By Esau McCaulley
In the black Alabama of my youth, when my voice stumbled, betraying the nervousness that afflicts those unaccustomed to public speaking, I knew what to expect. Some older lady or gentlemen would tell me, Say it with your chest. That declaration might be accompanied with a firm slap in the sternum. The point was clear. My halting voice manifested a lack of conviction or fear or some combination of the two. If I believed what I was saying, I needed to clear my throat and speak plainly. If I didn’t believe what I was saying, I should sit down because grown folks were talking.
My neighborhood taught me the difference then between feeling like I needed to speak, and having the deep conviction that what I had to say needed to be heard. Charlottesville in turn poses the same question that has remained at the feet of the Church for as long as I can remember: Do we as Christians truly believe that white supremacy is a problem that must be addressed, or is it an insignificant issue that flares up now and again at the fringes of society? Do we feel compelled to condemn the rally in Charlottesville, or do we speak with our chests against racism with the same passion that we defend the sanctity of the life of children in the womb? On our list of theological priorities, where exactly is the condemnation of the white supremacy that has oppressed people of color for generations?
This question is of vital importance because in a few days the news cycle will turn its eye away from Charlottesville. The think pieces on the history of race in Virginia will dry up; some fresh catastrophe will steal our attention, but folks still won’t be free. Will the church’s conviction extend beyond America’s corporate attention deficit and amnesia? For many believers of color, the answer is surely Yes. We carry this black and brown skin up and down the streets of America into classrooms, businesses, boardrooms, banks, and churches. We experience the daily reminders small and large of how far America still has to go. We have no choice. We fight for survival and for the survival of those who will follow us. We have children, nephews, cousins, and neighbors who we hope will have a different future than our present. For some white Christians (yes, even evangelicals), the answer is also Yes. They have faced the history of their tradition and this country and realized that there is only one future for the Church in America.
That future is one in which the whole Church learns that we need each other to function properly as the body of Christ in our day, and we cannot be together as one Church unless we “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). If the Church truly cares about people of color, it must join in God’s work of lifting the yoke of oppression from his people. We cannot lift a burden that we do not recognize, that we do not see others bearing. We must start telling the truth.
Calls to pray to the God of the universe are of course appropriate, but those calls to pray must be accompanied by clear guidance on the subject of those prayers. The subject is not merely unity over division, but the naming of the sins, individually and corporately, which have led us to this point. We must confess. Our prayers must be followed by extensive preaching and teaching on how the Christian faith touches on issues of race and justice, otherwise the pleas for unity lose their meaning. The goal is a unified and free people, not a unified and silent people bearing unaddressed pain.
Furthermore, the hate that afflicts the hearts of people inside and outside of the Church is a burden too heavy for them to bear. We need to tell racists the truth, so that they can be free too. As glorious as the gift of ethnicity is, it is not enough. Whiteness is not salvific; it is not the grand unifier and hope of the world. Someone else claimed that job when he loosed the bonds of death and proclaimed his supremacy over all things. When the Word became flesh in the Messiah, Jesus, that was no equivocating word. God spoke from his chest (his heart) about his love for all his creation (John 1:14, 18).
I do not expect the world to understand everything about the intricacies of Christian faith. But at least this much must penetrate everyone’s conscience: the Church believes that all people bear the image of God and therefore must be treated with respect. God’s love calls us out from our biases, sins, and prejudices into the beloved community whose unity testifies to God’s desire to reconcile the world to himself through his Son.
Therefore, the Church is for the gospel and against all false gospels, including the false gospel of white supremacy.