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  • Writer's pictureSteven Chapman

Time For the Church to Redeem the Racial Narrative

On June 17, people throughout the country were shocked to hear about a 21 year-old young white man going to Emanuel AME, a Charleston, SC church with black membership. The shock was not from his attending this spiritual families Bible study group. The shock was due to the reason for his attendance; sitting through a Bible study with the folks from the congregation before pulling out a gun and massacring 9 believers gathered to learn God’s word simply because their melanin levels were higher than his own.

Since then a number of attempts have been made to change the narrative of this tragic event. Some have wanted to make it a story about the need for more gun control. President Obama quickly jumped on the event as another example of his call for stricter gun laws. Yet, the gun that was utilized was not the piece of “military hardware” with high capacity rounds which has been the stated target of tighter laws, but a hand gun that was reportedly reloaded 2 to 3 times.

Others have suggested that the narrative is about the persecution and oppression of the church. However, if the issue was simply religious persecution, Mr. Roof could have stopped at any of a hundred other churches he passed enroute to this black fellowship.

Others have offered that the real narrative ought to focus on the influence of drugs on young minds. Mr. Root was found to have a history of drug usage, like many of the others involved in mass shootings over the last two decades. However, this again doesn’t address why this particular church was chosen.

Sure, some people never want the racial problems of this country to settle, so they strain every episode to make it about race, whether it was or wasn’t.

Numerous police shootings over the last seven months have been assigned to “the growing heap of shootings by racist cops”. While different episodes are highly suggestive of negligence or ineptness, there are details in these events that make it hard to determine if these events were actually racially motivated. Yet, there are significant questions about some of these events that raise the specter of racism.

This single event, however, removes the remaining shadow of doubt that we have a race problem in America. This event wasn’t about guns. It wasn’t about drugs. It wasn’t event about religious persecution. It was about a white person who acted on a deep-seated hatred of black people. A hatred so deep-seated that he carried the symbols of apartheid Rhodesia and South Africa, as well as the slavery Confederacy.

Here is what I want to know: Where has the voice of the church been in the developing the narrative on racial intolerance and prejudice? Aside from Promise Keepers movement of the 1990’s and the Mosaic movement of the 2000’s, most churches have remained strangely silent.

Worse, yet, are those times when church people have contributed to the false narrative by their poor Biblical scholarship as proponents of black subhumanity or the endorsement of slavery “because it was in the Bible”.

Sadly, I belong to a couple of FACEBOOK forums exclusively for ministers, and the tenor in those rooms has often been a narrative of denial — “We don’t have a race problem. People are just making everything about race.” Often the preferred narrative was more one of deflection — “If they weren’t so immoral, or so lazy …”

At other times, the church was the principle author of the narrative in the development of social views about race. The were primary agents for the growing anti-slavery movement in the 18th and 19th centuries. The church again stepped to the front as proponents of the civil rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s. However, at other times the church has seemed to write itself into the background as race issues persist.

It is time that we believers wake up. The United States has had a race problem since the rise of African enslavement to cultivate the plantations in the southern colonies. Naively, many in the church have accepted a narrative that said the racial problems have been solved, if not by the North’s victory in the “war between the states”, than by the civil rights activities of the 60’s.

Where was the church during the 1870’s when the immediate advancements of the Civil War were lost to passage of southern Jim Crow laws, the establishment of new laws that essentially returned former slaves to the oppression of the plantation? Where was the church during the terrorism of the Klu-Klux-Klan in the late 19th and most of the 20th century? Where was the church in the 1940’s and 50’s when the GI-bill ushered in another era of segregated housing by mandating that GIs may only purchase new homes in like ethnic neighborhoods? Worse yet, why did historically white churches abandon ethnically changing neighborhoods in the urban centers in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s instead of find ways to minister to the changing face of the community? Where has the voice of the church been over the last 50 years? How has the church offered their voice to addressing the issues of ethnic poverty since the war on poverty was waged?

But when a young white man walked into an African-American church to ruthlessly murder its members just because their melanin levels where higher than his own, some people were rocked from their slumber.

We in the church ought to lead our country toward the drafting of a different narrative, a Biblical narrative of race and unity. It ought to be the kind of narrative hinted at in verses like Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for they are all one in Christ Jesus.” Or Ephesians 2:14: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the dividing wall of hostility …” The narrative ought to reclaim the multi-ethnic expression of a loving and active community of faith as found in the church of Antioch. It ought to introduce people to the eternal “every tribe, every people, every language and every language” nature of Christian eternity in the here and now.

In Christ there is only one race. All people are created in the image of God, and the honor of that image must be shown.

We got a hint of that as the families of the Emanuel AME slain plainly spoke forgiveness to the murder of the loved ones, instead of returning hate for hate.

However, the engagement of the church in developing the narrative shouldn’t be reserved only for times of crisis. The church should be constantly engaged in a growing narrative of multi-ethnic unity, grace and love that can become a sweeping force of societal transformation in our country, and an example around the world.

I am proud to be a part of a church that intentionally seeks to build a community in the midst of ethnic diversity, where people can be judged, not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. Yet, even this church carries the stain of “white flight” of the late 50’s. When our current neighborhood began to change the Elders repented of the sin of their past. They determined to remain in our current location and minister to a changing community. God began bringing together a “family of believers” who chose to worship together because we didn’t look like one another. This week, we are mourning and celebrating the life of one of the first to intentionally cross that racial line and attend “the white church.”

God has placed churches like ours in the unique position to demonstrate that different ethnic groups cannot only stop living in hate, but learn to love one another. Through our loving each other, we speak against hate.

Yet, we as Christians need to use our voices as well to denounce intentional racism, and call out latent racism. We need to open our eyes to racial gap that is not narrowing as much as we wish it were in our society.

I’m finishing this blog this morning in a hotel room in Cincinnati, OH mere blocks away from the Red’s home field. As I sit here I remember hearing the story of Jackie Robinson’s first visit to play Major League ball against the Red’s. The Cincinnati team and fans had demonstrated the reputation of being extremely racist. On May 13, 1947, as the Cincinnati players and fans called out names like “snowflake” and “shoe-shine boy” at Jackie Robinson. The captain of the team, a slight, southerner, wearing #1 and playing shortstop, walked from his position across the infield and placed his arm around the young man wearing #42. Pee Wee Reese just kept his arm on the shoulders of Jackie Robinson. Years later, Robinson would say, “After Pee Wee came over like that, I never felt alone on the baseball field again.”

That is the kind of role the church ought to be writing for itself in the ever unfolding racial heritage of this country.

It is time for Christians to redeem a narrative that moves us from racial prejudice to racial harmony!

— Pastor Steve

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