All of you brothers over in Africa / Tell all the folks in Egypt, and Israel, too. / Please don’t miss this train at the station. / ‘Cause if you miss it, I feel sorry, sorry for you. —“Love Train,” The O’Jays
I want to write here in a personal way about the work of racial justice as a call for all Americans and especially for Christians, formed by God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. We know that this work is “normal” for Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color, who do not command the cultural space of the majority. Whites, by contrast, can choose to reflect on systemic inequities, inter-communal division, and varied power dynamics at their leisure, or otherwise take a pass.
Jesus himself is the effective means to our end: Jesus who, St. Paul says, “has now reconciled” the would-be faithful “in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him — provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith” (Col. 1:22-23). Continuing securely and steadfastly, it turns out, is not easy. Jesus himself is the site of reconciliation, by his passion. In his body, the death of sin is overcome.
Not, however, instantaneously, nor without our cooperation. Jesus invites us to follow him as faithful disciples. Our own symbolic death of baptism initiates this journey, which we are told will span the whole earth, gathering into one body every tribe, tongue, nation, and people — Africans, Egyptians; Gentiles and Jews. Along the way, we expect persecution and pain, but this, too, will prove effective, for the sake of the whole. As Paul continues: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church…. For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me” (1:24, 29).
Start with what it might look like to toil and struggle with all Americans in loving solidarity. Can we imagine first steps in this regard? Francis Fukuyama wrote recently of voluntary national service programs as a means of inculcating “a sense of citizenship” in the young, and I can testify to this truth.
At age 18, I moved to Boston to participate in the newly founded City Year, an “urban peace corps” that has now spread to 29 cities in the U.S. Our corps of 100 young people was divided into eight teams of 12, half men and half women, each rigorously reflecting the racial makeup of America and cutting across class. My team included two white working-class Catholics, two African American single moms, two inner-city Puerto Ricans, a recent immigrant from Vietnam, a white evangelical from Wellesley, and team leaders with bachelor’s degrees from Skidmore and Lewis & Clark. Upon meeting one erstwhile drug-dealer teammate, he casually commented to me, “I used to beat people like you up,” and we gratefully marked the passing of time. Our team started an afterschool program for elementary-aged children in the basement of St. John-St. Hugh Catholic Church in Dorchester, before turning to projects in Somerville and on Thompson Island, with corps-wide workdays in every neighborhood of the city over a nine-month period. Every one of us was transformed — by listening and speaking across deep differences of education, culture, and race, and by arguments, apologies, tears, and laughter, which produced a surprisingly deep, collective affection.
The genius of the program, founded by secular Jews drinking from the wells of Judeo-Christian moral reflection, was its intuitive reaching toward the universal longing for truth and goodness: truth about injustice, and goodness on the way to reparation. We only made a start. Confession and forgiveness sometimes sat uncomfortably alongside a creeping Manichean self-satisfaction, which led us to suppose that the good and the bad might prematurely be separated, not by the Son of Man but by us (cf. Matt. 25:31ff.). The fullness of reconciliation in and after Christ was not our bag. But we rightly reveled in the counter-cultural fact of doing good work together. Damning American divisions, we felt an appropriate pride in riding the buses and trains or walking abreast in otherwise segregated neighborhoods of the city, turning what we perceived to be envious heads that wanted what we had.
I can’t think of a better school in leadership development for young people, to inculcate humility and compassion, and channel idealism. As I am sure many other programs do as well, City Year sought to replace our desiccating cynicism with cool springs of hope, and we were surely refreshed.
Several years on, seeking something of the same solidarity in Christian form, I started to dig into prospects of inter-ecclesial reconciliation and quickly concluded that catholicism does not come easily to Americans. We have an uncomfortable relationship with history. The classic period of pluralization dawned around 1830 in and around upstate New York, fed by revivalist fervor. As Nathan Hatch recounts in The Democratization of American Christianity, into an already potent stew of first and second great awakening, containing Congregationalists, white and Black Methodists, Disciples of Christ, and others, were thrown Millerite (later Seventh-day Adventist) and Mormon innovations. Add a few Episcopalians and the cacophonous missionary race was on, to the wilds of Ohio and parts west.
Is it possible, in such a setting, to account for the Whole? We should answer yes, but our record of success is dismal. To be sure, many oldline Protestants and newline evangelicals were abolitionists, and, through the work of the saintly Richard Allen, Black Americans saw a flourishing of apostolic Christianity. Early Pentecostals unusually crossed racial boundaries, though the movement has remained unpredictable amid continual change. But most Southern and Northern Protestants would, in coming decades, feel their way toward a white supremacist armistice on the far side of war, making “peace” by the blood of the Blacks. In time, Americanist Roman Catholics would bow to the arrangement, as well.
Declarations of independence between Christians don’t make much sense, but the last two centuries have multiplied majority-white denominations bent on competition, each cultivating a contrasting sub-culture to support closely held commitments propagated as normative. Living and dying by schism, hundreds of chauvinistic denominations have nurtured an exceptionalist certainty that what we are doing here and (always) now is vitally needed to perpetuate the faith itself. We lose track of the poor, at home and abroad, whose blood cries out from the ground (Gen. 4:10). “Our iniquities testify against us” (Jer. 14:7).
