“I don’t see race, I see people.” How many times have we heard that statement? Racism is the most intractable issue in American society today and has been for decades. Many people believe that if we stopped taking about race, the issue would go away. I would first like to point out how little sense that logic makes. If racism is still a prevalent issue (which it is), how does simply talking about it make things worse and how would ignoring it end it? What if we applied that flawed logic to other issues? What if we stopped talking about hunger, sex trafficking, or child starvation? Would those conditions end? If we applied that logic to those issues, we would be condemned, and rightfully so, because they are serious problems that require serious conversation and intentional action. The same goes for racism. Unfortunately, many people endorse a colorblind concept that suggests that we are all “people,” and by talking about our differences, we are being divisive. Nowhere do I see this issue more prevalent than in the church.
I am a Christian who seeks to follow Christ on a daily basis. I believe that the gospel at its core is a liberating message to all and in particular, the oppressed. I believe as James Cone accurately puts it in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, that the cross of Jesus Christ is the most empowering symbol of God’s solidarity with the oppressed and most vulnerable in our society which includes victims of racism (Cone, 2011). This is why I find the colorblindness and lack of attention to racism in the church so troubling. This isn’t new. As black slaves and abolitionists were fighting against slavery in the 19th century, many white Christians were either silent or hostile to the liberation of slaves. In the 20th century, white churches and Christian colleges maintained segregationist policies and criticized the Civil Rights movement and other liberation movements as being unchristian or communist. They argued that black people should stop bringing attention to these issues and just preach the gospel; others believed that blacks were incapable of being true Christians or of going to heaven. Even some black churches, especially those affiliated with the churches of Christ, were silent about the racism they faced and believed that it was an issue for city hall, not the church.
Let me be clear, the silence and hostility towards race in the 19th and 20th century has carried into the 21st century. It has been manifested as colorblindness. Christian colorblind advocates argue that because we are all one in Christ, we should focus on what unites us rather than what divides us. While the bible does make references to being one in Christ beyond our differences (Galatians 3:28), the passages are not advocating a colorblind perspective. If you read Paul’s letters to churches, he is very vocal about the discrimination that takes place, most notably, how the Jews were treating the Gentiles. If Paul were colorblind or better in the context “cultureblind”, he would ignore those differences and suggest that we are all “Christians” and we shouldn’t care. The truth is that we should care and we should be vocal. One example of the toxic colorblindness in American Christianity is when Christian rapper Lecrae began speaking out against police violence toward unarmed black men and women this summer. The response from his evangelical fans was disturbing. They told him to stop talking about race and stick to the “gospel.” Many of his fans have argued that he is no longer a Christian rapper because he talks about race. This is also evident when churches across this country will pray for almost every issue under the sun but racism, even after tragic events.
So much of the gospel is speaking out against injustices and siding with the oppressed. As a Christian I believe that the gospel is the most effective tool in siding with the oppressed and historically, the black church demonstrated this through its tireless fight against racism. Resorting to colorblindness does nothing but reinforce racist policies and institutions. Refusing to discuss these issues in a church community for fear of being controversial does much harm and no good. The church’s silence is toxic. If your church community is ready to reject colorblindness, here are some tips to be most effective:
1. Listen to your black brothers and sisters: Many churches stress the importance of listening to those who are suffering and building trust in relationships. If we want to foster a welcoming and safe community, we have to be willing to listen to the needs of our brothers and sisters who are suffering with the trauma of racism without being influenced by your own self-interest or political motives. Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean it isn’t a reality. In so many other instances we preach the value of being others-oriented and attentive listeners. We should apply the same concept when discussing race. Talk less and listen/ask more.
2. Pray against racism: I hear many prayers in churches about issues going on in the world, from the persecution of Christians in the Middle East to the safety and security of America. When we pray about race related incidents, we either pray broadly about peace and safety in the urban streets and/or for police officers. By ignoring prayers against the injustices of America, and particularly racism (including police brutality), we are sending a political message. We are saying (whether consciously or not) that the lives of police officers are more valuable. We are suggesting that these issues have more to do with the pathology of black families than they have to do with injustices. We should be willing to pray against the racial injustices in our society unapologetically, because they exist and are present both on an individual and structural level.
3. Reject the savior mentality: If your church is in an urban setting and/or does ministry in urban communities, you have to think about your motives. In other words, think about your intentions and priorities in being involved with a particular community. Many white churches go to urban communities of color with the intention of “saving them” or “bringing Jesus to them.” As well intentioned as this is, it is very dangerous and reinforces the notion that non-white people have pathologically bad behaviors and values. This applies to ministry in low-income communities in general but particularly in non-white communities. Look to build relationships and get to know people in your neighborhood rather than taking over and advancing your own agenda. If your church is planning to get involved with racial justice work, you must also be aware of the savior mentality. Many social justice advocates have a savior mindset in which disenfranchised people are used simply for the purpose of telling stories but are not involved in creating change. While such advocates are aware of racial injustices, they are blind to how their privilege allows them to lead and control certain movements and initiatives. Even if your church is active against racism, it can still fall victim to colorblindness if it fails to actively engage disenfranchised communities because of their privilege.
I recognize that talking about race can be uncomfortable and contentious, but it is a necessary conversation. Historically, the church in America, and in particular, the churches of Christ (the affiliation I grew up in), have been silent about this important issue even as many brothers and sisters have been impacted. Racism is not just a political issue, it is a spiritual issue. If the church is to truly be communal and if Christians are to truly become vulnerable with each other and relevant in society, this is a conversation that needs to happen and this is a social problem that we need to fight actively. The church must lead the way in society in rejecting colorblindness and recognizing the reality of systemic racism.