I asked my friend, Rai King, to guest blog for me on the important topic of using "black" as the color symbol in our Christian narrative for "sin". As a Jesus following black woman, Rai has taught me so much about how destructive this language can be for our racial identity and spiritual reconciliation. In this Part 2, Rai shares some challenges for next steps...
Thanks to this very tumultuous election, issues of race and the church are coming to the forefront in a way they never have before. Christians who once considered themselves bound to one another as one body in Christ, now find themselves on such opposite sides of the political debate that I fear a rift has been created that will take decades to repair. I speak for a good number of my fellow African-American friends when I say that many of us no longer feel safe and comfortable in our mixed-race evangelical churches on Sunday mornings. It feels to us as though people we once broke bread with after church, and shared personal challenges with during small group meetings, never actually knew us, and have chosen “conservatism” as a cover for what is actually white nationalism in their willingness to vote for a candidate who has so greatly offended our community and nearly every community of color in this country.
When we were in Atlanta, my family attended a church that was thought to be somewhat diverse racially. We have struggled to find our way in church since my husband stopped pastoring. So it was with a sense of hopeful skepticism that we decided to give this particular church a try. The service proceeded as expected, and we were comfortable enough to consider returning. That is until we stood up and faced the doors to leave the sanctuary. On the back wall above the doors was an enormous mural depicting Jesus and the disciples during the last supper. The mural covered the entire wall, and it showed a traditional White Jesus flanked, oddly enough, by 12 somewhat brown disciples. Now think about that. Jesus and his disciples were from the same part of the world as one another. So why would he be one color, and they another? Why concede that Jesus’ disciples were likely brown as the Palestinians of today are, but choose to still depict Jesus as white? We all know by now that the depiction of Jesus we have circulated for hundreds of years is not based at all on any description given of him in the bible, but is based, instead, on the likeness of those that painted it. You may assert that you could care less what color Jesus was. But is that really true? Ask yourself: Could you bring yourself to worship an image of Jesus as a brown-skinned man with brown eyes and kinky hair instead of blue eyes, and long, straight hair? If that were the image that your pastor chose to hang in the hallways or paint on the walls -one of an Arab looking man, and not and Englishman, could you worship Him the same?
A few years ago, my teenage daughter attended our church's youth retreat. The kids in attendance were all divided into teams and each team was assigned a color name such as green, red, blue, and white. During the portion when they were to create a chant for their team, the “white” team decided to include in their song that their team was the best because their team was white and Jesus was also white. If you’re White, and Jesus is also White, how superior must you be! Of course, you’re on the winning team at this summer camp and also in life! My daughter was one of only a handful of African-American children attending the camp, and she was horrified and embarrassed at the assertion. These teenagers had learned that it was perfectly acceptable to place themselves in a position of power, authority, and privilege over all the other kids at the camp because they were taught that their skin color bore the same color of the Savior we all worship. Images matter.
Pretending that issues surrounding race do not exist and that we don’t see race when we look at each other is no longer an option. Our churches must address it head on or risk losing our witness to the world. Education theory teaches that all teachers enter the classroom with biases towards particular groups of students and that if we want to be effective teachers for every child, we must do the hard work of examining our implicit beliefs about the cultures from which our students come. This is true for every teacher regardless of their race. The same is true for Christians and the church.
Our friend, a pastor of a diverse church here in New York City, is a great example of a pastor leading his church in this very important work. A few weeks ago, this pastor called together all of the Black leaders and volunteers in his church and asked them 2 questions:
1) What is it like to be Black in this church?
2) Do you feel fully valued and appreciated?
He thought his church was nailing it in the area of race relations so he asked fully expecting he knew the answers. What transpired, though, was several hours of what he would call one of the most important moments of his life. Several of his leaders - many of whom had been with him since the church started - explained all of the ways in which the culture of the church caused them, as African-Americans, to feel invisible. Our friend stated that he cried a good 7 or 8 times throughout this meeting with these African-American members. He simply had no idea that they felt that way.
As African-Americans, we have learned to deal with subtle forms of racism or at the very least, our invisible status. We have to because it is ever present from the day we become conscious of race. We have learned to look past micro-aggressions and see the heart of our friends. We have learned to assume the best about the white people in our lives. So, of course, this pastor was unaware of the secret hurts his congregants of color carried. It’s generally not the kind of thing we go around talking about, except to each other.
If we truly want to reconcile the church and issues of race, there are a few steps we can take...
First, we have to begin with examining our own biases. This is hard stuff, because it’s us admitting our own ugly beliefs about our brothers and sisters from diverse cultures. The good thing is that this can be a private examination. Ask yourself what lies have you been told and perhaps bought into? Is there any part of you that believes you are inherently smarter, better, harder-working, or more entitled to this country than the Black, Brown, or Asian person worshipping next to you? Are there aspects of their being that you believe to be present based solely on their race and not their actual personalities? Do you believe that Jesus was White and is this belief at all central to your ability to worship Him? How does accepting Jesus’ brownness challenge your worship?
After examining your own beliefs, examine your church. Look around.
- What are the images your church puts forth?
- Are there pictures of a White, long-haired Jesus adorning your walls?
- What about your children’s ministry literature? What is the race of the children and teachers in the videos you show?
- What is the orientation of the music?
- Is there any space where your church recognizes and embeds the rhythms, norms, and ways of being of the various cultures that attend and reflect the Kingdom of God?
Finally, what is your messaging? Could your services be mistaken for conservative political rallies? Are issues of racial injustice even addressed? Just because you aren’t thinking about it, doesn’t mean we aren’t. I guarantee you when we go to church each Sunday our hearts are heavy and burdened by the latest police shooting or the racist undertones of this election cycle. We might smile, tell jokes, and talk about the upcoming potluck, but our hearts and minds are not clear. We serve a God who sent His son as a direct example of how to defend, protect, and stand up for the down-trodden and hurting, yet our Sunday morning musings are filled with proclamations by leaders who don't address the needs of the hurting people of color in their congregations.
We don’t expect that our fellow White Christians will always speak elegantly on these issues. What we hope for, and what must take place if we are to be the church that Jesus comes back for, is that we all assume the posture of listener. We must enter into purposeful conversations that are preceded by truthful examinations of our own hearts toward one another. We must ask the hard questions, and accept the tough answers.
FINAL THOUGHTS FROM ME: Big thanks to my friend, Rai, for speaking to this tender and important issue. I've walked with Rai and seen how she and her family personally, confrontationally, forgivingly, and powerfully are working through the Gospel issues of race and reconciliation for the sake of seeing the Kingdom come more on earth as it is in heaven.
I'd love your comments and questions below, especially if they are helpful, repentant, learning, humble, and honoring to each other's God-given humanity. But if they are hateful and unwilling to listen and learn, they will be deleted.
Rai King is an elementary school teacher with a B.A. in Child Development from Spelman College and a M.A. in Gifted Education from Arizona State University. With 14 years of experience, she has taught in private, public, and parochial schools in addition to homeschooling her own children. She currently resides in New York City with her husband, Shaun, and five children ages 17, 14, 10, 7, and 3. In addition to her passion for education, Rai is interested in the modern church’s role in pursuing issues of social justice.