Christian groups like the ERLC and the Kainos Movement are moving toward hosting discussions on racism in America and in the church in the 21st century, which is a good thing. But, if we are not careful, we will miss the deeper issues that animate the entire problem. I sought to explore those deeper issues in my book,
When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus (NewSouth Books, 2014). Because the manifestation of racism has changed from the separate water fountains and lunch counters and busses of the Jim Crow segregation era, many whites do not believe that racism still exists. As sociologists Christian Smith and Michael Emerson explained in their groundbreaking book, Divided by Race (2000), we are now in an area of racialization, which means that “race” still affects us and divides us in many ways, even if it takes different forms from the past institutionalized racism.
We live in a 'racialized society': a society where race matters profoundly and there are differential rewards (economic, social and psychological) for specific groups. The form of racialization changes: it might look like slavery, Jim Crow segregation or de facto segregation and inequality. Racialization takes many different forms, but its unchanging essences are the same. Emerson said, “When I have students from other countries who want to get a sense of racism in America, I tell them to drive around any metropolitan area they can and they will see it. They'll see Black neighborhoods, White neighborhoods, Hispanic neighborhoods, and so on. You'll see it distributed that way, but also in the fact that the unemployment rate among Blacks is twice as high as it is among Whites, no matter what the economy is doing. Whites have roughly 10 times the wealth that Blacks do.”
Southern Evangelicals tend to see racism through the lens of the segregrated past that is shameful and embarrassing. When you accuse a Southern white Evangelical of being racist or acting in a racist way, he sees images of the Klan and lynchings and segregated schools and hears the racist ideology of white supremacy in his head. He knows that he doesn't agree with that, so he rejects any accusation of racism or racialization or of racial inequality at all. It is seen as a major insult. His view is that we are all individuals and that if he worked hard and made something of himself, then why hasn't everyone else done the same in America, the land of the free? There are no structural inequalities and the racism of the past has been completely dealt with through the courts, legislation, through the dreaded Affirmative Action and minority preferences, and through the creation of the Welfare State of LBJ's Great Society. Asking for anything else is just complaining/whining and betrays a shirking of individual responsibility.
When black leaders, especially in the church, bring up racism, whites are often insulted. The conversation stops and everyone goes back to their corners and the division increases. But, black leaders know that things are not right and they see the division falling along racial lines because that is where they have fallen historically. Whites see the divisions the same way, but they also know that they do not personally hold animosity toward people just because they are black so they often actually blame black people for the continued problems because they cannot imagine how they are part of the problem. So, we stay at an impasse while some keep calling for a national conversation on race in society and in the church. But, when we do talk, we talk past each other as blacks believe that whites do not want to see the truth and whites believe that blacks simply want to blame others and do not want to take responsibility for what is happening in their own communities. And the beat goes on … It is a mess.
Way of Life. I think that there is something deeper at work here and that RACE is a symptom or a marker that identifies where the division falls more than being a primary cause of the actual division. Because Race is visible, it carries more weight and is used in an horrendous way against others, but it is not the core issue. Race becomes a way for groups to identify who are with us and who are against us. But, it is just one way. It is not a rigid marker in the way that it used to be, even though it is still there. What is more important than race at this point involves ideology, belief systems, economics, and worldview. But race is still often a convenient short-hand that helps us identify who is going to help us enhance our own way of life. The Germans have a term for this called Lebensweise. One could also translate it as lifestyle or way of living. We talk about the American Way of Life and we seek to defend it at all costs and against all threats. A defense of the Southern Way of Life led to the Civil War and was the primary animator of the defense of Segregation by Southern whites up until the 1960's. Now, we defend our individual Way of Life or our Christian Way of Life or however we define what we consider the good life. We all do this and we do it at the expense of others who might threaten us – or who we perceive might threaten us. Unfortunately, that perception is often based on the old divisions manifested through racism.
Racial Division is not the hard, structured marker of who is for us and who is against us that it used to be. White Conservative Southern Evangelicals are happy to embrace black people like Tim Scott, the Republican Senator from South Carolina or Ben Carson, Herman Cain, Alan Keyes, Allen West, or J.C. Watts. They embrace them and prove to themselves that the color of one's skin is not the hard barrier that it once was. They are convinced that the divisions in our society are no longer about RACE, but are instead about VALUES. If someone shares my values, then I consider them to be an ally. If they have different values, then I consider them to be an enemy. The primary issue that divides us involves who will help me defend my own way of life and my values against those who threaten me and my lifestyle? So, we identify our values and we align ourselves politically, religiously, socially, and economically with those who have the same goals and values and then we defend ourselves and wage war against those who we see as a threat. Race is not the major issue. Worldview is. But, we have to recognize that this problem still often plays out racially.
The problem here is that we are not doing this in a vacuum. History matters and it speaks from beyond the grave. America is a nation that has been divided according to Race since the late 1600s. Race became the marker separating the labor of the poor whites who were allowed upward mobility and the blacks in servitude to whom it was denied. Economic and power interests were key and it benefitted those in power to separate poor whites from poor blacks. Racism became institutionalized and it became the lens through which we saw our world, from Slavery to the 3/5 Compromise of the Constitution to Dred Scott to the Civil War to Plessy v. Ferguson. Racial division became ingrained in us and even after it was no longer the de jure marker of what divided us as a people, it went on to be the de facto marker.
