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Telling the uncomfortable truth about racial reconciliation and the Church's struggle to achieve it

Telling the uncomfortable truth about racial reconciliation and the Church's struggle to achieve it

Reparations — it's not just about money

When it comes to racial reconciliation in the Church, McNeil also argued that it should not stop at just relational connections.

“When we create just relational connections and not move that relational connection to then mobilize us toward systemic change, then what we’ve created is more like a Kumbaya club, where we look diverse but it’s still in the terms of white dominant culture," she explained. "It doesn’t matter that we sing songs in Spanish or that we eat with chopsticks or do things that demonstrate that we’ve got a diverse worship leader. That’s not enough. What we’re really looking for is those relationships to mobilize, to then care about what’s happening to people who represent those racial groups.” 

The Seattle-based professor noted that in order for racial reconciliation to be effective, churches need to offer reparations like simply telling the truth about what’s broken.

“This is why young people don’t believe in the reconciliation movement because it’s been relational and it’s had nothing to do with repairing what’s broken. I think what people have said about reparations, it’s almost like ‘just give us our money.’ I believe reparations ... there is a biblical call,” she said, pointing to Isaiah 58:12.

“You know in the Old Testament the Bible says ‘and you shall be called the restorers of the breach, the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in safely. I believe that reparations means to repair what is broken, to fix what we broke. I believe that it begins with telling the truth about what’s broken and who broke it. And then to make a commitment to fix that,” McNeil said.

“We have broken the process of voting for people. Black people were not permitted to vote in this country. To tell the truth about that would be to say, we did that, white Americans forbade people to register to vote. So how do you repair that? You repair that by registering, actively working to register people of color to vote. That’s reparations,” she continued.

“Reparation is fixing what was actually broken. Every time we keep not telling the truth about what’s broken in our country, redlining where banks would not give loans to black people or people of color. That’s just true. So the economic system, or the G.I. Bill, favored white men who came home and did not let people of color ... to get the same home loans. So the real question is to tell the truth that the United States did that and then to say what would have to happen to repair that."

Fear and playing the middle

When asked why many churches were not actively involved in educating their congregations about issues of racial reconciliation, McNeil acknowledged that some pastors were afraid of raising the issue.

In June, for example, Bishop Scott Volland and his wife, Debra, reported they were booted by The Heights Church in Columbus, Mississippi, for supporting the idea that “black lives matter (as a human fact)” and standing with protesters against racial injustice.

Fear of repercussions like the one faced by the Vollands, said McNeil, contribute to outcomes like the recent Barna poll showing that even though most pastors oppose racism or racial inequality, less than 30% of American churches are actively engaged in addressing the social ills.

“They know how to do it (racial reconciliation). The problem is they will get put out. Their congregations will vote against them,” McNeil said.

The cover art for Rev. Brenda Salter McNeil's new book, "Becoming Brave: Finding the Courage to Pursue Racial Justice Now." | Brazos Press

“That’s people knowing if I bring this up in my church, that’s why we’re silent. We know that nobody should be strangled for nine minutes. Nobody whose hands are handcuffed, who is begging for their lives should be killed on the street. Nobody. If they say that, the churches will put them out of their jobs. So they struggle with the tension of knowing that most white churches will fire that pastor and he will lose his job. So they find themselves caught between pleasing their congregations and staying someplace in the middle or completely silent about it,” she explained.

“Jesus was crucified and Jesus was crucified by religious people. It was religious people who crucified Jesus and they know that religious people will kill them, will kill their career, will kill their retirement benefits, will kill their ability to get another church.”

When asked if pastors should be blamed in part for the state of church culture on race, McNeil said even though the fear she sees in churches makes her sad, pastors like all humans should be offered grace when faced with difficult situations.

“I think we’re human," she began.

"I feel so sad because I think that the Church was supposed to be this radical countercultural community that represented what God was like on earth as it is in Heaven and somehow we were supposed to be this courageous community of Christ followers who would demonstrate the Kingdom of God, but we’re human. We’re like Peter who said I’ll never forsake you and when it’s a life and death situation, he denies Jesus.

