Last week, a black professor told me he always asks his white students if they have ever heard racism called a sin in the pulpits of their churches growing up. The answer is almost always no. That will be absolutely key to a revival for racial reconciliation and justice — seeing racism as much more than political, but rooted in sin, repentance, morality, and faith. That’s why I wrote America’s Original Sin and hoped it would become a tool for new conversations within and between churches across racial lines. I have already seen how book studies in congregations have become cells for resistance in the Trump era.
In my class at Georgetown University last week, I saw again how the overwhelming facts of racial oppression and discrimination — paired with human stories — can change people. One white student said this to one of her black classmates in the course:
I’ve never known anyone who has been arrested. Not one person, not even an acquaintance of an acquaintance. Incredible as it sounds, knowing you and knowing that your father spent time in prison is the closest connection I have to the prison system.
Her black classmate has shared with us the experience of her father going to prison for 10 years. After minor drug issues — and because of the “three strikes and you’re out” rule — my student said her dad missed her graduation, marriage, and military deployments. He was so dehumanized by the experience of prison, she said she doesn’t know him anymore.
Other international and immigrant students in my class spoke personally about their fears of executive orders that could separate them from their families. White students said they couldn’t get their heads around the statistics that one out of every three black men in America will be incarcerated in his lifetime, but they were “infuriated” by it and moved to action.
Another white student told the story of two close friends from high school, an interracial couple who were walking around the Washington, D.C., monuments one day when they were stopped by a white police officer. The officer asked the young woman, “Are you all right?” Confused, she answered, “I’m fine.” Hostile questions came at the young black man, “Are you on any substances?” Startled, he said no. “Do you have any substances on you?” The answer was, again, no, but he was still subjected to a harsh and humiliating search that found nothing, and they were let go. His white girlfriend, who was never searched, had marijuana in her purse.
These “parables” about racism in America are truths that must be told, so that they might set us all free — as the gospels promise. These are the stories that get told in every book cell, study group, or class that deals with racism in America. And they are key to both resistance and change.
I always knew that the release of America’s Original Sin would be painful. The 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin pushed me to write it, but that act of violence was soon followed by yet more killings of young black men and women, one after another — something that had already been happening but was never as visible or as exposed in the larger society as it has now become with the rise of social media and cell phone video. Then, just before the book was published, Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans during their weekly prayer meeting at Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston, S.C. These devout Christians invited Roof into their Bible study — which clearly moved him for a while — and yet he acted on his white supremacist ideology and shot them anyway.
Especially painful to me as a white Christian and evangelical is that white Christians — especially white evangelicals — made up the core of Donald Trump’s support.
As Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute explained right after the election, it’s striking to look at a map of the states with the highest percentage of white Christians next to a map of the states Trump won and note how well they match up — especially states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, which had voted reliably for the Democratic nominee for the last several presidential election cycles. In fact, as Jones’ colleague Daniel Cox points out, in spite of the popular narrative that Trump’s victory was a function of a swell in support from white working-class voters, “the proportion of white Christians in each of the 50 states is more strongly correlated with support for Trump than is the proportion of white residents without a college degree in the state.”
That racial divide is nothing new, of course. But in this new age of Trump, many people of color are losing hope for an America that values diversity — and them — and are losing trust in white Christians who loudly claim not to be racist but who clearly decided that Trump’s racial bigotry was not a disqualifier for their vote. White Christians ignored Trump’s bigotry with no seeming understanding of or empathy toward families of color. Further, when white people dismiss the real fears that parents of color have for their children after this election, it painfully reveals the distance of the white majority from people of color in America and the realities of their daily lives.
What in the world do we do about that? I say go right to the sin of racism and ask what repentance from our racial sins would mean — at the heart of our congregations. It’s time for a serious study of the history of racism in America and the narrative that must be changed. It’s time for much more direct proximity between white Christians and Christians of color. It’s time for uncomfortable but honest listening and conversations with one another. It’s time to change our relationships and racial geography, time for prayer, and, most of all, for action to change our practices and our policies. Studying racism in the era of Trump will be an act of reconciliation and resistance.
I actually believe that Donald Trump’s election makes a new and national conversation on racism even more important and more possible. Trump’s election provides both a great danger and a real opportunity to finally deal with race in America.
In our homes and in our churches, we must answer the question: “What should white Christians and white churches do in the Trump era?” Repent of the sin of racism. That means to study, learn, and change our relationships in order to act in changing our practices and policies of racism.
The only answer to the racial divide among Christians — evangelicals in particular — is to go much deeper into what racial equity and healing will require. America’s Original Sin was written for such a time as this. It is a book written to and for white Christians and white churches — to help lead them to new conversations with black and brown Christians and their churches. It could be that studying racism in congregation after congregation, and especially between congregations across racial lines, could be a fundamental building block for genuine racial reconciliation in America.
Racial reconciliation will be an act of repentance and resistance in the Trump era.
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, is available now.