Monthly Archives: May 2016

Thinking Theologically About Race and Racism

When society is structured in such a way that benefits or penalties are attached to perceived racial identity, the society is to that degree racist in structure. An attendant personal component exists in the form of individual prejudice—which may serve to justify the effects of racism to individuals who hold the prejudice—but racism is not reducible to prejudice. Racism is quantifiable in a number of ways, of which incarceration rates and wealth disparities are tangible and significant instances. Although white and Black Americans consume marijuana in approximately even numbers, Black Americans are arrested for it at approximately eight times the rate of whites. Regarding wealth, the median Black household possesses just six percent of the wealth of the median white household; Latino households possess an average of eight percent of the average white household. Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have written at length on these and related phenomena, demonstrating that they are not the offspring simply of inherited inequality, or of trajectories set by a past of slavery and land seizure, but are further result of actively on-going racist policy and implementation in practices such as institutional lending and segregation enforced through real estate policy.

When racism is structurally embedded, it does not require individual malice to “opt in,” but rather a conscious effort to “opt out.” Even with effort, the more deep-seated the racism, the more obscured from vision, the more all-pervasive, the harder it is to detect and to significantly opt out of participation in it. Utilizing the Pauline language of powers—which operate through human agency but without conscious human intention—enables us to name “whiteness” as a particular power operative in American social and ecclesial life. As Jennifer Harvey writes, “[whiteness] is a phenomenon that can exist only with the direct involvement and complicit participation of white people. At the same time, it is also larger and more powerful than the individual white person, having taken on a life of its own.”


The disjunction between racism and the communion table is clear. Racism and the eucharist “signify opposing horizons of meaning.”[1] Both implicate bodies, but whereas the eucharist incorporates individual bodies into the one body of Christ, racism “focuses on and interprets the [individual] body through an aesthetic scale that hypostatizes phenotype; it rests on the separation of humanness from the body.”[2] Moreover, as the eucharist disrupts our individualistic lives, it also prompts us to deconstruct our individualistic readings of the world. As the one cup and one bread bespeak unity, in which distinctions of gender, race, and class are overcome, such distinctions established in society become increasingly problematic. As we commune, we are disciplined into an imagination of unity, and are accordingly driven to work toward radical reconciliation in our social worlds.

However, a misunderstanding of the level at which racism functions remains one of the major obstacles on the path to reconciliation. In common parlance, most individuals use “racist” and “prejudiced” interchangeably, to indicate any kind of distinction an individual makes toward another individual along perceived racial lines. This enables individuals to object to broad accounts of racism on the grounds that they personally do not hold animosity toward people of another race. Collapsing racism into personal prejudice permits those who benefit from present arrangements of the social order to object to structural critiques with charges of “reverse racism.” Because this conflation of ideas cannot yield an accurate critique of structural racism in society, it cannot begin to address it. Consequently, Christians who reduce racism to personal animosity are left with few options to combat the structural racism embedded in American social, political, economic, legal, and ecclesial life.

Such insipid responses tend to take one of two forms. The first is a pietistic appeal, in the form of the claim that, in the words of youth evangelist Greg Stier, “Only the gospel can obliterate racism,” because “only the gospel can conquer evil in the human heart.”[3] In anticipation of the grand jury decision on whether to indict Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown, Stier wrote an article addressed to Christians of Ferguson and St. Louis, in which he offered five pieces of advice: pray, speak gently, “obliterate racism in your own heart first,” offer healing rather than hatred, and ultimately, evangelize.[4] Likewise, popular preacher Perry Noble wrote in the aftermath of the same decision,

You are free to have an opinion about what’s happened and what is happening in Ferguson and all over. But what matters is not our opinions, but God’s perspective. It’s not about what we think should happen, but about what God wants to happen. What Is The Answer? The Gospel—period![5]

Neither of these writers clarifies exactly what is meant by “the gospel,” unless it is simply a synonym for evangelism. The implication seems to be that Christians are not racist and that racism is the direct byproduct of there being too many non-Christians in a given population. Neither writer states this in so many words, and probably would not, because when made explicit the claim is absurd. Nevertheless, while prayer, gentleness of speech, and evangelism are laudable acts, advocating them alone is a vacuous response to such complex social issues. A second solution that follows from the individualistic understanding of racism is recorded by Jennifer Harvey. She writes that “for many justice-oriented Christians, our lack of racial mixing on Sunday mornings is a problem. For some it is even ‘the problem’ when it comes to the continuing presence of racism in the church.”[6] Accordingly, the language of “reconciliation” often means no more than achieving numerical parity within individual congregations.[7]

The significant divide for those advocating for multiracial congregations is between predominantly African-American congregations and predominantly white ones. The majority of historically Black churches were established out of the sinful legacy of white churches, whether during the era of antebellum slavery or the enforcement of Jim Crow laws.[8] Harvey is thus skeptical of reconciliation paradigms that seek numerical parity without redressing the history of relationship between white and Black churches. In particular, she is concerned with white churches who want to become more diverse without changing their current power structure or culture. She cites with approval the comments of Chris Lahr to a white audience, “Most people of color don’t want to go where whites are in charge. If you want to be part of a diverse congregation, go to an African American congregation or a Hispanic congregation, lay down your power, and learn from them.”[9] Given the power and privilege that whiteness carries with it in American life, Harvey does not believe that mere diversity within congregations, even where it is achievable, sufficiently addresses the underlying issue of racism.[10] She calls instead for a reparations model, following the pattern of the Black Manifesto.[11]

The Black Manifesto was the product of the National Black Economic Development Conference (NBEDC), which met from April 25-27, 1969.[12] The following Sunday, James Forman, one of the principal authors, disrupted worship at Riverside Church in New York City. Though the minister, choir, and the majority of the congregation walked out in protest, Forman read the short manifesto and its demands.

