In the children’s classic Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, an African-American mother attempts to explain the harshness of 1930s Southern racism to her young daughter, Cassie. After offering a brief history of slavery, she describes the historical relationship between white Christian slaveowners and African-American slaves:
“They also said that slavery was good for us because it taught us to be good Christians – like the white people… But they didn’t teach us Christianity to save our souls, but to teach us obedience. They were afraid of slave revolts and they wanted us to learn the Bible’s teachings about slaves being loyal to their masters.”
It saddens me to think of how slowly some things change. When race comes up in conversations among white Christians, it’s not uncommon to hear responses along these lines:
“This isn’t a race issue. It’s a sin issue.”
“We all belong to one family in Christ. Why can’t we just all get along?”
“We need to be focusing on unity. The topic of racism is too divisive.”
While these responses aren’t exactly what Cassie’s mama encountered from the White-Folk almost a century ago, they still carry whispers of the same sentiments. When we make the above statements, history reinforces that they’re likely to make a wildly different impact than their original intent:
“Quit giving us a hard time. We’re not bad people.”
“It only matters to me that I feel comfortable. If you have a problem, you need to keep it to yourself.”
“Unity is about conforming to the majority. If you don’t fit the majority, you don’t matter.”
Ouch, right? It hurts, I know.
But wait – let’s not allow the pain of this reality to shut the door on it so white people can sneak away from the conversation once again. Let’s press pause on the “unity” button for just a minute. We need to do some sustained reflection on the causes of the “disunity” first.
Thankfully, overt racism is no longer acceptable in much of the country. What makes this change especially challenging, though, is that it leaves white people with the impression that racism no longer exists. As a result, many white Christians begin the race conversation by dismissing racial pain with the hammer of spiritual language. Throwing Bible verses to cover up the realities of racism is essentially the Christianized version of “Shut-the-sam-hell-up. I don’t want to hear what you have to say.”
When the history of race relations in our country includes a story of whites converting blacks for the purpose of subservience, it’s essential to be very, very careful not to use spiritual language to silence pleas to be heard.
So, what do we do instead?
A Bible verse doesn’t become Christian until it’s actually lived out. It’s the living of these verses that creates deep change, not merely the speaking of them. Phillipians 2 provides an excellent model of humility for white people engaging the race conversation. Let’s consider what this language might look like in everyday actions:
- Be tender and compassionate = Listen to, learn from, accept, and affirm the shared experiences of people of color. Mourn over the challenges they express and listen closely to the reasons behind their pain.
- Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit = seek to understand the realities of a racially privileged system without worrying about feeling ‘blamed’. Sometimes white people get stuck in the conversation because “my family didn’t own slaves.” That’s not the point – acknowledging the bigger picture of systemic injustice is.
- Value others above yourselves = fill your lives with their stories. Watch movies on the civil rights movement. Read books about its leaders. Move out of comfort zones into a place that feels unsettling. Pause to consider what life might look like through someone else’s eyes. (30 Days of Race is a great place to start this process.)
- Don’t consider equality something to be used to your own advantage = look for ways to pursue equity over equality so that all people might have better access to privileges that the majority holds. Engage concepts like white privilege and cultural appropriation as a means of valuing and respecting others.
- Take on the humble nature of a servant = Listen, listen, listen, listen, and then listen some more. When we speak before we understand, too many words grow heavy in the hearts of those with whom we share. Find ways to learn about the perplexing parts of race relations that don’t exacerbate people of color who have borne our ignorance for centuries.
All of these are helpful steps toward meaningful racial reconciliation, but for the (literal) love of God, please stop silencing the voices of people of color through the use of Christian words. It doesn’t cultivate change. It merely silences long-ignored voices, fosters anger, and destroys the very peace Jesus came to bring.