You Can't Speak Up Now Without Owning Your Racist Past | Sojourners

You Can't Speak Up Now Without Owning Your Racist Past

In 2016, I went on a mission trip with my white evangelical church. As one of the few people of color on my team, I became aware of my skin color in profound ways that summer. From jests about my name (“Thao Thao — that sounds like something I ate last night”) to the exclusivity of a predominantly white team culture, I was constantly reminded that I did not belong. Team members referred to areas with darker-skinned people as “sketchy,” and my project director made disparaging remarks about Arab men and their “five wives.” When I tried to have conversations about the ramifications of a Trump presidency on people of color, I was dismissed as being “too political.” When I attempted to initiate a conversation about fear of black people in public places, my project director responded at length about growing up as a white boy in a black neighborhood.

At the end of that summer, I brought up my concerns regarding these racial tensions in a debriefing session, imploring my teammates to continue having conversations about race back at home. Later, my project director called me to express his discomfort with my comments, believing I had called the entire team racist. He asked me to offer a public apology. I have since left that church.

After the murder of George Floyd, this project director — now the senior pastor — recently preached a sermon on righteousness and justice. He gave a brief history of racism in America from slavery to the GI Bill, mourned the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and spoke about God’s heart for racial reconciliation. Yet, given my pain and that of other people of color who previously attended this church, his words rang hollow.

Glaringly absent in his sermon was an acknowledgement of the church’s historic role in the perpetuation of racism and the silencing of minority voices. How easily we forget white Christians’ use of Biblical texts to justify slavery and evangelical leaders’ resistance to racial integration . In recent years, we have heard deafening silence in regard to police brutality against black lives. A study in 2015 found that a mere 13 percent of evangelicals expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Now, the church appears to be under the assumption that faith in Christ, in the absence of anti-racist work, gives us moral authority to speak about racial justice. Allow me to remind you that faith without works is dead.

For churches that have previously been silent on racism, now is not the time for sermons about justice. Instead of preaching on racial reconciliation, we as people of color need you to reconcile with your racist past. The gospel does not offer us resurrection without first death with Christ, nor does it offer us a promise of healing without first lamenting the systems that contributed to George Floyd’s murder. In these moments, we need you to take responsibility for the ways you have failed us and harmed us. We need you to drop all pretense of moral superiority and stop nuancing the “black agenda” to ease your conscience, acknowledging the historic flaws of your moral compass and its probable imperfections today. As the flames of rage against centuries of oppression spill over as physical fires in American streets, we need you to bear witness and recognize your role in fanning those flames.

While the gospel is not a miraculous cure for centuries of racism, it does offer us a framework through corporate lamentation to pick up the pieces, transforming empty words into sustained action. As we lament, we must remember that the sins of racism are both personal and collective, and as such, personal repentance is not enough. For years, white men have dominated Christian spaces, so to be anti-racist now requires us to actively reclaim the narratives of people of color. In what ways has our theology been influenced by white culture, and how are we pursuing non-white voices to reshape those narratives? Racism has also historically relied on institutions for its perpetuation, so community organizing and political engagement are essential to reverse these harms. How are we listening to communities of color, and how do we amplify those voices on local and national levels?

Through recent protests, we have once again glimpsed the soul of black America, witnessing the anguish among our people of color. For the first time, these cries were widely heard across white Christian communities — truly, an acknowledgement now is better than none at all. At the same time, our present response is inextricably linked to the Christian church’s previous silence and her history of racism. In this light, may churches enter conversations of racial justice with sobriety, aware of the long road to reparation ahead. When the flames of protest dim across this country, may we allow the Spirit to kindle our fire, baptizing us in the anger and sorrow of our siblings of color so that after all is said and done, we might continue to burn for a more liberated tomorrow.

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