Speaking Up on the Issue of Race in America
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We begin this essay with several disclaimers. First, we do not have all the answers. Although flawed souls, we search the scriptures seeking to do God’s Will. Second, we do not speak for all black people or all white people and certainly not all Christians. We recognize that we speak from groups that hold a wide range of views. Finally, we make general statements about race in America and the church knowing about numerous exceptions.
Everyone experiences a sense of life not being fair. Whether it’s being a victim of identity theft, getting bumped from an airplane, being lied to by a superior, catching a cold from a friend, or enduring an unfair referee; we’ve all experienced the inequities of life in varying degrees.
We have witnessed Americans respond positively to those experiencing tragedies. Donations and help seem to flow freely after a fire or a catastrophic storm. Many people come to the aid of those in peril and chaos. However, we all seem to experience selective blindness with regard to inequality. It’s easier to see the injustices we experience in our own lives than to see it in the lives of others. Sometimes whole societies ignore systemic injustices. Isaiah, Amos, Micah and Jeremiah made that accusation against Israel. God sent these prophets because the people were unaware of what they were doing. So caught up in their own lives, in maintaining their own lifestyle and standard of living; they lived unaware of the way their actions hurt others. The music of their lives drowned out the cries of the hurting. The money clanging in the cash register made such a commotion that the pleas of the vulnerable were not heard. Fortunately, God heard. God hears these cries even when we do not.
We can easily identify a number of groups whose cries tend not to be heard in our time. Unwanted children, the isolated elderly, and neglected minorities come to mind. Jesus and his followers paid special attention to such groups. When Jesus went to his hometown synagogue in Luke 4 to inaugurate his earthly ministry, He read from Isaiah and transformed the prophet’s words into his mission: I’ve come to preach to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, help the blind see and set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18).
As followers of Jesus who came to set the oppressed free, the two of us have come together to address an issue that drives people apart. We share a common allegiance to Christ, reflect on a lifetime of preaching and serving in churches of Christ, and have a shared vision of building a better America. We join to write this letter because of powers around us that tend to force us apart. Recent days and events have magnified the strained relationship between the black and white races that has existed in our nation for generations. That strain draws us together. Violence and withdrawal, accusations and silence mark the deteriorating status of race relations in our land. We refuse to turn to violence. We refuse to withdraw. We refuse to make inflammatory accusations. We refuse to remain silent. Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “In the end we will not remember the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” The constant stream of reports and articles in social media and the network news of black men being murdered while in police custody have made King’s quote resonate today. It is sad to say that we have become accustomed to racism that has existed historically in our American society. Even in unprecedented progress for racial and ethnic minorities and the poor, America continues to struggle with injustice and inequality. Unapologetic, bigoted and xenophobic voices bombard us from social media. While this unfortunate reality is often the source of personal frustration and pain, it is the silence of many of our brothers and sisters in Christ that has become most troubling.
Instead of silence, we seek to follow Jesus in the twenty-first century just as the early Christians followed Him in the first century. Like the early church, we desire to be more influenced by what we hear from Jesus, rather than by what we hear in our American culture, traditions and the media. Just as he came to preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and to set the oppressed free, we aspire to join Him in that cause.
Let us explain. We believe being brothers in Christ outweighs the fact that one of us is black and the other is white. We believe that a baseless attack on one of us is an insult to both of us. We believe that the cause of Christ that joins us is more powerful than the ugly racism in our land that seeks to divide us.
As we study the Holy Scriptures and the ministry of Jesus, we see a story of love, compassion, inclusion, mercy, equity and equality. We see a story of serving those on the margins of society and reaching the forgotten with the Gospel of truth. It makes perfect sense that Christians should be champions of equality and fairness, rather than passive observers.
We recognize the differences in the way we were raised. Robert’s father had the “talk” with him about how to navigate racism in America, especially how to respond to the police. Harold’s father had no such “talk.” Ironically we both entered dorm life our freshman year of college with a person of a different race. Harold roomed with an African American and Robert roomed with an Anglo American. Both of us benefited and grew from those experiences.
Both of us grew up in racially segregated America. We are heirs of a nation where the first African slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619 and were subjected to sub-human treatment and brutality. Even after slavery, black Americans suffered government sanctioned terror visited upon them through lynching, rapes and bombings. It escalated in reconstruction and lasted through Jim Crow laws and government sponsored segregation. As Christian brothers we both lament that, in the past, people in our own fellowship did not lead the way to justice, equality and mercy; but had to be dragged along by others.
