Can you lead a racial reconciliation movement if you don’t have a clear definition of what it means to be reconciled? American Christians may be about to find out.
Dozens of Christian denominations are using Wednesday’s anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to gather — including at a large rally on the Mall — and demand that Christians directly confront their own racism and that within the American church. However, a history of inaction and ambivalence by Christian leaders has led to division about what is at the core of racial healing.
Does it center on truth-telling — an admission of racism as a reality and a sin and a deepening of interracial relationships? Or should it be about marshaling power to change policies involving criminal justice, educational inequity and other issues? Some black faith leaders won’t even use the word “reconciliation” because they think that over the decades, it has kept the focus on the small, interpersonal level rather than systemic change.
“I can tell you, the second you tell me, ‘Come participate in racial reconciliation,’ I’m rolling my eyes,” said the Rev. Jonathan Walton, minister of Harvard University’s Memorial Church. “I don’t need you to hug me and tell me you’re sorry. I need you to raise your voice against predatory lending within communities of color.”
The “platform” for Wednesday’s event on the Mall is wide ranging, and includes everything from “truth-telling and truth hearing” about racism within faith community to economic justice, immigration and health care. “Our commitment is to awaken to the trauma of racism and the legacy of white privilege in the United States through self-evaluation and institutional assessment of embedded racism,” the platform flyer says.
There are sporadic events across the country this year to mark King’s assassination, including dozens in Memphis; many are organized through the National Civil Rights Museum. King was in Memphis April 4, 1968, 50 years ago, for a sanitation workers strike when he was shot and killed at the Lorraine Motel.
But major faith groups are planning new ways to bring a specifically religious focus to the Baptist pastor’s life and message. This comes at a time when some of the most visible public campaigns on race — such as Black Lives Matter or Campaign Zero — don’t particularly use religion in their appeal.
The biggest April 4 event appears to be the one in Washington. Called “Act Now! Unite To End Racism,” the three-day gathering is being organized by the National Council of Churches, a network of 38 mostly progressive denominations — white and black — as well as several major African American Christian umbrella groups and the largest American Jewish denomination, among others. Representatives will attend from groups including the Church of God in Christ, a predominantly black Pentecostal denomination, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The gathering’s center is a day-long rally April 4 on the Mall, and organizers say they’re planning for more than 10,000 people. As of now, it appears to be the biggest U.S. public event of the anniversary.
Organizers badly want to avoid the division that has been an element of other recent public protest events, such as the massive 2017 Women’s March on Washington that was defined for some by march leaders’ decision to make access to abortion and birth control part of their platform. While there will be speakers addressing particular policy solutions, the focus will be on “confessing and repenting of the sin of racism,” said Bishop Darin Moore, a regional leader of the AME Zion denomination and vice president of the National Council of Churches (NCC).
On the anniversary of the killing of “America’s 20th century prophet,” Moore wrote to The Washington Post: “We will engage in a public witness of both our hope for unity and the truth of our continued brokenness. We will affirm that recognition, repentance and reparative justice are essential prerequisites for reconciliation.
“This is not about partisan politics. And it’s not going to be about progressive vs conservative,” Moore continued. “It’s about the fact that the longest and deepest issue dividing our churches in this country remains racism.”
Jacquelyn Dupont Walker, a Los Angeles activist who co-chairs the NCC’s racial justice task force, said the event doesn’t intend to define “fighting racism” narrowly. “We want people to come to D.C. to connect with people who feel like they do … to find someone who wants to work on it the way they do. You are called to work the way you are.”
Having worked on racial justice for many years from inside the church, however, Walker said the issue feels extremely urgent. She remembers her father, who was an organizer of bus boycotts to end segregation in Florida in the 1950s, and his pain upon retirement seeing the same problems enduring. “I am at that point. I am leaving the same problems for my children and grandchildren. On my watch, I want it to be different,” she said.
The event’s website depicts it as the first step in a long process that will have people return to their communities to “address racism in the areas of church life and practices, criminal, economic and social justice, civil and human rights, environmental justice, immigration, media and education.”
