Time to Talk Race

Race tension is intractable in the USA, but that does mean there isn’t hope — for there. The place to begin is in the church, and it is in the church that we have the opportunity to embody a multiracial body of Christ and “experiment” with a radical kind of living — not by accommodating or tolerating but by loving and celebrating diversity in a unity in Christ.

You may well Paul’s  famous verse … In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female. The verse comes from Galatians, that great magna carta of liberty in Christ, from the 3d chapter at verse 28. A number of models have been constructed to figure out what Paul had in mind, including the one that says “salvation is equal for all but after that there is plenty of division or distinctions.” So such folks believe that maybe men and women are equal in redemption (in Christ) but there is still hierarchy within the church. I disagree as much with his old-age culture as much as an old-age culture of ethnic division.

I could go on… the issue I want to discuss with you today starts with “Jew nor Greek” and the issue is today — African American and white American.

Anything touching on race creates challenges for public discussion, something noticeable on this blog, but what do you think are the major challenges for creating a genuine interracial church? What are the marks of interraciality? 

To help us I want to dip into some central ideas in Korie Edwards, The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches. She is a sociologist at Ohio State University, a Christian sociologist, and her concern is interracial churches. Her question is this: Are interracial churches really interracial? (Equality is at the heart of the meaning of genuinely interracial.)

There are problems in American culture for interracial churches: since churches are disestablished, people can choose which church they attend. Since people are smitten by “homophily” (we choose people like us), we choose churches like us … and that means white folks choose white churches and African Americans choose African American churches.

What’s more: white people, or better yet white hegemony, are both structurally powerful and blind to what whiteness means. Whiteness is about power in the deep structures of society; race is about structured power.

Her contention is that interracial churches are more or less white-based churches and not genuinely interracial churches. They are merely a dish of white ice cream with sprinkles spread all over the surface. Whites have a structural advantage, there is white normativity, and white transparency (not seeing whiteness) means white normativity will prevail. This whiteness is inherent to interracial churches, so she argues.

African American churches have been places of refuge, so interracial churches — remember the element of choice — is not the choice of most African Americans, and those who do choose the interracial church are usually those who were reared in multi-cultural contexts.

Korie Edwards examines church worship, church participation in extra-church activities, in spiritual affirmative action, in racial identity, and in why folks attend interracial churches … her conclusions mesh across the board: interracial churches are shaped by whiteness and not genuine interracial elements.

What will those be?

Must embrace a dream of racial justice and equality.
Places that all racial groups can call their own.
Where all races have the power to influence the minor and major decisions of the church.
Where the culture and experiences of all racial groups are not just tolerated, but appreciated.
Where white normativity and structural domination are resisted.

The central issue then is power.

The central solution is the cross, where those with power lay down power to those without power.

The solution is not to reduce the saliency of race but to embrace diversity and to celebrate it.

The best Biblical example: the collection for the widows in Acts 6 when the Jewish leaders handed over the power to the Hellenistic leaders with the possibility that those Hellenists now in power might just use their power against the Hebrew speaking Jews.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.