Both of us know the current inequities. By every measure of opportunity: education, health care, housing, economic gain, the criminal justice system, etc., black Americans lag significantly behind whites in large part due to our dark past of racial discrimination and racialized structures. We both recognize that far too many in white America ignore the 400 years of brutality, injustice and unequal treatment suffered by black Americans and other minority communities. Moreover, it is a painfully uncomfortable subject to discuss, even for those who are willing to work on racial reconciliation. Our fears of blame and anger paralyze us, so we tend to choose silence and avoidance, which are enemies of healing and true unity in Christ.
We must resist accepting claims that intensify racism rather than love. For example, we often hear about black on black crime. The notion of black on black crime is a myth. The truth is most crime is committed by people who know each other. Between 1976 and 2005, 86 percent of white victims were killed by white offenders and 94 percent of black victims were killed by black offenders. In 2013, the number was 83 percent for whites and 90 percent for blacks. All crime is appalling. Let’s not intensify racism because of crime which touches us all.
We must move toward truth and racial reconciliation. We must have the difficult conversations. We must be willing to listen to one another. We must recognize that our black brothers and sisters have deep emotional and spiritual scar tissue created by centuries of abuse, subjugation, violence, hatred and neglect. We must acknowledge that many white brothers and sisters have developed thick and stubborn emotional and spiritual calluses created by years of misinformation, racist traditions, conditioning and inequities. Breaking through requires hard and sustained work. It is difficult. It is challenging, but it is not impossible because God is able and people of God are uniquely situated to move the needle forward. We should be taking the lead! We should not be dragged along like recalcitrant children!
Our challenge arises out of our own spiritual journey. For a moment we speak as individuals:
Robert’s vantage point:
Perhaps I should start at the beginning of my awakening to the racial problems within the church. Although my elementary and junior high school education was in predominately black schools, my high school was predominately white. I became a Christian at age 13 through the influence of a childhood friend. I worshipped with the Wooster Avenue church of Christ, a small predominantly black congregation in Akron, Ohio. It was not until I enrolled at Northeastern Christian Junior College that I began to form close and meaningful relationships with my white brothers and sisters in Christ. It was then that I began to question why I had no such relationships back home in Akron. The black and white congregations were friendly and cooperative, but not personally or emotionally intimate. Our love was merely theoretical rather than personal. I firmly believe our lack of meaningful interactions and relationships allows us to cling to fears and misconceptions about one another. It’s easier to assume the black guy is a criminal or the white guy is a racist, than to take the time to see his heart. It allows us to drown out the Gospel of love and peace with worldly ideas, skepticism and suspicion. When our interactions are few or merely superficial, we tend to believe the media’s portrayal on one another.
There are three vivid memories from my college years which serve as sign posts for matters of race and my own personal journey of understanding. The first is a conversation with my father before heading off to the south (Nashville, Tennessee) for college when I transferred to Lipscomb University to complete my undergraduate degree. I was born and raised in Akron, Ohio, but my father was born and raised in Savannah, Georgia. He was raised in the Jim Crow south. Consequently, he felt the need to counsel me on life in the south. Even though it was the 80’s, he cautioned me to be careful. This conversation is known as “the talk.” It’s the conversation most black parents have with their children, especially their sons, about navigating racism in America, particularly with law enforcement. The talk reflects the tangible fear most black parents have when their sons walk out the door, knowing that there is a high probability they could be killed by a police officer who sees them as a threat. The narrative is usually, “do not run, if you are in a car, keep your hands on the steering wheel, turn on your internal light, be overly respectful, announce your hand movements to get your license and registration. Say yes sir and no sir. As a black man, you do not have the luxury of challenging injustice on the street. Your life depends upon it.” Of course my heading to the south amplified these concerns. I note that I have had the talk with my own children as well and have not found a single black parent who has not had such a talk with their children among my friends and associates.
