Democracy Dies in Darkness

Acts of Faith | Perspective

After Charlottesville, will white pastors finally take racism seriously?

By Jemar Tisby

August 12, 2017 at 6:34 PM

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White nationalists were met by counterprotesters in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, leading Gov. Terry McAuliffe to declare a state emergency. A car plowed into crowds, killing one person and injuring 19 others. (Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Last night, white supremacists assembled in Charlottesville for a public demonstration of hate. They held torches and chanted phrases such as "White lives matter!" and "Jews will not replace us!" Following an event that the city's mayor called an "unsanctioned and despicable display of visual intimidation," white pastors have a critical role to play.

There is no greater need to apply the biblical call to "speak the truth in love" than in the area of white supremacy and the church.

As a Christian, I believe the church remains instrumental in dismantling the racial caste system in America. Black Christians and their allies have been decrying white supremacy as long as it has existed. Too often, though, our warnings and protestations are met with tepid responses.

In the wake of the Charlottesville rally — and the country's ongoing racial tension — we look to the church and ask, "White pastors, will you now work to end white supremacy?"

Several hundred white nationalists carrying torches marched in a parade through the University of Virginia campus Friday night. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

I know that term — white supremacy — is unpopular. It tends to shut down conversation because folks think it only refers to racists who wear hoods and burn crosses. They think it's too harsh to apply to them, the people they know, or the church. But let's call it what it is. We can't change the white supremacist status quo unless we name it and confront it.

Let's also be clear that we can't really end white supremacy. In the Christian view, racism is a sin, and sin cannot be completely eradicated on this side of eternity. But we are called to fight against sin in all its forms, so we should expect positive change in our churches and society at large as we fight against it.

Black Christians have pointed to the warning signs. Plenty of us said that the current president, based on his rhetoric during the campaign, would energize a new era of bigotry. President Trump has created a context in which white supremacists feel emboldened in their views and have no shame in admitting them publicly and vocally.

Yet at the polls, white evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Trump. Despite all of their verbal commitments to equality and racial reconciliation, 80 percent of white evangelicals went against the voices of their brothers and sisters of color.

When a black pastor in the largest Protestant denomination in the country presented a resolution condemning the alt-right and white supremacy, a small group of mostly white pastors dismissed it out of hand. It took the protests of other pastors, as well as a swift backlash on social media, for the Southern Baptist Convention to pass a modified resolution at its annual meeting in June.

Related: [Southern Baptists voted overwhelmingly to condemn ‘alt-right white supremacy’]

The dilemma is all too familiar. More than 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. penned a response to white pastors after they sent a message urging restraint and gradualism in the civil rights movement. In his famous "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," King said,

I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be some of our strongest allies. Instead, some few have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.

King's words still resound prophetically today. The time for caution has long passed; we must take courageous action to expel white supremacy from the church.

White Christians will inevitably ask, "But what do we do?" This question perpetuates the problem. People of color did not create white supremacy; white people did. To ask a racial minority how to solve a problem they didn't create and one under which they suffer only adds to their burdens.

There are no straightforward, plug-and-play solutions. Despite all the unique situations in churches across the country, some general principles for battling white supremacy apply:

  1. Admit the American church was built on white supremacy.
    From the Colonial era to the present day, white churches have helped build a society that privileges whiteness and denigrates blackness. In light of the white church’s involvement in creating and maintaining white supremacy, white pastors can presume that their churches are already part of the problem, intentionally or not.
  2. Confess and repent of past sins.
    Many congregations were formed in a fit of “white flight” from cities. Many Christian schools, particularly in the South, were explicitly created to preserve racial segregation in an era of court-ordered desegregation. Christians and church leaders must ask themselves how much they have acknowledged their own history. Have they gone through their church records and rulings to tell the full story of how their church, community, or denomination has cooperated with white supremacy? A failure to face white supremacy in the past will lead to a failure to confront it in the present.
  3. Commit to responding to white supremacy with the vigor that the problem requires.
    When we examine the history of race and the American church, the story is often worse than we expect. The church hasn’t simply gone along with white supremacy — it has assembled and established it. If white Christians have historically been so intentional about building up barriers between the races, then they will have to be just as intentional to bring them down.
  4. Listen to black people.
    We’ve been saying all along that a Charlottesville could easily happen. For years, the alt-right and white nationalists have employed the Bible to justify their racism, in public online. But many white Christians have never heard of the alt-right, much less been equipped to filter their messages biblically. We kept trying to tell them that this obsession with the Confederacy and its cultural artifacts sabotaged efforts at racial unity.

Despite all our efforts, some white pastors still remain silent on Sunday. They relegate racism to the status of a "social" issue and not a "gospel" issue. Leadership in churches and other Christian organizations remain all or mostly white. It's the same with the boards of directors and trustees of these institutions. Evangelicals who prostitute the faith for political power remain in the pulpit and are given wide latitude to stir up racial resentment in the guise of "race neutral" language.

Despite their insistence on justice, black Christians who speak boldly about racism and white supremacy often get muted or silenced. We can only infer that the sensitivities of white listeners matter more than the pain of black brothers and sisters.

No one likes to be pressured into speaking out about injustice. You want to do it from your own conviction. I get it. I really do. Just know that the time has never been more urgent for white Christians, pastors in particular, to decry white supremacy in our day.

I appreciate the notable exceptions — those white pastors who have spoken up about white supremacy, sometimes in the face of strident opposition. Unfortunately, they are all too few.

We are waiting for the day that the racists in Charlottesville at least feel enough shame to practice their hatred in secret. But black Christians cannot do this alone. White pastors, now is the time for courageous action in the face of white supremacy.

Jemar Tisby writes about religion, race and culture as president of the Reformed African American Network, and he is the co-host of the "Pass the Mic" podcast. Follow him on Twitter @JemarTisby.

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