A Church’s Refusal to Name Racism Gives White Supremacy a Seat in God’s House

the chair in the attic
“the chair in the attic” by Paolo Marconi via Flickr

The Sunday after the Charleston Massacre, churches all over the country prayed for the victims and their families. Taking their cue from the Emmanuel AME Church itself, pastors, reverends, and deacons encouraged their congregations to seek solace in God’s embrace. In addition, they implored their flock to show compassion and forgiveness. Their message encouraged togetherness in the face of forces meant to divide.

At my church on Sunday, I expected more of the same. Indeed, I predicted a message of togetherness along the lines of previous sermons about how we, as a church, exemplify cross-racial brother- and sisterhood. I attend a truly multi-racial church where we worship, pray, serve and mourn as an integrated body. I expected, at the very least, a discussion of how churches like ours should be at the front lines of racial reconciliation.

I was disappointed.

At the beginning of service, one of our pastors led a corporate time of prayer for the nine victims. Their pictures were put on the big screens, and the pastor called out each of their names. We prayed for their souls, which we were sure had been lifted up to heaven to join the Father in paradise. We prayed for their families as they mourned the sudden loss of their loved ones.

But we did not discuss race, even to acknowledge that the victims were black. We did not discuss racism, despite the fact that we knew the gunman had racism in his heart. We did not even discuss our own racial demographic.

I was disappointed, but not shocked.

As a scholar of race, I often cringe at churches’ boasting being a multi-racial space. We implicitly believe that race does not move among us because all that matters is that we are “brothers and sisters” in Christ. I do not doubt the sincerity of the intention; I’ve certainly been comforted in my times of need by all members of our church, regardless of race.

Unfortunately, that’s not enough.

What happened at church on Sunday is part of what I see as a disturbing trend in multi-racial Christian spaces. While Dr. King’s oft quoted quip that Sunday’s at 11 a.m. is the most segregated hour in America is still true, in many churches, the physical separatism is slowly beginning to wane. But the structural racism Dr. King detested is still there. “The silence of our friends” — white Christians —  is still there. We are unequal even when we are not separate.

The church’s focus on the religious affiliation of the victims of this massacre while ignoring high profile deaths of other black people like Tamir Rice, Micheal Brown, Freddie GrayRakia Boyd, and Eric Garner  perpetuated the belief that the Charleston Nine were murdered because they were Christian (and that their deaths were somehow more worthy of attention than the others.) Yet we knew, even before Sunday’s service, that this characterization of the shooter’s motivation was belied by evidence of his true motivation — racism. We knew that he targeted the church because he knew there would be black people gathered there — not because it was a church. Yet, on Sunday, the multi-racial church persisted in advancing that erroneous and vacuous narrative.

Ignoring race and racism in the church is a losing proposition for all involved. There is no doubt that teaching colorblindness serves the interests of the white supremacist status quo, not the interests of justice or equality. Rather than a sincere message of tolerance and acceptance, colorblindness allows whites — including White Christians — to act as if racism is dead, or that it is only in the hearts and minds of those espousing overt bigotry and prejudice.

Failing to name racism allows it to lurk in the background, even in church. A place of comfort is also a place of that-which-cannot-be-named for fear of alienating our White “family.” But ignoring the fact that the majority of those at the altar praying for employment are black allows racism to lurk. Ignoring the fact that many in your congregation are suffering from racial battle fatigue allows racism to lurk. Failing to name racism and its attendant harms ignores the daily attacks on the personhood of black congregants. Ignoring the blackness of the Charleston victims is a lie by omission that allows the white members of the church to ignore a devastating form of white supremacy.

White Christians need to acknowledge how Christianity has been used to oppress people of color, especially black people. They must honestly come to terms with the immense white privilege that operates when a church refuses to name the evil that is racism in order to make the white minority comfortable.

The church and other places of worship should be places where we speak truth to power. We should be echoing the teaching of Jesus and other prophets where justice is championed and evil is rebuked. Black churches of yesteryear and many of today espouse a theology grounded in racial justice and overtly decry the scourge of white supremacy. Other groups, including  Black American Muslims, have long been known for fighting injustice as a expression of faith.

Why can’t we?

White supremacy and its progeny, racism, are evils that must not be tolerated. Justice must include racial justice. By refusing to acknowledge its presence, white supremacy and racism have a space in God’s house.

We are told to come as we are. I want the church to acknowledge that I come as black.   

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