My second memory is of a conversation I had with my friend “John” during college. (I will not give his actual name because he has the right to tell his own story, even though I don’t think he would mind) I had been elected Student Government president at Northeastern and he was elected the vice president. We stayed over the summer, took a class and prepared for our upcoming year of leadership. John is white and was raised by a preacher in New England. We became fast friends during our freshman year. We decided to room together over the summer. We had a blast that summer. We even traveled to another state to visit his girlfriend’s family. They are all amazing saints I love and admire to this day. But one evening John shared with me that his greatest fear about going to college was that he might end up with a black roommate. I never processed the source of John’s fear until years later. I recognize that our American society plants this kind of fear in the hearts of countless boys and girls and I am convinced this kind of fear still persists today and the church is not immune. I acknowledge that such fear and dread exists for some in the black community as well, depending upon your life experiences. I thank God the love of Christ prevailed for John and me. We have remained close friends until today. We love and care for one another as brothers. Our lives have gone separate ways, but we stay connected through social media and holiday cards. I am confident that our college friendship helped to shape our current world views.
My final memory occurred in 1984, during the fall of my senior year of college at Lipscomb University. I was in the lower level of a classroom building, where Collins Auditorium is located. I walked by a broom closet and noticed there were faint letters on the wooden door that were lighter than the darker mahogany stain. As I approached the door, the unknown letters became clearer to me. As I looked closely, I could see that it read: “colored men.” It took a moment for my brain to process that this tiny broom closet tucked away in the stairwell of this majestic building was once a bathroom reserved for black men. At that moment, it all came rushing back to me. My university, founded on Christian principles, whose charter required chapel worship everyday there are classes and required that every student take a Bible based class for every day a student was in another class, a school that produced countless ministers of the Gospel of Christ and is located in the Bible belt, was among the last to desegregate and allow black students to attend. And even when allowed to attend, black students were initially subjected to segregationist policies on campus. (Of course this was not the case when I was a student. I had an amazing experience there and love my alma mater. I am also confident the faint visibility of these letters on the door was probably not noticed.)
Lipscomb University was not an outlier among Christian institutions in America’s shameful segregationist history. Although the first black student to attend The Ohio State University was in 1889, even gold medalist Jesse Owens was not permitted to live on campus and was not allowed in the Student Union, which is now Hale Hall, the building in which I work. As my undergraduate and law school alma maters have made considerable strides since their segregationist days and even since my matriculation more than 30 years ago, we too should move toward truth and racial reconciliation.
I have spent my career as a lawyer, educator, minister and diversity and inclusion professional. I believe it is past time for the church to come together in a unified way to address the injustices we see in our society. We can begin by building those meaningful relationships. Isolated fellowships, songfests and obligatory pulpit exchanges are not enough. Congregations should spend time talking about these kinds of issues. There are small struggling black and white congregations that should have the courage to merge and embrace their bond in Christ. Lipscomb University, under the leadership of President Randy Lowry has convened panel discussions addressing the civil rights struggles and other critical topics. We must be willing to step outside of our comfort zones. We must be people of action. We can no longer remain silent or inactive. As Edmund Burke has said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Harold’s Vantage Point:
As a child I grew up in the coal mining area of Appalachia near Pittsburgh. At the time, I did not understand how poor we were. I regularly heard people make racist comments about others, but I did not understand the danger involved in remaining silent. Yet intuitively, I followed other young people who left the area in search of a better life.
Years later when I began working as a preacher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I often got phone calls from people asking for help. Sometimes it was the poor who wanted the church to pay a utility bill, other times a traveler who needed gas money and occasionally, people called who wanted me to buy them a meal. I dreaded these encounters.
In retrospect I disliked them because I thought all poor people were cons. I believed impoverished mothers had babies to get a larger welfare check. It didn’t make sense to me for the church or the government to be involved in hand outs. I thought the Bible said, “God helps those who help themselves.” My concern over this issue intensified when we moved to Memphis. I quickly learned that the city teemed with the poor. It was among the poorest cities in the nation. Every day I became more aware of the inconsistency of my own distaste for helping the poor and the city in which I lived. Memphis was also a racially divided city. Few congregations of any tradition were integrated. The longer I lived in Memphis and saw the disconnect between religious congregations and the surrounding community, the more my dread increased.
One day in Memphis a young single black mother called the church building asking for food. I watched as one of the members limited her to one sack of groceries from the otherwise locked food closet. When she began to cry over the inadequacy of our gift, the church member grudgingly said she could have two bags. I stood by and said nothing. Sometime later while driving our blue Cavalier station wagon around Memphis, God’s Spirit changed my heart. I didn’t hear any voice, I didn’t see any visions. All I know is that when I left that morning, I was bigoted toward the poor and silent about racism, and when I returned I realized I had been wrong and that my heart had to change.
