What will it take for white churches to face and name the racism in our nation? Most white churches have not named Trayvon, Renisha, Michael, or Jordan. While the reasons are many, some of them include:
- Rationale: We rationalize that these are “isolated incidences.” Or … truth be told (and God knows it is time for some serious truth now!) … we rationalize the fear and uncertainty. Who of us isn’t annoyed with the loud music of some kids (Jordan Davis)? Or we’ve allowed ourselves to be frightened when we see an African-American male (Trayvon Martin). So because we don’t address our own fears, we don’t challenge the fears in our congregations.
- Action: Frankly, even if we name our fears, we don’t know what to do. We can pray for those whose families are affected by violence, but we don’t say the word “racism” from our pulpits. Because we feel awkward, we don’t act.
- Concern: Let’s get real here. Some of us who are pastors have prayed for Trayvon Martin’s family from the pulpit. We do quote Dr. King. We do name Michael Brown when his bloody body lay in the street for 4.5 hours. We do it. And more than a few of us who are pastors have caught hell from parishioners. “Pastor, why did you say his name? The facts haven’t come out yet. You know, he was no angel.” And so … we capitulate. Because we have to keep our job. Sometimes we rationalize it: “I can do more good here if we move slowly.” We are more concerned about keeping our jobs than we are about the death of black and brown children. And so we are quiet.
- Everybody: Which leads to this ... we have enough challenges in pastoral ministry; why rock the boat unnecessarily? Especially if you live in an area where there aren’t many black or brown people, does it really matter? Because “racism isn’t really an issue” where you live … everybody (or almost everybody) is white.
So for my fellow sisters and brothers in ministry, I know how hard this is. I have seen the tears for people who get frustrated with me and with the situations. I have heard the concerns over who is welcomed to church, about the excuses and explanations for unacceptable behavior.
The challenge is this: We in our collective American consciousness have yet to admit, much less confess, of the racist underpinnings that our nation was founded and built upon. We struggle with admitting that all of us who are white have racially informed understandings in our spirit that were inculcated in our being from birth. As the Rev. Dr. Gardner Taylor said, “Racism in is the water we drink and the air that we breathe.” So then, nationally, when a politician or celebrity says something that is racist in nature, we act like the eradication of their contract eradicates racism. That is not the case.
Racism is a spiritual issue. It is an issue of sin. It is basic to 1 John 4:19-21:
“We love because God first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates their sister or brother, that person is a liar. Anyone who does not love their sister or brother—whom we can see!—cannot love God—whom we cannot see! And God has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love our sister and brother.”
So what to do?
- Racism: Say the word! Realize that racism informs everything in our nation, from food accessibility to education opportunities to prison sentencing to healthcare access to infant mortality to life expectancy. Pastors, we have been ordained to the ministry that Jesus Christ modeled. Jesus Christ quoted Isaiah at the beginning of his ministry saying these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim freedom to the prisoner, recovery of sight for the blind, and to release the oppressed” (Luke 4:18-19).
- Admit what you don’t know. Admit that you have questions and things you don’t understand. Then get educated. We live in a world of Internet access and freedom of the press. If you don’t know about the African Methodist Episcopal Church — learn. If you have never read an entire speech by Dr. King, start there. But read Allan Boesak. Toni Morrison. James Cone. Jeremiah Wright. Yolanda Pierce. Obery Hendricks.
- Communicate: Talk about it. The more you talk about racism, the easier it becomes. “If we claim we are without sin, we deceive ourselves” (I John 1). This is not easy. And this is when the challenge becomes more real and brings us back to feeling so uncertain that we become paralyzed. This is the time for you, in prayerful whispers, to communicate and confess to other white folks the places where fear has directed you more than faith. The places where you have excused the inexcusable actions of those who murder (“He should have turned the music down.” “Why was he skulking around in a hoodie and hiding his face?” “Why didn’t he obey the police officer? There wouldn’t have been a problem if he had.”)
- Enough: When will enough be enough? When will we as white folks actually say, “Enough?” The Voting Rights Act of the 1960s has been eviscerated. The educational gains that were hoped for in Brown v. Board of Education have been devastated. The incarceration of black and brown life has been subsidized by our tax dollars, and Republicans and Democrats alike have participated. The Rev. Dr. King wrote: “We will not build a peaceful world by following a negative path. It is not enough to say ‘We must not wage war.’ It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it.” I’m wondering what we who are white are willing to sacrifice.