David Swanson on Race Should Not Be an ‘Over There’ Problem for White Churches

People participate in a rally May 8, 2020, in Brunswick, Georgia, to protest the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man. Two men have been charged with murder in the February shooting death of Arbery, whom they had pursued in a truck after spotting him running in their neighborhood. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

David W. Swanson is the pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood and a leader of New Community Outreach, a nonprofit that collaborates with the community to reduce sources of trauma. He is the author of the recently released book “Rediscipling the White Church.” 


Will your church say anything about Ahmaud Arbery this Sunday? Did your church say anything about Breonna Taylor last Sunday?

In the past few weeks, news of the tragic and dramatic deaths of these young African Americans has managed to rise above the all-consuming pandemic coverage. Arbery was killed by two white men while jogging. Taylor was killed by police in her own home.

For the past decade I’ve pastored an urban, intentionally multiracial church — “intentionally” because it’s our belief that reconciliation across lines of segregation powerfully witnesses to the reconciling gospel of Jesus. While the percentage of racially diverse churches like ours is growing, we’re still something of an anomaly on the landscape of American Christianity.

But just because multiracial churches are rare doesn’t mean they aren’t attractive. I’ve found that most Christians like the idea of diversity in their churches. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been told something like, “I’d love to be a part of a diverse church, but my town (suburb, neighborhood, etc.) is so white.” These people will also express their interest in racial justice while again lamenting that there’s nowhere to direct this passion in their racially homogenous setting.

These conversations reveal an assumption that, when it comes to racial reconciliation and justice, the real action must be left to churches like mine. White Christians and their majority white churches, the thinking goes, don’t have an important role to play.

The work, according to this perspective, is “over there”: in the city, within the diverse churches, among communities of color. It’s the same assumption that keeps white churches silent when, once again, black women and men are killed, and black communities traumatized.

The problem with this assumption is it incorrectly pushes racial injustice off on people of color, when race was historically constructed by whites in order to benefit whites. Though the social hierarchy of race comes at the expense of women and men of color, the work of deconstructing it must be done by those who constructed it. By assuming that white churches and ministries have nothing significant to contribute to the reconciliation of the church, we misunderstand how race works.

Sure, the most deadly impacts of racial segregation and injustice are experienced in communities of color, at the other end of the racial hierarchy. The deaths of Arbery and Taylor are just the latest horrifying examples. Yet given the sinful origins of race, we must assume that no one in our racialized society is unscathed, least of all those of us who are white.

Not long ago I read a letter from the leaders of a white church who were troubled by a Christian organization’s emphasis on racial reconciliation. The authors ended with a question. What, they wanted to know, would this organization do to address the problem of fatherlessness in the African American community?

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Source: Religion News Service