In response I took two actions. First, I preached a sermon in which I confessed my wrongheadedness to the congregation. I had been opposed to helping the poor, but God favors the poor. I was bigoted against the poor, but God blessed the poor. I had been silent about racism, but God sought the salvation of all people. I promised to be a more biblical preacher and a more spiritual leader.
Second, I began to study scripture with an open heart. I was appalled to read one of my old sermons on Amos that completely ignored the poor, rationalized away his concern for the weak and vulnerable, and ignored his call for justice. As I studied I discovered the biblical meaning of terms such as righteousness and justice. I studied with amazement passages like Deuteronomy 15 and wondered in light of James 1 and 2 if I was practicing pure religion.
As I look back to that day in our blue station wagon, I’m grateful that God worked in my life. He changed my heart. That led to a change in what I preached and how I lived.
What can we do?
- Teach. Beginning with Moses God has always informed and motivated His people through teaching. We call congregations to offer Bible classes in which these issues are explored from a biblical point of view. We cite the Highland Church of Christ in Memphis, TN, for doing exactly this and publishing their curriculum. One can find it on Amazon at Race and The Cross.
- Preach. God had one son and He made Him a preacher. Through His preaching, He changed the world. We call preachers to address the issue of justice and righteousness, of healing a broken world, of treating other people as we would like to be treated with a view toward addressing racism in our congregations and in our communities.
- Plant. The New Testament tells of the early Christians beginning new congregations all over the world. None of those congregations exist today, but they started other congregations who sent out people to begin still more congregations. The congregation where you are a member was started by somebody. Jesus spoke of not putting new wine in old wineskins. Given that churches of Christ are largely segregated by race, we can intentionally begin new congregations that seek to be diverse with both black and white members. The goal could be to develop a more meaningful fellowship across race.
- Higher education. We call our Christian schools to address this issue. Many leaders in churches of Christ are graduates of our schools. We ask each Christian university to create a required course on biblical teaching on race.
- Learn. Seek resources and information that will broaden our personal knowledge base. For instance, Harvard University has created a resource based upon brain science that allows us all to assess our own unconscious biases. Anyone can test themselves at Project Implicit at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html. It is sound biblical principle to engage in self-reflection and evaluation. (for instance if #Blacklivesmatter bothers you but #Bluelivesmatter does not, it could have its roots in implicit bias.) James tells us “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (James 2:22-24). We don’t have to be the way we are, we can learn to be better.
- Engage. Seek opportunities to engage with those of other races on a personal level. Invite them to your home and be willing to visit theirs. Be willing to embrace God’s plan for the true oneness of the church. Paul set the standard high: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Develop relationships across the divides that separate us.
Robert Solomon serves as Assistant Vice Provost in the Office of Diversity & Inclusion at The Ohio State University. He has also served as Associate Minister for the Genessee Ave. Church of Christ for the past 25 years. Robert holds an Associate’s degree and Bible Certificate from Northeastern Christian Junior College, a Bachelor’s degree from Lipscomb University and a Juris Doctorate degree from The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. He has served as an Assistant Attorney General for the state of Ohio and an Assistant United States Attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice. Before assuming his current role, he served as Dean for Admission & Financial Aid at the Moritz College of Law and its Chief Diversity Officer. He regularly lectures on matters of race, diversity and inclusion. He is a trustee at Ohio Valley University.
Harold Shank serves as President of Ohio Valley University, a school associated with churches of Christ, which serves the northeastern section of the US. For 32 years he served with the Highland Church of Christ in Memphis, TN, well-known for outreach to the vulnerable. Since 1996 he has been the national spokesperson for Christian Child and Family Services now known as Network 127, a coalition that serves the nation’s most needy children. He is one of the authors of Unfinished Reconciliation: Justice, Racism, and Churches of Christ edited by Gary Holloway and John York, revised edition (Abilene: ACU Press, 2013). He holds degrees from Oklahoma Christian, Harding School of Theology and a doctorate in Old Testament from Marquette University.
An Open Letter to members of the Churches of Christ
From The Archives:
• ‘We realized we’re all just people’
• What a uniformed officer in the Bible teaches us about today’s interactions
• A fishing trip to racial harmony
• Milwaukee church responds to local riots
• Baton Rouge churches say response needs to unify community
• In Dallas, a somber Sunday
• ‘Worship is our protest,’ says Ferguson, Mo., church leader
• The broken soul of Baltimore
• ‘This is not a race issue, it is a humanity issue,’ minister says
• On Christian journalists and #blacklivesmatter
• On Ferguson, faith and the fight for equality