Cheryl J. Sanders on Can a Follower of Christ Claim Salvation Through His Crucifixion, but Then Consent to the Suffering Racial Injustice Imposes on Others?

Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Portrait: Courtesy of Cheryl Sanders / Background Images: WikiMedia / Unsplash / New York Public Library

Cheryl J. Sanders is senior pastor of Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C. and professor of Christian ethics at Howard University. She is president of the American Theological Society. Her books include Ministry at the Margins, Saints in Exile, and Empowerment Ethics for a Liberated People.

Hebrews 12:1 helps us acknowledge that there are witnesses, past, present and future, to the hypocritical and indifferent responses of Christians to the problem of racial injustice. No slave ever wondered whether or not white Christians were hypocrites; white Christians violated the integrity of their bodies and their families with acts of torture, deprivation and rape, with impunity. Christians robbed them of their labor and dignity for profit. Children were auctioned off as commodities. Mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, siblings and parents were separated and sold away from each like livestock. For enslaved black Christians who embraced the Christian faith, they did so because they identified with Jesus as the crucified One. Their own common experience of suffering crucifixions performed by slaveholders, overseers, and patrollers laid bare the unbearable Jesus endured. Crucifixion needed no explanation. Because of forced illiteracy and clandestine religious gatherings (freedom of religion never applied to slaves) the slave preachers’ sermons were rarely captured in manuscript form. But the theology and ethics of enslaved faith communities were encoded and preserved in their songs. One of the best known traditional Negro spirituals is “Were You There?” The question sung challenges us to consider what it would have been like to be an eyewitness of the crucifixion:

Were you there when they crucifed my Lord?

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

The line of spiritual inquiry remains instructive for our time. If you were “there,” did you identify with Jesus as the victim of state-sanctioned violence? Did you take note of His betrayal, arrest, trial, taunting, humiliation, torture and execution by the ruling government at the bequest of the religious authorities?

If you were “there,” did you sympathize instead with those who crucified Him because you are convinced of the necessity to enforce the law and maintain order at any cost? If so, is your solidarity with Jesus and His cross or with those who put Him on the cross?

I suppose most white evangelical Christians would readily affirm the atoning sacrifice of Jesus for our sins. But how many white evangelicals recognize, acknowledge or even identify with the “whiteness” of racism and its connection with Jesus’ crucifixion? Our current dilemma will never be settled until we are willing to reckon with the cross in light of the racial and political implications of the story told in simplest terms: European soldiers executed a Palestinian Jew after forcing an African immigrant to carry his cross. Can a follower of Christ claim salvation in His cross and at the same time give consent to the suffering racial injustice imposes on others without contradiction? Were you there? Did you see what they did to Him? Would you do it to others?

Black Lives Matter: Can I Get a Witness from the Streets?

The present witness against racial injustice originated from the streets, and not from the church. The global Black Lives Matter movement resurged since the death of George Floyd. Incredibly, after centuries of lynchings and waves of protests, the U.S. Senate blocked passage of the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act in June 2020. How will Christians respond? By blaming, excusing and denying responsibility for the racial profiling and killing of innocent citizens at the hands of police, or by fostering changes that will result in justice for all, including just policing of our streets and communities? The prophet Isaiah announced that when truth has “stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter,” the Lord “looked and was displeased that there was no justice” (Isaiah 59:14-15). How Christians respond in the present moment will be judged by generations of witnesses to come.

The Sin That So Easily Entangles Us

Racism is a sin that hinders and entangles us, especially in its manifestations as idolatry, hatred, discord, jealousy and fits of rage (the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21). Unless intentionally interrupted, racism and racial injustice go far beyond negative attitudes or responses to society structures and systems that promote and sustain economic and social disparities. In their 2001 landmark study of white evangelicals, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith concluded that white Christians ignore and dismiss the impact of structural sin. Black Christians deal with it constantly because we are victimized by it. To claim Jesus as your personal Savior and to confess a change of heart is not enough. Sin is not just personal; it is also political. Howard Thurman framed the dilemma of race and religion in the preface of his classic text, Jesus and the Disinherited (1949):

This is the question which individuals and groups who live in our land always under the threat of profound social and psychological displacement face: Why is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion and national origin? Is this impotency due to a betrayal of the genius of the religion, or is it due to a basic weakness in the religion itself?

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Source: Christianity Today