The Common Good

At the Door of the Church

[This is adapted from an earlier version of the article "At the Door of the Church," which appeared in the November 1987 issue of Sojourners and remains relevant today.—The Editors]

TOO LITTLE HAS CHANGED. In spite of the struggles of the past for racial equality, racial freedom, and respect, the basic foundation of racism in the church is alive and well. As a matter of fact, it is thriving in an atmosphere of fear and complacency created by the church's lack of conversion to the message of Jesus.

But this lack of conversion is not a problem that is confined to this era. As we can see from history, Europeans who came to America attempting to escape slavery and religious repression in their homelands did not seem capable of understanding the contradictions underlying their own struggle for freedom, the new system of slavery that they instituted, and their faith. Of course the even deeper irony is that they not only enslaved Africans but they created an ideology regarding Africans and slavery that enabled them to live with minimal guilt.

Through this ideology, Europeans saw the Africans as subhuman and thus inferior. It also allowed them to name their slave ships Justice and Integrity, Gift of God, Brotherhood, John the Baptist, and Jesus without ever consciously facing the absolute evilness of their behavior.

Thus the American church was born in this cultural milieu created by those Europeans who were fleeing oppression and repression and the Africans whom they were oppressing. The conflict that arose after Africans were converted to the Christianity of the American church led to slave owners having to make it clear to slaves that their conversion did not change their slave status. In fact, ordinances were passed by several northern states stating that Christian conversion was not going to help liberate any African from slavery.

It is not very difficult to understand why there is a black church and a white church in America today, or to realize that this structure will not change in the near future. The religious atmosphere created by the coming together of blacks (who were slaves) and whites (who were masters) tended to negate any possibility of developing the true unity and oneness that scripture proclaims for the church. The agendas of the slaves were vastly different from those of the masters. Unfortunately, conflict over agendas, both stated and unstated, continues to be one of the reasons that blacks and whites do not come together to worship.

The church of the whites continues to support the ideology of white superiority over blacks. Too little effort is being made by whites to become conversant with black culture and blacks' views of the world. The general assumption is that there is nothing worthwhile to be gained from studying black culture. Whites often believe that they can learn as much as they need to know about black culture and worldviews by simply befriending a black person who has a similar worldview and lifestyle.

WHITES BOTH INSIDE AND outside the church hold the bulk of economic, political, and social power. Blacks who have any power have taken it in one way or another; it is never viewed as a birthright. The white person will view her power as a "right," and the black person will view his as a "gift" or an "accident." The whites' inability to relinquish their power and share it continues to reflect the ideology that blacks are incapable of handling power, that blacks need to be cared for much as one cares for children and pets, and that blacks need to have others broker their power for them.

In the past the slave was seen as a labor provider six days a week. Even Sunday morning religious gatherings were not the expression of equals coming together to worship God. Rather they were gatherings of those who felt superior but condescending enough to allow an inferior to have access to something which would make him or her a better slave. They also served to alleviate some of the masters' guilt about holding persons as slaves in the first place.

The crucial point to remember about these early worship experiences is that the whites were always in control on Sunday, just as they were on every other day. It was the white control of the worship, the inability to accept blacks as equals, and the negation of black personhood that led to the separation of the black church from the white church and to the emergence of a black religious community.

As early as 1787, Richard Allen and Absolem Jones discovered that the white Methodist church was virtually another slave ship. As a result of this realization, these two men, along with other men and Women, founded African Methodism in this country.

This dynamic of the white church's racism and the black church's resistance continues to shape the interactions between these two communities. And so, very little has actually changed!

The fundamental attitudes of superiority, that whiteness is better than blackness, continue to prevail, as is evidenced by the way in which whites with power use it and abuse it. Even in religious communities attempting to strive for some kind of radical adherence to the message of Jesus, there remains a tendency to judge as inferior the ways that blacks operate in the world because they seem inefficient and less productive than the ways of whites.

