Honest Talk about Race

–By Jennifer B.
Emmanuel Acho begins this conversation by quoting priest and theologian Henri Nouwen who said, “honest, direct confrontation is a true expression of compassion … We cannot suffer with the poor when we are unwilling to confront those persons and systems that cause poverty. We cannot set the captives free when we do not want to confront those who carry the keys. We cannot profess our solidarity with those who are oppressed when we are unwilling to confront the oppressor. Compassion without confrontation faces quickly into fruitless sentimental commiseration.” The first thought that popped into my head after reading this quote was, “but we don’t want to suffer.” Sure enough, I scrolled down to the comments section on the blog where I found this quote, and the very first comment began with “should our goal be to “suffer with the poor…”? (Woodward 2011).  At the very least, we are called to mourn with those who mourn and to carry each other’s burdens. For some of us, that burden takes the form of racial discrimination.

I do not think Nouwen meant for us to all literally become poor. I believe he was saying that, as Christians, we are called to confront systems of abuse, oppression, and injustice. During the civil rights era, direct action in pursuit of racial equality was strongly associated with the church (or, at least, with the Black church). Over time, such movements have become secularized. In his book, Becoming a Just Church, Adam L. Gustine makes the point that, because evangelical churches have largely failed to integrate justice into our conversations and mission, most of us “learn to frame justice issues from the dominant cultural narrative of partisan politics” (2019, 18). Gustine contends that once we relocate injustice outside of politics and view it as “an expression of the power of the enemy,” we will be free to oppose it (2019, 19).

The problem is that we cannot even agree that the problem exists. When it comes to the racial divide in the ways White and Black Christians perceive racial injustice and inequality, the numbers are stark and disheartening. Only 38% of White practicing Christians believe America has a race problem, while 78% of Black practicing Christians believe so (Barna Group 2020). Only 42% of White practicing Christians could even bring themselves to agree that America has a history of oppressing minorities (Barna Group 2020). How is that for D E N I A L? White and Black Christians have similarly divergent views on whether America’s problems with racial discrimination are individual or systemic in nature, and on whether we are motivated to address racial injustice (70% vs. 35%).  In fact, non-Christian Whites are more closely aligned with Blacks in their views on racial inequality than are White Christians (Taylor and Merino 2011, 60).

Is it any wonder that, as Pastor Lentz said, Black people attend predominantly Black churches, because they want to be in a place where they can feel safe? Christian author Trillia Newbell described how she has “been expected to prove that anti-Black racism persists in America (Burke 2020).” That closely aligns with my own experience trying to discuss racial discrimination with White evangelicals. I am told that I am being divisive, racist, or “playing the race card” …whatever that means. Imagine the pain of having a person who is supposed to love you more than they love themself dismiss your lived experience, because they do not want to hear or believe it.

As was noted in the discussion, the modern church has largely been silent about racial injustice. Like Mr. Acho, I wish White Christians would say something, even if it is “wrong.” At least, then we would know they are not completely indifferent. 

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” -Martin Luther King Jr.

Barna Group. “Black Practicing Christians Are Twice as Likely as Their White Peers to See a Race Problem,” June 17, 2020. https://www.barna.com/research/problems-solutions-racism/.

Burke, Daniel. “This Is a Moment of Reckoning on Race for White Christians.” CNN, June 19, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/19/us/white-christians-racism-robert-jones/index.html.

Carl Lentz interviewed by Emmanuel Acho. “Race vs Religion – Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man Ep. 7 w/ Carl Lentz, Hillsong Church,” YouTube video, 19:28, Jul 28, 2020, https://youtu.be/7BCScklTfs0

Gustine, Adam L. Becoming a Just Church: Cultivating Communities of God’s Shalom -ebook. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Taylor, Marylee C., and Stephen M. Merino. “Race, Religion, and Beliefs about Racial Inequality.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 634 (2011): 60-77. Accessed August 10, 2020. doi:10.2307/29779395.

Woodward, JR. “This Week with Henri Nouwen.” JR Woodward (blog), October 18, 2011. http://jrwoodward.net/2011/10/this-week-with-henri-nouwen-18/.

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