Division

NPTS Symposium Race and Racism , Ecclesiology, and a Confession

The opening session of the Symposium for the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, Race and Racism Dr. Love L. Sechrest of Fuller Theological Seminary presented the paper “Enemies, Romans, Pigs, and, Dogs: Loving the Other in the Gospel of Matthew”.  The paper is synthetic drawing together critical race theory “research into the identity and ways of being allies for racial justice” and the Gospel of Matthew’s presentation of enemies and enemy love.   The paper also draws Whites, Blacks and People of Color into a place of meeting around the challenge of enemy love by simultaneously problematising enemy love (or simplistic and mono-logical applications of this clear Gospel mandate) and upholding it by allowing for differing interpretations and applications of what this call to love our enemies means.  This last bit came out more in the discussion of the paper than in the presentation of the paper itself.  In this session both Sechrest’s presentation, in the response by Rev.  Rebecca Gonzales,of the Evangelical Covenant Church, and in the discussion we were invited into a communal space where the tensions and the ambiguities of race, racism, and our attempts to overcome racism could come in contact with the Gospel and the tensions and ambiguities we find in the Gospels themselves, in particular the Gospel of Matthew.

In response to this I feel the need to come out with a confession I’ve been working up to publishing here at Priestly Goth.  I confess my own failure to see the impact and extent of racism as it affects Christianity and Christian institutions.  When in 2004, I, an American Baptist, and, soon to be Episcopal Priest began an ecumenical church plant Church of Jesus Christ Reconciler, we were troubled by the Whiteness of our endeavor.  I argued that the racial segregation of Christians and the denominational divisions were separate issues, saying that the division of Christians among denominations had to be dealt with first.  I don’t remember how strenuously I had to argue this, but I don’t recall much if any resistance to this idea.  We ultimately consoled ourselves that a ministry and church planting vision couldn’t deal with every issue. We were focused on Ecumenism and seeking to heal and move beyond denominational division and separation.

I now look back on that and wonder at how I didn’t see  racial segregation as the more basic division.  More to the point, I wonder at how I didn’t see the racial segregation in Christian institutions in the United States as a sign of a deep ecclesiological heresy.  Though, I know how I couldn’t see it , because I saw racism in Christianity and the Church and racial segregation in congregational and institutional life as something imposed from outside American Christians institutions, rather than as the consequence of an internal distortion of the Gospel and of White Christian ecclesiology.   I failed to see how race and racism was a creation of Europeans as White with Blacks at the bottom of a moral and ontological hierachy with other people of color in a spectrum in between.  This system was  invented to justify enslavement of Africans.  The backing up of this claim I will not go into at the moment, but will only reference James Cone and Willie Jennings (and others).

I confess that in my ministry I put off racism in Christian institutions as secondary, or as something that was merely an external impulse and not of primary concern of the Gospel or of what it means to be church. This was a blindness.  I can account for this blindness but that doesn’t excuse a refusal to address the racist conditions that persist in our Christian institutions, the symptom of which is our continued segregation.

I was encouraged by Sechrest own admission of the difficulty in facing and working towards ending this situation.  She said multiple times as she addressed  questions about dealing with this, that the questions were important but that she didn’t have clear or easy answers.

I have some thoughts of a way I think Whites should approach answering the questions that arise as we face the depth of the failure with which the segregation in our Christian institutions and congregation presents us.  To begin answering this I will speak first from a theological perspective:  I believe it in part  is to recognize that the segregation represents for Whites an acceptance and perpetuation of an ecclesiological heresy, and as such we need to confess that Whites are the ones who separated from Blacks and people of color.  In our speech and attitudes we need to stop perpetuating the narrative of the black Churches “leaving” and separating from White Churches.  It was Christian Whites who divided themselves off from other humans and Christians, not the other way around.

(Edited, 9/30/2015, primarily for grammar and clarity, content is unchanged)