Any black person who has had at least more than one conversation on race in a predominately white church space has heard this phrase before or a variety of the sort:
“Why do you make everything about race?”
Hearing this phrase is triggering for a host of reasons. One main reason is because it is used often as a conversation stopper. It is lobbed carelessly into dialogue to show the speaker that they have crossed some imaginary line into a territory that makes the “listener” uncomfortable. Whenever I personally hear that phrase I know that I have just encountered someone who is not ready to truly dive into the realities of race and addressing the complexities that come with it.
Sadly this phrase is used far too often, especially in predominately white church spaces. As a member of a predominately white church who has had the blessing of having many white brothers and sisters in Christ, I still have heard this phrase either directed at me or at someone else. The heart of the phrase stems from a frustration of having to do the hard work of addressing this “race thing” again. Then, without fail, the conversation shifts to the go-to deflection of the uncomfortable:
“Why can’t we just talk about the gospel?”
And although I love my white brothers and sisters dearly, it is saddening seeing the lack of tolerance some of them have with regards to talking through racial issues.
My church is not any more or less broken than any other church. Most black congregants and staff members who faithfully attend and work in predominately white worship spaces encounter these issues frequently. The interesting thing about these spaces is that sometimes these same churches and its members confusingly seem to be able to boast in being proponents of racial reconciliation while still finding a way to avoid having to actually do the work required to be justified in their boasting. Some write seemingly self-righteous Facebook statuses and blogs to showcase how “woke” they are for finally admitting that we might just have a race problem (although this revelation generally is mainly aimed at America as a whole and not generally the church, specifically). Sometimes these same churches might even send pastors and ministers to conferences surrounding racial reconciliation to further propagate the idea that they are indeed going to be found on the right side of history when it comes to race. They preach sermons and even invite guest speakers to prove how truly concerned they are with getting this “race thing” right.
And yes, some churches and their members truly are burdened and willing to dig and stay in the trenches as long as it takes to see reconciliation manifest. There are predominately white churches with pastors, laymen and women who are committed to walking along side the oppressed in regards to race, hoping to see the kingdom come in a small way even now. And yet, for some – dare I wonder most? – white church spaces, despite the conferences, blogs, podcasts, sermons, guest speakers, etc., when race is brought up in conversation, it automatically comes with a unspoken but frequently met quota. The topic of race seems to come with an inherent ceiling that caps just how often it can be discussed, how deep it can be addressed, and how uncomfortable it’s allowed to make us feel. Despite all the talk that some predominately church spaces do when it comes to racial reconciliation, there seems to always be a limit to their love.
Why does this limit exist? It is my belief that predominately white church spaces will do some work with regards to race while still avoiding the feeling of being as uncomfortable as they need to be when it comes to discussing all the complexities of race. Promoting reconciliation is an ok thing to do, as long is isn’t too promoted. Yes, we should fight to see racial oppression cease to exist, but it shouldn’t mean having to give up certain ways of life and the luxuries afforded, right? And of course, racism is a gospel issue, but because we are so afraid of accidentally making it more than the gospel (which is indeed an error to care about), let’s make sure we don’t talk about it so much that people think about it too much and possibly forget about Jesus. Predominately white spaces are sadly so blindly drenched in cultural privilege and comfort that they are unable to see that their capping of conversations on race is also their capping of the level of reconciliation possible. They are essentially, as they might be unconsciously used to, allowing their privilege and place of power to be used to only allow the level of reconciliation that they are personally comfortable with.
In her book “On Reading Well”, Karen Swallow Prior defines patience as the willingness to endure suffering. When this definition is applied to white church spaces and its dealings with race, it is evident that this church space often lacks patience when it comes to actualizing racial reconciliation. The reason we as an entire body of Christ might never fully reconcile between races is simply because there is a lack of desire to endure the suffering that comes with reconciliation. Although no Christian is a perfect sufferer, in my experience most of the black congregants that faithfully attend and labor in predominantly white church spaces seem to learn this specific lesson of patience daily. And it is high time that our white brothers and sisters join us.
The willingness to endure suffering is a foundational Christian trait. We as Christians are bought and purchased by our Suffering Servant, Jesus Christ, who endured our deserved punishment to bring forth our undeserved salvation. We are also called, by our Savior Jesus Christ, to pick up our cross daily and follow Him. I have never held a cross the size of one used in a crucifixion, but we know a little about them from history and reading the Bible. It’s safe to say that crosses are heavy. Being as they are made of wood, they probably have splinters. They probably stink from the sweat of those carrying them. And people seem to be not strong enough to carry them forever so instead they ask for help. But crosses are how we enter into the presence of the Father, for a cross is what was needed to save our lives. And a cross is what keeps our lives saved.
If predominately white churches and its members are not willing to endure the suffering that comes with pursuing true actualized racial reconciliation, to carry the cross of hard conversations, uncomfortable situations, and the relinquishing of privilege and power where applicable, we the global church as Jesus’ Bride will never see the joy that is set before us. If black members of predominantly white bodies and communities don’t feel the total freedom to be completely unburdened with their issues regarding race, the church will never see the dividing wall completely torn down. If we as the bride of Christ don’t see how capping this conversation brings division to a body that should be unified, we lack the ability to glorify Christ rightly.
Friends, there is no such thing as talking too much about race. As believers in the gospel and as fully formed human beings, we can both keep Christ at the center of everything while choosing to focus on how His centrality has, or hasn’t, affected cultural issues. We can both keep ourselves unstained from the world and care for widows and orphans. At least, God says we can.
I plead with my white brothers and sisters to make room for tough conversations on race. To not only make room, but to seek them out. To be uncomfortable, to be fragile, to misstep and misspeak. I beg predominately white church spaces to take an honest inventory on how they are pursuing racial reconciliation and how they can do better. As a church, the whole church, we are broken people. Churches will never be perfect, nor act perfectly, as long as they keep letting broken human beings – who the church was founded by and founded for – darken their doors. But I am not asking for perfection; I’m asking for actual concern. Racial issues will take slow, deliberate, intentional, persevering, and patient spirits to be addressed. But, we have to start talking about them. In fact, it is probably about time that we start talking about them too much.