Monday, November 17, 2008

Racism is a spiritual issue; recovery and reconciliation call for leadership from Christians and the church

SEEKING A REMEDY FOR RACISM. Even though many of us are hoping for breakthroughs in race reconciliation with the election of Barack Obama as our President, racism lurks just beneath the surface. A few seasons ago, comedy actor Michael Richards (aka Kramer of “Seinfeld” fame) sought professional counseling to help him understand what happened to him--in him, through him--at a comedy club that he hurled racial epithets at two black hecklers. Maybe what he discovered will not only help him, but many more.

RACISM IS SIN; IT NEEDS GRACE. In terms of Christian spirituality, we attribute such racial explosions to sin. Healing begins in seeking and finding forgiveness for hurtful words spoken and hateful attitudes expressed. It continues in a changed and purified heart through faith in Jesus Christ. Healing is completed as love becomes the guide for one’s thinking and actions. We believe this straight-forward analysis and faith response is a critical part of healing for personal bigotry and overcoming social disharmony.

A SEASON FOR SOUL WORK. Continued racial outbursts, racism exposed in recent Presidential campaign rallies and rhetoric, re-emergent anti-immigrant sentiment, and an unprecedented number of threats on the life of a President-elect should trigger a season of thoughtful reflection and responsible action for race reconciliation and community justice. Perhaps this should be our primary soul work in the upcoming penitential season of Advent.

RESISTANCE OR THRESHOLD? Why not take the time during the next several weeks to ask "why?" Kindle a fire of holy concern through personal awareness raising, relationship building, and whatever steps these call forth in your spirit. Resistance to diversity, awareness of prejudice's impacts, self-examination, and institutional questioning is a critical spiritual marker. Challenge resistance early and often. Let it become, instead of a point of shut-down, a threshold to walk through, however painfully, into new awarenesses, new relationships, and new perspectives.

DEAFENING SILENCE OF THE CHURCH. The silence of the church in regard to racism is as deafening now as it was when Martin Luther King, Jr. was trying to peacefully organize communities for racial justice in the 1960s. With notable few exceptions, his appeals to the churches largely fell on deaf ears. Continuing silence of the evangelical churches, in particular, is an indictment on Christian leadership. Every Christian Bible school, home school, elementary and high school, college, university, seminary, and graduate school that does not equip its students to understand and articulate the Christian call to community justice, racial reconciliation, and to stand with suffering neighbors abrogates whatever claims to moral leadership it asserts. The lingering question is: Why does the evangelical church NOT speak and act boldly--even lead the nation--in relationship to race reconciliation and community justice?

UNHEALED WOUNDS, UNEXPLORED ISSUES. A generation after the civil rights movement won landmark court decisions and Congress passed civil rights legislation, the "dream" of reconciled races, equal opportunity and justice, and community harmony amid diversity is yet to be realized. For the most part, most whites recognized the fairness of the court decisions and complied with these laws and directives. Still, race-related tension, regrets, accusations, hard feelings, unhealed wounds, and unexplored issues simmer beneath the surface of a veneer of superficial civility. That veneer will not last another generation; we already see its raw exposure in the increase of hate crimes among young people.

SIGNS OF HOPE. On the other hand, signs of hope and actions of positive engagement continue to be the salt, light, and leaven that penetrate fear, apathy, and ignorance. Usually, they are local and isolated—relationship breakthroughs mostly. Occasionally, they are national or international in scale and scope. Whether they are small or large initiatives, people of evangelical faith have opportunities to engage across racial and ethnic boundaries like never before. Our generation has run out of excuses and self-justifications for isolation, insulation, and disengagement. If the evangelical branch of the church of Jesus Christ is to emerge from its white suburban sub-cultural ghetto, here is one area of engagement it cannot fail to make.

Graphic: Racism: America's Original Sin is a good resources for thinking and talking through the challenges of racism in churches and small groups. Compiled and updated by Sojourners from articles that have appeared in the magazine. I've used it and recommend it. Available at

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