John’s Gospel says that in the beginning there was a Word who was with God and was God. In this Word was life, the light of all humankind. The Word became flesh and lived as one of us in the person of Jesus, who ministered to the poor and outcast, healed the sick, and gave sight to the blind. Jesus, this Word made flesh, spoke prophetically about overturning systems of injustice and iniquity to participate in the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, a world in which all have life in abundance (John 10:10).
In the beginning of the creation of the United States, there was also a word.
” . . . Its syllables were European ships crossing the sea, leathers ripped from dark bodies and replaced with button suits, chains clinging in cargo holds, and the moans and cries of dark bodies whose life was again and again twisted out. The world we live in now is intertwined with words uttered by men with the power to create a distorted order. Their word did not create like God creates, however. Theirs were words of de-creation. . . Wherever the ships went, they took with them a view of themselves that had no room for difference. In this way, race is an incarnation, of sorts. Race is the embodiment of an idea that was brought into the world. Race is the water out of which we are all born” (Brian Bantum, The Death of Race, p. 14, bold mine).
Two different words became flesh.
Two different words were spoken to create two vastly different incarnations.
In the Word that became incarnate in Jesus, we are given the light of humanity, the promise of flourishing, the hope of abundant life rooted in cross-cultural relationships predicated on equity, justice, and shalom.
In the other word, race, we are given de-creation and death, dark bodies being manipulated and maimed and used. Race is a diseased word that stands against the Word made flesh, the light of humankind, the Incarnation of Christ.
“But doesn’t race just describe what color we are?”
Many Americans believe the term “race” simply refers to a person’s skin color. But it’s not that simple.
The only thing I understood about race for nearly three decades is the same thing just about everyone understands: race involves physical characteristics like skin color and hair type, which formed based on where a people group originally evolved due to climatological conditions. This set of physical characteristics is known by the term phenotype. For me, race was purely biological because skin color is purely biological. With this rudimentary understanding of race, I could check the correct box when filling out a form for school, work, or the government.
But race is not merely a descriptor of certain physical characteristics. Race is a social and political construct utilized as a means for one group to access power and privilege over others—a construct that has emerged because humans have constructed a hierarchy from those variances in phenotype.Skin color reveals nothing more than skin color. It is race that reveals—and unveils—the broken, iniquitous systems underlying the fabric of society.
What do I mean by this?
Humans have used race to determine who has power and who doesn’t, who has access to resources and who doesn’t, and who lives and who doesn’t. There is a well documented racial health gap between Blacks and whites, which has been glaringly exposed during the current coronavirus pandemic. For example, African Americans make up 9 percent of the population of New York and 17 percent of the COVID-19 deaths. In Georgia, eighty percent of those hospitalized for COVID-19 related illness were African American. Also, on a systemic level unrelated to the current pandemic, psychologist Dr. Jules Harrell notes that important health indicators such as heart rate variability and blood pressure are negatively impacted by structural racism.
Humans have used race to determine who gets hunted down and murdered and who doesn’t. Lamentably, the lynching of Black people has not been relegated to the shelves of a bygone era. Ahmaud Arbery was ruthlessly gunned down by two white men while jogging in a Georgia neighborhood—a lynching in 2020. No arrests were made until ten weeks later. Considering that the US criminal justice system was largely designed and built during the days of Jim Crow and tends to tolerate egregious acts against people who are Black, there may not ever be true justice for Ahmaud.
The white dominant culture politicizes the social construct called “race” to leverage power and benefit for themselves over and against others.
Race is far from an abstract concept. It is manifest in very concrete forms of evil like mass incarceration, the school to prison pipeline, unarmed black men and youth being shot by the police at alarming rates, employer discrimination in hiring and advancement, housing discrimination, high unemployment rates, and a dramatically increased risk of suicide.
Two words. One Word brings life, justice, and the flourishing of humanity across all boundaries. The other brings death.
And which word will the church live by?
What does it look like for churches to combat race as incarnation, as a construct misused and abused by those who hold power and privilege?