“I think that we are more human than we know and so we try to find a middle of the road place to be where we’re not evil but we’re not really good. We’re not against it but we’re really not for it. You know that place? How you find that kind of compromise place?”

“That lukewarm spot?” this reporter suggested.

“Right. That’s what I think,” she said.

“I don’t think people are bad necessarily. I think more people are lukewarm and I think that this time that we’re living in, I think lukewarmness is being demonstrated for not being helpful. I think that’s why Jesus said I’ll spit you out my mouth. I think this is a place where you are either for it or you’re against it. And you can’t play the middle and I think too many Christians have tried to play the middle.”

The times, said McNeil whose new book, Becoming Brave: Finding the Courage to Pursue Racial Justice Now, is set for release on Aug. 18, are “demanding” that Christians choose faith or fear.

“I think Christians are scrambling because … for a long time people have been able to be successfully in the middle. This time is demanding that we choose a side,” she said. “I used to think that the opposite of faith was doubt. No. You know what keeps us from walking by faith? Fear.”

Pastor Francisco Vega, leader of the A.R.C. (Awakening and Reformation Center) in Atlanta, Georgia, and co-founder of Conservative Clergy of Color, a nonpartisan group that seeks to restore faith in government and serve as surrogates for Christ in the culture, agrees that fear has kept many pastors from tackling difficult cultural issues from their pulpits such as race, abortion and homosexuality.

“I want to encourage pastors that when we have weak preaching, it would produce weak disciples. But if we have strong biblical teaching, we are not afraid to walk the tightrope of truth in addressing issues that are prevalent in our culture today. And we ensure we have a loyalty to express biblical values and it’s not our own personal opinions and people could see that from God’s Word, they love God more than they love their pastors, their presidents, their congressman their politicians, and many love God even more than their own opinions,” Vega said.

“If every pulpit got fearless and spoke the truth from God’s Word about cultural issues today scripturally, this whole situation in our country could be turned around in six months. We need pastors who are fearless, who are bold who will stand up against cancel culture.”

Maintaining a Gospel-centered narrative on race

While the Black Lives Matter organization has helped to bring attention to an issue his group affirms, Vega urged Christians to ensure that they maintain a Gospel-centered narrative on racial reconciliation and not one bereft of it.

Pointing to the work of Christians in abolishing slavery, the Church, he said, despite its tortuous history with slavery, has also always been a part of the reconciliation movement.

“There’s a misnomer circulating that the Church in America has been silent and complicit regarding race relations and that all progress has been some secular movement outside of Christian influence. Historically, that’s inaccurate,” Vega told CP.

“Abolitionism was pioneered even in England before we established our colonies in the Americas … There has always been Christian abolition, there has always been Christian leaders who have influenced racial reconciliation movements, many of us don’t realize, as Christians and conservatives of color or otherwise that we may just as well be in chains today if it wasn’t for not only black Christians but really white Christians and white abolitionists, brothers and sisters who actually pioneered abolitionism, trained former slaves to read and to write,” he said, pointing to historical icons like abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

“They did it because God’s Word inspired our Constitution and our Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. And there were genuine Christians in our nation fighting from day one, for racial equality and so the Church has been on the frontline where CNN and MSNBC or Johnny-come-latelies with one-sided narratives or broadcast that seem to implicate the Church’s silence.”

Vega described the progressive Black Lives Matter organization as a Trojan horse seeking to exploit the issue of racial inequality to pursue an anti-biblical, political agenda.

“We believe it was ingenious to employ the term 'black lives matter' because it would almost impute anyone who opposes it because it would seem they would say, if you oppose certain ideologies or approaches, protest models, that you are actually affirming racism because you’re saying black lives don’t matter,” he said. “We actually believe that was an ingenious manipulative ploy to draw universal support for that organization, which the founders have openly championed that they are trained Marxists.”

He then referenced Manning Johnson’s book, Color, Communism and Common Sense to highlight the agenda to exploit black pain.

