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Published Date: March 5, 2003

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Red and Yellow, Black and White: Racial Inequality in the American Church

In the movie Swing Kids, a German teenager joins the Hitler Youth and is assigned a job delivering packages. At each house a child or woman answers the door, and as the teenager turns to leave after making his delivery, he hears screaming and crying from the house. Shaking with fear, he opens one of the packages to find a gold wedding band in a pile of ashes. Tears of rage and guilt begin to flow as he realizes he has unknowingly participated in a cruel system: delivering the remains of husbands and fathers who have been murdered in the name of Hitler.

To be white and middle class in America is to be a participant in a privileged power structure. Often unknowingly, we lay poverty and discrimination at the door of communities of color. The challenge to white middle-class people who follow Jesus is to begin to notice the cries of pain from these communities.

What is ‘Race?’

“Race is not a God-given concept,” says George A. Yancey in his book Beyond Black and White: Reflections on Racial Reconciliation. “All the misery that has developed because of racial issues is not part of the Lord’s plan but is something that we have caused ourselves. We made up the concept of race.”

The Bible begins by focusing on the oneness of humanity, notes Curtiss DeYoung in his book Coming Together: The Bible’s Message in an Age of Diversity. Male and female are the only human differences noted in the creation account. Through this first man and woman came all of humanity with its many colors and cultures.

But rather than celebrating this diversity, human society has used it to group people into “races” and then create a hierarchy. “There is such a thing as ‘racism’ because we have organized and laid out a world in terms of ‘race’,” says Douglas R. Sharp in No Partiality: The Idolatry of Race & the New Humanity.

Gender Connections

“CBE’s mission is biblical equality, as outlined by Galatians 3:28,” says CBE President Mimi Haddad. “While CBE holds gender as our primary lens in approaching biblical equality, at times this lens becomes myopic. Other Christian organizations working for equality use race or class as their primary lens. We need to learn from each other, work together and build a whole church.”

“All forms of injustice are interlinked,” says DeYoung. “There’s a common power dynamic at work. If somebody can understand the dynamics of race, they have a better chance of understanding the dynamics of gender. If you can get the dynamics of gender, you have a better chance of understanding race.”

Men of color and white women share a unique perspective on equality, as both are members of a privileged group (men and whites) and a marginalized group (women and people of color). This perspective may provide opportunities for them to serve as bridge builders in working out racial and gender equality.

Women of color, especially those who live in poverty, offer another important perspective. When asked about the relationship between race, class and gender, Karen McKinney, a professor at Bethel College in Saint Paul, Minn., said, “It is magnified, not added. It’s race times class times gender. They all create different lenses through which you see the world and through which you are perceived. As the persons who are most pushed to the margins, we have a lot to say. Our voice is needed at the table.”

White males are not typically oppressed by racism or sexism. But they can show the world what it looks like to reject a system that gives them the advantage. In Jesus’ day, race prejudice based on skin color did not exist, notes Curtiss DeYoung, but ethnic division, such as that between Jew and Gentile, did. As a Jewish male, “Jesus was able to speak to the men of that time and visibly demonstrate how to empower women and treat them as equals,” he says. He also notes that Paul, another Jewish male, worked hard to integrate Jews and Gentiles and men and women together in the church, both as members and as leaders.

The Reality of Racism

Karen McKinney, who grew up in Minneapolis, Minn., says she cannot remember a time when she wasn’t aware of race. “The first lens — the lens I’m most conscious of, at least growing up — was black,” she says. “Even as a college person, I was still way more conscious of the lens through which I look as a black person than the lens through which I look as a female.”

The United States acquired much of its land through the near-genocide of Native Americans. “Western colonialism may speak of an American history. Native People speak of an American holocaust,” says Steve Charleston in America’s Original Sin: A Study Guide on White Racism (quoted by DeYoung in Coming Together). Less than 150 years ago the United States abolished slavery, and it’s been barely 40 years since the Civil Rights Act repealed overtly racist laws. The sin of racism is tightly woven into American history.

“We’re not going to undo racism in a generation,” says DeYoung. “We’ll make progress, though, if we keep at it.”

“We have made great strides, but racial inequality does still exist,” says Dr. Jeanne Porter, a consultant and former professor of communication and culture. “Though we experience a rising middle class of African Americans in this country, there is an even larger class of African Americans in poverty.” Porter notes that urban school districts receive less funding than suburban ones, and racial profiling continues to “target people of color in the name of safety.”

In their book Divided by Faith, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith describe American society as “racialized.” “In the post-Civil Rights United States, the racialized society is one in which intermarriage rates are low, residential separation and socio-economic inequality are the norm, … and ‘we are never unaware of the race of a person with whom we interact,’” they say.

They continue, “Because racialization is embedded within the normal, everyday operation of institutions, this framework understands that people need not intend their actions to contribute to racial division and inequality for their actions to do so.”

The church continues to reflect this racialized society. “Almost everyone would say that segregation is wrong, but our congregations are pretty much as segregated as they’ve ever been,” says Curtiss DeYoung. “People still basically worship with folks like themselves.”

