Charleston, Race, and Christian Responsibility

AME crest

 

I felt numb as I read the news of a church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.  Not only had a young man heartlessly shot 9 people at a Bible study, but his racial motivation was explicit.  During the shooting, he stood up and declared that he was there “to shoot black people.”   After his arrest, he made no effort to conceal his disgusting motives; he plainly told investigators that he wanted a race war.  Though violence of any kind is horrific, it is the blatant racial hatred that motivated this shooting which makes it so difficult for me to comprehend.

How should we respond to this tragedy?  I struggled with this question for several days; there seemed to be no fitting response to such senseless violence.  However, this tragedy is an opportunity increase our awareness of racial divisions and be moved to appropriate action.  Therefore, I would like to sketch some issues which deserve our awareness and actions which we can take in response.

Let this Tragedy Raise Our Awareness

Many people, especially majority races, can afford to be unaware of racism past and present in this country.  But those who have been victimized by racism cannot be so unaware.  If majority race people want to help pursue racial reconciliation, they need to sympathetically listen and enter into the experiences of African-Americans in this country in order to learn about their plight.  So as we process this tragedy in Charleston, let us become aware of racial realities that perhaps we have been previously unaware of.  A white person may see Charleston as an isolated tragedy – the doing of a single, crazed individual.  But to the African-American community, this event is a signpost pointing to larger racial realities, past and present, within the United States.

1. Let us be aware of past racism in the United States.

Sadly, this event is not uncharacteristic of how African-Americans have been treated in the United States.  This country was founded with a Constitution that regarded a black person as two-thirds of a human being; enslavement of black people was normative in the South, and even after the Civil War, Jim Crow laws systematically discriminated against black people.  Sadly, the church has been complicit in this widespread racism.

That the Charleston shooting took place at an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church particularly echoes the American church’s blindness to the culturally acceptable sin of racism.  The AME Church was founded in 1797 so that African-Americans could have a safe place to worship after being thrown out of churches in Philadelphia!  The denomination itself originated so that African-Americans could worship safely without mistreatment.  And now, 228 years later, they have received a vicious warning that church is still no safe haven for them.

President Obama, in his public remarks on this tragedy, drew attention to the broader narrative of racial violence against African-Americans that lies behind this tragedy.  Because of this history, the shooting pours vinegar on open wounds.  President Obama explained, “The fact that this took place in a black church obviously also raises questions about a dark part of our history.  This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked.”

In particular, he highlighted the place that Emanuel AME Church has played in the history of racial tension:

“This is a place of worship that was founded by African Americans seeking liberty.  This is a church that was burned to the ground because its worshipers worked to end slavery.  When there were laws banning all-black church gatherings, they conducted services in secret.  When there was a nonviolent movement to bring our country closer in line with our highest ideals, some of our brightest leaders spoke and led marches from this church’s steps.  This is a sacred place in the history of Charleston and in the history of America.”

Similarly, CNN reported on the historic significance of this church and how the shooting touches a raw nerve by bringing back echoes of racial history:

If the killings had happened anywhere else they still would have been horrendous. The shock, outrage and fear would not be diminished.  But coming as they did inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the gunshots are echoing through black communities in a particularly painful way. The soaring, historic structure in Charleston, South Carolina, is not just a building. It’s not even just a place of worship. Emanuel is at the very heart of African-American history, and for many people it is holy ground in every way.

The article continues: “Emanuel has sent a message for generations of black citizens marginalized in the halls of politics, business, education, and even other churches.”  Located near the slave market in Charleston, the church was a symbol of freedom for an oppressed and mistreated people.  When one of the church’s founders tried to organize a slave rebellion, white people burned down the church and took 300 African-Americans as prisoners.  The church has served as a refuge for African-Americans and a place for them to learn and develop into citizens who seek societal justice.

Sadly, the American church has, by and large, failed to take a stand against this systematic injustice and racism.  For example, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) – the first and fourteenth largest Protestant denominations in the US, respectively – both have an acknowledged history of complicity in promoting racism within the church and society.

The SBC was founded as part of a split with the Northern Baptists due to its support for slavery.  Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore has said of racism:

“My Southern Baptist ancestors were on the wrong side of that issue. Which was not just on the wrong side of a social and political issue, it was on the wrong side of Jesus Christ himself. So God graciously has given the Southern Baptist Convention a second chance to model what the gospel is and what the mission of Christ is.”

The PCA recently issued a resolution acknowledging the denomination’s complicity in and failure to speak against racism within the church and society.  The resolution reads, in part:

“Be it therefore resolved, that the 43rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America does recognize and confess our church’s covenantal and generational involvement in and complicity with racial injustice inside and outside of our churches during the Civil Rights period; and Be it further resolved, that this General Assembly recommit ourselves to the task of truth and reconciliation with our African American brothers and sisters for the glory of God and the furtherance of the Gospel.”

