NEW YORK — Bishop Claude Alexander, senior pastor of The Park Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, called racism a sin problem that the Church is equipped to address and must confront in order for the Gospel to move forward.
At its worst, he said, while the Church played a crucial role in the abolition of slavery, as an institution, it was complicit in the maintenance of slavery at a time when it was preached as God's Word.
"Racism is sin. The denial of the image of God is sin. The denial of place is sin. The denial of essential personhood is sin. The denial of access and opportunity is sin. Nobody is better equipped to deal with this by way of just our nature than the Church. We're equipped to name sin, to call for repentance, and to bring about reconciliation," said Alexander.
Speaking Monday at the "National Discussion on Race" conference convened by Movement Day Global Cities at Bethel Gospel Assembly in New York City on Monday, Alexander opened his discussion with a reference to John 4 which highlights Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman.
"It's always interested me how John writes at the beginning of verse 3. He writes, he left Judea and departed again to Galilee but he needed to go through Samaria," Alexander said.
"Now, if you were in the early Church you would understand how significant that statement is. We don't if we're reading with the untrained eye, but the trained eye read that this is such a significant event that John includes it among the many things that he left out.
"Jesus must need [to] go through Samaria. He had to go through what others would usually avoid due to the racial tension that existed. And the term Samaritan, for the Jew, was a pejorative term. It was akin to the N-word today. It applies to the racial identity of those Jews who intermarried with Assyrians during and after the Assyrian invasion," the bishop said.
"And subsequently they were denied place in the work of the rebuilding of the Temple and of worship in Jerusalem. Every upstanding Jew traveling from Galilee to Judah, or from Judah to Galilee would travel around it rather than go through it. In fact, there were times when Jesus went around, rather than going through it," he explained.
Even though Jesus Himself had sometimes avoided going through Samaria, Alexander said, Jesus told his disciples to witness in Samaria.
"Samaria was a place of racial tension. … He is telling them that they must confront the place of racial tension for the furtherance of the Gospel. They cannot ignore it. They cannot avoid it. If their Gospel witness is to have its intended impact they must go there. And that perhaps is the greatest challenge of the American Church," Alexander told the audience. "We don't do Samaria well."
"We go to the uttermost parts of the Earth. We believe, we partner with the uttermost parts of the Earth and can't partner with people across the street or on the other side of town. We don't do Samaria well and yet our credibility with the uttermost parts of the Earth is compromised by our failure to address Samaria. Therefore, this what we do today, is an unavoidable and necessary conversation," he said of the conference.
He then highlighted a long list of American cities that have been in the headlines for racial strife such as Sanford, Ferguson, Charleston, Minneapolis and Charlotte.
"No American city is absent from the possibility of being in the national spotlight as it relates to race unless you happen to live in one of those states where there is no racial or ethnic diversity," he said.
Anyone interested in doing ministry in cities he said, must understand the complex forces at work when it comes to the issue of race in cities.
"The institutional structures and practices of city and community life have been the places that reveal and reinforce the vision and value of racial inequality or equality in America. Cities and Communities carried out the implications of America's position on race through codes, customs, policies, and practices," Alexander said.
"Within the fabric of city and community life, we see the intentional and unintentional, the conscious and unconscious choices, actions, and responses that are informed, influenced, and impacted by race. In the examination of many cities and communities, you will find that everything from the composition, design, and amenities of neighborhoods, the placement, maintenance, and population of schools, the siting of utility and sanitation plants, the cutting of highways through neighborhoods, to the location of airports often track by race," he continued.
Cities and communities, he said, are often the places where structural and systemic matters of racial access, inclusion, equity, and justice are experienced or denied. And the Church, he said, must acknowledge its role in maintaining this structure in order to effectively minister in cities.
"For any Gospel-centered city movement to have integrity and relevance, the matter of race must be addressed. And so you might ask, where do we start, where does one begin in this?
