The Church, Race, and Reconciliation

by Julie Weatherford

In January 2019, a dozen or so of us from two Brethren in Christ churches (Crest Community and Madison Street Church, both of Riverside, California) participated in a gathering of about 150 people of a beautiful variety of races and ethnicities, called “Workshop 1.0: Church, Race and Reconciliation.” The workshop is offered quarterly by a Southern California church, Fellowship Monrovia, via their Center for Racial Reconciliation.* Below are excerpts from the speakers, the group sharing, and the materials for that day.

The focus of the workshop was to help to form Jesus-followers for life in heaven where there will gather “a great multitude . . . from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9), joined in exuberant worship of God. I love that, in the workshop, racial reconciliation was presented in a way consistent with scripture—as a necessary component of Christian discipleship, and not some fringe ministry for people in the church who are bleeding hearts or politically liberal. The workshop’s purpose was “to provide an opportunity for participants to explore an analysis of systemic racism from a biblical perspective and to begin to discern strategies for dismantling racism within our institutions and churches and a strategy for creating and experiencing reconciliation.”

By way of gracious, knowledgeable, experienced upfront leadership along with voiced commitments to grace, mutual respect, caring and trust in the Holy Spirit to guide the time, the workshop provided a safe space to explore issues related to racism. Encouraged that “the only way out is to go back through,” we began with a brief look at history:

1492-1790: European colonization, genocide of Indigenous peoples, enslavement of Africans and establishment of the U.S. as a white Protestant nation

1790-1954: The building of the U.S. as an apartheid country: colonialism and neocolonialism, enslavement of Africans, Jim Crow segregation, de facto enslavement of African Americans, ongoing genocide of Native Americans, colonialism and neo-colonialism of Latinos, exclusion of Asians and Arabs.

1954-1973: Civil Rights Movement, many other Peoples’ Movements

1973-present: Post-Movement time

In this historical review, it became clear that, throughout U.S. history, the Church has stood both shamelesslyforracism and courageously againstit. While scripture has been misused to oppress and/or to keep others in place, God has encouraged resistance via Old and New Testament passages and stories that clearly show God’s special concern and actions on behalf of the oppressed, via the example and teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, and via the teachings of the early church as we read in New Testament letters. 

In relation to the issue of race, we considered why people are poor. We have all internalized “flawed person” explanations (s/he’s lazy, dependent, using the system, or ghetto). But there are millions of hard-working poor people who labor in two and more jobs that fail to provide a livable wage. We need to consider “flawed system” reasons for poverty, such as: capitalism, unlivable wages, unfair conditions, unemployment, redlining, and lack of resource, opportunities, education, citizenship or role models.

All people are racially prejudiced (regardless of racial/ethnic identity), but not everyone is racist. Racism is more than individual attitudes and actions. Even so, white Christians tend to look at racism as individualized. They think that the way to overcome it is to change individually. But if we don’t address systemic racism, not much will change. As we learned in the workshop, “racial prejudice becomes racism when one group’s racial prejudices are enforced by the systems and institutions of society, giving power and privilege based on skin color to the group in power, and limiting the power and privilege of the racial groups that are not in power.” It’s true that we have all experienced racial prejudice to lesser or greater degrees. The difference is, and the real damage occurs, when racial prejudice is combined with power. It’s this combination that, applied systemically, limits freedom, access, and resources, hindering capacity and advantaging one group of people over another.

We considered the issue of white privilege and how white people routinely experience power and privilege without even being aware of it. For example, whites can easily find positive role models depicted in the media and celebrated as heroes in most of our national holidays. Whites can attend college and find that most professors look and talk like us, and most curricula reflect our culture, history and background. Whites can shop in stores without being followed by a security guard or suspected of shoplifting. Whites can easily find artists’ depictions of God, Jesus and other biblical figures that match our skin color and facial characteristics.

We learned a couple terms that were new to many of us: “Internalized Racist Oppression” (IRO) and “Internalized Racist Superiority” (IRS), and their definitions (from the “The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond”):

IRO: “A complex multi-generational socialization process that teaches people of color to believe, accept, and live out negative, societal definitions of self and fit into and live out inferior societal roles. These behaviors [for example, self-doubt, distancing, self-hate, anger, rage, assimilation, and victimhood) support and help maintain the race construct.”  

IRS: “A complex multi-generational socialization process that teaches white people to believe, accept and live out superior societal definitions of self and to fit into and live out superior societal roles. These behaviors define and normalize the race construct and its outcome – white privilege.” Examples of IRS include white silence (about difficult topics like racism), white denial (colorblindness), identity threat (“I’m a good person”), white fragility (seeking absolution, avoiding, rationalizing, blaming the victim), self-proclaimed ally, and “white savior” complex.

Being white myself, I particularly took in the call to lament (the twin sister of praise, both being necessary for healthy spirituality) and to un-learnthree things: 

1) Desire for speed – Lament views speed with pessimism, as reconciliation is not speedy.

2) Desire for distance – Lament forces us to see and to be disturbed. We have to be near those suffering from racism; we have to sit, mourn and cry with them.

3) Desire to be innocent – All whites have benefited from racism, and the church has often joined in the oppression. The question for our churches must be: “How do we create a reconciled body?”

Finally, suggestions were given for next steps.  

Next steps for whites included:

  • Begin to understand the realities of people of color through authentic relationships.
  • Get educated and act.
  • Tolerate discomfort.
  • Challenge your own racial reality; acknowledge your self as racially identified.

Next steps for people of color included:

  • Be willing to walk alongside white brothers and sisters.
  • Challenge your belief that whites should know more about white superiority and privilege.
  • Challenge your own racial oppression against other ethnic groups.
  • Educate yourself about the history and story of other people of color and whites.

The dozen of us from Madison Street and Crest Community who attended the workshop have since met to talk about our experiences of the workshop and to begin to discern and plan for ways to encourage racial reconciliation in our churches and beyond. We have plans to encourage folks from our churches and from other Brethren in Christ churches to attend Fellowship Monrovia workshops. And, working together, starting in February, we plan to host some “documentary dinners” and “race conversations” for folks in our churches, hoping to learn more ourselves about race and racial reconciliation and to encourage others to as well. We know we have much to learn, we know that there are no “quick fixes” to this problem, we want to be guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we desire to follow in the loving and boundary-crossing ways of Jesus, and we are glad to be working together as His followers.

* For more information, see https://madeforfellowship.com/centerforracialreconciliation/

** For just a few of the many scriptural evidences of God’s love for all peoples and God’s desire for reconciliation between peoples, see Ps 133, Lk 2:10, Jn 17:20-23, Acts 6:1-7, Acts 15:1-21, Acts 16:1-5, Acts 17:24-28, Rom 2:17-29, 1 Cor 12:12-27, 2 Cor 5:16-20, Gal 2:11-4:6, Gal 3:26-29, Eph 2:13-22, Phil 2:1-5, Rev 5:9-11, Rev 7:9.