I mentioned it when I first started this blog, but it’s been a while since then, so I want to make sure this fact is clear before I continue with this post: I am a white lady. As such, I cannot speak to racial and racist realities within the church other than from the perspective of the privileged observer. What did cross my mind recently, though, as I was reflecting on what to write about next, is what I was taught as a white person--usually implicitly, surprise surprise--regarding the issue of race. Or, as it turns out, the supposed lack thereof.
Growing up, there was this song: “Jesus Loves the Little Children”. Since I’m never quite sure if the things that seemed ubiquitous to me as a church kid were actually well known in the real world, I’ll include the lyrics here:
Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white,
They are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
Have you heard this song? It’s meant for young ones, clearly. There might be more verses, but these five lines are the only ones I ever heard or sang. Putting aside for a moment the outdated references to “red and yellow” people that have since come to be understood as remarkably offensive, the thing that stands out to me now as an adult who’s trying not to be ignorant is how quickly and conveniently this ditty dismisses racial categories within the church.
You might say, as so many do, that race is a boundary constructed by the human mind, not an inherent difference; that it is arbitrary and, as such, deserves to be dismissed. Well, it may be arbitrary, and it may be, scientifically speaking, invalid, but racial constructs--reprehensible as they are--have existed as the basis for so many social and economic systems that (at least as far as I can tell from my vantage point) they do affect everyday life in a practical sense and therefore must be addressed as in some way “real”. In other words, even in the 21st century, at best we are still abiding in the consequences of a government that did officially consider race to be a fundamental distinction between certain groups of people. Given that, what bothers me most about the refrain above is the way in which it assumes, and thus quietly teaches, that as long as we have Jesus, we’re all just the same people, living essentially the same lives--that the color of one’s skin is only a quaint detail, having no more import or effect than, say, the size of one’s feet. We may indeed be “the same people” by a general biological definition, but the experience of a Black person in this country is not the same as mine, nor is the experience of a Native American or someone of Asian descent or someone from Latin America. We don’t all suddenly become one and the same when we have Jesus. Christianity is not the Great Automatic Equalizer.
It’s not that I mind the sentiment that God sees all people as equal in their worth. That is, in fact, a wonderful thought, and important to teach children if you’re going to teach them about God at all. What gives me pause is the mindless presumption, as I experienced it, that white Christians, by virtue of their connection with God, are able to see and treat all people as equal, too. We simply don’t; not those of us in the U.S., anyway. And even if we try our best to have fair and unbiased eyes--even if a person doesn’t perceive in herself any active antipathy toward people of color--we cannot help but live as participators in and benefactors of a white supremacist system. When it comes to racial inequalities, there is still serious on-the-ground work to be done in terms of reconciliation, reorientation, and reorganization. Being a Christian doesn’t get you excused from this class. The Bible is not a doctor’s note from God saying, “This person is saved and no longer racist. Please don’t make them think too hard.”
In much the same way that the ‘progressive’ Evangelical claim that men and women are somehow “spiritually equal” despite having different roles keeps underlying institutional misogyny hush-hush, teaching white churchgoers that there’s no need to worry about racism because their God automatically accepts and celebrates people of all colors allows those believers to feel that the institution of which they’re a part is, in essence, post-racial--and, that by association, they are as well. It also allows believers to ignore or too easily forgive any racist behavior or inclinations they see in themselves, because they are only a small, tainted drop of water, ultimately diluted by the overwhelming ocean of God’s immaculate love, which is taking care of everything for us. See, if one is somehow able to consider oneself as not personally advancing bigotry, one is more easily able to stop worrying about the topic on a larger level altogether. It becomes someone else’s problem, and in this case, that someone is the Lord. ‘God is in the process of fixing everything, including racism, so I can let myself off the hook,’ says the kind of white Christian who needs above all else to feel right and forgiven. ‘Besides, it’s not like I’m out burning crosses once the sun goes down.’
Except...is God fixing racism? I don’t know about you, but the only people I see in charge of the system--political, economic, and otherwise--are, well, people. Some of them are fighting for change, some of them aren’t, and a whole lot of them have grown up as heirs to the winning side of history, just like I did. Regardless of their backgrounds, though, they aren’t writing scripture; they aren’t being gently whispered to by the Holy Spirit as they sit and pen our policies and laws. They are working with their own imperfect, highly biased brains, while the panacea of divine intervention, it seems, has yet to be found. At this point, isn’t it clear that nothing is going to change until people change, or get out of the way? That human activism is needed? Systemic racial inequality--insidious, not necessarily overt, white supremacy--is something the white Christian church ignores not only at its own peril but at the peril of the world it says it’s called to serve. The problem will not go away simply because we stop talking about it because talking about it feels icky. On the contrary, sacrificing accountability and ‘leaving it up to God’ for the sake of some perceived peace on the part of white folks only continues to prioritize the feelings of those who have historically been considered most important, and it does so at the expense of the oppressed. A perfectly loving God might be “color-blind” (and that term is a whole other can of worms) but we humans are not, and those of us who are most politically empowered perpetuate injustice when we project God’s supposed perfection onto ourselves based on some ignorant, short-sighted presumption that by holding certain religious tenets our social conditioning is suddenly re-set.
I can’t speak to what it’s like to be a person of color in the Evangelical church. I can say, however, that as a white person, I was taught that it is pretty much the same as being me, because we’re all the same in God’s eyes. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Racial and ethnic differences were never mentioned or addressed at all in the religious contexts of which I was a part, so I was left to assume that there were no differences in experience. But now, as something of a grown-up, based on everything I’ve heard and read from people of color about daily life in the United States (check out 2 Brown Girls, Black Lives Matter, Colorlines, Black Girl Dangerous, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, just to name a few) I have a hard time believing that assessment is accurate. And yet, how many sermons have I heard on the issue of racism? Until I started going to an Episcopal church seven years ago, none. Not one. In 27 years of weekly church-going. It was not an issue that bore addressing, apparently. It was not an issue at all.
Why do so many white Christians have such a profoundly difficult time admitting that racism is real and on-going? Is it because the situation is not ideal, and it would make one question where the hell this “color blind” God even is? Understandable, I suppose, if one’s identity is so chained to one’s doctrine. It probably also has more than a little to do with the fact that Evangelicalism is by definition a colonizing belief system, and thus cannot help but need to homogenize everything it touches. Yes, the concept of a truly equal world is hypnotizing, but white Christians with any desire to be relevant and compassionate need to stop singing silly songs to themselves and wake up to the truth. Jesus might love children of all different colors, but it’s clear that this country does not. Granted, it’s a bit funny for me of all people to be putting effort into holding Christians accountable when the truth is that I would rather have Christianity fade into the obscurity I think it deserves in this day and age. If there are going to be Christians, however, those who happen to be white should care a little more about facing up to the injustices with which others are clearly living and a little less about avoiding discord for the sake of feeling good.