"We begin by recognizing that the nature of the problem is the matter of the spirit for which we are uniquely equipped to speak both in terms of repentance for the part that the Church has actively or passively played in the problem. And in recognition of the prophetic role that the Church has played in the struggle. We must begin there by speaking to the matter of our complicity in the problem. Our historic complicity," he said.
"If you want to catch a glimpse of that, there is a movie called 'The Birth of a Nation.' It's the story of Nat Turner, Nat Turner was a preacher of the Gospel and there are scenes in it of how the slave master would pimp Nat Turner to go and preach to the slaves to keep them docile. And to accept slavery as God's ordained Word. This was the Church at its worst. If you are part of a denomination that has Southern attached to it, you recognize that the history is the reason why it was Southern was over the issue of slavery," he added.
"And yet, we also know that the Church spoke prophetically in the abolition movement, in the civil rights movement and even today. And at the root of what we are facing is a sin problem," Alexander explained.
For reconciliation to occur, however, the Church must recognize what reconciliation requires, Alexander argued.
"Reconciliation cannot be some amorphous wish that ignores, or downplays or discounts, the actual wounding, the actual event. As much as I would like to, when couples comes in for couples counseling, as much as I would like to just wave a magic wand and everything will be alright, if I don't deal with the actual events that created the wounding, no healing will happen no matter how much Scripture I quote, how much oil I pour out.
"If I do not dig up, unearth and address the actual events that created the wounding, so that the person who wounded would not do anything that can even look like that anymore, because what happens is, in those instances, as soon as the aggrieved sees anything that looks like it, that is it," he said. "If you don't know what it looks like, you can't bring the healing. And so, we have to know, we have to be able to get in touch with the history, and many of us … were not educated when it comes to this."
Reconciliation, Alexander said, requires a historical understanding of race in America.
"Because we don't have a historical understanding then we don't appreciate the contemporary manifestations of what we face. We can't deal with income inequality properly because we don't understand that when, if you were given free land and free labor, how you could make money. But then, once your free labor is cut off, they are not given reparations, but you are, because you no longer hold the slave — think about that. The persons who got money after slavery were not the slaves. It was the slave-owner. Consider that," he said to the diverse audience at the event.
"Consider that the G.I. Bill, which is believed to be the single most [effective] piece of legislation to create the middle class for soldiers coming out of World War II, that did not apply to soldiers of color. The single most piece of legislation designed to create economic opportunity," he continued. "Consider in the 1800s a case was brought by a Chinese person against a white, the California Supreme Court said, and this became a national holiday, no person of color could testify against someone white. This is what's in the ground."
He added: "And in 1968, the Southern strategy was put in place with the code word 'law and order' and that was a code that for everybody, especially in the South, who did not like these minorities ... we're gonna get them back in line. That's what's in the ground. So when you talk about how people view law enforcement differently, when you talk about income inequality, when you talk about how certain neighborhoods are. ...
"Unless we know the history, we can't understand the contemporary anger, the contemporary frustration, or even just how difficult it is to address the matter in a contemporary way."
Bishop Alexander then made the following recommendations for churches to confront racism:
- Educate: There is an ignorance of history in terms of the depth and extent of domestic terror, neglect, etc., that occurred within America. Many of our contemporary issues are outgrowth of the unreconciled past. An example is the tension between law enforcement and communities of color.
- Vision and Values Formation: The Church must be unabashed in its proclamation of the Kingdom of God and the Shalom of God. It must uphold the values of justice, righteousness, corporate responsibility, communal repentance and lament, sacrifice, and neighborliness.
- Creating a safe space for people to wrestle with the difficulty of communal sin, communal repentance, and communal responsibility.
- Cross-congregational work may include pulpit exchanges, shared service projects and worship experiences, utilization of arts, movies, and literature to foster increased dialogue and understanding.
- Shared advocacy that results from collective research, understanding, discernment and prioritization around matters of civic and community consequence should also be pursued.
- Collectively calling the questions that enhance the sensitivity and raise the consciousness within the community such as the question about equity.
- Properly exercising the influence that we have with key leaders of institutions who are members of our congregations.