Rejection and Silence: Our posture towards race in the Church.


Race in the Church

KKK is welcomed to a church service in Portland, Oregon, 1922. (Credit: Oregon Historical Society)

A couple of months ago I was hired to write a short article for a magazine publication answering the question: “What still needs to change within the Church?” I spent considerable time talking with people both inside and outside the Church, people with great affection for and yes even disdain of the Church. The overwhelming response from these individuals–which comprised of friends, random strangers, and my coffee baristas: Why has the church been so silent on issue of race? I was surprised this was the overwhelming response, but it also lined up well with my research interests. I listened to their frustrations, to their pain, to their hope and decided to make the issue of race the focus of the article.

I worked to strike a balance in the article between challenging what is, and a hope for what could be. The article was rejected under the guise, “We’ve decided to head in a different direction…” Once again it would seem the white church has chosen to sweep the issue of race under the rug, even though our culture is screaming for a response. The white church has chosen silence. (Yes, “white church” is a purposeful distinction.)

Professor, activist, and scholar Angela Davis is attributed as saying, “In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist – we must be antiracist.” The same rings even more true for the Church. In the wake of the Southern Baptist controversy over their initial failure to adopt a resolution condemning white-supremacy (they did succumb to pressure the next day and adopt the resolution), and the continual non-humanization of black folk within our society, the Church must stand up and speak out. We can no longer remain silent.

I was encouraged by several friends to publish the short article here with a brief explanation of what took place so that silence will not win the day.

Below is the original, unedited article.


Our damning silence on race.

“I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that 11:00 on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated—if not the most segregated hours—in Christian America.” These were the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in an interview on Meet the Press on April 17, 1960. Fifty-seven years later, has anything changed?

Of course Dr. King was speaking before the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act; he was speaking during the height of Jim Crow and Sundown laws. He was speaking before the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Selma, and the murder of civil rights workers in Mississippi. He was speaking during a turbulent time of heightened racial tension, school segregation, and racially motivated assassinations.

It is easy for us to look back upon that period in history and say, “Yes, absolutely things have changed.” In fact, according to LifeWay Research, over two-thirds of Christians agree that their church is doing enough to be ethnically diverse and almost three-fourths say their church is diverse enough.

But do our opinions mirror reality or does the church still occupy the most segregated hour in America?

In United by Faith: The multiracial congregation as an answer to the problem of race, the authors show that major strides in desegregation has taken place in almost every aspect of life in the United States, with one notable exception: the church. They assert that only 5 1⁄2 percent of congregations are considered racially mixed (meaning no one racial group occupies more than 80 percent of the congregation.) If that number is not startling enough, compare that with the reality that 48 percent of schools are considered racially mixed. This means that schools are eight times more racially diverse than churches.

Dr. King implored the church to take the lead in bringing about racial reconciliation in that 1960 interview. Instead we have maintained Jim Crow levels of segregation within the church–this is sinful. This must change. We must change.
It is time for the Church to step up and lean in. We must take a closer look at ourselves, our attitudes, and our posture. But first, we must repent of our segregation.

While we may no longer be in a position to lead the way in bringing about racial reconciliation, we can still make a difference. We can still be a window into heaven. But we must take the first step and walk across the street, drive to the other side of town, cross the railroad tracks of division and say “hello,” and “I’m sorry.” It is a long road towards wholeness within the church, but in stepping towards and listening to the stories of our brothers and sisters whom we have forgotten, we will find the promise of reconciliation is not as far away as we thought.

A Sunday Prayer.


A Sunday Prayer
As we watched the chaos, the suffering, the tears, the death unfold this week in Falcon Heights Minnesota, Baton Rouge, and Dallas; as we were flooded with images and stories of pain and the terror of a nation that is seemingly coming apart at the seams, this morning we pause to pray. To pray for our nation, for our black brothers and sisters, and for the law enforcement community. To pray for healing, for peace, for unity. In a world gone mad, in a world given to hatred, Lord we pray for your love to reign supreme; that love shall overcome.

For our nation Lord, for the all-too-common violence and death we experience; for the communities that are reeling from horrific actions, for Dallas, for Baton Rouge, for Falcon Heights, for Baltimore, for San Francisco, for Charelston, for Ferguson… for Chicago. For the lives that are shattered and torn a part from needless and senseless death we pray for healing, we pray for comfort, we pray for change. O Lord change us.


