How can the Church of Jesus Christ
be a vehicle for change and racial justice
in a society that consistently
dehumanizes and devalues black lives?
This is the question that believers of the Gospel, need to ask in earnest as police brutality and white supremacist violence increasingly compromises black American’s ability to live and do life well. In 2015 alone, there hasn’t been one week that has gone by without us hearing about a black life lost too soon, or a black body being physically violated as a result of state sanctioned violence.
Names like Tony Robinson, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Dajerria Becton, Sandra Bland, Kindra Chapman, Sam Dubose, Raynette Turner, not to mention the Charleston 9 – Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Coleman Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Cynthia Hurd, Myra Thompson, Daniel Simmons Sr., DePayne Middleton Doctor – have become household names in black homes around the country, people who we never knew but whom we recognized as brothers and sisters, aunties and uncles, play cousins and friends, as a result of the affinity we shared. As we mourn their lives, we demand justice for our own, chanting #BlackLivesMatter so loud that our cries shake heaven.
But as we mobilize, educate, advocate, and tweet, the Church sits quietly with its hands folded like a helpless child, often offering trite, wholly inaccurate explanations to the suffering. Persecution. Degradation of the culture. Video games. Black-on-black violence. Sin and immorality. Lack of personal responsibility. Drugs. Obama. And a host of other reasons, all which either minimize or ignore altogether the main issue – that black Americans, solely because of the color of our skin, are not able to fully access the opportunity to live and have our humanity fully embraced in the same way that our white brothers and sisters are able to.
Over the last couple of weeks, this is the point that I have stressed over and over again: that more than lacking access to economic opportunity, black Americans lack the opportunity to fully live. It’s been a hard truth to sell, it doesn’t go down easily. AND it can be a defeating concept to grapple with, I get that. But the reality that bears out, time and time again is that we are hunted and profiled and then assaulted for simply doing everyday, run-of-the-mill type things like walking down the street, asking for help, sleeping, traveling across the country, swimming, playing rap music, and worshipping our God.
As I have mentioned at great length before, I believe that the perfect combination of laws, science, and religion have gotten us in this mess. In my last post, I addressed the ways that law and science has been used to perpetuate racism and white supremacy but also how it can be used to undo it. In this piece, I want to examine religion and specifically Christianity in the same light.
The Church as a Means of Validating Structural Racism
Historically speaking, the Church has been used as a means to validate structural racism and white supremacy. Yet the roots of the Church being used as a vehicle for oppression do not begin on America’s soil, indeed they reach all the way back to 4th century when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Up until this time, Christianity posed a real threat to the ruling powers of the day to the extent that those who professed to be followers of Jesus Christ lived under the constant threat of having their property destroyed and being killed.
But Constantine changed this, which had some significant benefits i.e. no more persecution as well as drawbacks. Sharing power with three other emperors, he gradually began to position himself politically speaking so that he could rule the entire empire. Turning to battle in order to defeat the competition, he received a revelation of sorts which instructed him to place a Christian symbol on the shields of the soldiers, which most scholars understand to be the first two letters of the name “Christ.” Constantine then made Christianity the official religion of the empire and also stopped the persecution of Christians which had endured up until this point.
While some believe that this event represents Constantine’s conversion, it is important to note that after this ‘revelation’ he continued to worship the Roman god, the Unconquered Sun. Scholars and theologians alike call into question the legitimacy of Constantine’s conversion, believing that it was more of a political maneuver than anything else. And perhaps it was. Because while Christianity is embraced by the empire, it is also now controlled by the empire and becomes the de facto representation for state sanctioned oppression, exploitation and violence.*
Those in power now control what was once considered an organic, abundant expression of God’s grace and love in the world. Whereas Christianity was previously known for the love and hospitality that it showed to both those inside and without the Christian community, it was now associated power and prestige. The empire continued to operate as it has always done but now it did so with the validation of the Christian faith. And anyone who questioned it, or decided not to opt in, were either ostracized or killed.
This is the way that Christianity has operated for the last 1700 years, wielding a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other. While the face of the empire has changed through the ages, the fact remains that it has long been controlled by the powers that be. And the empire, up until recently, has always needed it to be this way, as it has used the Church as a means for social and economic control. In his book, ‘Prophetic Imagination’ Walter Brueggemann explains:
“In the establishment of a controlled, static religion God and his temple have become part of the royal landscape and the sovereignty of God is fully subordinated to the purpose of the king…obviously, oppressive politics and affluent economics depend on each other. Nevertheless it is my urging that fundamental to both is the religion of the captive God in which all overagainstness is dissipated and the king and his ideology are completely at ease in the presence of God. When that tension concerning God’s freedom has been dissolved, religion easily becomes one more dimension, albeit an important one, for the integration of society (Brueggemann, Prophetic Imagination: p 34, 36).
