Yes, I meant that.
No, the title was not a mistake.
I’m really asking.
Church, where in all. this. hell. are you?
Because when Black bodies that look scarily similar to my child’s, my husband’s, and mine are regularly burned and broken, it feels like a raging, unholy hell to me. So let’s not mince words. Let’s call it exactly what it is.
And just so I don’t die a slow psychological and spiritual death as a result of what seems like the complete and utter impotence of the church, I must lay my burdens on this fiber optic altar and openly discuss the struggles I’m having with many in the Faith—Black and White—who seem unaffected or downright antagonistic when it comes to issues of race.
Here’s a truth that might be hard for some to swallow: There’s a link between Charleston and McKinney and Baltimore and Ferguson and Tamir Rice and Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin. This link is a kind of thread that is both old and strong. It’s the same thread that linked Amadou Diallo and James Byrd and Emmett Till and the burning of Black Wall Street and the lynchings of Black men in the South. And the first knot in the thread, the threading of the needle if you will, happened along the middle passage during the transatlantic slave trade. Because this thread has proven itself lucrative over the last 400 years, it has never been cut off.
Some folks think my “thread” metaphor is too generous. When I discussed this essay with Writer, Minister, Filmmaker, and dear friend of mine, Alexus Rhone, she pulled no punches in her assessment:
You call it a “thread” Tracey, but I call it a demonic spirit imbued within the fabric of a nation too proud to bend in humility and mourn the sins of their fathers that have literally been passed down to their children. Instead of exorcising the demons, they’ve signed peace treaties with them.
To be clear: the thread I’m talking about, the demonic spirit Alexus is talking about, is White supremacy. And the manifestation of its presence is exactly what we are seeing today; the evidence that Black lives really don’t matter. And before you begin to compartmentalize it, let me go ahead and say this: This thread of White supremacy runs through the fabric of EVERY American institution that exists, including—dare I say it—the American church.
The deafening silence of the Body of Christ as a collective on the recent injustices against people color here in the U.S. and around the world (see Dominican Republic), to me, is evidence of the insidious, cancerous infiltration of racism and white supremacy in our Body.
That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. – Ephesians 5:27 KJV
Jesus isn’t coming for perfect individuals but He is coming for a Church that is unified in its awareness of its Blood washed sins and has accomplished His mission with all the grace He did on earth. He’s coming for a Church that, at a very basic level, has maintained the two greatest commandments: To love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Unfortunately, because the institution of the Church is just as divided as this country, we remain as spotted, wrinkled and blemished as anything else.
And it is deeply affecting our witness to the world.
Let’s think about this from even an evangelistic perspective: there are thousands, if not millions, of unbelievers who are directly and indirectly affected by systemic racism. If the Body of Christ stood unified and willing to fight this evil, not on the basis that we agree on every political or social issue, but on the basis that we follow the same Jesus who died on the cross for every single one of us and commanded that we stand up for those who are considered the “least,” what message would that send to a dying, sin-sick world?
What an amazing act of love that would be. (The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is one of a few godly models of what this looks like).
But…for some—most likely my White Christian readers—even my using the phrase “white supremacy” probably has your chest heaving. You’re anxious. You are ready to scroll down right now and let loose on the comments section with all the reasons why I’ve conjured up the concept or why you’re tired of “people like me” playing the race card because everything isn’t about “race” and good Christians know this.
Some of you might even have turned up the Faux News channel in order to allow all the ridiculous side-stepping and out and out lies about the racist disposition of #McKinney or #Charleston or any of the other tragic events of the last couple of years to somehow drown out my words and the accountability and conviction they raise in you. You’ve created templates of justification that you copy and paste all over social media in order to reconcile your hatred, your denial or your complacency.
On one point, you’re right though. Everything isn’t about race. Some things are. Given the history of our country, many things are. And on those many things, I tend to play the cards how they’re dealt.
