Where Are the White Churches?
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice…”
— Martin Luther King Jr., Letter From Birmingham City Jail
During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s numerous Black clergy, including Martin Luther King, Jr. appealed to the white church for support and active engagement. The movement hoped for financial, political and moral support from the white church. Much of the white church responded with either silence or outright disdain that King and other leaders were threatening the status quo. This is not to ignore the courageous engagement by some whites, who marched, sat-in and spoke out publicly for the cause. Some white clergy, moved by the call of prophetic involvement, paid the price with their lives and livelihoods, losing their jobs when their congregations took opposing positions and fired their minister; some were killed.
Much of the white church hunkered down in fear and anger, disoriented by the social upheaval challenging the assumptions of white privilege. Reading the climate in their congregations, many clergy chose to steer clear of a prophetic role in favor of maintaining a comfortable relationship with their congregations.
So where are we now? And where is the white church now? Many churches now—white, black and otherwise—have abandoned social justice issues altogether, in the cause of congregational peace, leaving the work to advocacy groups and the legal system. Many congregations have in one smooth motion focused on non-controversial mission endeavors that tend to be at some geographical distance form them and away from lending their voices and presence to the hard stuff of economic injustice, Black Lives Matter and confronting anti-Muslim rhetoric. These activities may include raising money to fight malaria in Africa or volunteering with Habitat for Humanity closer to home, all good causes but far too safe for needed social change on high stakes issues at our doorstep.
Many whites occupying the pews in worship on a Sunday morning take issue with the concept that “black lives matter” insisting that, “all lives matter”. This seemingly reasonable corrective constitutes a fault line that has run deeply in the culture stretching back to the nation’s founding and laying bare this manifestation of racial bigotry. For many whites it must not stand that black lives matter as a valid assertion implying that black lives matter at least equally to white lives. The historical proposition that white lives are intrinsically superior to black lives is at play here. Insisting that all lives matter is to dilute the claim that black lives matter even in the current context of a rash of civilian and police killings of unarmed African Americans. The reality is that all lives will matter only when black lives matter and native peoples’ lives matter and immigrant lives matter and LGBT lives matter. Only when we accept the notion that God is not ambivalent about any of this will we be able to draw on our faith tradition as a resource to heal the world.
God has not called the church to circle the wagons on issues that challenge dominant thought, called the church into community for comfort alone. It is the faith community that is uniquely called to confront injustice, exclusion and fear. The truth is that much of the white church has not done the work it needs to do on issues of race, class and gender. Rather it has accepted the social construct and embraced an underdeveloped theology that reinforces the siloing of human community into separateness.
Except for eight to ten per-cent of the Christian Church, congregations continue to be as racially segregated and exclusive as they were reaching back to the nation’s founding fathers. A history of paternalistic mission, rooted in colonialism, is part of what is at issue. In this regard the larger culture is moving beyond these outdated constructs, sometimes at breakneck speed, leaving the church in the dust of its settled ways. Any congregation, white, black or otherwise “devoted more to order than to justice” and disengaged from “breaking down the dividing walls of hostility” has lost its way.
While much has changed since the civil rights movement of 1950’s and 1960’s, much has not. In fact it can be argued that ground has been lost in the fight for justice and equality. Addressing the potentially controversial issues of race, class and gender inclusion is urgent work. This is a call to the non-involved white church to engage in its own work of education, dialogue, advocacy and action. In our current political climate there is a real threat of being dragged backward from our vision of a just, free and inclusive society. It is the church that must have a voice for justice, equality and inclusion.