Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding. – Proverbs 4:7
We live in a world awash in information.
We know, for instance, that this year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to Jamestown, Virginia. But most of us might not know Massachusetts was the first state to legalize slavery or that the California Supreme Court ruled a person of color could not testify in court against whites or that blacks were denied benefits under the 1935 Social Security Act and that the GI Bill that gave lump sums of money to returning World War II veterans for housing and education was to the exclusion of blacks.
We know that despite popular claims that racism and discrimination are no longer salient issues in contemporary society, African Americans continue to experience disparate treatment in everyday public interactions. And worse, most might not even care. It isn’t your cross to bear.
THIS LIFE: RACE AND RELIGION
This is the first of a five-part series analyzing race and religion by AJC columnist Gracie Bonds Staples. Come back Sunday for Part 2: The Rev. Raphael Warnock on how racism continues to reinvent itself
To be sure, things aren’t all bad, but it feels like it.
For some, America’s racial history seems caught in a “circling roundabout” of advancement, then retrenchment, advancement, retrenchment. But what if we viewed racism through a spiritual lens that calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves. What if, in getting understanding, we no longer felt the need to assign blame? And what if that meant understanding that the Christian church from the very beginning was complicit in propagating racism by the things it did and didn’t do?
Would it make a difference in the way we treat each other? Would we then finally become the beloved community the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned, that God intended?
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Bishop Claude Alexander, senior pastor of The Park Church, a Baptist congregation in Charlotte, North Carolina, has spent nearly his entire life trying to answer those questions.
And so by 1997, when a string of police-involved shootings of unarmed African Americans by white police officers in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area threatened to tear the community apart along racial lines, the Morehouse College graduate was more than prepared to bring to bear what he knew by faith and years as a cultural translator growing up in the segregated South on the crisis shaped, he believed, by our almost 400-year history of slavery and racial segregation.
That year, he was among some 600 government and civic leaders who gathered to craft a response to what was happening in Charlotte, and over two days created the Community Building Initiative, a nonprofit organization tasked with achieving racial and ethnic inclusion and equity in the city.
More than 20 years later, he is still crisscrossing the country seeking to bring some clarity to matters of race.
Interestingly, Alexander believes the church has been complicit in America’s race problems from the beginning and thus it is up to the church to solve it.
Proof texting — taking a verse or verses of Scripture out of context to make a point that is not there.
The story of Ham in Genesis 9 is a good example, Alexander said. Misquoting the passage, white preachers taught that Canaan, the son of Ham, believed to be the progenitor of African people, was cursed by God. Because Africans were cursed by God, the argument went, they could treat them as slaves. In truth, Canaan’s descendants did not dwell in Africa. They dwelt in Mesopotamia. Therefore, one could not use God’s cursing Canaan as a rationalization for the enslavement of Africans.
Other passages that were used included Colossians 3:22 and Ephesians 6:5 in which the Apostle Paul admonishes slaves to “obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart.”
In the context of Paul’s time, there was indentured servitude in which if you were in debt, one hired themselves out and after working off the debt was freed. In addition, if a tribe or people were victorious in battle, then they would take the vanquished and make them subservient, but neither of those was based upon race.
The uniqueness of American slavery is that it identified Africans intentionally, objectifying them, commoditizing them, dehumanizing them for the purpose of economic gain, and the church, by taking these texts out of context, gave spiritual sanction, cover, legitimacy to that, Alexander said.
“In its teaching to white congregants, it sought to establish a comfort and sense of entitlement,” he said. “In its communications to slaves, it sought to solidify their subservience, their docility and resignation.”
The message was slaves were in this state because they were cursed by God and demanded by this God to obey.
How did they pull it off?
First, through the white preacher. When slaves learned to read, however, the master used them to communicate those things and so it was no longer just a white preacher, it was a slave preacher reading those Scriptures to other slaves and explaining them as he had been told.
What they didn’t count on was the slave thinking for himself, reading more than those few verses and realizing the error and falsehood of what he had been taught, Alexander said.
Reading stories of God delivering the children of Israel from bondage, delivering the Hebrew boys from the furnace, and Daniel from the lions’ den, reading of Esther risking her life for the rescue of her people and of Jesus hiding out in Egypt, growing up under Roman rule and then sacrificing his life and being raised by God, they saw a different narrative of God and of themselves, of life as it is and life as it should be.
Alexander said, “They gained a language of liberation and strength from the God of the exodus and father of the resurrected Christ that sustains, motivates and connects.”
Despite entire families being separated, slaves developed a language all their own through song — “My lord delivered Daniel, I know he’ll deliver me”; “Swing low, sweet chariot coming for to carry me home.” Those spirituals gave them resiliency, motivated transcendence and a coded language that they would use when planning to escape.
If you’re wondering if this is just the bishop’s interpretation, it isn’t. It’s the assertion of many white scholars.
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It is historical fact that African slaves had an alternative understanding of the Scriptures and of God that was liberating. And it is not the unique experience of African Americans, it is the universal experience of oppressed people everywhere who read the Gospel for themselves.
“When they read the Scripture for themselves, they see this concern of God to them demonstrated in the Old Testament and most dramatically in the life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus,” Alexander said. “They see the rejection of repression, the call to full human dignity and life.”
How does this play out today? It depends on how you see God.
In many majority white churches, great emphasis is put on the sovereignty of God, ruling and reigning. And understandably so because whites, more often than not, approach the Gospel from a position of authority. For African Americans or other oppressed people, the emphasis is often on God as a deliverer and a liberator.
These differences in emphasis go all the way back to the beginning of time. Both are true. From the Christians’ perspective, God is sovereign and God is deliverer. God is transcendent and eminent.
“Where one sits impacts what one sees,” Alexander said.
The same is true of racism.
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It’s Alexander’s contention that if the church started this fight, it is up to the church to end it.
Help people understand that the contemporary issues we face are an outgrowth of an unreconciled past, he said.
Look no further than the elections of Barack Obama, believed an indication of a post-racial America, and Donald Trump, whom many consider the repudiation of Obama much like post-Reconstruction was a reaction to the positive gains for African Americans.
“The perception was that while the South lost, African Americans gained,” Alexander said. “That was the feeling and that feeling could be seen as a reason for what happened post-Reconstruction, but it does not justify what happened. The confiscation of land from Southern plantation owners caused a feeling of disenfranchisement and coupled with the positive affirmation and political gains of African Americans or newly freed slaves. Those two things, added to the already multigenerational view of race as blacks as property, served as a unique cocktail for retribution that had as its purpose the reestablishment of the old order. Jim Crow was not a matter of making things good for everybody; Jim Crow was a reestablishment of the old order.”
When we talk about generational income and wealth disparity, the unreconciled past goes back to when African Americans were exempt from receiving both Social Security and benefits of the GI Bill.
Second, Alexander said, the church must uphold the kingdom and wholeness of God, model for the world justice, righteousness, neighborliness, collective responsibility, and communal repentance. Third, it must create a safe space for people to wrestle with the difficulty of communal sin, communal repentance and communal responsibility.
There are going to be people who will read this and say that racism’s not my fault. I’m not racist. I haven’t done anything against black people.
“It’s not my fault either,” Alexander said. “It’s not either of our faults. You didn’t choose to be white. I didn’t choose to be black. Those were things that were given to us, but we must admit that … there were certain benefits given to some and burdens given to others, through no fault of our own.
“But this is the reality, and while it is not our fault, it is our problem. It is equally our problem and therefore our responsibility. That is a message that the church must be heard saying.”
Part 2: The Rev. Raphael Warnock on how racism continues to reinvent itself
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