Black Christians call for White Evangelical churches nationwide to reflect on racism

The Rev. Reginald Davis stands in the First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, Dec. 15, 2015. When “the cameras are not on us … if we don’t engage the system to correct the systemic problems, we’ll come right back to where we were before,” he says.

In Dothan, Alabama, First Baptist Church, like many white, Evangelical churches nationwide, is now addressing issues related to race for the first time. Motivated by the Black Lives Matter movement, faith groups from the Southern Baptist Convention to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have acknowledged that systemic racism remains today, and that churches can’t ignore it. Their challenge now, experts say, is that they’ve historically done just that.

Says historian Jemar Tisby, “Christianity in the United States has been coded as white, which means that any attempt to identify whiteness and white supremacy in it is taken as an attack on the faith.”

Moving forward may be a long, narrow road.

“We have a history of this,” says Taylor Rutland, a pastor at First Baptist, who first preached racism as a sin on June 7. “And so we’ve got to go before the Lord and confess these sins and repent of them in order to move forward.”

But one sermon can matter – at least Mr. Rutland’s did to Abby Maddox. “I just wanted to stand up and cheer,” she says. “We’re called to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice. And we’ve got a whole group of people who are mourning right now.”

By early June, Taylor Rutland was certain God wanted him to preach about racism. What he didn’t know is how his congregation would react.

Mr. Rutland pastors First Baptist Church of Dothan, Alabama – a Bible belt town just above the Florida border. Like many white Evangelical churches, he says, First Baptist almost never discusses racism. And like many such churches in the South, he says, First Baptist has racism in its past. In 1961, the church voted to stop funding Southern Baptist Theological Seminary after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited campus.

So on June 7, after delivering his first sermon on racism as sin, Mr. Rutland says he felt comforted to hear congregants tell him they wish he’d addressed it sooner.

“We have a history of this,” he says. “And so we’ve got to go before the Lord and confess these sins and repent of them in order to move forward.”

But moving forward may be a long, narrow road. First Baptist, like many white, evangelical churches nationwide, is now addressing issues related to race for the first time. Motivated by the Black Lives Matter movement, faith groups from the Southern Baptist Convention to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have acknowledged that systemic racism remains today, and that churches can’t ignore it. Their challenge now, experts say, is that they’ve historically done just that.

The church has long been one of the country’s most racially divisive institutions, historians say – so much so that denominations remain largely segregated. (It has also been a frequent setting for racially motivated violence.) As many white congregations now call for reform, many Black church leaders say real change demands much more than a sermon, statement, or conference.

“Even as Christian leaders and institutions make statements and make commitments to racial justice in the future, very few are taking a critical look at their own history,” says Jemar Tisby, a historian and president of The Witness, a Black Christian collective. “For us, racial justice is an ongoing pursuit. It’s not seasonal according to events or headlines of the day.”

To build a lasting commitment to faith-based racial justice, white churches need to understand their past. That past is one of silence, segregation, and complicity, says Mr. Tisby.

In early America, racism existed in the church just as it did in the rest of society, says Michael Emerson, head of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a leading expert on race and religion. For a long time, white Americans debated whether Black Americans could even be Christian. Even after the Civil War, says Professor Emerson, white churches still refused to integrate – entrenching a spiritual divide that remains today.

“We’ve had 160-plus years of separate cultures forming, with different authors people read, different interpretations of the Bible, different music that’s listened to, and I think most fundamentally completely different lived realities.”

Such a long rupture has made it so that integration now requires more than mixing white and Black congregants, experts say; it requires bridging institutions, whose differences saturate to their very theology.

“Christianity in the United States has been coded as white, which means that any attempt to identify whiteness and white supremacy in it is taken as an attack on the faith,” says Mr. Tisby. America’s distinct blend of white supremacy and Christianity, he says, has evolved with the times. It existed when white churches used the Bible to defend slavery, when the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses during Jim Crow, when pastors remained silent during the civil rights era, and now, when many white churches avoid addressing racism today.

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Source: Christian Science Monitor