm of social divisions and inequities. In our weekly Bible study, we’ve made a commitment to apply every passage of Scripture to both personal and social concerns so that the Word is living and active for our individual lives and our broader society. These are small steps—and even they are controversial—but they have led to small next steps, like people speaking up about politics in a way they wouldn’t have before, calling a local police department to talk through police reforms in their town, and attending a nearby city’s prayer gathering for repentance and justice. It’s entirely possible that small steps like these are wholly inadequate. It also seems that these might be mustard seeds of faith, with which God can grow something surprisingly large and new.