A time for not talking about race


Southern Baptist editor Kelly Boggs’ recent column in Baptist Press reveals why white conservative Christians are not taken seriously in needed discussions about race.

The editor of the Louisiana Baptist Convention newspaper, Baptist Message, addressed the controversy over a political cartoon in the New York Post that many considered offensive — believing it to portray President Obama as a chimp. These racial sensitivities are understandable since for generations such racist portrayals have been common.

But white-guy Boggs is quick to give his white-guy perspective with comments like: “I saw nothing racial in the Post cartoon.” “So long as some in our country see racism behind every wrong, every comment and in every cartoon, we will never make progress on the issue of race or be able to put the real racists in their place.” “I do not believe that the Post cartoon contained any racial message.”

Then Boggs quotes and agrees with the equally white, religious right figure Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council — who said that the solution to racial reconciliation is found “in a more aggressive church where we unite around ideals rooted not in skin color but in Jesus Christ.”

While such lofty affirmations sound so-o-o spiritual, they ignore the reality that white evangelical churches have been a major part of the problem, not the solution to racism. An “aggressive church” is where racial discrimination was theologically justified and its related prejudices were reinforced within the faithful for decades.

Evangelical Christianity was a major obstacle to America’s quest for civil rights — in which the “ideals rooted … in Jesus Christ” concerning human equality were ignored or misconstrued by bad biblical interpretations.

Therefore, the words of white (especially Southern) evangelical Christians ring hollow. And Boggs is in no position to tell African Americans what they should or should not find offensive.

On this subject in particular, white evangelical Christians need to shut up about how to “fix” the race problem and spend more time seriously contemplating why our own history of race relations is so deeply marred.

Southern evangelicals have no more moral authority to speak on issues of race than the Roman Catholic Church does on sexual ethics. Such authority is granted — not grabbed.

Long reflection, ongoing confession and honest repentance must precede any meaningful proclamation. Maybe years after humbly confessing our sins — and acknowledging our capacity for hate and our inability to read Scripture correctly when it goes against the grain of our culture and economic benefit — then we can offer a fresh word.

But now is the time to quietly and repeatedly ask ourselves and one another more troubling questions like:

How could we have missed such a basic biblical truth as the equality of all persons? How could we treat fellow Americans — even sisters and brothers in Christ — as of less than equal value?

Why has racism been fostered by the very persons who claim Jesus as Lord? How could so-called Christian churches not even open their doors to people of all races?

And perhaps more importantly: Where are our blind spots today? To whom will we need to apologize in the days and years ahead for our current sins of oppression and exclusion?

President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder — the first African Americans to hold their respective positions — have rightly called for more open, honest dialogue about race. But the best contribution from many of us would be to shut up and listen.

White evangelical Christians are not going to bridge the racial divide with proclamations that attempt to define what is and is not racism or try to quick-fix the centuries-old problem with spiritually-wrapped statements of simplicity.

Sure, it is more satisfying to tell other people the answers to all of their questions than to wrestle with our own. And we Baptists and other conservative Christians aren’t very good at the hard work of reflection, repentance and relationship building.

We like to talk — and act as if our latest opinion is the right one for everyone else to embrace. But our past actions do not afford us such a position on the subject of race. It is a time to shut up, reflect deeply and listen to others.

10 Comments

  1. I agree that we need to repent, apologize, stop speaking and listen. But we also need to support efforts at understanding and reconciliation by joining, supporting and being present in organizations and meetings of groups that are attempting to build the bridges.

    In times past, there were laws that defined as black anyone with “one drop of black blood”. Anthropological and genetic research now shows that all humans have black ancestry. So in some sense, we are all black!

    What we need to learn and realize is that race is a sociological construct, not a biological one.

  2. Rather than ‘position papers’ actual relationships between individuals that are real is the best way to demonstrate anything.

  3. Fox-Your response is more constructive to the discussion when you deal solely with the issue raised in a particular blog. My point here is simply that the evangelical (esp. Southern Baptist) track record on race relations is not good. Therefore, white evangelicals (like Boggs or you or me) are in no moral position to be defining racism for others or offering spiritually-embossed, mush-mouth solutions. There is more work to be done in the prayer closet and in learning from others.

  4. Thinking about James H’s reply wasn’t there a time when the problem was the silence from white SBC ministers regarding race?

  5. I love this post and of course, find the comments fascinating. I agree that we, as white evangelicals who have had the “louder voices” should spend some time deeply listening to what others are saying about their experience. Personally, I think this extends beyond listening to our African American brothers and sisters but to Latinos, Asians, etc.
    We can and should work together to build bridges and be in community together. For far too long, the white evangelicals have silenced anyone “other” than themselves, especially African Americans. We should listen now.

  6. Dr. Pierce,

    Interesting read, although I’m curious as to why you didn’t mention W.A. Criswell’s stance on segregation. Clearly, Southern Baptists don’t have much room to speak in racial relations without repentance. Within the current evangelical climate, I’m not sure many should be allowed to speak. I know this is hearsay, but a friend of mine who listens to Focus on the Family radio said that James Dobson’s program suggested that public schools don’t work and should not be supported. How can evangelicals claim to be part of the conversation about racism and equality when its defacto flagship news (propoganda?) machine supports tearing down one of the few vehicles for progress for African-Americans? The public school system (especially in the south)is in trouble more because of white flight than mismanagement. In the south the richest schools are the private schools that are 95% or more white. Evangelicals should be supporting a resurgence of the public school system in trying to help students get an education regardless of race. Not to mention the idea that we’re supposed to think an organization composed of solid majority of white middle class (or higher) can speak to how blacks should interpret this cartoon offends sensibility.

  7. JP: I took my first response down cause indeed, it was little too random.
    I liked what you said in another response that I do not yet see here on the board.
    You said:

    “The kind of message sent by Boggs is not helpful. It is not conversational. It is a proclamation that ignores history and pretends to define racism for others who know it much more personally. While honest dialogue is essential to racial reconciliation, not all talk moves us toward that goal.”

    I thought that was very good.
    Even so Holder had what I thought was equally valid reply at the tnr.com where John McWhorter in the easily googled “Defining a Nation of Cowards Down” said what Holder wanted was not a conversation but a “conversion.”
    I think you are saying a similar thing about Boggs and I congratulate you for calling him out about it.
    Even so would love to see what Cartledge and my friend Tim Tyson has to say about all this. Haven’t heard anything from him since before the Obama election last fall.

  8. I serve as pastor of Farmville Baptist, in Farmville, Virginia, which is in Prince Edward County, a community that closed its public schools for five years in the late fifties and early sixties.

    Yesterday, I had an opportunity to “talk about race” at a symposium hosted by Hampden-Sydney College on the closing of our public schools. But I also had the opportunity to hear the stories and perspectives from our African-American brothers and sisters regarding the school closings, and I must say, the pain and the hurt were still present.

    I find that the discipline to listen carefully to others without getting defensive, and honestly speaking about our own failings without excusing ourselves, can greatly help to lower the walls of distrust and to build the bridges of reconciliation.

    I’ve posted my remarks given at the symposium on my blog if you’re interested.
    http://mikesmusings.wordpress.com/2009/02/27/opening-doors/

    Blessings,
    Michael Cheuk

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