Guest writer, Trillia Newbell on her experience seeking to help her white friends understand the plight of African Americans and the need for Christian empathy.
One click on the send button can be so revealing and sometimes painful. My young, 20-something friend didn’t mean to hurt me as he shared over and over again that as a white male he really didn’t care about the plight of African Americans. But he did.
Our recent correspondence often left him in shock. He didn’t know that African Americans had been marginalized. He was unaware that Affirmative Action had been used by many to accuse any black person who achieved something of merely getting a handout. And at one point it seemed to surprise him that one could desire to marry another regardless of ethnicity.
I was thankful for the interactions because the man is a humble learner. He didn’t know much about other ethnicities, but was willing to gain understanding. It takes a level of humility to admit you don’t know (and at one point didn’t care) and desire to learn.
What has been difficult and perhaps even grievous to me is the fact that before he met me, the experience of blacks in America wasn’t even on his radar. In his defense, why would it be? He lives in a white community, white church, white family, and has mostly white friends.
This lack of context could be contributed to our segregated neighborhoods and churches. A 2012 article in U.S. News reported on a study conducted by researchers at Dartmouth, the University of Georgia, and the University of Washington which revealed that not much had changed from the segregated times brought on by the Jim Crow laws. Unsurprisingly, they found that African-Americans remain concentrated in segregated neighborhoods and diverse neighborhoods are rare. They also discovered that immigrants tend to populate among themselves as well. Such statistics reveal how seldom people interact with those outside their specific ethnic group.
There remain stories of racial profiling such as NYPD’s Stop and Frisk program whose targets were 54 percent black, 31 percent Latino and only 12 percent white. We’ve seen the stories of couples not allowed to marry because they are interracial. And we must not forget the Trayvon Martin case. The jury will determine the final word on the case but our nation at one point was outraged by the possibility that the young man died merely because he was a black kid in the wrong place. There are plenty of stories about race today that should cause each of us to pause and ask hard questions.
Part of my friend’s struggle to care would seem to be apathy. It’s simply easier to coast through life not worrying about others (other than those immediately associated with you). It takes effort to know those not like us, to study history and ask hard questions. This apathy could be masked by the thought, “Haven’t we all moved past racism now?” The stories above prove otherwise. We get used to “our own” and can soon fall into the temptation to be partial.
James speaks strongly about the temptation to be partial towards others reminding us that the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves. He writes: “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:1, 8-9 ESV). Once we’ve sown seeds of partiality we will reap separation and lack of understanding.
I do wonder if this apathy and partiality has deeper roots than merely not caring. I wonder if, though no one would say it out loud, there remains a feeling of superiority rooted in our nation’s history. There was a time when leaders, even church leaders, worked hard to indoctrinate people with the belief that white is superior and black is inferior. It would be naive to assume those such notions have evaporated completely.
Eighteen century slavery shines a dark and devastating light on the treatment of Africans as inferior and enslaved in our country. Slaves were desperate for the gospel but were instead told their only real duty was to submit to their masters.
In his autobiography[i], Peter Randolph, a slave until emancipated in 1847, recounts worship times for slaves: “There was another church, about fourteen miles from the one just mentioned. It was called “Brandon’s church,” and there the white Baptists worshiped. Edloe’s slaves sometimes went there. The colored people had a very small place allotted them to sit in, so they used to get as near the window as they could to hear the preacher talk to his congregation. But sometimes, while the preacher was exhorting to obedience, some of those outside would be selling refreshments, cake, candy and rum, and other would be horse-racing. This was the way, my readers; the Word of God was delivered and received in Prince George County. The Gospel was so mixed with slavery, that the people could see no beauty in it, and feel no reverence for it,” (pg. 64).
In the antebellum South, pastors and church leaders would use Genesis 9: 18-27 to justify slavery and as proof text that blacks were not only inferior but destined for slavery. The text describes Noah pronouncing a curse on his youngest son Ham who had shamed him by looking at his father as he slept naked and getting his brothers to join him. The curse wasn’t actually on Ham it was on Canaan, the son of Ham, and stated that Canaan would be “a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers” (Genesis 9:25). The curse of Canaan was misinterpreted and applied to all of Ham’s descendants for centuries. Why is this important? Ham’s decedents were most likely black African therefore; the curse of Canaan has been used to justify enslaving black Africans.