For the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile we pray for your comfort. For the families of Walter Scott, Jermaine Reid, Philip White, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Sean Bell, Tamir Rice, John Crawford III, Aiyana Jones, Kumani Gray, Michael Brown, Miriam Carey, Sharonda Singleton, Tommy Yancy, Jordan Baker, Amadou Diallo, Laquan McDonald, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland. We pray for their families and the many others who relive the events of the past week on a daily basis. For the conversations that fathers will have with their sons, for the fear that mothers experience every time their child leaves the protection of their home simply because of the color of their skin, we pray for your protection, for your comfort, for your peace O Lord.


For the families of Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa, and Brent Thompson we pray for your comfort. For the officers who are fighting for their lives in a Dallas hospital we pray for their healing. For the fear that husbands and wives experience every time their spouse leaves the protection of their home simply because of the color of their uniform, we pray for your protection, for your comfort, for your peace O Lord.


Mother Teresa once wrote, “To be able to love one another, we must pray much, for prayer gives a clean heart and a clean heart can see God in our neighbor. If now we have no peace it is because we have forgotten how to see God in one another.” May we turn our prayers inward and ask that we may see God in our neighbors, our co-workers, our family members, the stranger, the foreigner, the alien. That we may see them through God’s eyes… as our brothers and sisters.

May we open our eyes to see the suffering of our brothers and sisters. May we open our ears to hear and listen deeply to their stories of heartache and pain. May we open our hearts to grieve and mourn with our brothers and sisters. May we draw nearer to them than ever before and may we open ourselves up to love. May we open ourselves to peace. May we open ourselves to unity and no longer perpetuate division. May this prayer not be the end of our engagement, but just the beginning. And may it be so through you Jesus, for as Paul wrote in Colossians, “you, Jesus, hold all things together.” For it is in your name that we pray, Amen.

Criminalizing the Black Body


Citizen Book Cover
“The problem of the Twentieth Century is the color line,” declared W. E. B. Du Bois in 1903 at the outset of his classic text The Souls of Black Folk, but it’s not a problem anymore. We have done a thorough job of convincing ourselves otherwise, of covering up the issue and believing that progress has been made and that racism is simply a relic of another time. This treacherous lie is simply not true and is eating away at the fabric of our society as we watch more and more young black men and women die at the hands of the police. We have done nothing more than glide through varying cycles of positive change countered by numerous periods of regression, producing nothing more than “temporary peaks of progress, short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance” [1, p. 74]. White privilege is real.

From the inception of America with its founding documents and societal constructions, systems and structures have been invented, implemented, and reconfigured in order to bind the black man and woman with a status of non-human. Yes, non-human. It first began through legal designations. The moment the black man, woman and child were bought and sold by slave traders and shipped around the world, they were designated as chattel–legal personal property [2]. Lasting for more than 200 years, this legal designation was abolished with the thirteenth and fourteenth amendment to the Constitution; however the non-human designation continued in a far more insidious way: The criminalization of the black body.

Criminalizing the black body was no small task, it would require a dominant narrative to take hold and the cooperation of popular culture, hard and soft sciences, and legal institutions. In 1902, bestselling and highly influential author and Southern Baptist minister Thomas Dixon Jr. would be one of the first to popularize this notion. Dixon spun a tale of post-Civil War America that depicted emancipated slaves as beastly, amoral monsters. He explained how the “Negro” had turned from “a chattel to be bought and sold into a possible beast to be feared and guarded. . . . a menace” to society [3, p. 5, 33]. Dixon continued to build this narrative of the criminal black body in 1905 with his most popular novel The Clansmen by detailing the rape of a young white virgin by a ‘Negro’ who was described as:

“half child, half animal, the sport of impulse, whim, and conceit,… a being who, left to his will, roams at night and sleeps in the day, whose speech knows no words of love, whose passions, once aroused, are as the fury of the tiger” (p. 293, 304)

Dixon brings the emotional narrative to a close by describing the act of animalistic rape itself: “A single tiger spring, and the black claws of the beast sank into the soft white throat” (p. 304). This narrative was used to perpetuate the nonhuman nature of the ‘Negro’ replacing the idea of him as property with one that is inherently criminal [4]. In 1908, sociologist Kelly Miller reviewed Dixon’s writings and detailed the building climate of opinion surrounding his fiction, “The criminal propensity of the Negro is the charge that is being most widely exploited… he is made to appear a beast in human form whose vicious tendency constitutes a new social plague” [5](p.95).