Consider this: if you find yourself sitting in your home and hearing about nine Black people in a church Bible Study being killed because of a murderous terrorist’s false belief that Black people are somehow “taking over the country,” and your only response is to find a justification OTHER than racism—you don’t shed one tear, your spirit doesn’t rage with a desire for justice, you don’t see the blatant disparities in how this suspect was treated as opposed to any of the Black men and women who encounter police, you don’t even bow your head in prayer to ask God to send his Holy Spirit to comfort those who have lost their loved ones—yeah, you might want to check your heart real quick and see if Jesus really lives there. Because this:
Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. – Romans 12:15
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. – 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. – Galatians 6:2
And worse, if you are a church leader, and your first impulse wasn’t to contact or connect with other churches down in Charleston, to find out what was needed and how you and your congregation can stand in solidarity with the Black community against the kind of individual and systemic racism that gives birth to a Dylan Storm Roof, then, to you, I would also suggest thinking long and hard about how you are walking out your call.
My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. – James 3:1
But for my white brothers and sisters in the Faith who have made it this far in this post and still genuinely want to know how to be a part of a united and collective reconciliation effort, allow me to help you to dig a little deeper for the sake of understanding. RobtheIdealist of Orchestrated Pulse does a great job of defining white supremacy for any white person who may not “get it.”
In order to have a productive conversation on oppression, it is important to recognize that the key factor is superiority. In any caste system there is a group that believes itself superior (which by default assumes the inferiority of any “Other”), creates systemic advantages for itself, and then uses violence to ensure its dominance.
So, in the case of racism, the supremacist ideology that anchors the system is called “white supremacy”. Racism is a white supremacist ideology backed by systemic power, and reinforced through violence.
We so often want to speak in terms of who *is*and isn’t racist, thus treating racism as an individual state of being, rather than a system of power. Racism is not merely a personal attitude or an insult; instead, it’s a racial system of power maintained by violence (with the violence often going unpunished because it is protected by the dominant system of power). Therefore, an individual can be perpetuating this system without even being conscious of their actions.
Ultimately, we are all complicit in the perpetuation of systemic white supremacy, but we are not all equally culpable, nor do we all benefit equally. When we talk about white supremacy, we must make sure that the discussion is multidimensional.
I’m sure this is hard for some of you to process.
Particularly believers who, on the one hand, prefer to think that with salvation came some kind of transcendence over these racist systems, yet on the other hand, benefit from those systems daily.
I’m comfortable acknowledging that what’s happened over the few years has been heavy. It has been. But none of what you’re seeing is new. African Americans and other peoples of color have been experiencing this kind of brutality at the hands of whites since Columbus figured out he actually wasn’t in India and those thousands of people already living here weren’t Indians. Fortunately, social media has been able to shine a big bright ugly light on what has been a common experience for those in Black communities.
Yes, social media, with all its ills, has served as technological mirror for our society. A mirror that reflects a truth so ugly that so many of my white brothers and sisters in the Faith have chosen to sweep it under the proverbial rug. This truth reveals to some that they worship and serve in cities that might be highly diverse and yet their immediate worlds are not. This truth reveals that most believe that it is the “Black church” and a few select white activists’ responsibility to deal with all that civil rights stuff. This truth reveals that some still have antiquated notions of how to engage those who different (Bringing LeCrae to a once a year youth conference but never truly connecting with the demographic he represents, DOES NOT COUNT).
This truth also exposes the inner workings of individual hearts. Hearts that don’t have a problem serving rice to the inner city poor at a soup kitchen but who wouldn’t dream of inviting those same people into their homes. Hearts that don’t have a problem with integrated schools or pools as long as they are never outnumbered and their daughters and sons don’t bring “one” home.
If you have children, look at them right now, and sit with that.
See, this thing is sooo beyond just “those people” wanting social justice. Those people are your brothers and sisters in humanity. When people who call themselves Christ-followers stop really seeing people and decide to replace human beings with stereotypes and caricatures gathered from a biased and agenda-driven media, it makes the decision to not stand for right seem, well, right. When Eric Garner becomes just another lazy, fat, Black guy standing on the corner selling cigarettes instead of maybe a hard-working father talking to friends in his community and making a couple of extra dollars for his family…and that image is used to justify his death… there is, without a doubt, a deep heart problem.