How can pastors lead their congregations in engaging race at this level?
There are many viable and wise approaches to addressing race. Here are three ways your church can do so:
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1) Confront race, not just racism.
It is necessary for the Church not simply to decry racism in its most overt, perverted forms, but to confront the actual construct of race itself.
Most humans with a sense of good will can understand that white bigotry and overt racism need to be challenged. But Jesus followers must go even beyond the humanist stance of good will toward all. Race, not just racism, is antithetical to the kingdom of God.
When the church understands race as an incarnation of the forces of darkness that concretely influence our thoughts, actions, and responses, we will see that race is never not a factor. It is always there, either in the foreground or the background (even when overt racism may not be present).
Let me be clear: Race cannot be ignored, as the advocates of a colorblind ideology posit. Colorblindness ignores the particular experiences of people of color while playing into the illusion that society is a level playing field in which everyone is equal, rendering race a moot point. Colorblindness perpetuates entrenched myths, like the one which states that our nation’s great economic prowess was built on human dignity and equality, rather than on the backs of African slaves following the genocide of the original indigenous inhabitants of this land.
Race must not be overlooked. It impacts everything from income levels to life expectancy to length of prison sentences. Colorblindness ideology insists that race is neutral, but we know that is not the case. If race were neutral, would people’s bodies and spirits be lacerated by it? Would others leverage it for their own access to wealth, comfort, and power?
But just as the colorblind posture of “I don’t see race” moves us in the wrong direction, so does choosing to see race only in the form of egregious racism. Race is more than phenotypic difference and more than overt racist acts. As Bantum put it, race is a tool used for the purposes of evil, which is precisely why the church must address rather than ignore it. White people must choose to see its nuanced forms rather than only condemn bigotry.
How can the Church do this?
Encourage conversation about people’s racial experiences.
Create space to hear about the particular ways race has impacted members of our churches.
And most importantly, listen to and submit to the voices of BIPOC and allow their voices to lead us.
2) Confess the spiritual disease sickening us.
The white members of the body of Christ have failed the brown and black members. Corporately, the church must return to its confessional roots and address this ecclesial sin. Truthful critique for where we have veered off course is necessary.
Individual churches have a responsibility to become aware of our complicity in that which undermines abundant life for all. The problem may seem “out there,” but do you know the history of your local place or the history of your denomination and how race has factored into the development of the community you are a part of?
It is vital that churches begin, at the congregational level, committing to the difficult work of speaking aloud the ways we have failed. Together, we must confess to one another how we’ve participated in, benefited from, and perpetuated this incarnation that antagonizes the flourishing God intends. Let us confess the ways that we are resistant to giving up our power and privilege that the construct of race allows for. Let us confess the ways our church denominations and communities have embodied the destructive word “race” rather than the life-giving Word incarnated as Jesus.
3) Implement a conciliation process.
Racial reconciliation is one of the church’s great tasks. However, Mark Charles, Navajo author and presidential candidate, points out how the term can be misleading, as reconciliation means the restoration of a relationship and assumes a harmonious relationship at a previous time. Historically, this was never the case between white people and people of color.
Charles advocates instead for “conciliation,” a process in which distrust and hostility can be overcome. Conciliation in the context of race, he says, “is the process needed in a nation that was founded on land stolen from Natives and built on the backs of enslaved African people.” It is also a process needed in a white body of Christ that was responsible for instituting slavery in the first place, that dehumanized dark bodies, and manipulated Scripture as a hermeneutical tool for oppression.
The church is called to engage in the work of conciliation, first, by not remaining silent about race. We must tell the truth by naming the incarnation of race, interrogating it from the pulpits of our majority white churches, and exposing it as the pseudo god that it is. The church must lead civil society into the process of conciliation characterized by, as Charles puts it, “a commitment to building cross-cultural relationships of forgiveness, repentance, love, and hope.”
Together as the body of Christ, may we commit to confronting, confessing, and moving toward conciliation.
A version of this article appeared at Missio Alliance in 2018.