Americans have always sought to defend and enhance and promote our own way of life over and above others. We call it freedom. It plays out militarily, economically, socially, politically, and spiritually. When this plays out racially, we have a problem that keeps huge numbers of people separated from how the rest of us defines the “good life” in America, which creates frustration and angst. Many white people say that there is no inequality and many black people point to the continued division in every possible social and economic indicator. Many whites blame blacks for that and respond with statements like, “what else do you want us to give you?” and blacks are often not able to answer that question in ways that satisfy whites as being fair, since white people today did not own slaves or stand behind fire hoses in Birmingham. So, the impasse continues.
This problem is not going to be solved in the larger society that is built on selfishness and promoting and defending one's own personal life choices and lifestyle. The irony of the Liberal critique of Race Relations is that the source of Racism is the very same source of the modern iteration of Liberalism, which involves promoting one's own personal choice and pleasure over and above the constraints of society, tradition, religion, or anything else. Modern Liberalism (not in the classical sense) is not capable of dealing with Racism because it shares the same basic foundation.
The only way to deal with Racism and its offspring of Racialization is through true Christianity and the Cross. I am not talking about the American version of Christianity that seems to exist to enhance one's own desired way of life through making God a means to an end of gaining one's best life now. And, I am not talking about an understanding of the gospel that says that if we just get individuals saved, then all will be well in every area of life, including racial injustice. That is obviously and historically false. I am talking about the Christianity of the Cross that declares that if we try to save our life then we will lose it, but if we lay down our life for Christ then we will gain it. The Christian in America can only see his politics, economics, spiritual life, social issues, race relations, foreign policy, and individual/family life through the Cross. We are told to take up our Cross and follow Jesus. Jesus leads us to lay down our lives in sacrificial love and service to others, not considering our own interests first, but looking to the interest of others. That is considered basic Christianity. That is the Way of Jesus and that Way of Life affects everything and has implications everywhere, including areas of racial division, structural inequalities, and injustice that manifests in racial and economic ways. White people often fail to see these problems because it benefits us not to see them.
Racism will never be solved in America apart from the Cross of Christ and the sacrificial love that flows from Jesus's wounds into every area of life. The place for racism to be solved first is in the local church – a colony of heaven in the country of death, as Eugene Peterson calls it. It is in the local church that we must put aside our own personal preferences and individual choices of what WE like and what benefits US over and above others and where we learn to live for the benefit of others who challenge us. Then, those local churches that have been practicing Ephesians 2 gospel reconciliation where people of all different ethnicities and classes come together as one, together turn their eyes to their broken communities and world and lay their lives down for others who have not yet been reconciled to Christ or to one another. That is how we witness to the Kingdom of God. This plays out individually, yes. But, it also has communal, regional, and national effects as the Church seeks to be “salt and light” and bring Kingdom values to a world gone mad with selfishness.
We must stop trying to gain our life and promote our own way of life first. We must listen to others who say that things are broken in their world (even if we think that everything is fine, which is usually because the current situation benefits us in some way) and, instead of pointing fingers and laying blame and self righteously going about our business, we must seek to love sacrificially and lay down our lives for others in tangible ways. That is how we engage in gospel mission. If parts of our communities are suffering, then do we not all suffer? If hopelessness exists in people's lives, then do we not have hope that we can offer? If people are still suffering from the sins of the past in our nation in various ways, even ways that they are not aware of, then can the church not step in and provide healing through love, forgiveness, and service and through embodying Christ as we proclaim and demonstrate the gospel of the Kingdom?
As long as we keep trying to figure out if a person's ideology, politics, and theology is going to benefit US before we step in to serve and help them, then we are going to be constantly divided, and Race will be a primary way that that that division occurs in America because of history and culture and our own sense of desiring safety and security. However, the Cross of Christ sends us out of our area of comfort in this world because we now find our identity in Christ as the New Creation and we no longer see anyone from a worldly point of view. We are now Ambassadors of Christ and His Kingdom and are ministers of reconciliation, holding out the gospel news that God is now reconciling everything to Himself through Christ. That is our call. And, it effects everything.
We cannot bring reconciliation if we keep trying to figure out how to defend and promote our own way of life every time that our own sensibilities are challenged. Living like that undermines our gospel witness and just perpetuates the historical divisions, but with a religious sanction and veneer that is not that different from the way that the church gave a defense for race-based slavery 150 years ago. The only way out of this trap is through the Cross, where we die to ourselves, meet Jesus, and live for Him and love others sacrificially – even when they threaten us. Yes, this is hard and we all struggle with it no matter our race or background. We struggle because we are human and fallen and we do not adequately appropriate God's grace to our lives the way we should. We all need help and that is why we look to Christ and depend solely on Him and not ourselves or our own wisdom.
Racism is not THE issue. It is a symptom of a deeper issue that we don't really want to address because we don't want to die to ourselves and the practice of promoting and defending our own way of life. But, if we really want to live, we have to die. If we want to see Racism and its effects end in America because we believe that every person is made in God's image and has value before God and is loved by Him, then we have to die to ourselves and getting our own way and defending our own way of life over others. We need the Cross. We need grace. We need the Jesus of Christmas and Easter who came to serve and not to be served and gave His life as a ransom for many.
So, final question: Am I trying to benefit myself and my way of life, or am I looking out for the interests of others and considering them better than myself?