A better reflection: The church, racism and our future

May 18th, 2015

As the American presidency of Barack Obama nears its conclusion, political pundits have begun the work of historically defining his terms in office. Among their considerations is what issues will remain most prominent in our recollections of the Obama era? Without question, one is an issue about which Obama was initially quite apprehensive to speak publicly, an issue that has once again taken center stage in our national conversation: race. 

From the media castigation of his former pastor, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., pastor emeritus of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois, for his Afrocentric and prophetic preaching, to the Beer Summit, alongside Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a black Harvard professor who was arrested by police while breaking into his own home; from Obama’s statement of seeing himself in Trayvon Martin at the White House to the fires that have raged from Ferguson to Baltimore, racial tension has marked the Obama presidency.

Personally, the president and his family have not been immune from this tension. In fact, the family has often been targeted by racist cruelties. The United States Secret Service notes that there have been more threats on Obama’s life than on any president in American history. The Obama family’s physical features — from his wife Michelle’s backside to his daughter Malia’s hair — have been criticized by politicians, the media and the general public as un-American. Governors have pointed fingers in his face, or refused to greet him altogether, when he arrived in their states, actions unheard of in previous administrations. And who can forget the notorious “You lie!” exclamation that arose during Obama’s 2009 State of the Union address? 

These offences and many more have caused many to identify Obama’s racial identity as the impetus for such unprecedented disrespect of the Office of the President. 112 years ago, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, the first African American graduate of Harvard University, one of the president’s alma maters, wrote in his classic text "The Souls of Black Folk" that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line, the question of how far differences of race — which show themselves chiefly in the color of skin and the texture of the hair — will hereafter be made the basis of denying to over half the world the right of sharing to their utmost ability the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization.”  While there are clearly other great concerns that now face our nation in the 21st Century, ranging from economic disparity to the increased threat of urban terrorism, race remains a prominent concern for our nation.

It is impossible to speak about the state of race relations in our nation in the past, or in the present, without speaking about the role of the church. The church has found itself equally on the wrong side and the right side of this issue. The church has proven itself to be proponent and opponent of racist ideals, an instigator and peacemaker regarding racial concerns, equally segregationist and integrationist, both Pharaoh and Moses. Many of the founding fathers, professed Christians whose glorious rhetoric painted portraits of freedom and equality for all, owned slaves. Yet, persons shaped by the church and church leaders, from William Wilberforce to Bishop Richard Allen, were the ones who spoke out against the institution of slavery and made many sacrifices for the cause of freedom.

Southern American churches served as hosts to Ku Klux Klan rallies as well as mass meetings for the Southern Civil Rights Movement. The church has been a haven of peace and a promoter of violence. Both are its legacy. Therefore, deeply imbedded in this legacy is hypocrisy, a hypocrisy that may have been best articulated by the nineteenth-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who wrote:

We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus...The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other—devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise. 

Hypocrisy is no less than spiritual oppression. It renders the church’s praxis incomplete, its witness impotent. As new reports recently emerged stating that American Christianity continues its rapid decline as fewer and fewer Americans identify as adherents of the faith, could it be that our great hypocrisy has taken its toll?

In the Epistle of James, the writer addresses the oppression of hypocrisy. After encouraging this persecuted church to remain faithful in the face of many trials, James offers a series of warnings. Concerning this church’s bout with hypocrisy, James writes, “But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like" (James 1:22-24).

The purpose of a mirror is not only to show your reflection, but when you see your reflection, afford you that opportunity to make a better one. In many ways, the Obama presidency has presented our nation with a great opportunity. It has uncovered the continuing legacy of racism that impacts our nation. It has deflated the lie of living in a post-racial society. It has unsettled our notions of diversity. It has forced us to look at the mirror and to bear witness to a still disheveled appearance.

The question is, will we seize this opportunity, and with the help of God improve our reflection, or will we continue to walk away from the mirror, our face smeared with the sleep of our apathy and hypocrisy?

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