As a white evangelical my relationships to people of color is complicated. My religious heritage is one that told black people they were equal in Christ, but everything about how we actually lived our lives in relationship and community said otherwise.
Consider that in my white church I was told the following at different times in my life:
- I shouldn’t ever consider dating anyone outside of my race because a.) “The bible forbids it.” Or b.) “Even though the bible doesn’t forbid it, it is difficult culturally to explain and navigate.”
- I heard black people described in terms of their conformity to white culture as “they’re not really black.” While others that refused to conform were described as “divisive and uncooperative.”
- When we would bring children to church from the black community there were many voices that protested “They are disrespectful!” “They don’t know how to act in God’s house.” “They are taking away from our own kids.”
- “Rap music has no place in the church.” I even once had my Christian rap albums confiscated by church leaders.
What’s disturbing is that I was often complicit in perpetuating these philosophies. For far too long I supported church leaders that often used the n-word and embraced these kinds of beliefs. The black community was condemned as culturally inferior to the white community and often identified as the reason for the crime and poverty in our Arkansas Delta town.
I recall one conversation that I had with a black couple attending our church. The context was the LA riots after the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King. I was pontificating on “Why are these black folks burning and looting their own community!?” My friends who were from LA patiently endured my racist diatribe, until my dear sister in Christ went off on me. “Scot! You have no idea the rage and anger of black people!” I was put in my place quickly. To my dear sister I am sorry I caused you this pain. I was wrong. I was wrong for a long time. You were right. You were justified in your anger in response to my white arrogance.
I’m reminded of the words of Dr. King:
“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.
Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
In spite of my shattered dreams of the past, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause, and with deep moral concern, serve as the channel through which our just grievances would get to the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed. I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshippers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say, “follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, “those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern.”, and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely other-worldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.
So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a tail-light behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Letter From The Birmingham Jail”
April 16, 1963
When we learn better, we should do better. This is my attempt.