White Guilt

“He who conceals his disease cannot expect to be cured.” – Ethiopian proverb “Throughout history, we Christians have often failed to have enough collective God-vision to discern the sin — both obvious and subtle, deliberate and unintended — carried out through social institutions,” write Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice in More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel. “The result of our social blinders is that subtle and careless patterns, traditions and systems that encourage racial separation and inequality remain unnoticed, intact and unchallenged. They even seem normal.” Cutting away at these “social blinders” involves listening to the perspectives of the oppressed. For white people, this can bring a new and painful awareness of unconscious participation in a system that produces racial inequality.

Author and Eastern Seminary professor Craig Keener recounts his own struggle with guilt: “I was reading the slave narratives and the autobiography of Malcolm X, seeing what people who look like me had done to people who look like my friends who were so kind to me, and I was so ashamed of my skin color that I wanted to grab a knife and rip my skin off. That’s not a good stage, but it’s a stage I had to get through to get to the other side.”

In her article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh lists some of the privileges white Americans take for granted: “I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented … When I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilization,’ I am shown that people of my color made it what it is … I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.”

Karen McKinney tries to encourage her students, most of whom are white middle-to-upper-class, to learn from the guilt they inevitably feel after being exposed to the realities of racism. She explains that guilt helps “to motivate us to move.” And, like Keener, she sees it as a stage we must experience in order to act.

“Live in it and deal with it, study the contours of it,” McKinney says. “Ask, ‘What is this about, what is God telling me, what do I need to learn from this? I want to move, but what’s the movement — where do I go so I don’t end up right back here?’”

Thoughtful Action

Careful thought must precede and work in balance with action. “Read widely — read authors of races other than yourself, and the same with gender, I think that men need to read books written by women,” suggests Curtiss DeYoung. (See sidebar for resource suggestions.)

Read the Gospels and Paul’s letters in the Bible, noting the ways that Jesus, Paul and other Christians intentionally reached out to others across ethnic and gender lines. Are you willing to move into a new neighborhood or join a different church in order to build community with people outside your racial group?

“You have to say that seeking first God’s kingdom is your primary goal, not seeking your own comfort,” says Jo Kadlecek, a freelance author. “And that’s an enormous challenge to a very comfort-oriented culture. Building cross-cultural communities of faith is costly and difficult, yet the benefits and joys are extraordinary.”

“A lot of times white Christians say, ‘We don’t want our church to be segregated, we want black people to come to our church,’” says Craig Keener. “But instead of just wanting other people to come to our church, maybe we need to go to their church, and begin to desegregate that way. The members of the dominant culture know much less of the minority cultures than the reverse, and ought to come to minority cultures as learners.”

Suzanne Burdick, a first-year student at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minn., is doing just that. She participates in Hamline’s Black Student Alliance and the Hmong Student Association. “As a white person, it’s different than anything else I’ve experienced, because it’s not exactly me in the center of it. It’s just really weird for me to feel like I’m on the outside, because I’ve never had that experience before.”

DeYoung also notes the importance of integration. “If you read the book of Acts, you see that Paul intentionally went to the Jews and then to the Gentiles. There was an intentional strategy to build multi-cultural congregations, because in his mind that’s what proved that the gospel had power — its ability to cross boundaries. The church has an important solution to racial segregation sitting right there in the gospel and it’s been preaching it but not practicing it.”

“For me, the presence of diverse faces in a church does not reflect racial equality or multiculturalism,” says Porter. “A church which truly embraces racial equality and multiculturalism will have those diverse faces represented in leadership; the worship and educational ministries will reflect that same diversity.”

In Divided by Faith, Emerson and Smith note that many white evangelicals believe the only way to racial reconciliation is through personal relationships. But while healing on a personal level is important, further steps are needed to deal with the racialized society in which we live. Similarly, a husband and wife may live out an equal partnership and be reconciled to one another as man and woman, but male superiority on an institutional level still must be addressed.

“We have to learn how to develop a collective identity. The sins of the world are the sins of society,” says Karen McKinney. Old Testament prophets such as Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:6-7) and Daniel (Daniel 9:5-6) understood that they partook in the collective sins of their community. What if you are a person of color? “White America has a whole lot more power than African- Americans and other people of color,” says Leo Gabriel, a business professor at Bethel College. “But I believe that it’s important for people of color to look at the power we do have and to look at ways in which we can use that power to bring about change.”

“As a person of color, I am socialized into inferiority, and I have to recognize that that’s a lie and throw that off,” says McKinney. “I have to consciously, intentionally do something to counter that message.” Even very young children begin to internalize the message of inferiority, she continues, so she works to teach black children an alternative message.

Jesus said the world would know we are his disciples by the love we have for one another. Divided as we are, the church is greatly crippled to show the world what love looks like. But hope remains for those willing to reach across the divide. Writing about racism in Beyond Black & White, Yancey says, “What humans have created I am confident God can destroy.”

“I think one of the biggest things for white people is to just hear the stories — to know and to care,” says Craig Keener. “We can’t make people care but at least we can make people know. And if Christians who really have the love of God in their hearts hear the pain and know the hurts that have been inflicted, then Christians will work for reconciliation.”