Truth Telling and Race in the “United” States

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Ephesians is written to the ekklesia, the gathering, a “new humanity” in which dividing walls are broken down through Christ’s submission-to/assumption-of the state’s bone-breaking violence in his own body. This passage advocates truth-telling for the upbuilding of Christian community so that we are transformed by and participate in God’s character revealed in Christ: self-sacrificing love for the sake of others.

I offer a truth that is not new or of my own thought, but I believe it will continue to be a (perhaps, the) primary challenge for the church as it fleshes out this calling in this country at this time.

The church abjectly fails to embody the beloved community as long as it recapitulates racial divisions inherent in the culture in which it’s situated.

“American Christianity has betrayed the religion of Jesus almost beyond redemption….The one place…in which the relations of the individual to his God should take priority over conditions of class, race, power, status, wealth or the like – this place [the church] is one of the chief instruments for guaranteeing barriers” (Thurman, 98).

And it gets worse. Race is in part the church’s own perverse creation.

As part of the colonialist endeavor in the “new” world, Christians acting with the blessing of European states created race as an “organizing reality for identities” (Jennings, 58) to justify the brutal enslavement of millions of Africans and the decimation of indigenous populations. In doing so, these bearers of Christ inaugurated a divisive political, social and economic system in the United States that continues to produce that which was intended: advantage and disadvantage conveyed according to skin color.

In a recent NY Times article, sociologist Joe Feagin emphasizes what we tend to forget or not bother to realize: “about 80 percent of this country’s four centuries have involved extreme racialized slavery and extreme Jim Crow legal segregation.” The extent of this injustice in both severity and over the course of 20-something generations has produced undeniable and grievous disparities that should frankly make us weep.

A typical white household has 16 times the wealth of a black one
Black people are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white people, and black people killed by police are twice as likely as white people to be unarmed
Parents teach black children to navigate society differently as a matter of survival

Given this, how do we manifest the heavenly vision Ephesians call us to when we created a hell on earth for millions of our brothers and sisters in the name of Christ?

Speaking truthfully to one another and building a community characterized by unity, forgiveness, tenderheartedness and love is challenge enough when there exists a relative balance of power, trust, equitable access to resource and opportunity, and shared psychological and physical safety. But we have to work additionally against centuries of oppression and division of our own making, plus the resulting injustice.

It’s not that far of a stretch to indict white America on a systemic level as the thieves that Paul entreats to give up their stealing and put in an honest day’s work. White people are equally privileged as black people are conversely disprivileged for no reason other than white men set up the power structures in this country to do just that. (If you are white and uncomfortable, it’s normal and there’s a name for it: White Fragility. Read this; don’t give up.) The status quo in this country should fundamentally disturb everybody with a conscience, and especially Christians.

If your congregation is predominantly white, you may not have touched any of this save for offering prayers for our black brothers and sisters who are being killed by other white people. If your congregation is mostly people of a color other than “white,” you live in this every day in a way that white people have a hard time understanding, myself included. Surely there are exceptions to the former and few, if any, to the latter.

So what in God’s name do we DO?

Ephesians gives us vision and an imperative: speak and acknowledge hard truths to each other through church walls and across differences/divisions. Be gentle; listen well; don’t question the narration of oppressed people’s realities. Ultimately this will lead to a truer representation of the beloved community, which we’re all part of in Christ.

I draw from the wisdom and work of those who have thought far deeper and worked longer than myself to find a way forward. Both Howard Thurman and Emmanuel Katongole acknowledge that this work requires disciplined and sustained bodily presence with each other.

“The body matters for Christian salvation since as Christians we believe that we are saved in and through the body, our own bodies, but ultimately the Body of Christ. Concrete bodily interaction is therefore a good way to learn what it means to be that very Body of Christ – the one Body of Christ which is made up of different members (bodies). And so, in the very act of Christian greeting, in kissing or touching other bodies, including those that look very different from one’s own, one is being introduced to the very mystery of the Body of Christ.” (Katongole, 79).

Thurman attends to power dynamics and the vulnerability that speaking the truth in love demands. “The first step toward love is a common sharing of a sense of mutual worth and value” (Thurman, 98). Further, white people must be prepared to acknowledge that they may legitimately “be regarded in some over-all sense as the racial enemy…and opportunity must be provided, found, or created for freeing such an individual from his ‘white necessity’” (100).

The way forward that Katongole and Thurman advocate primarily effects change on individual and congregational levels, which is crucial. I’m at a loss and open to suggestions (Ta-Nehisi Coates has a few) for effecting justice-oriented change on a systemic level, but certainly confession and truth telling about the forces that have shaped our life together is a start.

I pray that we have reached a point where these conversations for the upbuilding of the beloved community are possible. They are certainly necessary.

Resources to Enable Truthful Conversations about Race
I’ve made a feeble attempt to collect resources I’ve found meaningful, convicting, faithful. This is not exhaustive or even well researched. I’d be grateful if you’d continue the conversation or add additional resources in the comments.

American Racism in the ‘White Frame’ – George Yancy and Joe Feagin
I, Racist – John Metta
Inner City Violence in the Age of Mass Incarceration – Heather Thompson
In the Shadow of Charleston: Politics, Religion, and White Supremacy – Syndicate Theology columnists
The painful and dangerous message: Only Black Deaths Matter – William Barber
The White Ally Playbook – Michael Skolnik
What white Christians need to know about the Black Lives Movement – Melissa Binder

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
Greeting: Beyond Racial Reconciliation, chapter in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics – Emmanuel Katongole
Jesus and the Disinherited – Howard Thurman
Race: A Theological Account – J. Kameron Carter
The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race – Willie Jennings
The Color of Social Policy – Ed. King Davis & Tricia Bent-Goodly
The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the US Racial Wealth Divide – Meizhu Lui, Barbara J Robles, Betsy Leondar-Wright, Rose M. Brewer, Rebecca Adamson
The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism – Debra Van Ausdale & Joe Feagin
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – Michelle Alexander

Organizing Against Racism
Race Forward
Racial Equity Institute
Showing up for Racial Justice

Race Forward Youtube channel
Slavery By Another Name documentary
Strange Fruit documentary
TED Talks to help you understand racism in America

2 Responses to “Truth Telling and Race in the “United” States”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. Susan Adams says:

    Well written Anna! Thanks for your good work on this.

    • Susan Adams says:

      Nice to see this piece re-posted. It is even more timely and urgent than it was in 2015, sadly.

Join the Conversation. Leave a comment.