Dear Children’s Ministry: Please Stop Using “Black” and “White” to Describe Sin and Forgiveness

Dear Children’s Ministry: Please Stop Using “Black” and “White” to Describe Sin and Forgiveness April 26, 2017

color

Image: Unsplash

Dear Children’s Ministry,

First, thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for all you do for our children…and for us, their parents. The millions of unseen and unappreciated ways that you pour into the next generation is astonishing to me. Your patience, commitment, passion, and creativity seem to have no bounds. Knowing that you love our kids even before you know them, that you have our backs and we’re not doing this baffling work of spiritual discipleship alone—well, that changes everything.

It is from this gratefulness and out of this understanding of your life-changing impact that I plead my request:

Please stop using the words “black,” and “brown” to describe dirty, dying people in sin without God, contrasted with “white” to describe people who have been washed clean and forgiven.

Just a few days ago, my child brought home a craft from a Christian event. The fun home-made poster vividly reminds her that God wants to replace the “black” in her heart with the “white” of his love. I cried as I threw this creation into the recycling bin.

Years ago, I grew up with “The Wordless Book,” a simple tool for presenting the Gospel to kids who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) read. With just five colors—one for each finger on your hand—you could memorize the whole story. Black for sin, Red for Christ’s blood shed on the cross, White for our hearts washed clean, Gold for our home in Heaven, and Green for the new life God creates in us.

See, it worked! I remember the lesson perfectly, decades later. Today there are still countless crafts, books, songs, and gospel presentations available that use this basic idea.

But this method of presenting the Gospel to children, while so well intended and effective, is damaging. 

No one aims to send a message promoting racism while teaching the gospel. I’ve never met anyone who wanted to imply that people with white skin are God’s chosen, forgiven, beloved people while those with dark, black, or brown skin are icons for death, sin, and evil.

But if you were a four-year-old, mightn’t you hear that message?

What does this color-coded Good News sound like to my daughter’s Latina friends? When expressed in this way, does the Kingdom of Heaven feel like home to my African-American and Asian-American neighbors?

Where I live, our friends, neighbors, playmates, coworkers, and co-worshippers have skin tones of every shade under the sun. I would not only hesitate to invite my community to a gospel presentation that risked a black-or-brown vs. white dichotomy, I would absolutely refuse to do so. Because of the Gospel.

And yet, several times a year I still pull crafts out of backpacks, illustrations off refrigerators, and books down from shelves that do just that. Not just in my own neck of the woods, but in every corner I visit.

The metaphors of darkness and light, dirty and clean, are powerful ways to express what God’s redemptive work does in our lives, neighborhoods, and world. He is making all things new, washing us clean, bringing light where there was none.

And you, hard-working and under-appreciated staff and volunteers, are the ones working in the trenches, bringing this message to children. You are changing the world for good, and you point us to Jesus’ love and service.

So I ask you, please. Can we do better at watching our language? Let us consider how we express this Good News and make sure that everyone can hear this basic, world-changing fact:

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. 


Catherine McNiel is the author of Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline (NavPress 2017). She writes to open eyes to God’s creative, redemptive work in each day—while caring for three kids, two jobs, and one enormous garden. Connect with Catherine on Twitter, Facebook, or at catherinemcniel.com.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Timothy Weston

    The prevailing Christianity in America today is made by and for the white middle class that sees everyone else as a mission field rather than their neighbor.s

  • Jennny

    All the upvotes!. When I go into schools as a reading buddy – I’m a former teacher, I feel the notion of ‘punishment’ has, thankfully been replaced by codes, often displayed in the classroom about what is appropriate behaviour with ways a child can keep within the rules (and often be positively rewarded for this). Ideas like, taking a deep breath, talking to a designated ‘bully-buddy/friendship buddy’ going to a special place to cuddle the class toy for this purpose etc. So very much more healthy than constantly holding punishment over a child’s head. As a child, I was always confused, I’d seen native americans and even chinese portrayed on TV – Hollywood programmes popular in the UK in the ’60s and they didn’t look a bit red or yellow so I wondered in which part of the world red and yellow folk lived!

  • Guthrum

    I have never used black and white to describe good and bad. I have heard it to describe clear and unclear. But usually the terms night and day are used.
    There have been programs even years ago that showed great respect for other cultures: The Lone Ranger treated Tonto as an equal, as did Daniel Boone and Mingo. “Kung Fu” was a top favorite and brought awareness and knowledge of far east culture.

  • Deeto

    This is something that has been ingrained by the Jehovah’s Witnesses who believe that African people are black because of “the mark of Kane” which is odd when you think about it, because God gave Kane a mark so that everyone else would leave him alone. Africans have hardly been left alone because of the color of their skin.

  • Robin Bermel

    How painful to see Christian curriculum for children (or anybody) characterize sin as dark-skinned and righteousness as light-skinned. That hurts me to even think about. However, in stand-alone graphics, say colored boards with the various colors, I don’t know that children associate the color black or the color white with skin tones. My kids would describe a friend as brown-skinned. And I wonder if they admired that beautiful color and glow. We used to teach using jelly beans. I didn’t think of myself as the same color as the white jelly bean. I heard the explanation of light and righteousness, in the spiritual sense. And the same is true with the black. Am I insensitive?

  • Martha Anne Underwood

    I have been a Christian Formation Director both as a paid vocation and as a volunteer. I agree with you Ms McNeil about this issue. I never have used that color coding thing because it makes me cringe for the reasons you give in your post. Being a progressive Episcopalian I focus on the Good News not sin. When I talk about sin I talk about “missing the mark”. It’s like when you hurt someone you need to apologize to the person. When you don’t do what God wants you apologize and ask forgiveness.