Hebrews 12:1 helps us acknowledge that there are witnesses, past, present and future, to the hypocritical and indifferent responses of Christians to the problem of racial injustice. No slave ever wondered whether or not white Christians were hypocrites; white Christians violated the integrity of their bodies and their families with acts of torture, deprivation and rape, with impunity. Christians robbed them of their labor and dignity for profit. Children were auctioned off as commodities. Mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, siblings and parents were separated and sold away from each like livestock. For enslaved black Christians who embraced the Christian faith, they did so because they identified with Jesus as the crucified One. Their own common experience of suffering crucifixions performed by slaveholders, overseers, and patrollers laid bare the unbearable Jesus endured. Crucifixion needed no explanation. Because of forced illiteracy and clandestine religious gatherings (freedom of religion never applied to slaves) the slave preachers' sermons were rarely captured in manuscript form. But the theology and ethics of enslaved faith communities were encoded and preserved in their songs. One of the best known traditional Negro spirituals is “Were You There?” The question sung challenges us to consider what it would have been like to be an eyewitness of the crucifixion:
Were you there when they crucifed my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
The line of spiritual inquiry remains instructive for our time. If you were “there,” did you identify with Jesus as the victim of state-sanctioned violence? Did you take note of His betrayal, arrest, trial, taunting, humiliation, torture and execution by the ruling government at the bequest of the religious authorities?
If you were “there,” did you sympathize instead with those who crucified Him because you are convinced of the necessity to enforce the law and maintain order at any cost? If so, is your solidarity with Jesus and His cross or with those who put Him on the cross?
I suppose most white evangelical Christians would readily affirm the atoning sacrifice of Jesus for our sins. But how many white evangelicals recognize, acknowledge or even identify with the “whiteness” of racism and its connection with Jesus’ crucifixion? Our current dilemma will never be settled until we are willing to reckon with the cross in light of the racial and political implications of the story told in simplest terms: European soldiers executed a Palestinian Jew after forcing an African immigrant to carry his cross. Can a follower of Christ claim salvation in His cross and at the same time give consent to the suffering racial injustice imposes on others without contradiction? Were you there? Did you see what they did to Him? Would you do it to others?
Black Lives Matter: Can I Get a Witness from the Streets?
The present witness against racial injustice originated from the streets, and not from the church. The global Black Lives Matter movement resurged since the death of George Floyd. Incredibly, after centuries of lynchings and waves of protests, the U.S. Senate blocked passage of the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act in June 2020. How will Christians respond? By blaming, excusing and denying responsibility for the racial profiling and killing of innocent citizens at the hands of police, or by fostering changes that will result in justice for all, including just policing of our streets and communities? The prophet Isaiah announced that when truth has “stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter,” the Lord “looked and was displeased that there was no justice” (Isaiah 59:14-15). How Christians respond in the present moment will be judged by generations of witnesses to come.
The Sin That So Easily Entangles Us
Racism is a sin that hinders and entangles us, especially in its manifestations as idolatry, hatred, discord, jealousy and fits of rage (the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21). Unless intentionally interrupted, racism and racial injustice go far beyond negative attitudes or responses to society structures and systems that promote and sustain economic and social disparities. In their 2001 landmark study of white evangelicals, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith concluded that white Christians ignore and dismiss the impact of structural sin. Black Christians deal with it constantly because we are victimized by it. To claim Jesus as your personal Savior and to confess a change of heart is not enough. Sin is not just personal; it is also political. Howard Thurman framed the dilemma of race and religion in the preface of his classic text, Jesus and the Disinherited (1949):
This is the question which individuals and groups who live in our land always under the threat of profound social and psychological displacement face: Why is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion and national origin? Is this impotency due to a betrayal of the genius of the religion, or is it due to a basic weakness in the religion itself?
As Christians, we have betrayed the genius of our religion. Pentecostal and Holiness Christians had better answers to racism beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as interracial gatherings of men and women. Equally empowered by the Holy Spirit to experience sanctification and to exercise spiritual gifts, these Christians engaged together in transformative global ministry and mission. The late Donald Dayton addressed these trends in his groundbreaking study Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (1976) and in his subsequent writings. He noted how the Holiness churches supported the abolition of slavery, urban rescue missions, and women's suffrage from their outset. Pentecostals opposed racism and militarism. What happened? They eventually adopted the prevailing Christian practices of Protestants in the Reformed tradition, including racially segregated congregations, conventions and denominations, and subordination of women's roles in ministry and in marriage as the ideal social status for Christians. As Pentecostals and other Spirit-led communions grew in status and respectability among white Protestants, they relinquished their historical memory and spiritual legacy of radical equality in exchange for a worldly intersectionality —racism, sexism and elitism —that endorses the political, economic and cultural dominance of affluent, white males.
Let Us Run—Persevering in Practices of Justice
The road ahead is marked out for us. No competitor expects to win the race without practice. If we affirm with Paul that God “has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19), then we will seize this present moment of renewed racial awakening as an opportunity to promote our practices of reconciliation for the world to see. Practice self-awareness once we overcome our defensiveness and denial. Practice training and conditioning ourselves to persevere in ministry partnerships driven by mutuality instead of paternalism. Practice building relationships and friendships with our peers of other races and denominations. Practice bringing biblical standards of justice to bear on how we vote and how we evaluate public policy.
It is time for the white church to renounce unequivocally the horrific legacy of racial resentment represented by gun-toting Christian nationalists and cross-burning Christian terrorists. Repent, lament, and put on a new garment, the white linen of justice (Revelation 19:8). Can you see what I see? One reconciled church, not a white church, not a black church, but a church intentionally gathered and committed to doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly together with God.
Cheryl J. Sanders is senior pastor of Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C. and professor of Christian ethics at Howard University. She is president of the American Theological Society. Her books include Ministry at the Margins, Saints in Exile, and Empowerment Ethics for a Liberated People.