In his book, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, J. Daniel Hays explains that these beliefs put African Americans in the inevitable position of inferiority. Slave owners, clergy and the like claimed slavery as a prophecy from God:
After the American Civil War, the ‘curse of Ham’ was used by white clergymen to fight the notion of racial equality and the rights that would accompany such equality (voting, education, etc. . . . . Keep in mind that this position was popularized in the United Statesprimarily to justify slavery . . . . This view implies very clearly the theological view that the imposition of slavery on Black Africans by White Europeans and Americans was in fulfillment of a prophecy by God and was, therefore, justified” (pg. 53-54)[ii].
I am not suggesting that every man or woman who doesn’t care about issues of race and ethnicity automatically is cursed by the sins of the past and therefore must think they are superior. What I am saying is that the church ought to be willing to step back and consider these issues given the deep history of segregation and racism in our country. It is also worth evaluating when we consider that such poor theology was recently preached in our pulpits.
I believe there are compelling reasons why we should all care about the struggles of various ethnic groups in the U.S. The greatest of these has already been mentioned—love. We should love our neighbor sacrificially through learning, listening, hospitality and sharing gospel truths. God loves so much that He deemed it necessary to give His only Son as a sacrifice for us. The very least we could do is ask God to give us a heart that cares for those He created in His image.
But beyond loving our neighbor sacrificially, I have two reasons why I believe white men specifically ought to care and no longer be apathetic (if that’s you) towards these issues.
We know that Sunday remains the most segregated day of the week. In many ways it’s one of the most obvious evidences that the sting of segregation remains. Segregated churches are not a one-sided issue that only white men need to be concerned with. And some might argue that it isn’t a concern at all. But when I look at the Word of God and see the last day reflecting all tongues and tribes and nations, I can’t help but want that for today. But men, if you don’t care, therein lies the problem.
The leadership in many of our evangelical churches remains white. Schools like the Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi are working hard to recruit African Americans to equip them for leadership namely in the PCA , but there remains a gap. Why do you think it was such big news that in 2012 the Southern Baptist Convention elected an African-American President, Rev. Fred Luter, Jr.? Because, almost four decades after the Civil Rights Movement, the largest Protestant denomination born out of racism finally elected a black leader. This was truly breathtaking news. We have come so far, but clearly we have not arrived. Chances are we will not see a significant difference in the ethnicity of our leadership in our age.
2. Changing Demographics
It has been widely reported that the United States that we once knew with majority Anglo and minority-majority African American will no longer be. In May 2012 the Washington Post reported that minorities now account for more than half the babies born in the U.S. This change, they suggest, is due to immigration. But this change isn’t only affecting the landscape of our country; it may very slowly change the face of our congregations.
Ed Stetzer, President of Lifeway Research, wrote that denominations are seeing greater diversity within their congregations. His report does not suggest that these congregations are multi-ethnic rather that the percentage of all white congregations within a certain denomination is decreasing. But as the landscape of theUnited States changes, I imagine we will see more ethnically diverse churches. If the leadership of many of these churches remains white, these leaders need to take note of such changes.
My dear friend who admitted not caring about the issue of race inAmericahas since changed. He now cares deeply. But it didn’t come from remaining apathetic. He dug in, read, asked good questions and began to take notice of his neighbor. God began to change his heart so that what was once an unknowing, uncaring, apathy became a desire to understand, love, and serve others—those different from him.
We all need to reflect on our own apathy and ask the question: Do we really care? And then, like my friend, die to ourselves, break free of our self-absorption and learn about others. This will not only impact our own hearts and souls but also the Church. Your congregations are going to change; you will want to be ready.
[i] Sernett, Milton C. African American Religious History, Duke University Press, 1999. “Plantation Churches: Visible and Invisible” by Peter Randolph. P. 63-75.
[ii] Hays, J. Daniel. From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race. Inter Varsity Press,Downers Grove,Illinois. 2003.
Trillia Newbell is a freelance journalist and writer. She writes on faith and family for The Knoxville News-Sentinel, and serves as the managing editor for Women of God Magazine. Her love and primary role is that of a wife and mother. She lives in Tennessee with her husband Thern and their two children. Follow her on twitter at @TrilliaNewbell.