Two open letters addressing racial injustice were recently published in the Christian Chronicle:
- An open letter to members of the Churches of Christ -ministers, scholars and thought leaders within the fellowship
- Speaking Up on the Issue of Race in America – from Harold Shank and Robert Solomon
These were accompanied by an article including interviews with some of the authors.
The letters were, of course, inspired by the current controversy regarding the Black Lives Matter movement.
Before discussing such a controversial issue, I thought it might be helpful to deal with some over-arching concerns.
The current racial mix in Churches of Christ
The Pew Research Center recently published a study of the racial breakdown of American Christian denominations. The Churches of Christ were among those that most closely reflected the racial make up of U.S. Here’s the graphic from the Pew Research Center:
While the US adult population is 66% white, the Churches of Christ are 69% white, making the Churches of Christ among the most racially diverse denominations. This is, of course, a very good thing – tracing back to missionary work done among slaves in the 19th Century by Restoration Movement preachers. Alexander Campbell was an abolitionist, as were many of his contemporaries – and the attitudes of these men toward blacks nearly 200 years ago still impact the Churches of Christ in a positive way.
On the other hand, these numbers are measured at the denominational level and overlook two important facts:
- First, we remain highly segregated congregationally, that is, we still have white and black churches in racially diverse communities. The denominational integration hasn’t affected the individual churches as well as we’d all want. Of course, many white churches have black members, and this seems to be an increasing trend. But these are almost always overwhelmingly white churches. And it’s still rare to find a racially mixed eldership or ministerial staff – although they do exist, and the trend seems to be toward greater diversity.
- Second, the Churches of Christ exist largely in the South, where the percentage of whites is lower than in most of the rest of the country. The denominational racial mix is close to the racial mix of the nation but not of the communities where we live. For example, Alabama is 26.8% black, whereas the Churches of Christ are 16% black. I’m not aware of a single predominantly white Alabama congregation with anything close to a 26.8% black membership.
Nonetheless, we are much more integrated than most other American denominations.
History of racial relations in the Churches of Christ
In the 20th Century, Churches of Christ had many active outreaches to the black community, but most congregations were highly segregated. Racism was rarely preached against. And most white church members opposed the civil rights movement of the 1960s. That is, not many in the Churches of Christ worked for equal rights for blacks. That was true of most denominations with Southern roots. We were hardly alone, but we did let the secular culture, rather than the Scriptures, define right and wrong for us.
I remember what it was like in the 1960s.
- Some elders and other leaders questioned whether blacks had souls. I’ve had people tell me that blacks are higher forms of primates, without souls, and so not capable of being lost or saved.
- I’ve heard Christians argue that God assigned black people to live in Africa immediately after the Flood, and so they should be returned to Africa. (They had no answer when I asked whether the whites in South Africa should return to Holland or the British in North America should return to England.)
- I’ve even heard it argued that black skin is the “mark of Cain.” (Since God marked Cain to show God’s protection was upon him, I asked how we could not consider blacks as people especially protected by God. Again, no answer. It seems this stuff was all made up by people who’d never actually read Genesis.)
These attitudes were not typical, but they existed and were tolerated.
On the other hand, I had white friends who bought albums (vinyl records) of the black Church of Christ preacher Marshall Keeble’s sermons and who would travel many miles to hear Br. Keeble preach. (Delightful series of quotations. Fascinating analysis of his work to bring about racial reconciliation in the Churches.)
The general view was the blacks and whites should be separate but that we owed the same duty to convert lost black souls as lost white souls. Many mission works were founded in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. And I’ve heard far more objections to foreign missions in general than to domestic and foreign missions to black people. If race was a major barrier to missions, I never heard it.
For that matter, in my experience, Church of Christ benevolence programs have always served whites and blacks without distinction. The majority view was that blacks were as much among “the least of these” as whites – maybe more so because their more difficult circumstances.
And yet few Church of Christ institutions and congregations worked to join blacks and whites together in the same congregations. Indeed, it was ultimately the federal government – one of those fallen principalities and powers – that forced social change. The government did far more to improve the lives of black Christians than the church. And the church is still lagging behind society at large in many ways.
I agree with those who argue that today’s church is not responsible for the sins of our ancestors. We are only responsible for our own sins. But if we are to be a church of “neither Jew nor Greek” with no “barbarian, Scythian, slave [or] free,” we have to tear down structures and institutions that are racially divided solely because of our racist past. We cannot cling to racial separation built on the racism of the past and claim to be innocent of racism.
That is, if the church is divided today over race because of the racism of the past, well, our job is to end that division. It’s just as wrong whether we created it or we allowed it to continue yet another generation. After all, the Gentiles and Jews of Paul’s day did not create the divide between Jews and Gentiles. Jews considered Gentiles unclean “dogs” for generations before Paul. Nonetheless, Paul spent much of his apostolic work bringing Jews and Gentiles together as a single body in a single church together in the same congregations.