I do not mean here simply to criticize others. As an aspiring confirmand in the Episcopal Church without a settled parish, put off by culture-warring whites on right and left, I set off one Sunday for a congregation near my home on Mansfield Street, which runs as a seam between racially bounded neighborhoods in New Haven. Crossing the immediately Black Winchester Ave., I walked 1.2 miles to St. Andrew’s on Shelton, where I found a congregation of fifty or so African American and Afro-Caribbean Episcopalians and a Nigerian priest. As the only white person in attendance, I was warmly welcomed after Mass by dozens of kind persons, and quickly felt I had found my home. I sang in the gospel choir, luxuriated in the Catholic liturgy and evangelical preaching, and, a year and a half later, was confirmed. Over time, I also pieced together some sad history. After the neighborhood shifted in the 60s and 70s from white to Black, what had become a white remnant at the parish decamped en masse along with the endowment — having reached the familiar breaking point, according to which integration is deferred to accommodate the comfort of whites.
On graduating from Yale, I moved to Northern Indiana and sought out something similar to St. Andrew’s in South Bend, but found no Black Episcopal churches within hailing distance, Gary being too far away. Later in Milwaukee, I was sad to learn that the two Black Episcopal parishes in the city had just been closed for lack of members. Several years ago, the bishop of Connecticut closed St. Andrew’s, New Haven, as well. At least nearby St. Luke’s remains.
Common life and death
Many whites in this country are not wrong to cherish memories of their own ethnic particularity. My mom’s father came from Sweden and spoke with an accent all his life, while her mother grew up in a farming enclave in Iowa that worshipped in the Danish language on Sundays, just as Ole Rolvaag recounts in Giants in the Earth. When Carl Almgren married Gilberta Madsen it was only half-jokingly deemed a “mixed marriage.” These and many other Americans weren’t here when y’all had your war, I have reminded East-coastal friends with older American pedigrees, both northern and southern. But Black folks are also old Americans, and the succession of slavery, Civil War, and Jim Crow created a persistent Black-white polarity that all Americans internalize. Witness the speed with which the newly arrived adopt our majority culture’s distrust for the dark-skinned and disdain for the poor among them. I regret that my grandfather Almgren was not pleased when my 24-year-old mother dated quite seriously an African American man. I am told that a point of confrontation hastened a painful break up.
Here we arrive at deep questions about the pattern of life together among distinct and inter-twined communities of Americans and our associated churches. The de facto segregation of America by race and class makes day-in-day-out diversity the exception for the vast majority of us, save perhaps at work, where something like caste, per Isabel Wilkerson, may account for predictable distinctions between “white” and “blue” collar tasks. Every American city, town, suburb, and rural hinterland consists in distinct ethnic and professional enclaves. Take a look at judgmentalmaps.com and marvel. To our great shame, we also worship how we live in cordoned sub-communities that obscure, when they do not contradict, the truth that all Christians are one in Christ.
I take the point of my colleague Esau McCaulley that “God’s eschatological vision for the reconciliation of all things in his Son” does not entail an erasure of race or putative colorblindness. Rather, “our distinctive cultures represent the means by which we give honor to God,” so that together (after a fashion) we worship the Lamb. As Esau concludes, “inasmuch as I modulate my blackness or neglect my culture, I am placing limits on the gifts that God has given me” (Reading While Black, p. 116).
At the same time, the mixture of cultures and races betokens its own eschatological anticipation of the end that the Lord has prepared for those who love him and each other. If, as St. Paul says, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28), then the future and the present are mestizo, as a prophetic witness (martyras) to God’s reconciling action in the God-Man. “Now in Christ Jesus,” writes Paul in Ephesians, “you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both [Gentiles and Jews] into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph. 2:13-14). He has broken down the dividing wall. The work of the faithful is to follow and imitate, taking up our crosses and learning to die to ourselves and our sinful separations, if only we may finish our course and the ministry that we received from Jesus himself, to testify to the good news of God’s grace (1 Cor. 15:31; Acts 20:24).
The mix of tribe and culture “in one body through the cross” (2:16) bears an imprint of martyrdom on the way to the consummation of the Marriage Feast of the Lamb. Martyrdom, here, incorporates a range of meanings, analogous to sacrifice in the Mass and in the Christian life as a whole. Understood as painful and fruitful relinquishing, our various and repeated “deaths,” accompanied by remorse, confession, and amendment of life, may finally yield conformity with the Lamb who was slain. We glimpse something of this potentially salvific economy in the loss of memory and distinctive practice that is the pan-European blend of “white” Christianity in the new world, from Iceland to Italy, trampling down denominational divisions by assimilation, even incorporating American Jewry. And we see it more sharply in the persistent, prophetic witness of Black and Brown faithfulness in the face of persecution, since any hint of dark skin in America amounts to “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies” (2 Cor. 4:10). This being so, the vocation of interracial marriage stands as a particular summons to courage in the power of God in Christ, who has “conquered the world!” (John 16:33).
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love (1 Cor. 13:13). May God give us the grace, as we hear the call of racial justice, to obey the command to die and live together. Pray for the visible unity of the Church, “so that the world may believe” (John 17:21).
Dr. Christopher Wells is executive director and publisher of the Living Church Foundation.