- As Christians we live within tension– tension between our understanding of the gospel as God’s Redemptive story that is good news for ALL people and for ALL of creation, and the shameful legacy over centuries of a religion bearing Christ’s name, yet married to corrupt empire, profit, and power.
The following essay takes a look at racial justice and foregrounds the voices of several Christian leaders of our lifetime who have dedicated their lives to the reconciling work of the gospel.
It was during a four-week pilgrimage to the American South that Lisa Sharon Harper first saw the lack in the gospel as expressed through the “four spiritual laws“. Faced with the Trail of Tears and the legacy of her enslaved ancestors, the good news she had been working hard to promote through her work in campus ministry, came up mute.
Lisa’s own third-great grandmother, the last enslaved person in her family tree, according to records, bore seventeen children. We understand what this means. Enslaved women’s sacred bodies were violated and brutalized by slave owners, their capacity to bear children abused for profit. Lisa Sharon Harper:
“When I came off of that pilgrimage in 2003, I asked myself, could I knock on my great-great-great-grandmother Leah Ballard’s door one night, after she had been raped for maybe the fifth time that day, could I go up to her and could I knock on her door, and could I say, ‘Great-great-great-grandmother Leah Ballard, I have good news for you. God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. But you are sinful, and therefore separated from God. But Jesus has died to pay the penalty for your sin. So, all you need to do is to pray this little prayer at the back of the booklet, and then you would get to go to heaven.’ She would not jump for joy. It would not be received as good news.”
“That rocked my world, because as an evangelical, the gospel is the center of my universe. The Good News of Jesus literally is what set me free, so if it’s not good enough for my own family, if it’s not good enough for those who need good news the most, then it’s either not good news at all, or my understanding of the Good News of Jesus is not actually Jesus’ understanding of the Good News.”
What does the gospel have to say to Leah Ballard?
The Jesuit missionaries of Georgetown College owned 272 enslaved men, women, and children, along with several tobacco plantations in Maryland, and used the profits to fund the school. In 1838, faced with mounting debt over several construction projects, the priests struck a deal to sell the 272 enslaved people, shipping most of them to sugar plantations near New Orleans. The ship manifest names men, women, and children, many of whom are just babies, the youngest, a baby girl, two months old.
Slave conditions in the Deep South were notoriously cruel, and the priests would have known this. The grotesque $115,000 transaction amounted to 3.2 million dollars in today’s economy.
Thomas Mulledy, the president of the school, authored the plan. By all accounts, he was also the priest who had baptized many of the enslaved persons into the Catholic church.
What does the gospel have to say to the Georgetown 272?
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Christian abolitionists believed passionately in the brotherhood of man and wrote of all humanity as “one blood”. Antislavery activism relied on the conviction that all people were made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26–27)
Christians have organized to protect the rights of children. They have fought for women’s suffrage. They have been at the center of the civil rights campaigns in the American South.
Yet, our history bleeds with devastating examples of powerful human beings using a twisted form of the Christian religion to sate their appetite for domination over other human beings.
Protestant pastors used scripture to propagate a pro-slavery argument. In North America, First Nations children were forced to attend government residential schools where the missionaries who ran them abused them in every way. “Kill the Indian and save the child” was the often-quoted philosophy of this cultural genocide.
Religious Whites of the South justified slavery, enforced Jim Crow, and participated in a campaign of lynching and terror against Black families. Today, many influential and powerful people in the US exploit the holy scriptures in an attempt to justify the unjustifiable: The cruel actions of ICE, turning away refugees, dehumanizing immigrants, systemic racism and racialized state violence against black and brown Americans. Many Christians who disagree with these immoral actions continue to stay silent about them. Others pick up the usual tropes that rely on a “might makes right” mentality and focus blame against the oppressed group. The powerful are right and the detractors are “stirring up trouble”.
In The Very Good Gospel, Lisa Sharon Harper describes Genesis I as a time when the relationships between all of creation was “forcefully good. Violently good. What were those relationships? Humanity & God. Man & Woman. Humanity & Creation. Creation & systems that governed us. Humanity with self.” Lisa Sharon Harper:
“We have set up law that codifies the lie that some people were created to exercise dominion and others were not. Part of the work of understanding Shalom is knowing that when Jesus said ‘repent and believe the Gospel’ he meant repent of the lie that says you were not created in the image of God and you have no dominion. Jesus said, ‘I have come to set the prisoner free,’ so let’s be free of those lies.”