Organizers say the most common skepticism they’re getting doesn’t have to do with left-vs.-right or policy disagreements, but with the fear that the event will be empty hand-holding that changes nothing.
So far, people are comfortable with the event, the date, the focus — “We’ve had no pushback,” said Jim Winkler, president and general secretary of the NCC. “The main thing I hear is: ‘How can we be sure this won’t be another one-day event?’ There has to be more than just churches — black and white — swapping choirs and pastors. How do we get this down to everyday behavior and life for individuals? How do we build relationships?”
But to some, “relationships” is code for status quo.
Jemar Tisby is an evangelical writer who runs a Web community for black Christians and is writing a book about the church and racism. He said he doesn’t use the term “racial reconciliation” anymore because it evokes for many people images of huge “Promise Keeper” rallies of conservative Christian men in the 1990s, events aimed at promoting traditional marriage and gender ideas — as well as racial reconciliation. But the focus was on change through one’s individual relationship with God, not on efforts to upset the societal gears in which people become stuck, Tisby said.
“Among Christians, the term tends to emphasize relational aspects, sitting down for coffee with someone of a different race, which is necessary but not sufficient,” he said. Young African Americans don’t even want to hear from faith leaders who aren’t doing concrete work, he said.
Asked whether religious figures are seen as leading the fight against racism today, he said: “In short, no.”
However, Tisby thinks racism may be one of the few issues that is a shared priority today for many Christians on both the right and the left.
The Rev. William Barber, a progressive organizer from North Carolina, has revived King’s language and launched a similarly named Poor People’s Campaign focused on economic and labor justice. His group has been running anniversary-related programs in churches across the country, aimed at encouraging people — religious and otherwise — to engage in acts of civil disobedience against discriminatory policies. Barber chairs a group of clergy organized for the anniversary who are focusing on the connection between religious faith and moral values — including the elimination of racism.
Conservative evangelicals in Memphis will also work to define what ending racism looks like. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, was floored that what they expected to be a small April 4 anniversary conference had drawn 3,500 pastors and lay leaders from the church as of Tuesday.
With about 15 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention is the country’s largest Protestant denomination.
Russell Moore, the commission’s leader, said the group wanted to do a specifically evangelical event “given the silence and/or hostility to civil rights that often came from evangelical churches during the time of King. We want to talk about why that was, and how do we apply the Gospel to questions of racial justice and reconciliation?”
The two-day conference in Memphis, timed to the anniversary, will feature leaders of various racial and ethnic backgrounds.
“Some people will talk policy. Others will talk about culture change within congregations. Others will address personal blind spots,” he said.
“When you look at the ministry of Martin Luther King, he did both — voting rights and civil rights laws, but at the same time he’s addressing the problem of sin at the personal level. He’s calling for reform but also for repentance. Repentance without reform is shallow. But reform without repentance is hell.”
There are political eggshells awaiting these groups. Moore leads an overwhelmingly Republican faith group and can’t too harshly connect the recent rise in racial and religious tensions to President Trump — even though he is known as a Trump critic. The Washington rally has its list of policy prescriptions and could lose rally-goers if too many speakers focus on conservative societal solutions such as government deregulation or budget-cutting. Progressives such as Walton, of Harvard, are looking for racism to be tied directly to sexism, homophobia and class.
“Are we going to be able to clearly have an intersectional message … where injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere?” Walton asked.
Wendi C. Thomas, a Memphis journalist who founded the nonprofit reporting project MLK50.com, about economic justice and King’s legacy, said most white Southern faith leaders and many black ones were not supportive of King at the time of his death — and many are silent now. Most white churches in the city where he was killed don’t take up racism at all, she said. With some exceptions, black pastors still hammer away on the importance of improving one’s own mind-set rather than tackling institutional change as a way to ease racial inequity, she said.
“There is still this focus on ‘you need to pull up your pants’ — like that’s what’s wrong with society,'” she said.
For Walker, the Los Angeles activist, the point is this that the church needs to step up.
“It will take on a life of its own. We don’t know where God is leading us,” she said. “We just believe we’re called to call this nation to attention.”