We the black people assembled in Detroit, Michigan, for the National Black Economic Development Conference are fully aware that we have been forced to come together because racist white America has exploited our resources, our minds, our bodies, our labor….We are demanding $500,000,000 from the Christian white churches and the Jewish synagogues. This…is not a large sum of money, and we know that the churches and synagogues have a tremendous wealth and its membership, white America, has profited and still exploits black people. We are also not unaware that the exploitation of colored peoples around the world is aided and abetted by the white Christian churches and synagogues…Fifteen dollars for every black brother and sister in the United States is only a beginning of the reparations due us as a people who has been exploited and degraded, brutalized, killed and persecuted.[13]

The Manifesto specifies the allocation of the $500 million, including a southern land bank, a publishing industry, a skills training center for African Americans, a National Black Labor and Defense Fund, a black university, the establishment of an International Black Appeal to raise money for cooperative businesses in both the United States and Africa, and more.[14] The demands were extremely specific, and starkly material. Several denominations and institutions were willing to pay out large sums of money, but not to the NBEDC itself, and not under the label of reparation. Instead, they worked to establish their own, white-controlled agencies for poverty relief or charities directed toward African Americans or poverty in general.[15] The National Council of Churches (NCC) proposed a committee of its own members as well as members from the National Council of Black Churchmen (NCBC) to determine program recommendations before it was willing to pay. The NCBC supported the terms of the Manifesto and pointed out to the NCC that it was very clear on its program recommendations, and thus refused to be part of any such committee. Incredibly, the NCC simply opted to create its own committee without NCBC members.[16] Harvey writes, “It cannot be understated what a morally convoluted and racially offensive and alienating choice that was.”[17]

The Black Manifesto was largely rejected by white church organizations. For Harvey, the Manifesto is an instance of a larger paradigm that remains valid today. Reparation requires remembering together by victim and oppressor, truthful confession, and material redress of material injustice: reparation is the necessary first step toward reconciliation, in Harvey’s view. She recognizes the challenge to white churches of such self-searching, but asserts that the hope for transformation offered “exists in equal measure to the depth of the challenge…laid down to white Christians.”[18]

The differences between Harvey’s challenge and the calls of Stier and Noble are striking. Reparation forces us to confront the reality of racism’s effects on the bodies that comprise the body of Christ. Reparation admits as real the effects of racism on concrete human lives. Conversely, individualistic understandings locate the only reality of racism’s existence within the interior self. It is in that sense a quasi-gnostic approach to the situation. At the communion table, believers share not merely in abstract, interior notions of love, but in one cup and one loaf, joined together in one Lord, who breaks down dividing walls between peoples in real, measurable ways. Perhaps the Black Manifesto is not the correct model for intra-ecclesial reparations (though I am inclined to say that it is a good starting point), but the material nature of its demands is fitting given the real unity the table would make of us. Moreover, it recognizes the same moral logic in discerning the body that Paul applied to the Corinthians. The privileged wealthy were at fault, perpetuating disunity as they failed to perceive the way that social structures had intruded upon the eucharist. It was incumbent on them, not the laborers, to redress the disunity. Likewise, whiteness is particularly implicated in the racial divisions that plague the church, and the moral charge is on white Christians to redress our racial disunity. The unity envisioned in the eucharist stands at odds with the racism that structures American life. Each time the table is set, we are being invited and challenged to reconciliation, but not without reparation.


[1] M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Meaning (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 107.

[2] Copeland, 107-8.

[3] Greg Stier, “Only the Gospel can Obliterate Racism,”, 26 November, 2014, accessed 23 July, 2015,

[4] Greg Stier, “My 5 Encouragements to the Christians of St. Louis and Ferguson,”, 24 November, 2014, accessed 23 July, 2015,

[5] Perry Noble, “Racism, Ferguson and the Solution,” 4 December, 2014, accessed 23 July, 2015,

[6] Harvey, 19.

[7] Ibid., 27.

[8] Ibid., 132-44. Similar stories can be told of many other predominantly ethnic churches in the United States as well, particularly Native and Hispanic congregations.

[9] David Janzen, The Intentional Community Handbook: For Idealists, Hypocrites and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013), 143, quoted in Harvey, 70.

[10] Harvey, 70. I am not arguing directly against congregations pursuing multiracial composition, or against the intentional establishment of “mosaic” churches and church plants. I do, however, share Harvey’s skepticism that multiracial congregations can become the norm without addressing directly the social conditions that give rise to predominantly single-race congregations as well as confession of the sinful legacy of white church bodies that has given rise to the establishment of “non-white” worshiping bodies. A recent joint study from Baylor University, the University of Southern California, and the University of Chicago shows that attitudes toward racism and explanations for racial inequality among congregants in multiracial churches are statistically indistinguishable from those in white churches, while remaining markedly different from those among black, Asian, and  Hispanic churches. This strongly suggests that assimilation and “Anglo-conformity” are substituting for true reconciliation in these multiracial congregations. See Ryon J. Cobb, Samuel L. Perry, and Kevin D. Dougherty, “United by Faith? Race/Ethnicity, Congregational Diversity, and Explanations of Racial Inequality,” Sociology of Religion 76, no. 2 (Summer 2015): 177-98, accessed August 21, 2015,

[11] Harvey, 106.

[12] Ibid., 118.

[13] Black Manifesto: Religion, Racism, and Reparations, ed. Robert S. Lecky and H. Elliot Wright (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1969), 120.

[14] Ibid., 121-2.

[15] Harvey, 122-3.

[16] Ibid., 125.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 108.