Not to be outdone by Dixon, the filmmaker D. W. Griffith continued this narrative of the black man as a predator with his 1915 film The Birth of a Nation–the first motion picture to be shown in the White House. Griffith depicted the black person as unintelligent beasts who were sexually aggressive towards white women, a threat to their life and liberty [6]. The black man was now becoming a criminal threat and a liability to society.

This criminalization of the black body went beyond popular culture and was widely supported and furthered by the medical profession. Medical journals propagated the degenerative evolutionary conclusion of late nineteenth and early twentieth century anthropologists, biologists, and ethnologists [7]. Considered the lowest species on the Darwinian hierarchy, a permanently inferior creature, predisposed to savagery, the black person possessed an overdeveloped sexual appetite which was deemed an existential threat to the very foundation of white society [4, 7, 8, 9]. This existential threat and overdeveloped sexual appetite was the result of a complete lack of morality from the black individual. One doctor wrote:

Virtue in the negro race is like angels’ visits–few and far between. In a practice of sixteen years I have never examined a virgin negro over fourteen years of age [10]

The overdeveloped sexual appetite of the black person knew no bounds. Dr. William Lee Howard surmised in a well respected medical journal, “The attacks on defenseless white women are evidences of racial instincts that are about as amenable to ethical culture as is the inherent odor of the race” [11]. George Winston painted an even darker picture of the black man’s criminal, sexual appetite for white women through a telling and cumulative narrative that embodied all of the current cultural fears:

When a knock is heard at the door, she shudders with nameless horror. The black brute is lurking in the dark, a monstrous beast, crazed with lust. His ferocity is almost demoniacal. A mad bull or tiger could scarcely be more brutal [12, p. 109].

According to Frederick Hoffman, the rise of the criminal black man was not due to poverty, discrimination, or from a lack of opportunity and education but rather an inherent and innate tendency towards crime and immorality.

This well-formed narrative of moral depravity fueled the belief of the criminalized black body. While its easy for us to say, ‘That was a hundred years ago, things are so much different now!’ this belief is what gave rise to the lynching culture in the United States, including the fourteen-year old boy Emmitt Till in 1955 for perceived flirting with a white woman in a convenience store [13]. Lynching culture was created to protect white society and deter the amoral, criminal black body. Lynching culture was not made up of vigilantes alone but were aided, abetted, and participated in by police officers who would help arrange this skewed form of justice. Lynchings were scheduled, promoted events where whole towns or neighborhoods would gather together in celebration of “justice”. People would even gather around and pose for pictures with the black victim.

While we may want to believe that lynching was something that happened so long ago, the last officially recorded lynching was less than 50 years ago, in 1968–however, many argue it was actually 1998 in Jasper, Texas when James Byrd was chained to the back of a pickup truck by three white men and dragged to his death. While we may have placed lynching in a historical context that lives outside of the confines of our lived reality, if you’re 47 years of age or older you were alive during the last lynching.

The criminalization of the black body is the second iteration of our mass project of non-humanization. I would argue that the long-standing project started by the likes of Thomas Dixon whereby we have criminalized the black body is what has led to the death of so many of our black brothers and sisters: Walter Scott. Jermaine Reid. Philip White. Eric Garner. Trayvon Martin. Rekia Boyd. Sean Bell. Tamir Rice. John Crawford III. Aiyana Jones. Kumani Gray. Michael Brown. Miriam Carey. Sharonda Singleton. Tommy Yancy. Jordan Baker. Amadou Diallo. Freddie Gray. Sandra Bland. Alton Sterling. (And on and on and on the list goes.) Each and every one of these black men and women were treated as criminals first, deemed worthy of immediate and swift justice at the end of a barrel instead of the end of a rope. The criminalization of the black body is nothing new, its a part of a long history of non-humanizing the black man, woman, and child. The trajectory of our history has not changed, it just looks a bit different.

