‘Overcome Whiteness’

Kevin Allen

By Peggy Eastman

The Bishop of Washington is perplexed by how some of her colleagues in Christian leadership have responded to a summer or racially tinged violence.

People “who are the real leaders in Christianity” have “chosen a path that is apolitical,” said the Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde. “I’m dying to find out why.”

Budde made her observation during a panel discussion, “Racial Reconciliation: what the white church must do,” July 17 at Washington National Cathedral. The discussion attracted an audience of about 600.

Budde described the panel as inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in 1963. “King was particularly disappointed with the white church,” she said. King criticized white clergy members for being “more cautious than courageous” in the fight for racial justice and for remaining “silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”

The panel discussion was held in partnership with the March on Washington Film Festival, a nonprofit program of the Raben Group that aims to increase awareness of the civil rights era and inspire renewed passion for racial justice.

The discussion also grew from a sermon on Jesus and justice by the Rev. Delman Coates, senior pastor of the 9,000-member Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Maryland.

“I thought it was time to appeal to our white clergy to join us in the struggle for justice,” said Coates, a panelist and member of the Morehouse College Board of Preachers and the NAACP.

Coates said that in reflecting on the role of white clergy, he became aware that many were not on the front lines of causes of justice. Worse, he said, “there’s been a history of using religion as a cover for our dehumanization to continue.”

That is because many white churches continue and condone patterns of segregation, he said.

“Dr. King said 11 o’clock is the most segregated hour in America,” said the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, canon theologian at Washington National Cathedral and the Susan D. Morgan Distinguished Professor of Religion at Goucher College.

“Why are we talking about the ‘white church’ and not ‘the church’?” Douglas asked.

She said there is a clear disconnect between how white Christians and black Christians understand racial justice: nearly half, 47 percent, of white mainline Protestants say police officers treat minorities the same as whites, whereas 82 percent of black Christians say police officers treat minorities differently.

White Christians need to look at the Gospels and see that Christianity is communal, not just a personal relationship with Christ, said the Rev. Amy Stapleton, team leader for organizational accountability of the United Methodist Church’s General Commission on Religion and Race.

They also need to look at the membership of their denominations. The Methodist Church is 90 percent white, Stapleton said, adding that she aspires to be “a co-conspirator for justice.”

“If white Christians acted more Christian than white, black parents would have less to fear for their children,” said the Rev. Jim Wallis, founder and president of Sojourners.

Wallis said that “whiteness is a social construct” and claimed that 75 percent of white Americans choose all-white social circles.

“White Christianity is not just an ideology, it’s an idolatry,” Wallis said.  “This is about how idolatry separates us from God. This is a sin.”

The only future for the United States is to “overcome whiteness,” Wallis said. “It’s over folks, it’s done. The future is this new country that we’ve yet to become.”

He said demographic data tell the tale: the country is moving to a time when whites will become a minority. But, he said, “White supremacy is not going to die easily.”

The panelists suggested several ways to draw the white church into the struggle for racial justice:

  • Become consciously aware of all the ways entrenched racism has become normative in American society. “There’s just so much that we have chosen not to know,” Budde said. “Who people live next to, where they choose to send their children to school — these are part of the fabric of racism.” The solution to racism is to “change hearts, change lives, change laws,” she said.
  • Provide a counter-narrative to present a historical context when killings of black men by white officers occur. White Christians tend to think these are isolated events, Coates said, while black Christians understand that these incidents are part of a decades-long pattern. “Black rage is a result of African Americans contextualizing these incidents.”
  • Join with black clergy in talking to law-enforcement officials about how to improve relations with blacks in the community. Wallis cited Isaiah 58:12, which says God’s people  “shall be called repairers of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.”
  • Work at the state level against voter-identification laws. “I want to see clergy collars in polling places all across this country,” Wallis said.
  • Preach openly that “black bodies are sacred in God’s eyes,” Douglas said. “No one should shout that louder than communities of faith.”
  • Make sure that clergy leaders are truly representative of the population. “Every appointment in our church should be a cross-racial, cross-cultural appointment,” Stapleton said.

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