race in church


Seventh Sunday of Easter

Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
I Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

My friend Stan Dotson claims that texts are called “passages” because they offer us passage. They can take us somewhere.

The culmination of this week’s Gospel passage, Jesus’ prayer “that they may be one, as we are one,” takes me to a question posed by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove: “How do black people and white people become one in Christ Jesus? And what does that look like?” (Free To Be Bound: Church Beyond the Color Line, p. 61).

Given the demographics of the part of the county where I live in western North Carolina, I could be totally absorbed in congregational life and never even have to consider that question. In fact, by exhorting my flock to become more involved in “church” as it’s commonly understood, I could conceivably make matters worse. As much stress as Baptist polity places on the local congregation, the temptation is ever present to narrow the scope of Jesus’ prayer to internal relationships alone.

Wilson-Hartgrove confesses that, as a white Southern Baptist kid in rural North Carolina, he grew up “in a world saturated with Scripture and drenched in Jesus” and had never even thought to ask why everybody in his church looked like him.

Until, that is, he encountered Dr. William Barber, an African-American pastor from eastern North Carolina, who now also serves as president of the state NAACP chapter and who is the driving force behind Moral Mondays, the protest movements staged at the State legislative building in Raleigh.

“He spoke from another world,” remembers Jonathan, preaching sermons that not only helped him see his own world with new eyes but also opened up a passage into a new one. The way the Wilson-Hartgroves have followed that leading is enormously instructive.

A crucial insight, gained from hard and painful experience, is that the beginning question white congregations most often ask – “What does it mean to be one in Christ Jesus?” – subtly but almost inevitably shifts to “What does it mean for us to appreciate another cultural expression of Christianity?” When that shift occurs, he says, it’s hard for white folks to imagine that there is any more to be done for the sake of reconciliation.

The work of the Paraclete (John 14-17) goes leaps and bounds beyond Enlightened multiculturalism and worship style preferences. Therefore, a more costly passage is demanded. Says Jonathan, “I never stopped to think about what might have to die in me for me to enter into the world from which [Dr. Barber] spoke.” For white Christians, he states, that passage calls for us to embrace the conviction “that our life together in Christ mean[s] a fundamental rejection of the Enlightenment story that [has] so shaped our American experience” (p. 70).

Traveling down the path of this kind of discipleship is the passage into what the Bible calls “suffering.” “But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (I Peter 4:13). One commentator reminds us:

…we should not think of Christ’s suffering [only] in terms of the historical event of the cross, as if when he finally died his suffering ended. It is rather that his suffering on the cross symbolized a much larger, more enduring part of his experience that continues on into the life of the church [Preaching through the Christian Year].

Richard Lischer writes powerfully of the transforming passage in the ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “from the rhetoric of inclusion to the redemptive mission of the bowed but awakening black church.” As he was “drawn into the vortex of the Movement,” Dr. King discovered “the necessity of conforming one’s own suffering to the twisted agony of the crucified Christ” (The Preacher King, p. 55). Along with this discovery came the joyful realization that “the greatest strength of the black church [was] its willingness to suffer on behalf of the entire nation in order to bring about reconciliation” (p. 239).

This is eternal life (John 17:3). This is the nature and mission of the Church – whatever our skin color.

Several years ago I was graciously received into the Baptist Ministers Union, composed mostly of black pastors and ministers in the greater Asheville area. We meet regularly for fellowship and for worship in numerous cooperative services among black congregations. I’m slowly catching on – new ways to read the Bible and the newspaper, new worship practices. The learning curve is steep. My body rhythm ain’t too shabby, but my verbal rhythm and cadence can still mess up a good call-and-response. But grace abounds as friendships deepen.

At the same time, I am the pastor of a lily white congregation I dearly love. For almost seventeen years, we’ve shared a liturgy of life and worship, written and unwritten. I don’t believe that these Scripture texts necessarily call all Christians to move their membership to other congregations. I do believe they call us to question why it is that everybody in our congregation looks like each other, and, given the stark historical realities, that the far greater burden of that question falls on the white church.

Howard Thurman bemoaned that the usual kind of interracial contacts were “generally within zones of agreement which leave the status of the individuals intact,” resulting in “a series of artificial or hypothetical relationships.”

These texts offer all of us a passage into a world, a kingdom, in which the status of everyone is transformed through the gift of the crucified, risen, ascended Lord. One might think that John 17 would be read only on Maundy Thursday; but here is the prayer on the eve of Pentecost, “that they – we – be one.”

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