Timothy Dalrymple on It’s Time for the Church to Make Restitution for Racial Sin

Image: Jeremy Cowart

Timothy Dalrymple is the president and CEO of Christianity Today .

“Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” -Genesis 4:10

We at Christianity Today deeply love the church. Serving the bride of Christ, growing her love for God, and telling the story of her redemptive and transformative work in the world is the heart of what we do. We do not revel in the history of her sin. But we cannot love our brothers and sisters well if we cannot tell their story in truth. And we cannot tell their story in truth if we cannot confess our participation in it. The Bible is honest about the flaws of even the most remarkable people. We should follow its example.

Two original sins have plagued this nation from its inception: the destruction of its native inhabitants and the institution of slavery. Both sprang from a failure to see an equal in the racial other. As Bishop Claude Alexander has said, racism was in the amniotic fluid out of which our nation was born. There was a virus present in the very environment that nurtured the development of our country, our culture, and our people. The virus of racism infected our church, our Constitution and laws, our attitudes and ideologies. We have never fully defeated it.

The first slaves arrived upon these shores before the Pilgrims, before there was a Massachusetts or Connecticut. Slavery had been established for 113 years when George Washington was born and 157 years when the Declaration of Independence was written. Nine of our early presidents were slaveholders. Slavery meant husbands and wives, parents and children were violently torn apart and never saw one another again. It meant white men repeatedly raped hundreds of thousands of black girls and women. American Slavery As It Is, published in 1839 with extensive sourcing by Theodore Weld and Angelina Grimké, writes that slaves:

are frequently flogged with terrible severity, have red pepper rubbed into their lacerated flesh, and hot brine, spirits of turpentine, &c., poured over the gashes to increase the torture; that they are often stripped naked, their backs and limbs cut with knives, bruised and mangled by scores and hundreds of blows with the paddle…that they are often hunted with blood hounds and shot down like beasts, or torn in pieces by dogs; that they are often suspended by the arms and whipped and beaten till they faint, and when revived by restoratives, beaten again till they faint, and sometimes till they die; that their ears are often cut off, their eyes knocked out, their bones broken, their flesh branded with red hot irons; that they are maimed, mutilated and burned to death over slow fires.

This is the institution that endured on American soil for nearly 250 years. We shudder when we think not only of the physical torment but of the social suffering—the sense of humiliation and abandonment, that the white society around the slaves was often deaf to their cries and did not view them as human and worthy of love—and we wonder at the profound wound it would leave in the collective consciousness of a people. Slavery in the antebellum economy was one of the most powerful engines of wealth creation in the history of our people. It generated economic and cultural capital that flowed downstream into affluent communities, as well as opportunity for labor and investment and educational institutions that supported research, innovation, and quality of life. Yet it left African Americans utterly desolate.

Only about 42 percent of white Christians believe the history of slavery continues to impact African Americans today. Yet slavery was a symptom of the virus, not the virus itself. Even after the abolition of slavery, the ideology that had supported and formed around slavery endured. The symptom passed. The virus persisted by mutating.

The collapse of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow imposed racial segregation and oppression in the South until 1965. Since plantation owners still needed cheap labor after the Civil War, they exploited their sharecroppers and tenant farmers and often treated them just as brutally as they had before. Lynchings terrorized black families and enforced a regime of domination and control, while southern legislators found ever more creative ways of preventing blacks from voting or defending themselves and their property. In the North as well, especially as great numbers of blacks fled the oppression of the South and sought work in factories in northern cities, systematic discrimination in the housing and labor markets made it virtually impossible for African Americans to finance home ownership and build generational wealth.

Many progressive policies only deepened the social and economic divide between blacks and whites. Social security laws in the New Deal era effectively excluded the vast majority of blacks from federal retirement assistance, and the GI Bill was thoroughly ineffective at supporting home ownership and only meagerly effective at funding college education for black veterans returning from war. As a matter of policy as well as prejudice, blacks were forced into neighborhoods of ever-deepening poverty, and very few could climb their way out. Young people growing up in proximity to violent crime, surrounded by joblessness, family breakdown, addiction, and despair, could not secure a quality education, a home, or a fair shake in the job market. All this is to say nothing of the collapse of the American criminal justice system in the second half of the 20th century, which led to over-incarceration and increasingly violent clashes between law enforcement departments and the communities they serve.

Others have told this story in greater detail. We believe it is important to keep telling it in the pages of Christianity Today. The result of the story is a catastrophic wealth gap: The median net worth of black families in the United States today is one-tenth the median net worth of white families. Sixty-two percent of black children born between 1955 and 1970 were raised in poor neighborhoods, compared to 4 percent of white children. Results for the generation born between 1985 and 2000 were even worse, with 66 percent of black children raised in poor neighborhoods compared to 6 percent of white children.

The only way to explain the story above is the persistence of racial prejudice and its enshrinement into the apparatus of government. Allow me to borrow (but use in a different way) a metaphor from the scholar Wendy Doniger. Two explorers enter a cave filled with the most elaborate spiderwebs. One of them cannot locate a spider, and thus refuses to believe it exists. You see the webs, replies the other. The spider is implied. Racial prejudice is the implied spider that has woven the web of policies and practices, inequalities and abuses that have constrained black Americans now for four hundred years.

Of course, some white Christians strove at great length and great risk to abolish slavery, and many shed their blood in the war that emancipated slaves in the Southern states. Rightly interpreted, the Bible at the center of the church has been an enormous force not only for the redemption of sinners but for the advancement of justice and charity. But the exceptions were far too few. A multitude of Christian communities, including evangelical communities, were silent in the face of slavery or even complicit in it.

In fact, complicity is not a strong enough term. Much though it grieves us as people who love the church, it may be that the most monstrous sin of the white church in America was shaping a theology of racial superiority in order to legitimize and even encourage the institution of slavery. Slavery was not only permissible, many white Christians argued, but beneficial insofar as it brought gospel and culture to a benighted people. Even on the eve of the Civil War, preachers spurred on the secessionist cause by arguing it was part of God’s “providential trust” in the Southern states “to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as it now exists.” If God had ordained the racial hierarchy, who were we to overturn it?

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Source: Christianity Today