Scott Black Johnston: Race: The Church as a Safe Place for the Conversation
In a speech given at Southern Methodist University in March 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr. remarked, "[A]s we think of progress in race relations, we have come a long, long way, but we still have a long, long way to go."
Fifty years later, Dr. King's words continue to convict. Watching the protests in Ferguson, navigating our way through difficult conversations at work and school, feeling our own visceral responses to images and arguments in the news, we know - without a doubt - that racial reconciliation in America still has "a long, long way to go."
What is it about race that makes it such a tenacious problem for us, such a recurring flashpoint in this country's history?
Some say racism is inevitable. We are hard-wired to see our tribe, our ethnic group, as superior to all others. We are naturally inclined to categorize people, drawing neat circles that define who is "Us" and who is "Them."
Others say, "Not so!" Racism, they argue, isn't an innate disposition. It is learned behavior. From a very early age, parents and friends pass along their perspectives - their biases - to us. We absorb racial stereotypes from the wider culture, too. We aren't born caring about the color of a person's skin, but eventually we do. We can't help it, because we swim everyday in a society awash in prejudice and bigotry.
Expanding this trajectory, some describe racism as a force that runs a lot deeper than individual bigotry. It is structural oppression. Individually, we may have good hearts; in theory, we want good things for each other. But as a society, we participate in complex structures that diminish, repress and demean others. One American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, called this phenomenon "Moral Man and Immoral Society."
Today, the biggest challenge we face in regard to racism in this country is finding a safe space to talk about it.
Where can we have a candid and gracious conversation about race? Where can we work for reconciliation and understanding, without lapsing into gotcha politics or toxic tweets? Where can we go to find reason for unity and perspectives that transcend our prejudices?
The answer, I hope, is the Church. In addition to Dr. King, the Church actually has some superb resources for tackling this issue.
For example, the Book of Acts tells us that ethnicity and cultural differences were a major topic of debate in the early Church. One of the key questions these sisters and brothers in Christ discussed around the campfire was: "Who can be a Christian? Who belongs in this community?"