A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Segregated Sundays: Some Thoughts on Ferguson and the Racially Divided Church

I have yet to say anything about the Ferguson situation and last week's decision by the grand jury not to indict Officer Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. We live in a social media culture, which encourages us to speak too quickly; and having been guilty of speaking too soon on more than a few occasions with embarrassing results, I decided that I would spend some days listening and reading the thoughts of others before I said anything.

I am not going to comment on the event itself that led to Michael Brown's death, nor will I comment on the decision of the grand jury. This is not because I have no opinion on either event, but rather so much has been said, much of it insightful, and unfortunately some of it not so much, that I simply do not believe there is anything I could say that would add to the discussion in a helpful way. But what I do want to comment on in this post is how the church in America has failed miserably to be a witness of racial reconciliation, and I must sadly confess that I have been part of the problem.

One of the things I have continued to suggest in some of my blog posts and in a recent book I wrote, is that the church is itself a politic, that the church is itself a nation with its own polity, and that the central way that the church is political is by being a witness to the world in its words and deeds what God expects of the world. The church is to be that city set on a hill that Jesus mentions in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:14). I have also suggested that our witness has been muted because we have instead resorted to political activism as the primary way change is affected. Thus, the church does not act nearly like a city on the hill as it does just one more special interest group working in the political cogs of the nation state. I do not reject all political activism. Working to change laws that help ameliorate racial discrimination for example, is a good thing. The Civil Rights movement in America was a good thing, a necessary thing. But too often we have forgotten Dean Merrill's words that "the law is a modest helper at best." We have worked tirelessly to change laws, forgetting that true reconciliation can only happen when hearts are changed. And when it comes to bearing witness to the reconciliation that can only come by way of Jesus Christ, we the church have failed to bear witness by our very existence as the church, that racism is not the way of God.

Regardless of what anyone thinks actually happened that day between Office Wilson and Michael Brown, we must not ignore the larger and tragic context that has fueled the emotions of so many. Those who are white that say that race should not be an issue in reference to Ferguson have apparently learned nothing from history. Since the sixteenth century race and racism have been systematically woven into the founding of America with the African slave trade. That systematic and vile racism lasted for three hundred years and only ended with a long civil war that took over 600,000 lives. And even though the Civil War ended slavery as an institution, it did not end racism and discrimination that was often brutal and deadly--lynchings, beatings, and injustice being visited on African Americans through the justice system itself. And then there was Jim Crow-- laws that enacted legal segregation in the South until 1965. But even after segregation was officially over, it did not end in practice. The long and short of this is that race has been an issue in America since the sixteenth century. Those who say that Ferguson should not be about race simply do not understand the long view of history. Race is embedded in our culture in ways that are often not positive because of that long and tragic history, and those of us who are white need to recognize that-- yes, there is such a thing as white privilege, and even though I object when that terminology is used to shut down discussion (and it's usually progressive white males who use the "white privilege card" to shut down discussion) white privilege exists nonetheless, which is also so embedded in our society, we who are white so often fail to see it.

The main reason I do not want to discuss what happened on the day Michael Brown was shot is not because what happened is unimportant, but because I do not want the larger context to be missed. As I said, if indeed it can somehow be proven that Officer Wilson acted appropriately, that does not change the larger and long and sad narrative that continues to divide us racially today. As a white person I have never felt distrust when it comes to the police, so I need to listen when my African American friends tell me why they have that distrust and the many and various incidents that have led to such distrust. And by the way, none of what I am saying is an indictment on all those in law enforcement. I was a volunteer police chaplain. I have great respect for those who are willing to put themselves in harms way for the rest of us. And I do not believe that most police officers are bad. Indeed, I think 95% are good and trustworthy people. But like in any profession, including the clergy, only a few bad apples make it tougher for everyone else trying to do the best they can. I am not putting Officer Wilson in either category. As I said, I don't want that discussion to distract us from the larger issue less it be lost on us.

So, what about the church? Perhaps the church has little moral authority on this matter. After all, Christians were heavily involved in the slave trade, and Christians who had an economic stake in the slave trade fought hard to prevent its ending. Of course, it needs to be said as well that Christians also worked to end slavery and Christians worked toward ending segregation and enacting civil rights legislation as well. But it must be said that the results are not equally mixed, and not in a good way.

Many of us know the old adage-- Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America. We Christians have been very comfortable staying within our "own groups." Those groups are not only racial, but that is my focus in this post. The followers of Jesus Christ who have the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:16-21) have failed to show the culture around us what that reconciliation looks like in Christ between people whose skin colors differ. We have worked to change laws, but not hearts; what we ultimately have is a heart problem.

The day after the grand jury decision to acquit Officer Wilson, I placed a phone call to an African American pastor I met several weeks ago at a luncheon. We exchanged contact information to schedule a time to meet for lunch. But I suppose with the busyness of our days, neither one of us contacted the other. So, on Wednesday of last week I called him and we are going to meet for lunch. I want to talk with him about Ferguson and the larger issues that have once again bubbled to the surface. I will do some talking, but first and foremost I will be listening. I will be listening to his story because I know that is the only way I am going to learn. And I also hope we can discuss how our two communities of faith might get to know each other, that we might listen to one another, and to share our different stories in the larger narrative of the story of the gospel that all of us embrace. And not only do I want to build relationships in general, I want to build relationships as Christians who gather for worship and who gather around the Table of our common Lord. I believe that reconciliation can be found at that Table. As Christians it's time for us to step back somewhat and focus a little less on doing (though that should not be neglected) and work on just being-- just being the one Body of Christ in all our diversity, knowing that our common faith puts that diversity in divine context.

It's time for the church of Jesus Christ to take seriously its ministry of reconciliation, including racial reconciliation in the church itself. Only then can we be that witness, that city on a hill shining forth to the world that racism, even in its most subtle forms is not the way of God.


Jonathan Marlowe said...

Thanks for this Allan. I am the pastor of two churches: one that is predominantly African American and one that is predominantly white. This past Sunday, we had a joint worship service, and I preached about Ferguson in light of the advent theme of hope. (See my Facebook status). Unless the church can model what it means to be a community of reconciliation, we have little credibility when we pontificate about racism. The church doesn't have a social ethic. The church is a social ethic.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your kind comments. Keep up the good kingdom work of reconciliation.