By God’s grace, both the SBC and PCA have acknowledged their history of racism and committed themselves to fighting against it and seeking racial justice.  But as Anthony Bradley asks, “Why did it take 50 years [after the Civil Rights movement] for Calvinists to care about race?”  I am not trying to single out the SBC or PCA; I am thankful for their steps toward reconciliation.  But as two of the nation’s largest conservative Protestant denominations, their history is telling for American Protestantism as a whole.

2.  Let us be aware of present racism in the United States.

Though progress has been made toward racial reconciliation, there is still plenty of work to be done.  The first place we need to look for racism is within our own hearts.  Ultimately, our actions spring from our hearts.  Who we are inwardly is reflected by what we do outwardly.  All of us have a natural aversion to the “otherness” of people from different races and cultures.  Our natural self-centeredness breeds ethno-centricity and thus racism.  As inwardly focused sinners, we have a superiority complex that compels us to exert our ethnicity and a badge of superiority and view another person’s differing race as a sign of their inherent inferiority to us.

To raise awareness of racism, we need to raise awareness of the fallenness residing within each of us.  Racism is not simply a problem that is “out there,” external to us.  The seed of racism lies within each of our hearts, and before we can address the problem of racism in the church and society, we need to address the racism in our own hearts.

Once we have examined and come to terms with the heart issue, we can look more specifically at continued barriers to racial segregation in the church and society.  Even though overt racial hostility, violence, and exclusion are thankfully not as common anymore, the American church as a whole remains largely segregated, according to recent research by LifeWay.  The study found that “Sunday morning remains one of the most segregated hours in American life, with more than 8 in 10 congregations made up of one predominant racial group.”  Most disconcerting is the finding that many churchgoers have no desire for their congregations to become more racially diverse, with some (33 percent) strongly disagreeing that their church should pursue ethnic diversity.  This acceptance and comfortability with racially segregated congregations perpetuates division within the body of Christ.

Additionally, we should also be aware of structural racism in society.  The criminal justice system is a representative example of this.  Mass incarceration in the United States disproportionately harms African-Americans.  There exist wide disparities in how blacks and whites are prosecuted and sentenced for drug-related crimes.  There exist wide disparities in how frequently blacks and whites are pulled over by the police.  Not surprisingly, then, there is a wide disparity in how much black and white people trust law enforcement.  Many African-Americans live with the fear of being racially discriminated against by others.  Even President Obama knows first-hand the reality of racial discrimination.

We cannot afford to believe that the Civil Rights movement put an end to racism once and for all in this country.  Racism may not be codified in the nation’s laws as it once was, but racial disparity permeates society and frequently leaves African-Americans in a position of disadvantage.

Let This Tragedy Move Us To Action

The first step toward taking action is to become aware of an issue.  We cannot rectify problems of which we are unaware.  With some awareness, here are some ways Christians ought to be moved to action on the issue of racism.

1.  Understand and communicate that racism is inconsistent with the Gospel.

Ephesians 2 explains the inter-personal implications of the work of Christ.  Ephesians 2:1-10 describes how Christ has saved us from spiritual death and redeemed us to God.  Ephesians 2:11 begins with “therefore,” and then in 2:11-21, the relational results of Christ’s work are expounded upon.  Speaking of Jews and Gentiles, the passage says, “For he himself [Christ] is our peace, who has made the two groups [Jews and Gentiles] one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”

Unredeemed people are naturally divided by race and ethnicity.  Apart from Christ, our racial differences become fuel for the fires of self-centered ethnocentrism located within our fallen hearts.  Consequently, differences lead to division.  Every instance of racism, prejudice, discrimination, and ethnic cleansing bears witness to the divisions and hostility caused by our differences.

The work of Christ relativizes these differences by restoring people to relationship with God.  The cross of Christ is the ultimate answer to racism and the ultimate means of reconciliation: “His [Christ’s] purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two [Jews and Gentiles], thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Ephesians 2:15b-16).  By virtue of common participation in Jesus Christ, those who are different suddenly become brothers and sisters who have a common Father, Savior, and story of redemption.  Ethnic and cultural differences become trivial in comparison to the commonality shared between brothers and sisters in Christ.

Further, the Gospel condemns racism by giving us a model of living that is the exact opposite.  Racism is essentially a superiority complex that asserts dominance over another person.  By coming to earth and dying for our sins, Christ did the exact opposite; he did not seek to dominate, but to serve.  Philippians 2:5-8 commands us to exercise the same humility and self-sacrifice that Christ demonstrated:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!

Christ’s model is one of humility and self-sacrifice.  He used his privilege not to oppress others but to serve others.  He did not exert dominance, but exerted humility that sought the well-being of others.  Similarly, 1 John 3:16 tells us: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”  This verse cuts against every racist impulse that leads us to exert superiority and dominance over another person.

The work of Christ shines a light into the darkness of our racist hearts and exposes racism for the sin that it is.  Unfortunately, I have not frequently heard racism addressed from the pulpit.  I applaud the frankness with which Russell Moore (quoted above) has spoken about this issue.  White evangelicals, in particular, need to take ownership for white Christians’ history of complicity with discrimination.  Conversations about racial reconciliation must not be taboo in the church.  The discussion can be uncomfortable, but leaders need to make the conversation a normative part of church life.  Healing and reconciliation cannot begin until this past is frankly acknowledged and grieved.