Alongside those who have led the church in spreading God’s shalom, there have been others who have chosen instead to serve themselves, feeding their attraction to personal power, popularity, and wealth, and protecting the chains that bind us.
What do the actions of the Church in America today say to the watching world about the message of the gospel?
When love of neighbor and love of enemy is pushed to the far periphery of our faith, the church benches itself and fails to show up and lead in God’s Redemptive work. In Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Communities, Rev. Dr. John Perkins describes the church in America as “captive to culture.”
“We take in the good news of God’s love that’s supposed to burn through racial and social divisions and turn it into a religion that reinforces the status quo. That’s the Christianity we’ve inherited in this country, and that’s what our missionaries have gone around the world preaching. We’ve over-evangelized the world too lightly, and the church has reinforced America’s problems more than we’ve given people reason to believe in something new.”
“Many times white people assume that time alone will eradicate these problems. But time won’t do that. . . . In many ways, we’re facing some of the exact same problems the church was faced with in the 1960s, and with some of the exact same manifestations of the same arguments.”
One of them is “let’s just focus on the gospel” to the exclusion of racial reconciliation, he said. “That’s exactly what white evangelicals were saying in Birmingham that prompted [Martin Luther King’s] ‘Letter from the Birmingham Jail.’”
What does the gospel have to say about racial justice?
In her useful treatise on White Privilege, “Unpacking the invisible knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh puts it this way:
“In my class and place…I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.”
“Disapproving of the systems won’t be enough to change them. I was taught to think that racism could end if white individuals changed their attitude. But a “white” skin in the United States opens many doors for whites whether or not we approve of the way dominance has been conferred on us. Individual acts can palliate but cannot end, these problems.
Under God’s Shalom, those with power experience holy conviction and recognize their unearned privilege.
In the nineties at my alma mater, Eastern College, all students were required to take a course entitled: Justice and Diversity in a Pluralistic Society. Sometimes, spaces like these become a place where white students, hearing about social and economic injustices perpetuated by people who look like them, become uncomfortably aware of their unearned privilege. Filled with shame, many people in this situation react in one of two unhelpful ways. We either take offense and throw our energy into rejecting the proposition that our lives are built upon privilege, because it makes us feel guilty; Or, feeling too uncomfortable to remain curious and listen, we rush to commend ourselves to classmates of color, as if looking to them for some gesture of absolution.
To “celebrate diversity” is a good thing. But to do so without also working to restructure the systems that fuel it, is not only dismissive, it gives a false sense of arrival. Window-dressing solutions to racial problems may temporarily relieve feelings of guilt, but managing appearances solves nothing.
In 1997 the Angels of Harmony gospel choir at Eastern College (of which I was a part) was invited to South Africa. We were invited by the Baptist churches there, white and black, to participate in the first joint worship service between the racially separate conferences. Racially diverse, our choir was meant to be a symbol of what reconciliation might look like.
As we prepared to land in Johannesburg, several African American members of our choir shed tears. They were about to set foot on African soil for the first time, and with that experience came a flood of strong emotions. Africa, where their family tree had begun, before it was uprooted by human traffickers.
We visited a high school in Soweto and had the honor of singing together with the students there. It was not lost on us that we were in the place where on June 16, 1976, thousands of students assembled to protest Afrikaans as the language of instruction in their schools, and hundreds of school children were killed by the police. Christians there, too, had lived as captives to a poisonous ideology of racial superiority.
Founder of Equal Justice Initiative, public interest lawyer (and Eastern alumn), Bryan Stevenson:
“There’s no question that we have a long history of seeing people through this lens of racial difference. It’s a direct line from slavery to the treatment of black suspects today, and we need to acknowledge the shamefulness of that history.”
