Racism Is a Faith Issue

To put this in a religious context: overcoming the divisions of race has been central to the church since its beginning, and the dynamic diversity of the body of Christ is one of the most powerful forces in the global church. Our Christian faith stands fundamentally opposed to racism in all its forms, which contradict the good news of the gospel.
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Church steeple at sunset
Church steeple at sunset

Author's Note: Racism is an issue of faith that the church must address. It's an issue of missing the image of God within each and every one of us. This excerpt from my forthcoming book America's Original Sin looks at the depths of that faith issue and how interwoven it is with our American story. I hope you'll use it as a resource as we continue to have these important conversations.

To put this in a religious context: overcoming the divisions of race has been central to the church since its beginning, and the dynamic diversity of the body of Christ is one of the most powerful forces in the global church. Our Christian faith stands fundamentally opposed to racism in all its forms, which contradict the good news of the gospel. The ultimate answer to the question of race is our identity as children of God, which we so easily forget applies to all of us. And the political and economic problems of race are ultimately rooted in a theological problem. The churches have too often "baptized" us into our racial divisions, instead of understanding how our authentic baptism unites us above and beyond our racial identities.

Do we believe what we say about the unity of "the body of Christ" or not? The New Testament speaks of the church as one body with many members.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. . . . For the body does not consist of one member but of many. . . . As it is, there are many parts, yet one body . . . that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (1 Cor. 12:12, 14, 20, 25-26 RSV)

Another version of 1 Corinthians 12:26 reads, "If one part of the body suffers, all the other parts share its suffering" (GW). What would it mean to share in the suffering of our brothers and sisters of color who are subjected to a racialized criminal justice system? So let's be honest. As I said in the introduction to this book, if white Christians in America were ready to act more Christian than white when it comes to race, black parents would be less fearful for their children.

Racial healing is a commitment at the heart of the gospel. If we say we belong to Christ, that mission of reconciliation is ours too. What does racial healing and reconciliation mean in the face of America's racial divide over policing and the criminal justice system? Churches, in particular, can offer leadership in navigating us through these difficult issues.

The American Pilgrimage

The United States has the most racial diversity of any country in the world. This diversity is essential to our greatness, but it has also given us a history of tension and conflict. It has always been the resolving and, ultimately, the reconciling of those tensions that makes us "a more perfect union." However, that cannot happen when we ignore, deny, or suppress our racial history and journey; it can occur only when we talk about it, engage it, embrace it, and be ready to be transformed by it.

Ironically and tragically, American diversity began with acts of violent racial oppression that I am calling "America's original sin" -- the theft of land from Indigenous people who were either killed or removed and the enslavement of millions of Africans who became America's greatest economic resource -- in building a new nation. The theft of land and the violent exploitation of labor were embedded in America's origins. Later immigration of other racial minorities was also driven -- at least in part -- by the need for more cheap labor. Therefore, our original racial diversity was a product of appalling human oppression based on greed. Many people have come to America, involuntarily in chains or voluntarily in the hope of a better life. And our great diversity is the key to our brightest and most transforming future. Indeed, it has already been one of America's greatest contributions to the world.

I believe that most police are good cops, but it would take more than a few "bad apples" to produce all the stories that almost every black person in America has about their experience with the police. Those stories are about a system, a culture, old structures and habits, and continuing racial prejudice, and how the universal but complex relationship between poverty and crime is made worse by racism. All of that can and must change with reforms that begin with better training and transparency and more independent prosecution in incidents of lethal police violence -- and end with making police more relational and accountable to the diverse communities they serve.

But underneath the flaws and injustices of the criminal justice system is our unfinished business of challenging and ending racism, an agenda that is not finished and never will be. We are not now, nor will we ever be, a "postracial" society. We are instead a society on a journey toward embracing our ever-greater and richer diversity, which is the American story. The path forward is the constant renewal of our nation's ideal of the equality of all our citizens under the law -- which makes the American promise so compelling, even though it is still so far from being fulfilled.

Our highest and most inspirational points as a nation have been when we have overcome our racial prejudices; our lowest and ugliest points have been when we have succumbed to them. In 2013, Time magazine did a cover story on the fiftieth anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech. In it, Time rightly said that Martin Luther King Jr. is now understood to be a "father" of our nation because he helped shape its course as much as the founding fathers did. King and the movement he led opened a new door of opportunity for the future of America. But as we are becoming, for the first time, a country with no single racial majority--having been from our beginnings a white-majority nation -- we stand at another door, which many white Americans are still very fearful of passing through. In this book I call that the bridge to a new America, and we will explore how to cross it together.

Race is woven throughout the American story and each of our own stories. All of our stories can help to change the racial story of America. I hope you will join me in this hard but critical -- and ultimately transforming-- conversation. Only by telling the truth about our history and genuinely repenting of its sins, which still linger, can we find the true road to justice and reconciliation. That is the premise and promise of this book.

This excerpt is provided by Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, © 2016. Used by permission.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America will be released in January.

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