In the past few years we have heard a growing assertion echoing around the globe: “Black lives matter.” Some people, notably many in evangelical Christian churches in North America, have challenged the assertion. We’ve seen counter-assertions: “white lives matter” and “all lives matter.” These are apparent attempts to counter or correct the message echoing around the world.
I am mystified and chagrined by this controversy in the church. Of course Black lives matter, and it is important in the church of Jesus, in the historical and present context of North America, to say so unequivocally.
Many who challenge the “Black Lives Matter” slogan are objecting to the politics and the organization associated with the slogan. Yet I wonder if we can take a humble and introspective step back and lower the temperature of the controversy enough to listen. Jemar Tisby points out in his book The Color of Compromise that the energy of too many is spent in offering a defense of white people in America rather than listening to and seeking to learn from the experience of Black people.
“Christian complicity with racism in the twenty-first century looks different than complicity with racism in the past,” he writes. “It looks like Christians responding to ‘black lives matter’ with the phrase ‘all lives matter.’ … It looks like Christians telling black people and their allies that their attempts to bring up racial concerns are ‘divisive.’ It looks like conversations on race that focus on individual relationships and are unwilling to discuss systemic solutions” (p. 190).
Sadly, even the concept of systemic racism has become controversial. Our dominant Western culture is so engulfed in a belief in individualism that many cannot imagine any corporate responsibility or the power of systems connected with race. Two sociologists and theologians, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, describe this by using the term “accountable individualism,” meaning that “individuals exist independent of structures and institutions, have freewill, and are individually accountable for their own actions” (Divided by Faith, p. 76-77). When this conviction becomes pervasive within us, there is an inability to consider the power and presence of governmental, educational, and other social systems and their influence on the realities around racial disparity.
Considering that, I believe the Christian Reformed Church will not be healthy and holy until we look at our history and behavior. We have been good at making statements, setting goals, and appointing committees to propose initiatives regarding racism and diversity. But we have been slow and unreliable in matching these with actions that create effective change. We have been so slow that many Black pastors, members, and congregations have left our denomination. In my personal observation it looks like the number of former African American congregations in the CRC exceeds the number of current ones. Our ill health as a denomination pertains not only to Black lives, but to many people of color. Consider the reality that each of the five people of color who have been appointed to lead our Office of Race Relations either resigned in frustration or was asked to leave. This has to tell us something about the challenges of this work, especially if we look at it systemically rather than individualistically.
We’ve been blessed as a denomination by growing numbers of congregations from cultures currently identified as “minority.” Whereas earlier in our denominational history we had only one basic culture, we now have a growing rainbow of cultures showing gifts and perspectives that can broaden our thinking and our practice. We have congregations that emerge out of Black culture. In their DNA is a sensitivity to the ways the gospel includes the message of justice. Our Korean members have a deep experience of fervent prayer that many of us need to learn. Our Hispanic brothers and sisters can teach us about the gifts of fiesta and siesta. (See Rev. Felix Fernandez’s “This Rhythm is Gonna Get You,” January 2017.) Our Indigenous members can call us to accountability in the importance of relationships rather than results.
Yet we persist in holding onto ways of being and doing that are unfamiliar and even unproductive to our newer members. We believe so deeply that our treasures are good that we project them as being superior. We must seek to discern if our attempts at inclusion are experienced as tokenism or if they are truly effective. Are we ready and willing to pass power to members who are currently “minority” but might become “majority”? Can we consider what it looks like to be known as a Reformed denomination that reflects a gathering of nations rather than a denomination that emerged out of a Dutch-European Reformation heritage?
What do we need to do to move forward? Here are three steps to consider, individually and corporately (modeled after suggestions in Tisby’s book The Color of Compromise):
We need to acquaint ourselves with the history of race in America. We need to work hard and humbly to understand the experience of recent immigrants and long-term ethnic minority members. The CRC’s Office of Social Justice and Office of Race Relations have suggestions for material that can enhance our understanding. Each of us can commit to reading from the literature about race and immigration that has been produced just in the past decade. Each of our churches can commit to having courses and sermon series each year that attend to the biblical calls for justice, unity, and repentance for elitism.
We need to broaden the bubble of our personal relationships to include people outside of our families and our own cultural heritages. Such friendships usually come only through intentionality. We’ll only understand the experience of those different from us if we build, cherish, and submit to such a lifestyle.
3. Propose and Implement Changes
The missing element here is often action. What can we as local churches, as regional bodies, and as a denomination do to create a new future (rather than just talk about it)? I suggest that the best changes will follow ideas offered by leaders of minority communities. The rest of us need to be ready to hear ideas that might even question some of our sacred cows, such as the Church Order. The late George VanderWeit, one of the most dedicated churchmen of the CRC in recent decades, said at Synod 2010, “We have a church order that was developed in the 1600s in Europe for Anglo people. … A comprehensive, not piecemeal, rewriting of the Church Order is needed. It needs to be a modern and more hospitable document, one that reflects diversity in church and culture.”
What if a task force of grassroots leaders engaged in a brainstorming session to find three or four initiatives they believe we need—and then what if we committed significant resources to implementing them? This is an idea for every level of our system—local church, regional bodies, and denominational ministries.
I am convinced that our future depends on our ability to adapt and change. We will either become a denomination known for its diversity or we will become a footnote in the history books. Even as I am not sure of our ability to meet this challenge, I am sure that it is the will of God, and that God’s kingdom will come. I’ve read it in God’s account of the end of the story:
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb (Rev. 7:9).