“He spoke about rising through the ranks and he revealed even back then in the '60s how there was an intentional movement to draw African Americans in toward Marxism and to try to ideologically transform the nation. He wrote an entire book about how communism and socialism try to engender and constitute black pain and plight for perverse politics. And he wrote in that book a masterpiece exposing that,” Vega said.

Vega also pointed out that the Black Lives Matter organization sought to ideologically destroy the nuclear family, which every Christian needs to oppose.

“When they assault the nuclear family, every born-again Christian should be very aware that they are trying to reinvent and revise the image that God Himself inspired in the book of Genesis for the nuclear family,” the Atlanta pastor said.

Hope

Vega noted that while they don’t usually get highlighted in mainstream media like Black Lives Matter, there are many Christian movements like the Atlanta-based OneRace, that’s focused on racial reconciliation through Christian revival.

“Through prayer and fasting, relationship and collaboration, OneRace exists to displace the spirit of racism and release a movement of racial reconciliation across Atlanta, the Southeast, and the nation. God desires a young adult movement that will counter the tide of racial division in our city and nation. ‘And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth…’ – Acts 17:26,” the group explains on its website.

“For years and years, pastors of different colors, black, white and Asian and Hispanic have been meeting and actually eating in each other’s homes,” said Vega, who supports the work of the movement co-founded by two pastors, one black and the other, white.

OneRace co-founder Garland Hunt, who is black, is a trained lawyer and serves as the senior pastor of The Father’s House. Co-founder Billy Humphrey, who is white, has served as the director of IHOP Atlanta since 2004.

“We believe racial reconciliation can’t just be event to event. Racial reconciliation has to be a lifestyle where you are integrating and you are appreciating each other on a daily basis. Whether it’s happening with conversations in middle schools, in high schools, … on campuses at universities, that you’re intentionally reaching out to what is different and diverse from you, you are honoring it, you are appreciating it and so that’s something that I know that they do,” Vega said.

He explained that through the multiethnic group, believers have come together in prayer and taken action like fundraising around justice issues and working with legislatures to effect change.

Rather that focus on justice as it relates to just one racial group, Vega said, OneRace works to lift all boats in a Gospel-centered way.

“Anyone who lifts their ethnic identity … their earthly ethnicity above Christ, that is ethnic idolatry,” he said. 

Vega also urged churches not to forget their purpose in America, which is to be the conscience of the nation.

“I believe personally that when you look at American history, you see a healthy respect of clergy and our elected officials. MLK spoke about that. The Church is not the state and the state is not the Church because the Church is the conscience of the state,” he said.

“He (MLK) warned that if we lose our understanding of our role as being the conscience of the state then we will devolve to country clubs. What he was saying is I think where we went wrong in America is that evangelicals have to be reminded that as born-again Christians, we do need to seek elected officials that represent Judeo-Christian values or standards of morality in the highest offices of the land but we also cannot only focus on the religious spheres of influence when it comes to transformation through the Gospel," the Atlanta preacher explained.

"What you see is ultimate movements like the LGBT movement and other movements who were effective 20 years ago [through] a strategy saying, we’re going to take the arts, the media, we’re going to take music. The Church cannot just focus on elections … they also need to have a strategy to influence music and the arts and culture.”

Despite the tense discussions that have arisen about the Church’s role on the issue of race, Prof. Weaver said he hopes the difficult events of 2020 will mark a turning point for the nation on race.

“I think we all hope it’s a turning point. One of the issues when you are teaching school and you’re teaching about the civil rights movement … is it has that lost momentum and some students will go ‘well, that’s in the past. And we don’t need to worry about that anymore.’ But I think 2020, for all the horrible things that have gone on this year, I think the death of George Floyd is hopefully a turning point to go that the civil rights movement needs to be ongoing and that it was not completed in the battle against the oppression of black people, minorities in the country,” Weaver said.

“What I hope is that this is a turning point and that those people that said 'wait a minute, civil rights is not an issue we need to worry about,' that they have moved it up, they have looked at the Bible and said 'wait a minute, this is something we have to do and it has to be part of our life.'”

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