“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice…” (Martin Luther King Jr. from “Letter From Birmingham City Jail”)
During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s numerous Black clergy including The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to the white church for support and active engagement. The movement hoped for financial, political and moral support from the white church. Much of the white church responded with either silence or outright disdain that King and other civil rights leaders were threatening the status quo. This is not to ignore the courageous engagement by some whites, who marched, sat-in and spoke out publicly for the cause. Some white clergy moved by the call of prophetic involvement paid the ultimate price, losing their lives at the hands of white supremacists while others lost their livelihoods, when their congregations took opposing positions and fired their minister for their involvement in the cause.
Much of the white church, however, hunkered down in fear and anger disoriented by the social upheaval challenging the assumptions of white privilege. Reading the climate in their congregations, many clergy chose to steer clear of a prophetic role in favor of maintaining a comfortable relationship with their congregations.
The truth is that much of the white church has not done the work it needs to do on issues of race, class and gender.
So where are we now? And where is the white church now? Many churches, white, black and otherwise have abandoned addressing controversial social justice issues altogether in the cause of congregational peace, leaving the work to advocacy groups and the legal system. Many congregations have focused on non-controversial mission endeavors that tend to be at some geographical distance from them and away from lending their voices and presence to the hard stuff of economic injustice, Black Lives Matter and confronting anti Muslim rhetoric. Too many white churches busy themselves with activities that include raising money to fight malaria in Africa or volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, all good causes but far too safe for the needed social change on high stakes issues at our doorstep.
Many whites occupying the pews in worship on Sunday mornings take issue with the concept that “black lives matter” insisting that, “all lives matter” and accusing the Black Lives Matter movement of being racist itself. This constitutes a fault line that has run deeply in our American culture stretching back to this nation’s founding and lays bare this manifestation of racial bigotry. This is an example of white denial and, often enough, an intentional strategy to suppress and camouflage the realities of race-based injustice that permeates our society. Accusing the victims of racism, of being racist, reveals only the desperation found in a transparent lie. For many whites it must not stand that black lives matter as a valid assertion implying that black lives matter at least equally to white lives. The historical proposition that white lives are intrinsically superior to black lives is at play here.
Insisting that all lives matter is to dilute the claim that black lives matter even in the current context of a rash of hate crimes and police killings of unarmed African Americans. The reality is that all lives will matter only when black lives matter and native peoples lives matter and immigrant lives matter and LGBT lives matter.
When we accept the notion that God is not ambivalent about any of this and acknowledge that the Hebrew and Christian scripture repeatedly advocates for the left out, the poor and oppressed; only then will we be able to draw on our faith tradition as a resource for truth telling that contributes to national healing.
God has not called the church to circle the wagons on issues that challenge dominant thought nor called the church into community for comfort alone. It is the faith community that is uniquely called to confront injustice, exclusion and fear. The truth is that much of the white church has not done the work it needs to do on issues of race, class and gender. The church has too often avoided difficult conversations in the interest of congregational harmony. Rather it has accepted a false social construct and embraced an underdeveloped theology that reinforces the siloing of human community into separateness.
Except for eight to ten percent of the Christian Church, congregations continue to be as racially segregated and exclusive as they were reaching back to this nation’s founding. In this regard much of the larger culture is moving beyond these outdated constructs, sometimes at breakneck speed, leaving the church in the dust of its settled ways. Any congregation, white, black or otherwise “devoted more to order than to justice” and disengaged from “breaking down the dividing walls of hostility” has lost its way.
While much has changed since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, much has not. In fact it can be argued that ground has been lost in the fight for justice and equality. Voter suppression, the gerrymandering of voting districts, school re-segregation, and the school to prison pipeline are battle lines in the fight for equality. Addressing the potentially controversial issues of race, class and gender justice and inclusion is urgent work.
This is a call to the non-involved, play-it-safe white church to engage in its own work of education, dialogue, advocacy and action to set right the divisions cutting across this country. In our current political climate there is a real threat of being dragged backward from our vision of a just, free and inclusive society. It is the church that must have a voice that advocates for justice, equality and inclusion. Prayer will not be nearly enough.