Improving Race Relations Through Being Church

As our nation prepares to bid farewell to our first African American president, I cannot help but wonder if race relations in America have improved or worsened over the past eight years.

As Christians, this is an important conversation for us to engage because our faith in God and desire to live as God’s children are exemplified in how we do or do not get along with people who are different from us. Our faith is evident in not only what we say we believe, but in how we live those things out in a practical manner among a diversity of people. There really is not a way to separate our beliefs from our actions.

One of the lingering challenges to engaging in meaningful conversation and seeing substantial change related to the subject of race is the normality of whiteness and the abnormality of others. What I mean by this is the generally held understanding that what is derived from white/Caucasian culture and thinking is the standard for operation and everything else needs to conform to the cultural norms of whiteness. Jennifer Harvey states it as, “The subtle racism of twenty-first century America is ‘civilizational racism,’ a mindset that assumes whiteness to be normative and superior.”

This mindset is regularly found in churches and ministries throughout our nation. Who are the preferred, celebrated and trusted voices of the Christian faith? White males. From what point of view is the majority of Christian theology studied and interacted? From a white male perspective. What do those who come from different ethnic and gender backgrounds have to do in order to be considered legitimate in the world of contemporary Christian theology? Speak the language of the dominant culture and conform to the views of the dominant culture.

What is wrong with this practice of making whiteness and white standards the norm for everyone? It does not recognize that God has created us all equally, regardless of race or gender. It does not recognize that God speaks through us all equally. This mindset also does not recognize that different people groups have different life experiences and various alternate ways of viewing and understanding God’s Word or God’s actions based on their cumulative life experiences.

For example, historically, African Americans have viewed the Exodus narratives differently than other people groups. In African American life, the narratives are not about obtaining spiritual freedom. They represent God’s desire for people to gain actual physical freedom from their oppressors.

The practice of whiteness as the norm has served as the foundation for American church life for centuries and typically has not been perceived as a negative thing. It is our second nature to think this way. We are taught this mindset without even recognizing it or understanding that is the position from which we operate. Whiteness is the accepted standard without question or scrutiny. In general, whites recognize themselves as the standard bearer for others without question. Barbara J. Flagg says, “The proclivity of whites to disregard our own racial characteristics may be a defining characteristic of whiteness: to be white is not to think about it.”

So, how do we work to counteract the assumption that whiteness is the standard and to incorporate various other perspectives into church life? The first step involves recognizing the system that we all currently operate within. Geoffrey Noel Schoonmaker says that there, “Is the need for a paradigm shift from assumed white innocence and superiority within a professedly nonracist society to an awareness of pervasive, largely unconscious racism within a society structured to protect white privilege and cultural hegemony.”

Second, we have to figure out ways to make this a part of our regular conversations within organized church life. A simple one time conversation or sermon about race and reconciliation is not adequate to change our world or your context. Leaders within local churches have to make an intentional plan to preach, teach and write about this subject on a regular basis. One could utilize the lectionary and the opportunities that naturally arise within scripture. For example, the story of Jonah and the racial underpinnings of the book. You can also utilize holidays or cultural events such as Martin Luther King’s birthday, Black History Month, or Women’s History Month.

Third, when you address the subject, do so in a prophetic manner. C. Anthony Hunt says, “It was generally the task of biblical prophets to speak to real conditions and concerns, which existed among Hebrew people—and to call people back into covenant relationship with God and others. The biblical prophets, thus, stood with one foot in the past—reminding Israel of its history in God—and with one foot in the future, helping them see where God wanted them to go.”

I will restate Dr. Hunt’s words this way. Prophetic preaching reminds people how their past has influenced their present, while simultaneously providing them with hope for their future. Therefore, a prophetic conversation would do the following:
• Address the past- What has happened in the past that has caused us to end up where we are?
• Recognize where you currently are- Where are we now?
• Provide hope for the future- Where can we go in the future with God’s help?
• Provide practical tips for heading in the direction that God wants for all people.

My heartfelt prayer is that we would start and maintain a conversation that eventually leads to all people being recognized as equal before their creator.

Terrell Carter
Pinnacle Affiliate