Racial Reconciliation in the Church

Love L. Sechrest

At 12:00 noon on Tuesday, January 20, 2009, the United States inaugurated its first African American as president with great pomp, circumstance, and hope. Those from every corner of the nation looked on in pride at this tangible manifestation of our nation’s promise of opportunity for all citizens. The moment was especially poignant for African Americans who, according to reports, finally felt themselves to be members of this country in a way they had never before experienced. Obama’s gains among non-evangelical religious people were described as “dramatic.” Compared to other Democrats, he also garnered a relatively large proportion of the evangelical vote, even though these gains were more modest than those among non-evangelicals. Many explain the disparity by observing that many evangelicals considered his stands on abortion and gay rights to be “deal breakers” (cf. S. Posner, “Obama and Religious Voters,” The American Prospect [November 6, 2008]; [accessed December 7, 2009]).

Yet the fact that Obama did so well among people of faith may be due to his emphasis on a message of unity and reconciliation. His vision was one of an America unified by our common hopes and aspirations, a nation coalescing across race, region, and political party, where we all affirm. “Yes, we are our brother’s and sister’s keepers.” At one point in the first quarter of 2009, I thought that the church might not have need of my particular interests in race relations in the church since concord and unity were breaking out all over the country. And then came the summer of a vicious return to partisan politics with a twist, the usual brew spiked with a not-too-thinly veiled draught of race-baiting from “birthers” and others. “Birthers” are the admittedly small collection of voters who continue to question the President’s U.S. citizenship despite the release of public documents that certify his birth as a natural born American. This movement represents a way that Obama opponents try to portray him as “Other” and as “not one of us” without using now delegitimized racial epithets.

The Obama campaign was noteworthy in many respects and will be examined by political scientists for years to come. The moment in the campaign that most captured my attention was the controversy that exploded over remarks made by Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. I was deeply pained by the way this controversy exposed the racial divides in the church, but I was more devastated that the uproar filled the space of a much needed interracial dialogue in the church. That evangelical churches are deeply divided by race is well documented (cf. Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem with Race in America [Oxford University Press, 2000]), but the controversy over Wright’s preaching was not the way that I wanted to see evangelicals or the broader church engage in a dialogue about racial reconciliation. That Wright’s prophetic voice was in the best tradition of the African American pulpit, yet was cavalierly dismissed as an alien, radical, and scary “black theology” only added insult to injury.

The state of the racial reconciliation movement in churches today might be said to vary from region to region. In my own experience in the upper Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic, the Southeast, and southern California, the vast majority of Protestant churches are segregated, and where integration exists it lacks the intimacy that characterizes true reconciliation. Smaller churches that are intentionally working to achieve a vibrant demonstrable union across race and culture struggle numerically and financially. Visitors to a United Methodist, missionally minded, multi-racial church in North Carolina frequently remarked that they were impressed with the witness that that local congregation offered, but that the church was “too hard” for them to consider as a church home—that it was too uncomfortable to sing in Spanish, to deal with the choppy nature of a translated sermon, or to understand cultural differences in childrearing. Here on the west coast, multicultural and multi-racial Protestant churches are somewhat less scarce but usually come in a megachurch flavor that lacks the kind of community that could produce real progress in race relations. Much more common are congregations that are essentially homogenous save for a few hardy souls who align themselves with a given congregation for a variety of reasons. Again, in my experience, the valiant efforts of these isolated few are no substitute for a thoughtful and intentional decision by a local body to take up this difficult and painful cross.

The truth is that many of our local congregations do not foster the kind of interpersonal interdependence that lies at the heart of the NT vision for the church. The earliest narrative about the growth of the church in Acts emphasizes this intimacy, describing how the believers shared their possessions with each other so that every need in the community would be met (Acts 2:44-47; 4:32-37). A similar picture emerges from the Pauline epistles in Paul’s account of the purposes behind his relief project for the Jerusalem church. Invoking the OT tradition about God’s gracious provision of manna for the people during their Exodus wanderings in the desert, Paul exhorts those with abundance to provide for those who lack (2 Cor 8:13-15). Moreover, he urges his readers to mimic the generosity of people who gave while experiencing their own troubles, all for the sake of being a means of grace to others in need (2 Cor 8:1-4).

Indeed, the idea of interdependency lies at the very heart of Paul’s gospel. Paul’s discussion of Jewish and Gentile salvation in Rom 11 maintains that each group is implicated in the salvation of the other. He believes that Jewish rejection of the gospel opens the door to Gentile salvation and that the riches of Christ among the Gentiles will in turn provoke the Jews to embrace him (Rom 11:11-26). Paul’s emphasis on interdependence is even better known via the body-of-Christ metaphor in 1 Cor 12. In this text, mutual interdependence is integral to life in Christ and is not restricted to the subject of entrance into the community. Each member of the community is gifted with resources and abilities to improve the common good in the context of shared responsibility for each other. Using modesty in clothing private body parts as a metaphor, Paul explains that God gives greater honor to those Christians who need it, since the strong have no need for additional esteem (1 Cor 12:22-26). Honoring the weak, according to Paul, preserves the unity of the body of Christ in which each believer is an individually gifted and necessary part of the whole. Further, this practice has the additional benefit of protecting the body from being infected by a spirit of arrogant individualism (12:21-25).