2. Seek ways for local churches to model racial reconciliation.

The LifeWay research quoted above shows how rarely the reconciling work of Christ is demonstrated in our Sunday morning worship gatherings.  To model and live out the Gospel, churches need to find ways to seek racial integration on Sunday mornings.  This will not happen by accident; it requires intentionality.

I do not pretend to be an expert at all on this subject.  Thus I offer no definitive solutions, but I would like to suggest two questions that deserve consideration.

First, what does it look like for churches to reflect diversity among their leadership teams?  A church that claims to be committed to ethnic diversity but has an all-white team of pastors/elders will have difficulty implementing that vision.  Bethlehem Baptist Church, where John Piper was previously pastor, has a policy of intentionally pursuing ethnic diversity among the leadership when making hiring decisions.  Having a multi-ethnic leadership team allows for a multitude of cultural perspectives.  Because people of various races have different cultures and life experiences, those differences meld together in a melting pot among the leadership team and thus prevent the church from operating according to one dominant ethnic perspective.  Bryan Loritts, pastor of a multi-ethnic church in Memphis, does an excellent job of explaining this here.

Second, what does it look like for churches to reflect diversity in their practices?  Styles of preaching and corporate worship vary from culture to culture.  To practically promote ethnic diversity, churches must consider their practices and find ways to ensure that worship gatherings reflect cultural diversity.  One area for consideration in this regard is preaching.  My preaching professor at TEDS, Dr. Jared Alcántara, has written his doctoral dissertation on inter-cultural preaching and will be publishing a book on the topic this year.  It is entitled Crossover Preaching: Improvisational-Intercultural Homiletics in Conversation with Gardner C. Taylor.  I would commend this forthcoming resource to preachers and church leaders who seek to be sensitive to ethnic diversity in their communication of Scripture.

Bryan Loritts, in the article linked above, says, “My experience in multiethnic churches has lead to this grand conclusion: Something essential is missing in my life when I only do life with people like me.”  Only as churches commit to the difficult work of reconciliation will we begin to see beauty in the diversity of God’s people.

3. Seek societal justice for the oppressed.

Our Christian faith should spill over into the way we view social issues.  Understanding God’s heart for the oppressed and marginalized should cause our hearts to break as we look at our racially fractured society.  Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27) surely has social implications.  To explain this command, Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37); in it, the Samaritan helps a needy man who is lying helplessly on the side of the street after being beaten up and robbed.  The point of this parable is that anybody we see who is in need is our neighbor, and therefore we ought to love them and seek their good.

Consider also the command of Proverbs 31:8: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.”  Social advocacy on behalf of the oppressed, marginalized, and poor should be characteristic of Christian who understand God’s heart for the helpless.  An encounter with God’s grace in the Gospel is the invigorating force for us to extend grace to others.  As Tim Keller says, “A true experience of the grace of Jesus Christ inevitably motivates a man or woman to seek justice in the world.” (Generous Justice, p. xi)

Many evangelicals fear that concern for social issues inevitably causes the church to reduce the gospel to a message of social transformation with no proclamation of eternal life through Christ.  This is an understandable concern, but proclamation of the cross and advocacy for social justice are not mutually exclusive.  Both of these are entailed in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20).

In 1947, renowned evangelical theologian Carl F.H. Henry – certainly no theological liberal – chastised the church of his time for its retreat from engagement in social issues.  Henry said:

“Social justice is not, moreover, simply an appendage to the evangelical message; it is an intrinsic part of the whole, without which the preaching of the gospel itself is truncated. Theology devoid of social justice is a deforming weakness of much present-day evangelical witness.”

The Christian Community Development Association exemplifies how Christians can permeate broken societies as “salt and light” (Matt. 5:13) by assisting with community development and restoration.  Instead of retreating and withdrawing from our broken society, we should enter in and engage with our communities as agents of justice and mercy.

Conclusion

The hate-inspired shooting in Charleston should fill us with grief.  But as we grieve, let us be moved to awareness and to action.  Let us take this as an opportunity to stimulate much-needed awareness and conversation about racial divisions within society and the church.  As God’s people, entrusted with the message of reconciliation, we cannot be silent about injustice that is so grievous to God’s heart.  Let our grief motivate us to advocacy and action as we seek racial reconciliation within our society and within our churches.  By doing so, we bear witness to the reconciling power of the Gospel.

Recommended Resources

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2012.

Emerson, Michael. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Keller, Timothy. Generous Justice. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.

Loritts, Bryan, ed. Letters to a Birmingham Jail: A Response to the Words and Dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Chicago: Moody, 2014.

Sanders, Alvin. Bridging the Diversity Gap: Leading Toward God’s Multi-Ethnic Kingdom. Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2013.

Wilson, William. More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009.

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