On Wednesday the 17th of June 2015, a young white man opened fire and killed nine African-Americans at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
That following Sunday, on the other side of the country, my local church didn't grieve. Later that afternoon, I listened to one of the few black men that attended my local church process his pain. He had never met those who were murdered, but his grief was personal. The Charleston shooting wasn’t simply a tragic current event. It was the latest lynching in a long trauma narrative of white on black violence and oppression.
The failure of our majority white congregation to set aside a time for lament reiterated to my friend what he already knew: his loss and grief were not ours.
As a result of that conversation, I discovered an answer to the question that Walter Brueggemann posed in The Psalms and the Life of Faith. He asked, “What happens when appreciation of the lament as a form of speech and faith is lost, as I think it is largely lost in contemporary usage?” What I learned was that my church’s inability to grieve and pray with our African-American brothers and sisters compromised our unity and worship.
Over the next few years, my church remained silent as the unjust deaths of many more black Americans were publicized and the small percentage of African-Americans that were members of our local body began to trickle out the door to other churches. It was a national trend.
In 2018, Campbell Robertson wrote an op-ed piece in the The New York Times entitled A Quiet Exodus: Why Black Worshipers Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches. In the article, he notes that “black congregregants – as recounted by people in Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Fort Worth and elsewhere – had already grown uneasy in recent years as they watched their white pastors fail to address police shootings of African-Americans…It has been a scattered exodus – a few here, a few there – and mostly quiet, more in fatigue and heartbreak than outrage.”
Generations ago, white Christians segregated the American church. Over the years, many African Americans have worked to erase the color line by joining white churches, but they’ve had to accept that much of their lived reality will be unseen or ignored. (See Why White Churches Are Hard for Black People by Isaac Adams)
Most white Christians now believe that God wants his church to be a united family where those from diverse ethnic, cultural and economic backgrounds are bound up in beloved community. Yet, African Americans continue to be the ones most invested in building unity. Have you ever noticed that the iconic images of desegregation display black people crossing into a white context? In his book Reconciliation Blues, Edward Gilbreath writes, “To my mind, racial unity means fellowshipping and serving in the same churches and the same ministries…that typically means blacks going over to the white side to mix things up.”
The movement toward a more unified church in America has largely relied on people of color moving into white spaces and adjusting to a community that neglects their traditions and experiences. Black Christians who do cross the church color line adapt to white relational culture, sing white worship songs and submit to majority white elder boards. They must endure a dynamic that falls short of unification.
Unfortunately, white Christians rarely experience the beauty of black community. The fact that the white church has not been lamenting the loss of black lives over the years is one example of how the color line continues to cut through the church in America and anything that divides God’s church is not only unbiblical…it is unevangelical.
Jesus declared that Church oneness helps convince the onlooking world that he is the Christ.
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word [the future church], that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-22).
Church unity testifies that the gospel is true, which is one of the reasons why Paul commands Christians to eagerly maintain it (Ephesians 4:3). Jesus has made the Church one with God and our lives should declare that fact. In other words, Christian unity tells the truth about who Jesus is and what he has done.
In Insider Outsider, Bryan Lorrits provides white evangelicals with an example of how to live a more truth-proclaiming life. He writes, “We will never experience true Christian unity when one ethnicity demands of another that we keep silent about our pain and travails. The way forward is not an appeal to the facts as a first resort but an attempt to get inside each others skin as best we can to feel what they feel and seek to understand it. Tragedies such as the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson are like MRI’s that reveal the hurt that still lingers and the chasm that exists between ethnicities can only be traversed if we move past facts and get into feelings…In what would be a historically unprecedented move, our white siblings can choose to follow minority leadership, serve in minority churches and learn from minority preaching.”
There are many avenues that the white church can take that will build toward greater unity along ethnic lines, but what’s clear is that the white church needs to work harder to erase the division that it created. If it does not I assume the inverse of Jesus’ prayer will continue to occur. As the onlooking world sees segregation in the church many will assume the Father has not sent the Son and that the gospel is false.
By B. Bouton
*For further reading on ethnic division and the church in America, Jamar Tisby has written a compelling historical account entitled The Color of Compromise