RACISM CALLS FORTH RESISTANCE! Whites have to accept the responsibility for racism because they continue to have the power and systemic support that is needed to perpetuate it. It cannot be forgotten that prejudice plus power equals racism and that because of that very prejudice blacks are not likely ever to have the power necessary to be true racists. A black person may despise whites, but he will not be the recipient of the same benefits from his prejudice as the white person who bases all of her right to privilege upon the fact that it is her right as a white person. Because she doesn't have to struggle with her prejudice, she can simply allow her view of the world to offer her the necessary tools to accommodate her attitudes and her values.

Blacks, especially black church people, are called to resist. This is partly the result of the historical perspective in the black church that one must not cooperate with evil. Thus the white church can concern itself with the socio-economic issues of its world, while the black church is busy engaging in resistance. Of course the sadness about the state of the black church lies in the fact that it is no less a victim of the culture than its white counterpart, and it is often not about God's business as it should be.

Nonetheless, it seems clear that the inability of whites and blacks to come together as a unified worshiping community has far less to do with diversity in worship styles than has been accepted in the past. The problem lies in the unwillingness of blacks to be treated as children and of whites to share their power.

Another part of the problem has to do with the necessity of blacks to resist racism and to strive for radical redefinitions of the church and its role in their struggle for liberation. Of course this is a part of the process that the Europeans engaged in when they came to the so-called New World in the first place. They were struggling for liberation, and they resisted oppression; therefore, black resistance should not be too difficult for the white church to understand.

The black church was forced to become the guardian of black identity and self-esteem because it was the only institution that was not totally destroyed by racism. However, it is necessary to note that the subtle nature of the new expressions of racism that have emerged out of the experience of integration--which was forced by the laws rather than by the transformation of people—has had a negative impact upon the stability of the black church's role in the development of the black community.

The theology of liberation, a very necessary expression of self-definition, has risen from the black church as yet another response to the call to resistance and has greatly impacted the life of the black religious community. This has made the possibility of unity between the white and black churches an even greater challenge because the white church is often offended by such expressions of power in the black religious community.

In the midst of this reality of separation, how do we as black and white believers in the message of Jesus find a way to respond? First, it is necessary for whites to relinquish their racism. For example, assuming that blacks choose to worship apart from whites because of a different style will no longer suffice. Second, it is necessary for both whites and blacks to decide if scripture, such as the following from the letter to the Galatians, has anything to do with the call of God upon their lives: "There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female; you are all one in Christ Jesus" (3:28).

It is important to reflect upon the possibility that God intends all people who have been created in God's image to learn to respect each other and to treat one another as equals. Those who call themselves Christians will have to learn to share their lives, possessions, and power with one another. As long as we claim that being a Jew or Greek, female or male, black or white is a reason for disunity, we remain separate because we protect ourselves from having to face the deeper issues of our woundedness, and we shield ourselves from having to change.

Racism in the church helps whites maintain the status quo and thus maintain a sense of security and control in a world with little security and so few areas that can be controlled. Thus resistance as a stance of the black church offers some security as well for blacks. When one has identified one's enemies and begun to fight them, it can be unsettling to redefine the enemy and one's relationship to that enemy.

Therefore, blacks are challenged—as whites are challenged—to be open to the call for transformation in the church around the issue of race. Whites have no place in which to look for the enemy. Blacks must wait and see if the enemy is making an effort to be transformed, and, if so, the challenge of facing and relating to a transformed enemy must be confronted.

The separation between white and black church people cannot continue to be justified as the way of God. The work of racial healing and reconciliation lies on the doorsteps of the church.

Catherine Meeks, a Sojourners contributing editor, was an instructor and director of Afro-American studies at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., when this article appeared. This is adapted from an earlier version of the article "At the Door of the Church," which appeared in the November 1987 issue of Sojourners.

Image: Church open door policy, Ross Strachan / Shutterstock.com

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