In a recent article, the Beloved Community is holding a symposium with the intent on improving race relations in the church. Presently, the symposium has created a network of Black and White churches that participate in several events. While these strategies can improve race relations in the church, it would be more beneficial in they take a team building approach.
The specific theme that the symposium focuses on is “a mutual obligation approach to reconciliation”. Reconciliation, in Christian theology, is an element of salvation that refers to the results of atonement. Reconciliation is the end of the estrangement, caused by original sin, between God and humanity. John Calvin describes reconciliation as the peace between humanity and God that results from the expiation of religious sin and the propitiation of God’s wrath. Evangelical theologian Philip Ryken describes reconciliation in this way; “It is part of the message of Salvation that brings us back together with God. … God is the author, Christ is the agent and we are the ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5).” Although it’s only used five times in the Pauline corpus (Romans 5:10-11, 11:15, 2 Corinthians 5:18-20, Ephesians 2:14-17 and Colossians 1:19-22) it is an essential term, describing the “substance” of the gospel and salvation. Ralph Martin writing in the Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, suggests reconciliation is at the center of Pauline theology. Stanley Porter writing in the same volume suggests a conceptual link between the reconciliation Greek word group katallage (or katallasso) and the Hebrew word shalom, generally translated as ‘peace.’
Reconciliation is often conditioned on the attitude and actions of the offender. While its aim is the restoration of a broken relationship, those who commit significant and repeated offenses must be willing to realize that reconciliation is a process. If they are genuinely concerned about reconciliation they will realize that healing is a process.
In many cases, even if the offender confesses their transgression, the offended person may say that “I forgive you but is may take time before I am able to trust you and restore our relationship”. The participants in the symposium must realize that it will take time to restore race relations in the church.
Due to the history of Christian race relations it will take some time before the healing process is complete.
Outside of a few Quakers, almost no Whites in the early 18th century, Christian or non-Christian, questioned the validity of slavery as an institution. Historian Lester Scherer said, “In Christian life and thought the accommodation with slavery was almost complete.” In the first half of the 18th century the African slave population grew at a rate three times faster than the population as a whole. By 1750 about 20% of the American population was African or of African descent (compared to about 13% today).
George Whitefield, who many people regarded as having laid the spiritual foundations for the American Revolution, and who was the first “media star in American history,” preached to both Whites and Blacks. But while he preached radical equality in Christ and shared the salvation message with slaves, he was a supporter of slavery. He testified before Parliament in 1741 in support of the introduction of slavery to Georgia. From his perspective, it was better to live in a Christian country as a slave than to live in heathen Africa. Cultural and religious legitimation of slavery was very strong. To overturn slavery was seen as going against God’s ordained pattern.
By the time of the American Revolution, many people began saying that it was not enough to Christianize slaves. The rhetoric used to muster support for the Revolutionary War – “All men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” – condemned the enslaving of fellow human beings. Within a few decades of the Revolution most Northern states outlawed slavery. In 1808 slave importation was abolished nationwide.
Yet for most evangelicals, slavery was viewed as a separate issue from the larger race question. To be anti-slavery (even as a radical abolitionist) did not mean that you were pro-integration. Even Charles Finney, radical for his day, opposed the election of Black church trustees. In his church Blacks and Whites were segregated.
After the Civil War there was a brief period of remarkable involvement by African Americans in American public life. But when Northerners abandoned Reconstruction in order to secure the election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, White Southerners responded with Jim Crow Laws. Jim Crow Laws were “Black Codes” that created a racial caste system through segregation and political disenfranchisement. As a result of this “Jim Crow backlash,” every realm of Southern life was segregated including public transportation, restaurants, schools, health care institutions, drinking fountains, and even cemeteries.
Having recently gained the right to vote, former slaves were stripped of their voting rights through devices such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and the grandfather clause. White illiterates were “grandfathered” in, based upon their historic right to vote. But Black illiterates (and even highly educated Blacks) were excluded from voting.
White evangelicals such as D.L. Moody and later, Billy Sunday, simply did not emphasize social reform as part of their Christian message. Their message was entirely focused on evangelism and personal piety. Moody held revival meetings in the South but did so on a segregated basis. And when Billy Sunday preached in the South after 1900, he also segregated his revival meetings.
In the 1950’s Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and a host of other African American Christians protested, boycotted, and fought for an end to Jim Crow segregation. Their goal was freedom from oppression and unequal treatment, as expressed through the laws and overt practices of the South. The Southern Civil Rights Movement arose in the context of the African American Church. Its agenda, its tactics, its organizing principles, and its rhetoric were explicitly Christian.
Sadly, very few White evangelicals or fundamentalists participated in the Southern Civil Rights cause. Many white fundamentalists branded Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement as “communistic.” White evangelicals continued to focus upon saving souls for heaven. Evangelical dispensationalists felt that Dr. King was simply wasting his time and was rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Dispensationalists could never have created the “I Have a Dream” speech in which Dr. King stated his hope that one day his children might play together with White children. Christianity Today expressed a very lukewarm and cautious response to Dr. King’s efforts.
Billy Graham, who was invited, but didn’t attend the 1963 March on Washington said: “Only when Christ comes again will little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.” Graham’s view wasn’t meant to be harsh or bigoted, but simply what most white evangelicals perceived to be realistic.
Presently, the symposium movement is attempting to improve race relations by having ministers from Black and White churches to pair for church events, discussions, and unity services. The challenge with this process for improvement of race relations is that it is not inclusive of a team building process.
The team building process for improving race relations involves:
- Developing a shared vision
- Developing a strategic plan based on that shared vision
Dr. Derrick L. Campbell, Ed.D.
PO Box 1668 Blackwood, NJ 08012
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Author of Promoting Positive Racial Teacher Student Classroom Relationships
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