[1] Bell, D. (2005). The Derrick Bell Reader: Critical America. New York University Press.
[2] Browne-Marshall, G.J. (2007). Race, Law, and American Society. Routledge.
[3] Dixon, T. (1902). The Leopard’s Spots: A romance of the white man’s burden. Doubleday, Page & Co.
[4] Fredrickson, G.M. (1987). The black image in the white mind. Wesleyan University Press.
[5] Miller, K. (1908). Race Adjustment: Essays on the Negro in America. The Neale Publishing Co.
[6] Stokes, L.M. (2007). D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of A Nation: A history of the most controversial motion picture of all time. Oxford University Press.
[7] Brandt, A.M. (1978). Racism and research: The case of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The Hastings Center Report, 8(6), 21-29.
[8] Corson, E.R. (1893). The vital equation of the colored race and its future in the United States. The Wilder Quarter-Century Book. Cornell University.
[9] English, W.T. (1903). The Negro problem from the physician’s point of view. Atlantic Journal-Record of Medicine 5,459, 470-471.
[10] Quillian, D. (1906). Racial Peculiarities: A cause of the prevalence of syphilis in Negroes. American Journal of Dermatology and Genito-Urinary Diseases, 10, 277.
[11] Howard, W.L. (1903). The Negro as a Distinct Ethnic Factor in Civilization. Medicine, 9, 424.
[12] Winston, G.T. (1901). The relation of the whites to the negroes. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 18, 105-118.
[13] Douglas, K. (2015). Stand your ground: Black bodies and the justice of God.. Orbis Books.

Immigration Reform is a Family Values Issue and a Moral Imperative


Immigration Reform

This post was originally written for and featured as a guest commentary in the Illinois Times.

Every single day hundreds of families are needlessly torn apart through a broken and inhumane deportation system badly in need of reform. Last year alone over 368,000 people were deported and by the end of 2014, over 2 million will have been deported during the Obama administration.

Two million.

This is a startling number, a number that represents sons pulled away from their fathers, daughters torn from the arms of their mothers, husbands ripped from the arms of their wives. No matter where you stand on the issue of immigration one thing has become very clear: Immigration Reform is a family values issue and it must be fixed now.

On April 29th more than 250 evangelical pastors from 25 states descended upon Washington DC to advocate for sensible immigration reform with our elected representatives. We shared stories from our congregations of families torn a part, and of children left in limbo demonstrating the effects of a broken immigration system that destroys the fabric of our nation. We spoke of the need to maintain respect for the rule of law, meaning there can be no blanket amnesty or guarantee of citizenship and those who entered the country illegally should admit their wrongdoing, pay fines and back taxes, submit to background checks, and demonstrate their ability to support themselves. Undocumented immigrants who desire citizenship should take their place in line behind those who have begun that process; meaning there should be no special pathway for those who entered the country illegally.

The Evangelical Immigration Table is a consortium of evangelical pastors from around the country who have banded together around these sensible solutions we believe are not only necessary but possible to achieve right now, if Congress will act.

Immigration reform elicits a great deal of passion on both sides of the aisle, but as a Christian, it is imperative to remember that every person, documented or undocumented is created in the Image of God and precious in his sight. You and I may be Americans, but the Church transcends boundaries and borders. For us, “there is one Body, one Spirit, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:4-6). Though we may be American or Mexican, Syrian or Italian, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. It is time for us to start seeing our brothers and sisters, to fight for our brothers and sisters, to speak up and speak out for our brothers and sisters who have no voice.

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

We are caught in a great moral crisis that seeks to destroy the sacred bonds of families, a dilemma that tears at the very fabric of our nation. This is a crisis that as Christians we must stand with our brothers and sisters and let our voices be heard. For the very words of Scripture say,

“The Lord your God… defends the cause of the fatherless and widows, and He loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. That means you must also love immigrants” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19).

Scripture is not silent, it bursts with commands for us to love the immigrant, to care for the immigrant, to speak on behalf of the immigrant, documented or not. And where Scripture speaks, so should we. It is not only time for the Church to speak loudly, but it is time for Congress to take action today because everyday we wait, more and more families are torn apart by this inhumane and archaic system.