A marcher carries the U.S. flag during Bloody Sunday Jubilee, held every year in Selma, Ala., to commemorate the voting rights movement there in 1965. (Photo by Mary Rachel Fanning)
Southern Baptist editor Kelly Boggs’ recent column in Baptist Press reveals why white conservative Christians are not taken seriously in needed discussions about race.
The editor of the Louisiana Baptist Convention newspaper, Baptist Message, addressed the controversy over a political cartoon in the New York Post that many considered offensive—believing it to portray President Obama as a chimp. These racial sensitivities are understandable since for generations such racist portrayals have been common.
But white-guy Boggs is quick to give his white-guy perspective with comments like: “I saw nothing racial in the Post cartoon.” “So long as some in our country see racism behind every wrong, every comment and in every cartoon, we will never make progress on the issue of race or be able to put the real racists in their place.” “I do not believe that the Post cartoon contained any racial message.”
Then Boggs quotes and agrees with the equally white, religious right figure Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council—who said that the solution to racial reconciliation is found “in a more aggressive church where we unite around ideals rooted not in skin color but in Jesus Christ.”
While such lofty affirmations sound so-o-o spiritual, they ignore the reality that white evangelical churches have been a major part of the problem, not the solution to racism. An “aggressive church” is where racial discrimination was theologically justified and its related prejudices were reinforced within the faithful for decades.
Evangelical Christianity was a major obstacle to America’s quest for civil rights—in which the “ideals rooted … in Jesus Christ” concerning human equality were ignored or misconstrued by bad biblical interpretations.
Therefore, the words of white (especially Southern) evangelical Christians ring hollow. And Boggs is in no position to tell African Americans what they should or should not find offensive.
On this subject in particular, white evangelical Christians need to shut up about how to “fix” the race problem and spend more time seriously contemplating why our own history of race relations is so deeply marred.
Southern evangelicals have no more moral authority to speak on issues of race than the Roman Catholic Church does on sexual ethics. Such authority is granted—not grabbed.
Long reflection, ongoing confession and honest repentance must precede any meaningful proclamation. Maybe years after humbly confessing our sins—and acknowledging our capacity for hate and our inability to read scripture correctly when it goes against the grain of our culture and economic benefit—then we can offer a fresh word.
But now is the time to quietly and repeatedly ask ourselves and one another more troubling questions like:
How could we have missed such a basic biblical truth as the equality of all people? How could we treat fellow Americans—even sisters and brothers in Christ—as of less than equal value?
Why has racism been fostered by the very people who claim Jesus as Lord? How could so-called Christian churches not even open their doors to people of all races?
And perhaps more importantly: Where are our blind spots today? To whom will we need to apologize in the days and years ahead for our current sins of oppression and exclusion?
President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder—the first African Americans to hold their respective positions—have rightly called for more open, honest dialogue about race. But the best contribution from many of us would be to shut up and listen.
White evangelical Christians are not going to bridge the racial divide with proclamations that attempt to define what is and is not racism or try to quick-fix the centuries-old problem with spiritually-wrapped statements of simplicity.
Sure, it is more satisfying to tell other people the answers to all of their questions than to wrestle with our own. And we Baptists and other conservative Christians aren’t very good at the hard work of reflection, repentance and relationship building.
We like to talk—and act as if our latest opinion is the right one for everyone else to embrace. But our past actions do not afford us such a position on the subject of race. It is a time to shut up, reflect deeply and listen to others.
John D. Pierce is executive editor of Baptists Today, where he also blogs.