As a community, Christians in the U.S. must recognize how deeply the history of race is intertwined with the development of the American church. The church is one of the few remaining institutions in the American scene that normalizes the effects of slavery, with most Christians preserving these segregated spaces in the interests of cultural comfort. Racially separate churches violate the interdependence that would characterize authentic Pauline Christian communities. Further, this individualism blocks churches from the blessings of gifts preserved in separate traditions. For example, segregated white churches celebrate the confessions and the rich legacies of the intellectual giants of the faith, but too often preach a disembodied gospel that reduces spirituality to symbolism, which separates material concerns from moral choices and the pursuit of righteousness. In the black church, the effects of racism not only created deep social, economic, and political disparities between blacks and whites, but also subverted black access to the intellectual tradition and history of the church. Hence, while the best of the black church tradition still preserves a full-bodied worship where spirit is real and connected with body and matters of everyday life, the combi­nation of socio-economic hardship and fractured moorings in the intellectual tradition of the church can produce an overemphasis on these same material matters. It is ironic that both races thus contribute to creating the void that makes possible the flourishing of the prosperity gospel now virulently sweeping the church in the two-thirds world and American cities alike. In other words, life in the body of Christ is impoverished because aspects of the transformative effects of the gospel have been preserved in separate segments of the church, each handicapped by the lack of the other.

I would maintain that interdependence is critical for authentic racial reconciliation in the church. There is no doubt that there are any number of homogeneous churches of all colors that fail to embody the kind of interdependence that Paul had in mind in 1 Cor 12; one imagines that this would be especially true of churches whose members are comfortable socio-economically, where the needs of congregants are focused on personal fulfillment over survival. Interdependence is critical for authentic reconciliation not because there is a Bible verse that demands it, but because the lingering legacy of our troubled racial past demands the greater sensitivity and sacrifice of a higher righteousness going forward. We will know that we have finally overcome when local congregations reflect the ethno-racial composition of their communities, towns, and neighborhoods, when the draw of the Christian family supersedes the pull of cultural comfort. We will have finally overcome the legacy of destructive ethnic and racial stereotypes when skin color or speech patterns do not inhibit the affirmation of leadership gifts in these multi-faceted congregations. We will have finally arrived in the territory about which Dr. King dreamed when our best friends in church really are people from other races and ethnic groups, when the people who know our greatest fears and deepest longings do not look anything like us.

Without a doubt, this is terrifying work. We are here describing an interdependence-based reconciliation that exhorts believers to acknowledge and share vulnerabilities and weaknesses with the ethnic Other. That we are talking about depending on people who look like those who have hurt us in the past, who have been insensitive to the pressures or difficulties we face on a daily basis, only raises the stakes in this already risky undertaking. Such risk-taking in relationships would be especially dangerous for people who are already in a weakened position, though we should not underestimate the difficulties in exposing one’s inner life even when done from a seeming position of strength. There is nothing comfortable about building these kinds of relationships. Visitors to mixed congregations speak truly when they confess that they have no interest in subjecting themselves to this degree of discomfort, and their sentiments are completely understandable. Whether those sentiments are also faithful to the gospel is another thing entirely. Indeed, we have reached a sad state of affairs when we are unwilling to be challenged when we go to church.

It is not surprising that President Obama was unable to usher in a new era of political unity singlehandedly. The interests of those on each side of our political landscape are preserved by maintaining divisions as political popularity seems to operate on a zero sum basis wherein losses on one side translate directly into gains on the other. This dichotomy, this gulf that lies between our highest aspirations and the pedestrian interests of power and position, between the comfort of the status quo and the challenges of vulnerability, also applies to the inertia in the movement towards reconciliation in the church. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that the appeal to unity in part propelled Obama to a convincing victory, striking deep chords in the minds and hearts of so many. I am convinced that multiethnic and multicultural unity and interdependence in the church would be just as compelling and winsome, though with far higher stakes. We will find fresh energy for this task when we recognize that we cannot achieve our destiny as the people of God unless we work together, inasmuch as we are called to demonstrate a supernatural capacity to love one another. We cannot be who we are called to be unless we can gain access to the treasures of the gospel that have been preserved in the separate traditions of now segregated ethnic churches. We will not testify to the glory of God and the manifold riches of his mercy to the nations until we do.

Posted Mar 01, 2010