For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account. – Hebrews 4:12-13 NKJV
Oh and Black folks in the Faith, we aren’t off the hook here. That same mirror has reflected some pretty awful truths in us. Mostly that some of us have internalized the lies handed down in slavery that we are inferior and many of us, mostly our men, are inherently criminal.
I do think though that some of that internalized enablement of white supremacy is a kind of defense mechanism. See most Black folks I know firmly believed that the rights fought for by our mothers and fathers during the civil rights movement meant something. We had hope that, in time, we would one day be seen as equal and valuable.
But it’s been more than 50 years and we are finding with every new video and case, that maybe, just maybe that might not be true. Some of us are surprised. Some of us aren’t. But one too many of us have chosen oblivion because it’s easier to keep the pain at bay. To not lose our minds. We think that as long as we stay blind and talk about Black-on-Black crime, we can somehow remain respectable and on the good sides of our white friends and fellow believers. We, as Walter Brueggemann says, fall into one two groups: “those who are numb” and “those who despair.” The “numb” group insulates themselves so that they don’t feel anything. But in order for them to act, they will need to be pierced by grief. The “despairing” group feels all the heaviness AND the powerlessness and just wallow in despair. What they need is a language that communicates hope for the future. (Thanks, Lex.)
It’s a lot, I know. Exposure, whether it’s of the state of our own hearts or the larger systems pulling us down, is heavy. The country feels like it is on the brink of civil war. And yet, the one group that can handle what’s happening, that should be spiritually armed with both the power and grace from a Sovereign AND Warrior God (see Exodus 15), has decided to lay back and be seized by the enemy. Who in the Faith are truly caucusing on these issues? No one seems to be willing to make the sacrifices of the Acts church. How many of us are willing to be true Apostles and have our material and yes even physical lives martyred for standing on the side of right?
I’m struggling with that too.
And yeessssssss, I understand that, as believers, our first instinct is to pray. It should be. That’s a good start. But uh oh, what happens after we pray? In fact, what exactly are we asking God for? Thy will be done is a given. But isn’t prayer also about receiving our marching orders? Guidance and direction from the One who sees the end from the beginning? White brothers and sisters, are you really ready to ask God to deliver true equality into the hands of people of color in this country, knowing full well what that might require you to do AND what that might mean for your own status? Black brothers and sisters, are you ready for the accountability and responsibility that comes with justice and equality? If your answers to these questions are yes, then great! However, I suspect that the answers to the next question might be infinitely harder to grasp.
What does His will regarding this gaping wound of White supremacy in America look like?
Well…what if His will is for the Church to take a stand? To shout from the rooftops, my white brothers and sisters, that systemic racism and all its offspring (police brutality, discrimination) is wrong and won’t be tolerated whether it shows up on a flag pole on a state capital building (!) or in our very own pulpits. What if His will, Black brothers and sisters, is for you to put down your self-hating “I made it, why can’t you?” pseudo-righteousness and your “It will get better bye and bye” complacency and stand alongside those—yes, even unbelievers—who are marching the streets on behalf of all our futures?
As the disciples used to say to our Lord, “this is a hard saying, who can hear it?” (see John 6:60)
And yeah, I get it. There’s this natural, human tendency to run away from the hard stuff. The stuff that makes us uncomfortable. The stuff that challenges our notions of who we are, who others are, the systems we work and live in, and what God is calling us to do. But how is it that, in times past (see Slavery, Reconstruction, Civil Rights era), our same deep need for justice to prevail and for compassion to rule, was able to live alongside our need for self-preservation and yet, the former still won out? What has changed, People of God? It was a battle then and it’s a battle now, for sure. All wranglings with the flesh are. But the one thing that usually gave “right” and “love” the edge in our internal wars was this sense that we belonged to each other. That we lived in this outpost of Eden together and that even the worst of us was connected to us somehow.
This, I believe, is where true Faith lives.
And yet here we are. Men, women and children are being murdered and, for the most part, the Church is absent.
Well we aren’t totally absent. Many of us will show up when those who are dealing with this pain, this generations-long disenfranchisement decide to turn to rioting. When we feel threatened, when there’s a possibility that the rage will hit too close to our safe havens and disrupt our status quos, then we have a whole lot to say.
Tim Wise’s response to such “sudden concern” was more powerful than anything I could write.
