Don’t Pretend That Racism Has Disappeared From the Church This Black History Month

By Jemar Tisby

Racism has been pretty easy to spot for most people. It felt like the sting of a lash on an enslaved person’s back and smelled like the charred flesh of a public lynching. Since those forms of racial oppression have become frowned upon, so the thinking goes, then we must have moved past racism.

Unfortunately, some Christians seem to believe racism is merely a relic of a bygone era.

In an admirable effort to reckon with its racial past, leaders at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary formed a commission to examine the school’s racist founding and present their findings. The history, dating back to the mid-19th century, was as honest as it was tragic. For instance, all four original founders of the seminary held slaves, and one donor who saved the seminary from financial ruin earned his wealth through convict leasing. Yet the report stopped too soon. It ended in the mid-1960s, giving the impression that racism had, for the most part, ended with the civil rights movement.

Christians who see racism as mainly a problem of the past often fail to see that they or other people of faith still hold negative views about people of certain races and ethnicities.

In a study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, 54 percent of white evangelicals indicated that the country becoming majority nonwhite by 2045 would have negative effects on the nation. But 79 percent of black Protestant respondents and 80 percent of Hispanic Protestants thought this demographic change would be good for the country.

It’s easier to believe racism is a problem of the past if you think of racism strictly in interpersonal terms, truncating the definition of racism. Hurling the “n-word” at someone is, for most people, an identifiable form of racism. But racism is not simply one person harboring personal animus toward another because of his or her race or ethnicity.

Christians believe that an individual’s sins make it necessary for salvation through Jesus. That theological emphasis on individual sin, however, can lead some Christians to miss the way sins such as racism work out through systems.

In his book “The Next Evangelicalism,” Soong-Chan Rah writes, “Evangelicalism’s captivity to excessive individualism means that outrage for the corporate sin of racism is rarely present. … We are so busy trying to justify and deny the reality of the personal, individual prejudice that we ignore the larger issue of a corporate shame that arises from a structural, systemic evil.”

Sociologists Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith found in their book “Divided by Faith that white evangelical religious beliefs can reinforce an individualistic view of racism.

“If race problems — poor relationships — result from sin, then race problems must largely be individually based. … Absent from [white evangelical] accounts is the idea that poor relationships might be shaped by social structures, such as laws, the ways institutions operate, or forms of segregation.”

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Source: Washington Post

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