So you see, when those who wished to colonize the Americas looked for justification to do so, they drew upon a structure that was already in place. They were not so much inventing a new wheel as they were expanding the scope and functionality of it so that Christianity would now be used as a means to subjugate and dehumanize people based on the color of their skin. Slaveholders and others began to pick and choose scriptures (out of context) from the Bible which they believed supported their erroneous claims to the land of the Indigenous people and the bodies of Africans, weaving these disparate verses into a doctrine of supremacy.
While slavery ended some 150 years ago, white supremacy and racism endures. In fact, white supremacy never needed slavery to substantiate its claim to black bodies, what it needed was this Christian faith to legitimize its actions at every turn so that no matter the structure – slavery, convict leasing system, Jim Crow, segregation, war on drugs, mass incarceration, police brutality – it would endure.
The Church as a Means of Undoing Racism
In spite of it’s history, I remain hopeful that the Church can be a vehicle for change and uprooting white supremacy in our society as well as across the globe. My hope is twofold. One, I believe in Jesus Christ and the promise of the Gospel. And as I read this Gospel, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Christ is in the process of redeeming this world, including we ourselves, back to him. The book of Revelation declares:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had ceased to exist, and the sea existed no more. 2 And I saw the holy city—the new Jerusalem—descending out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband.3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “Look! The residence of God is among human beings. He will live among them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will not exist any more—or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the former things have ceased to exist (Revelation 21.1 – 4, NET).”
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life—water as clear as crystal—pouring out from the throne of God and of the Lamb, 2 flowing down the middle of the city’s main street. On each side of the river is the tree of life producing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month of the year. Its leaves are for the healing of the nations.3 And there will no longer be any curse, and the throne of God and the Lamb will be in the city. His servants will worship him, 4 and they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 Night will be no more, and they will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, because the Lord God will shine on them, and they will reign forever and ever (Revelation 22.1 – 5, NET).”
Reading God’s Word, I am rest assured that the order of this world – and of the United States, for that matter, will one day come to an end. This is reason enough to be hopeful. Secondly, I remain hopeful in the Church because it is Christ’s instrument to announce peace, reconciliation and healing to a broken world:
“Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it stands written that the Christ would suffer and would rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And look, I am sending you what my Father promised. But stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high (Luke 24.44 – 49, NET).”
“So when they had gathered together, they began to ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He told them, “You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth (Acts 1.6 – 8, NET).”
After His death and resurrection, the Church was what God used to proclaim the truth of the Gospel and invalidate the Roman Empire’s faulty claim on eternal rule. While I believe that the Church will be what God uses to break the chains of white supremacy and racism in our time, drawing a nation’s consciousness back to the value of black life, it can’t from a place of power and wielding might in the way that it has done it before. Due to its deep, dark history of oppression, the Church will only point the way to healing and reconciliation if it relinquishes its relationship with empire and associate with the downtrodden and exploited in our society. Indeed, this is what Christ modeled before us, showing us that true transformation does not come through the power of the sword but through finding oneself in relationship with those society has cast off going to the point of sharing in their suffering and pain.
Fortunately, this is the opportunity before us now. Many statisticians are beginning to declare the end of the Christian era in America, as many churches are shrinking their budgets, laying off staff, or closing their doors altogether. Society itself seems to be moving away from defining itself by Christian values and doctrines. Indeed, we live in a time when Bible stories and concepts that were once considered well-known even among unbelievers, are foreign.
But if we look with spiritual eyes and stop licking our wounds, we will realize that what is really happening is that we are entering a post-Constantinian era. The hold that the empire once had on the Church is no longer necessary because the goals and morales of the empire function just well without it. White supremacy is so ingrained in our nation’s soil, and capitalism so much a part of our nation’s ethos, that it no longer needs Christianity; these things thrive just well on its own.
As the empire looses itself of the Church, let us likewise shake off imperialism and wholly and completely embrace Christ for who He truly is. Let the Church relinquish its claim to power and capitalism so that Holy Spirit can work through us in the way that He worked through the first century disciples – completely unrestricted, drawing a nation’s consciousness away from the deception of the Roman Empire to the enduring truth of Christ. In doing so, we will be able to join the chorus of black Americans crying for justice, chanting #blacklivesmatter because in seeking God’s truth, the Church will be able to tell an immoral world that our humanity is the truth. I will be waiting, millions of black people are waiting, for the Church to take its rightful place in proclaiming racial justice and restoration in this hour. Do not delay!
*See Justo Gonzalez’ The Story of Christianity: Volume I