If your concerns about violence are limited to property damage and looting, and you have never shed two tears for the history of institutional violence, murder, colonialism, segregation, lynching, genocide and police brutality against peoples of color, your words mean nothing; they mean less than nothing. Your outrage, in such a case is grotesque, an inversion of morality so putrescent as to call into question your capacity for real feeling at all. So long as violence from below is condemned while violence from above is ignored, you can bet that the former will continue–and however unfortunate that may be, it is surely predictable. If you’d like the former to cease, put an end to the latter, and then I promise you, it will.
I know, I know, YOUR church had a march just last week, right? I’m not talking to you, right?
I would certainly be remiss to suggest that there are no churches out on the forefront of these issues. Of course there are. But sadly, there are still waaaay too many who will conduct an entire worship service this Sunday and not mention ONE WORD about what they plan to DO to help Emanuel AME or about what’s happening in our country at all. In fact, there’s even a segment of so-called Christians who will castigate pastors and ministry leaders who do engage by saying they shouldn’t get involved in such activities because… I don’t know…demanding justice is not biblical? Anger should be channeled SOLELY through prayer? I suppose they forgot about the righteous anger our Savior displayed:
“Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.” – Matthew 21:12
Yes, there is such a thing as righteous anger.
This is also not to say that there haven’t been white Christians speaking out. Many white allies have been involved in the fight for justice. There are always abolitionists among us and I’m grateful for that. But today, so many of the White allies I know of, are not believers. Where are you who share my faith? And when does just speaking out even become rote? See…when simply having a cop car pull up behind my husband, daughter and I at a stop light has me in near tears—not because we’re doing anything wrong but because whether we are doing anything wrong might not matter—well, I wonder if we are long past white folks posting their outrage on FaceBook and going about their lives as usual. The next step is probably for every white person, and especially every white believer, to risk leveraging their privilege to dismantle the systems. Starting on your jobs, in your schools, and yes, in your churches.
As I said, there are some Black churches that are on the frontlines of this thing. But I wonder if the reason why there aren’t more as we’ve seen in previous movements is also telling. Please understand that our churches are made up of men and women who are grieving and exhausted; a people who are filled with all the sorrow and frustration that comes from having America jab it’s middle finger of injustice into our never healed wounds. While I don’t know how effective it is, I’m not inclined to knock pastors who preach peace and prayer as the only response or teach Pie-in-the-Sky-Bye-and-Bye, because I understand that they too are trying to keep the pain at bay.
So, in truth, we need everybody on deck. We need white, brown, yellow and anything in-between to link arms with us and help us stand. To support us. To use whatever influence you have to effect change and lean in on the powers that be.
Otherwise, I’m afraid our only alternative will be to lean on insurrection.
Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle – Psalm 144:1
Tough to read, I know.
Bottom line, the Church as a unified collective needs to sacrifice whatever narrative we are holding on to that’s preventing us from standing up for people of color. Would you put it all on the line for me, Brother? Would you stand with me, Sister, if it means that you will be heckled by those white-washed tombs you call your own? Like Jesus was heckled by His own? Will you mourn when I mourn and cry when I cry? Brothers and Sisters, though you might not understand why I’m crying fully, though you may never completely know my pain, though you might not even be sure if you think I should be crying…the fact that I am crying, the fact that my heart aches, the fact that my babies are dying in the streets…is that enough for you to walk alongside me?
The biggest challenge with all this is actually an issue of spiritual proportions. All that’s happening in America right now is truly an object lesson in the perils of idolatry. The rape and sexual assaults of women and children, the deaths of multiple young unarmed Black men going unaccounted for, the compassionless ranting of alleged conservatives with hiding-in-plain-site political agendas…all of this exists because we have chosen to make idols of men. Too many people, including those who profess Christ, have raised police officers and celebrities and government officials and political affiliations (on both sides of the aisle) above the knowledge of God, above the love and grace of Christ Jesus that’s available, and above what the Holy Spirit is showing and prompting us to do and be in this earth. And as long as we continue to do this, we are bound to never be able to rightly discern the truth and stand for what Christ stands for. We will remain impotent.