The investigative news agency ProPublica last week released a photo showing three white students from the University of Mississippi posing with guns in front of a bullet-riddled marker dedicated to Emmett Till.
White men lynched Till, a 14-year-old Black boy visiting from Chicago, for supposedly flirting with a white woman at a store in Mississippi in 1955. His murder, along with his mother’s defiant decision to display her son’s mutilated face in an open casket, helped spur the Civil Rights movement.
Upon seeing the photo, one of my first questions was: “What church do these young men attend?”
To ask about their churches is to inquire about the role communities of faith play in perpetuating or dismantling racism in its various forms. The young men may not go to church. They may not even be Christians. But in an area known as the “Bible Belt” the cultural influence of Christianity is strong. So how the church influences the racial understanding of white Christians deserves probing.
The young men positioned themselves in front of this marker like big-game hunters proudly displaying their deceased prize. It’s as if Till, his memory, his murder and his legacy were all just a game to this grinning group.
One of the people pictured even posted the photo on his Instagram account. It garnered almost 250 “likes” before being taken down when reporters started asking about it. One person who saw the photo filed a complaint with the University of Mississippi back in March, but officials there did not take any action. Instead they referred it to the FBI where the case stalled because officers said the photo “did not pose a specific threat.”
Other entities took more decisive action. The three men pictured all belong to the Kappa Alpha fraternity. According to its website, the fraternity cites Confederate General Robert E. Lee as its “spiritual founder.” When fraternity leaders were made aware of the photo last week, however, they immediately suspended all three frat brothers.
Aside from the disciplinary actions, other issues remain.
Did these young men bother to read the historical marker behind them to learn about Till and the significance of his life and murder? Did they think twice about posting this picture publicly and what it communicated about how they regarded Black people? Did the teaching of their churches help or hinder their sensitivity concerning race?
The primary question is not whether churches are endorsing overt racism; they almost certainly are not. The question is about how church leaders understand race and what they are teaching their members about it.
It could be the case that churches are not teaching much about race at all. Pastors remain relatively silent about racism from the pulpit, Bible study groups may not touch the topic, and few church members in homogeneous white congregations ever bring it up.
In other cases, churches may talk about race, but in unhelpful ways. Oftentimes, they try to do so in a “colorblind” way by emphasizing commonality and by minimizing or ignoring differences.
They claim they “don’t see color” and that all believers are brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of their race or ethnicity. These teachings become problematic when the varied life experiences, racial hardships, and history of Black people is blotted out in a blob of contrived sameness. Unity does not mean uniformity.
Other churches may have a truncated explanation for how race works. White evangelical Christians, in particular, tend to think of race in individualistic terms. The problem, they say, is bad relationships — as when a person doesn’t like another because of race, or when someone uses racial slurs. The solution, according to this line of thinking, is to have more positive relationships across the color line.
Relationships with people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds is a necessary part of bringing about racial justice, but it is not sufficient. Personal relationships have little impact on structural racial inequalities such as anti-Black police brutality, high rates of maternity-related deaths among Black women, or the racial wealth gap.
No amount of one-on-one lunches, small group discussions or coffee meetups will automatically impact the broader issue of institutional racism.
White churches have to be attuned to how they may implicitly reinforce racism. Some Christian churches have started private schools. If those schools do not intentionally embed racial awareness into their curricula and practice, they are likely perpetuating misunderstandings.
Some churches, in effect, make adherence to the Republican party platform a litmus test for Christian orthodoxy. Most Black people are not Republican, so political differences can create barriers to belonging.
If churches want to improve the way they teach their members about race, they should start by examining their understanding of the term.
Ask church leaders to define the words “race” and “racism.” Oftentimes there are as many different answers as there are people answering. The key here is to move beyond a narrow concept of racism as only an interpersonal phenomenon. Christians must acknowledge the ways race operates on systemic and institutional levels. Developing a shared language and definitions is a key to improving racial responsiveness.
Churches also have to talk about race. On any divisive topic, the temptation is to avoid discussing it for fear of offending someone. But people are already talking about race — at the dinner table, at work, in group text messages — and they often do so in unhelpful ways. With a shared language and mutually understood concepts, pastors and church leaders can be the guides their members need for talking about race in nuanced, spiritual and morally informed ways.
What if those young men who proudly posed in front of a defaced sign dedicated to a lynched boy had been deeply educated by their church about race and racism? What if they’d had a Sunday School class on the history of American Christianity and race? What if they learned to see what the Bible says from Genesis to Revelation about how to understand and celebrate differences? What if those young men had learned a robust doctrine of the image of God to better grasp the dignity of all people?
No one should need specialized teaching to know that standing with guns in front of a plaque detailing Emmett Till’s murder is racist. An elementary understanding of U.S. history and a modicum of concern for other human beings should prevent such offenses. Yet, whether churches lend more to perpetuating racism or providing remedies remains a pressing concern.
If churches, which have historically had such a large role in driving racism, do not effectively teach their congregants about race, then many Christians will continue to be part of creating racial problems rather than helping enact solutions.