“Old people of color come up to me sometimes and say, ‘Mr. Stevenson, I get so angry when I hear someone on TV talking about how they’re dealing with domestic terrorism for the first time in our nation’s history after 9/11. You need to make them stop saying that, because that’s not true.’ People who had endured lynchings and bombings and threats had a tremendous shape on our lives. We haven’t done a very good job of understanding the legacy of lynching, but the black people that are in Cleveland and Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles and Oakland and Boston and Minneapolis did not go to those communities merely as immigrants looking for new economic opportunities. They went to those communities as refugees and exiles from the American South.”
The organization #SayHerName works to inform the conversation about racialized state violence against Black people. Kimberle Crenshaw’s has been working to build an ever-growing database that tells the stories of forgotten Black women killed by the police. The goal is that more of the public will better understand the structural relationship between Black communities and law enforcement. The database includes photographs of each woman, how they died, and who they were, before their lives were cut short.
“If our collective outrage around cases of police violence is meant to serve as a warning to the state that its agents cannot kill without consequences, our silence around the cases of Black women and girls sends the message that certain deaths do not merit repercussions.”
I have talked with American Christians for whom social movements such as Black Lives Matter elicit criticism and distrust, rather than solidarity. Why, I ask myself, does so much of the church shrink from, even deny the necessity of, leading the fight for racial and economic justice?
There can be no reconciliation without reckoning, not only with the terror and injustice of the past, but also with the present. Reconciliation without truth is not reconciliation. It’s just sentiment.
As powerful religious institutions continue to profit from cozying up to power, parts of the scattered church today are opening their eyes to the empire that has always tried to own the Christian story, and they are rejecting it and repenting of it. They are rejecting the praise of the powerful, and risking persecution. They are doing justice and loving mercy. They are walking humbly with their God.
They are going deeper into the good news, understanding that addressing structural and systemic injustice is not an existential threat to one’s personal faith. Rather, it is at the heart of the deepest work of the church.
From the beginning, those Christians who have refused to stitch themselves to the religious power structures and service to the empire of their day, have faced death. They died for preaching the good news of Christ, which was a threat to those structures. Through scripture, these earliest voices remain with us today. Stephen was stoned to death by religious authorities, Saints Peter and Paul killed by the Romans executioners. Early Christians were fed to the lions, their gory deaths cheered in Roman colosseums. History teaches us so clearly that persecution and dwindling numbers is not always a sign of God withdrawing favor. Quite often, it is a result of speaking a holy truth in the face of power that relies on an unholy lie.
Galatians 3:27 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Lisa Sharon Harper:
“What Paul is saying here is that when you are baptized in Christ, you are now cleaned of the lenses of empire, and now you see all as God sees them, called to exercise dominion in the world, not subjugated by human hierarchy. That changes everything.”
Christian writer and historian, Jemar Tisby:
“In response to the trope about fighting racism merely through converting individuals to Christianity, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also. So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.”
“Yet, ‘changed laws do not change hearts’ is a persistent sentiment in today’s evangelical culture and many current race-relation efforts reflect this effort . Will we limit the good news of the Gospel by reducing it to an individual’s salvation? Or will we also consider the Bible’s power to transform societies?
Tisby’s message echoes that of Rev. Dr. John Perkins, who spent his life continuing the unfinished work of the civil rights movement. He saw the bondage created by racial hatred both in white and black people, and dedicated himself to teaching racial reconciliation. In February of 1970, in Brandon Mississippi, on his way to post bail for several fellow demonstrators as part of a boycott against local businesses, John Perkins was tortured and beaten nearly to death by white police officers, and made to mop up his own blood. During his long recovery in a hospital bed, God ministered to him. In Let Justice Roll Down, Dr. Perkins writes,
“I thought with real sadness of the gospel I believed in with all my heart…I believed that gospel was powerful enough to shatter even the hatred of [my hometown of] Mendenhall. But I had not seen it. Especially in the churches.” In One Blood, he writes, “God used the black and white nurses and doctors at that hospital to wash my wounds. For me they were symbolic of the people who had beaten me. What they did healed more than just my broken body. It healed my heart.”
This is the freedom to which Christ calls us, that we are made new and that we are made free, saved both from the sinful state of self-idolatry, and saved to the joyful, sober work of serving and loving neighbor and enemy, as expressed through beloved community. This is how we participate in the regenerative, restorative message of the whole gospel.
2 Corinthians 5:16-18 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.