What must the white church do? A panel discussion last month in Washington D.C.’s beautiful National Cathedral took on this difficult, politically charged question. Five speakers, Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, Rev. Jim Wallis, Rev. Dr. Delman Coates, Rev. Amy Stapleton, and Rev. Kelly Brown-Douglas, offered their perspectives in light of the recent killings of black men by police officers and uneasy racial discourse in America. The entire discussion can be seen here. The event took its inspiration from a sermon Pastor Coates of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church preached entitled “What the White Church Must Do.” The event coalesced, however, around Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 Letter From a Birmingham Jail. (Coates cited the letter to open his sermon, but he preached from the parable of the good Samaritan). Therein King blamed the passivity of white moderates more than the aggression of white supremacists for the South’s persisting racial inequalities. The panelists, in turn, argued that the modern “white Church” sins by remaining “on the sidelines” while black Americans continue to face injustices.
King observed that many white churchgoers in the 1960’s had committed themselves to a “completely other worldly religion” divorced from the realities of their place and time. Critiques of the panel discussion and Coates’ sermon can undoubtedly be made. Yet, critiques and specific objections notwithstanding, the message that Christians have a duty to be involved in questions of justice and injustice around them is one the Church cannot afford to forget.
The panelists essentially stressed four points. First, policing in America is racialized. People of color have far more to fear from the cops than do white people, argued Wallis. This causes pain and rage in black communities that black congregations feel in an intense and intimate way, said Coates. Second, the “white Church” has to recognize that many problems in black communities have structural and systemic causes. Third, churches, and the “white Church” in particular, need to take concrete actions in response to racial injustice; feeling a certain way is not enough. For example, the panelists recommended that leaders of white mega-churches and well-respected Christian authors “speak-out” about poverty and policing among America’s black population, utilizing their wisdom, learning, and platform to address these pressing issues from a Christian perspective. Additionally, it was suggested that Church leaders and members should go to their local police departments and intentionally engage them in dialogue over the report recently completed by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
The fourth point deserves special attention. The panelists pointed out that American churchgoers are amazingly divided – along racial lines – in their communities, and consequently, in how they view the concerns of black Americans. Brown-Douglas cited a panoply of statistics. The central point was twofold. First, in a comparison of white individuals, those who were not affiliated with the church were significantly less likely to say that police treat blacks and whites equally. Second, the vast majority of black Christians believe blacks and whites are not treated equally by the police. Evidence also indicates that most white Americans have little diversity in their social circles. Church communities are not exceptions. As IRD has been reporting in recent weeks, Protestant church membership, even in diversifying denominations, is still often racially lopsided. This stifles the circulation of stories and perspectives between black and white congregations.
Author Adam Nicholson has written that one lesson from Homer’s Iliad is that
“. . . suffering can only be told in detail. No counting of casualties will do; no strategic overview will understand the reality; only intimate engagement with the intimacy of pain and sorrow can ever be good enough for . . . enlightenment.”
Indeed. His words ring true when it comes to understanding the rage in black communities, which Rev. Coates encounters every day in his ministry. One need not believe America is engulfed in race wars to see that reading statistics and analyzing historical trends does not get at the sources of “social rage,” whether in minority communities or elsewhere, which political and religious discourse must reckon with. That is a healthy lesson from the panel discussion and Coates’ sermon.
But is this more intimate engagement with pain an explicitly Christian injunction? I think so. In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus explains that salvation requires loving God above all and loving neighbor as self. Our Savior tells the parable of the good Samaritan as an example of neighbor love. In the story, when the Samaritan saw the wounded traveler, he “took pity on him.” The Greek verb for this action is esplankhnysthē. It contains the stem of the noun splankhnon, which means “inward parts, or entrails” i.e. guts. The Samaritan acts out of an intimate engagement with the injured man that touches his own guts. In 1 John 3:17 the writer suggests that anyone possessing a comfortable life does not possess the love of God if he sees a brother having a need and “has no pity on him.” The phrase, which again uses the noun splankhnon, could more literally be translated, “shuts off his guts from him.” Verse 18 exhorts those who listen to love with deeds and truth, not just words. That requires loving from our guts. Once suffering is acknowledged, this sort of attitude and subsequent action is the Christian response.
But it is hard to acknowledge or engage in this way if suffering is not encountered in experience or narrative. The panel discussion was a good reminder that the churches in American can do better in this regard. As I have written previously, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is a good example of how maintaining Orthodoxy frees a denomination to witness “in deed and in truth” to new demographics, bringing their stories and experiences into the life of the denomination and growing the church.
To conclude, the critique I would offer of the panel discussion and Coates’ sermon is that they did not emphasize the uniqueness – the complete irreplaceability – of the Church’s social and political witness, rightly understood. After all, if the witness is not unique, it is not necessary. Coates implored the “white Church” to speak out about economic inequality and housing policies in America. Jim Wallis suggested the church use a government sponsored report on policing as its primary text when talking to local police departments. But the Church is not a think tank, interest group or advocacy organization. The Church is the conscience of the state; it should avoid parroting secular organizations.
The central issue is how to respond to what Mark Tooley, President of IRD, calls the “imperative [for] human law to correlate with divine law.” The witness of the Church can be tarnished if its official pronouncements or its leaders, in their roles as representatives of larger church bodies, wade too deeply into the weeds of policy or politics. That risks neglecting the Church’s peculiar expertise – interpreting and expounding divine law.
This is not to say other forms of wisdom should be anathema. In Philippians 1:9 Paul prays that the love of the church in Philippi “abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.” Anything that advances that objective is good, but ultimately, if the Church’s witness on racial injustices – and everything else – is not flowing primarily and clearly from a well-developed exposition of the scriptures, it will not be utilizing its unique expertise or fulfilling its indispensible role in political and social affairs.Google+