taking the words of Jesus seriously

EDITOR’S NOTE: Throughout July, we’re engaging in an online book study of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion. Each Friday, we’ll offer a guest reflection based on our readings and discussion. Follow along as we reflect on Chapters 5 & 6 of the book this week.

Since birth, I’ve been blessed with an overly sensitive nature and a call to service. In my careers and through avocations, I have tried my best to help make this world a better place. I have struggled with questions of race, religion, and morality as I grew into my identity as a woman of color in America. I grappled with whether I could be considered a good person if I wasn’t Christian, or if I didn’t attend church. How to reconcile the many evils perpetrated by Christianity? What makes a church “Black” or “White” if we were all made in the image of God? Having read the Bible, it struck me that those who considered themselves Christians either had never read God’s word, or were hypocrites lacking self-awareness. Love one another, Jesus said. Yet all I saw was hate and division instead of inclusion, empathy, generosity, and selflessness.

I tried my hardest to understand a God that allowed chattel slavery to happen to my ancestors who were forbidden to read the Bible, yet were force-fed cherry-picked scriptures to justify the cruelty they endured. Becoming “woke” in America is a loss of innocence, and most of us born with extra melanin also gain some form of rage. I have atheist friends. Others embraced African pantheons. I continued to study alone feeling spiritually adrift. Then 81 percent of white evangelical “Christians” voted for a man who is the polar opposite of everything Jesus taught and embodies. I have never felt more betrayed by my fellow Americans. I no longer trust non-people of color, and I have distanced myself from friends who proved otherwise. I pray daily about this divide, and I pray for Jesus to heal my soul so I can forgive, but I do not think I will ever be the same. My worldview completely and permanently shattered the day I finally accepted the truth: true Christians are minorities.

Reading Hartgrove’s book reinforced personal convictions. I will probably never again attend a Christian church. A Black homeless man I have befriended prayed over me without my asking the other day in front of a Starbucks while overly caffeinated white people bustled to and fro without giving either of us a cursory glance. He was concerned after noticing a bruise I could not explain. Jesus’ words came to life, “For where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them” (Matthew 18:20). That encounter is church enough for me.

I agree with the author’s analysis: a gospel that fails to interrupt our racial habits, those based on the foundations of violence and heresy, perpetuates a church broken by sin. I do not want to attend a “Black church” or a “White church.” I can follow Christ without the confines of a church. I answer to the highest spiritual authority. The most authentic maxim to live by is a simple question, “What would Jesus do?”

I’ve noticed a conundrum facing the online book club. While there are almost 150 members of the Facebook group, only a few have responded. Maybe it is because my daily reality is different from most of the commenters, but I have experienced a profound disconnect between the reading, the questions posed which do not always provoke deeper discussion, and the well-intentioned comments. The few brave souls who responded with transparency touched me greatly with their poignant stories. However, most comments so far have little to do with the subject matter and more to do with religious jargon that dances around discussing our nation’s collective sin. I feel this dynamic mirrors the stance that the church — particularly the majority of [white] Christian congregations — takes on racial relations and social justice. Perhaps I don’t speak the flowery ethereal language of organized religion because I have never found a spiritual home, although The Faith Community of Saint Sabina on the south side of Chicago comes close. Maybe it’s just because I am tired of words without action. Like the Bible, I wonder at times if people are even reading the same book in this group.

James Baldwin once wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Until we courageously face our discomfort, our complicity, and our complacency, we will always fall short. Maybe that is enough for some. Everyone is on their own journey. But I want to be first. I want to be great, and to accomplish this lofty goal, Jesus says I need to be a servant, a slave to all (Mark 10:43-44).

Just like everyone else, I am flawed. I am not proud of my inability to forgive, and it’s something I am working to change. I can only hope the silent majority in the online group and in the Christian and dominant culture is listening with open minds and open hearts. It is nowhere near enough. Admitting a brokenness exists within America, Christianity, and the very fabric of society but then to wash our hands of any accountability upholds the problems we seek to challenge. As followers of Christ, we must commit to effecting social change. Opening our eyes is a start. For that I am grateful. Perhaps if we pray hard enough, Jesus will remove the spiritual shackles that blind us, and we will finally realize our greatest weapon is love.

Exorcising our demons may hurt, but as Jesus himself said, “Do not assume I have come to bring peace on earth. I have come to bring a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Jesus came to agitate, to make us confront and uproot the sin in ourselves, our loved ones, our communities, and our church. For if we do not lose ourselves in the love Jesus taught, we will never find ourselves spiritually whole. This is, I believe, how we unlearn slaveholder religion and the racial habits we inherited. May the Lord be with you and with your spirit.

Because faith without works makes us dead (James 2:26), read more:

About The Author


Charisma Wills has been published in VegNews, Ms. Magazine, and several other publications affiliated with her alma mater, the University of Southern California, where she holds a Bachelor of Arts in Cinema and Television Production and a Master of Communication Management. A vegan, world traveler, itinerant bohemian, activist, artist, and paramedic, she is currently pursuing a Masters in Special Education and is committed to teach in her hometown in the Midwest for the next five years. Assuming she doesn’t fall head over heels in love with teaching, she plans to attend medical school and travel the globe as an Emergency Medicine physician. She currently volunteers at the Red Cross and firmly believes all life is precious. ​

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