I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.
I love the church. As a member of several different congregations and denominations throughout my life, I’ve seen and experienced what the white American Christian church has to offer: community, family, moral guidance, help with my marriage and mothering. It’s made my life richer, lifting it above the mundane and trivial, connecting me to the Divine. But the church is made of people who often miss the point of the gospel, who fail and cover up their failure, who are human without accepting their frail humanity. I, like Gandhi, often find myself loving Christ but not liking Christians (or even my own walking out of my faith in the world).
Christianity was, at its founding, counter-cultural and against empire, functioning as it’s meant to only when it remains close to these roots. Martin Luther King said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.” As I participated in and watched racial justice protests across the country in 2020, I kept thinking, “Where is the church?” It was, and is, conspicuously absent. The white church has become the tool of the state to maintain the status quo rather than its conscience.
Jesus was a poor man who cared for the poor. God and the prophets aligned themselves with the poor and the oppressed. Every. Single. Time.
The white Christian church in America has missed the point of the gospel and gotten sidetracked in culture wars. What is the point of the gospel? Loving God and our neighbor. And our neighbor is anyone in our path, anyone who needs help (not someone we deem worthy of our help) as shown in the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37.
Who is lying bleeding on the side of the road in American society today? The poor and homeless, the immigrants, the marginalized, the sick, the imprisoned. Because of white supremacy, most of these folks are people of color. Who is walking past them on the other side of the road (like the Pharisee)? The white church. The church would object and point to food pantries, prison ministries, and soup kitchens. It’s something, but that something is often done to appease our own guilt as much as to offer substantial help to those in need.
The help the church offers usually falls into the category of “charity” rather than seeking justice for the poor. Someone once said that we need to pull people out of the river and give hell to the ones that pushed them in. The church settles not even to pull people out of the river, but to offer them a sandwich as they float by. Charity appeases our guilt and makes the existence of poverty acceptable in our society. Gustavo Gutierrez, Catholic priest and liberation theologian, writes, “The poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” Justice requires that we fight for a restructuring of the system that funds the military, policing, and prisons rather than the care of the most vulnerable.
The patriarchal white church has been very selective in the sins it focuses on: primarily “sins of the flesh” including sex outside of marriage, homosexuality, pornography, and abortion. What our pastors preach about determines who is comfortable sitting in our pews.
Throughout our history, a person could sit comfortably in most white churches while harboring within them the rage, greed, pride, and racism embedded in white supremacy. It was acceptable to sit in our churches on a Sunday morning followed by a lynching in the afternoon. Those attitudes didn’t evaporate over time. We walk in and on it still.
Both Catholic and Protestant churches have a long history of normalizing and legitimizing racism to suit their own ends, to benefit and comfort the (tithing) white folks in the pews. As a result, they have been instrumental in teaching and embedding the characteristics of whiteness within our culture. Polling shows that white Christians are more racist than religiously unaffiliated folks in America. For a long time, the lament was that we had become unrecognizable from the culture around us. Now we are worse than the culture at large, farther away from loving our neighbor than our non-church-going neighbors.
According to the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2020 data, white Christians are more than twice as likely to believe that the police killings of unarmed black men are isolated incidents rather than part of a pattern. They are 30% more likely to believe that the Confederate flag is a symbol of Southern pride rather than a symbol of slavery and racism. Racism became a cultural norm for white Christians because our faith had to conform and deform itself in order to uphold and support the theft of land from indigenous people and the slavery of kidnapped Africans. The church, the Bride of Christ, is wedded to Empire, to systems of oppression.
What damage does it do to a soul to hate and devalue others, to turn its back on the poor and immigrants? Rev. Hugh L. Hollowell once said, “Every time we use religion to draw a line that keeps people out, Jesus is with the people on the other side of that line.” Where does that leave the white church today?
The white American church, as embedded in empire and politics as it is, no longer has any basis for its sense of moral superiority, but instead needs to be willing to do some radical self-assessment in order to make some radical changes if it is to survive. If you are a Christian, we are the church. You and I need to do some radical self-assessment in order to make some radical changes. As Dr. Darius Daniels says, “The church changes when we do.” The church will become what she’s intended to be when her members become Christ-like.
What if our churches were more like those Black Lives Matter protests: where people could wrestle with hard things and say the unsayable? Where we could be authentic rather than pious? Where fierce and transformative love could flow rather than the Hallmark card variety? Where the people in the pews reflect the demographics of our nation? Where we feel challenged rather than comforted? Where we do the hard work of upending systems of oppression that harm the poor, the immigrant, the marginalized? This difficult and uncomfortable work would expose every facet of whiteness we carry, but it could save us and return to the church the moral authority it once had. God of hosts, bring us back, let your face shine on us and we shall be saved. Psalm 80:7
Sitting silently in the pews is not going to get the job done. I’ve continued to sit in those pews throughout my life. Many have left for one good reason or another. If you’re still here, like me, we’re here for a reason, and it’s not to uphold the status quo.
Lent, the forty days before Easter, is traditionally a time of individual repentance, taking a hard look at how far we’ve drifted from the gospel and what we need to do to return to it. It mirrors the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness (far from Empire) before his public ministry began. No matter the time of year you’re reading this, could you consider the next forty days a time of individual and corporate repentance for all the ways we’ve drifted from the gospel? Repent with fasting, increased prayer, and almsgiving to the poor.
It’s time for the church to engage in public lament for our participation in the structures of white supremacy. I have no power in the church. But if enough of us squeak loudly enough in the ears of those who do have the power, maybe slowly, but surely, collective lament can happen so that collective repentance can happen so that the church can, again, be what she was made to be.