Our Racist Church


I am going to start with religion, not race… but I think it comes together. A few weeks ago, there was a seminar here on Christians reaching out to Muslims, particularly in sharing their faith. An interesting statistic was brought up. I can’t remember the exact numbers, but relationship of the numbers makes exactness unnecessary. A survey was done in the United States with Muslims who had converted to Christianity. The main question was what led them to embrace the Christian faith. There were several reasons given. The top three (given in no particular order) were:

  • Miraculous signs
  • Revelatory dreams
  • Love expressed to them by Christians

If one wants to shove things into the Encounter Model, Miraculous Signs and (to a lesser extent Revelatory Dreams)  could be seen as Power Encounter, while the third one could be labeled Love Encounter. It is not surprising that Truth Encounter wasn’t really on the list… almost no one changes religion due to arguments. Apologetics is more to comfort the faithful than to confound the opposition. I was well aware that dreams are seen as a powerful motivator for Muslims to convert. I had a copy of the DVD “More than Dreams” until it disappeared— like a dream. I have heard some suggest that Muslims will only convert through Power Encounters (clearly well-schooled in “Charles Kraft” theology). What made the survey interesting was the extent to which the statistics contradicted that assumption. The number of people who converted through Love Encounter was more than 4 times greater than those who converted by Power Encounter.

You know, that should be awfully exciting!! If we want to reach out to  people of other world faiths, or different cultures or races, we have real hope of eternal impact by expressing Christian love to them.

But there is a problem…

Christians are not all that good at expressing Christian love to people who are unlike themselves. (Frankly, Christians are not all that good at expressing Christian love to people who are quite similar to themselves– as evidenced by the ridiculous interdenominational and intradenominational squabbles we see). The Syrian refugee crisis is a case in point, where so many Christians have sought governmental policies that would perclude even the opportunity to express Christian love, on any level, for this national-ethnic group.

There have been all sorts of studies over the last several decades attempting to determine whether being religious makes one more prejudiced or less prejudiced (regarding race, or any other grouping). Much of the studies were done in the United States, so much of the data can also help to determine whether being more religiously (American-style) Christian makes one more or less prejudiced.

The results? Mixed. I will have to point you to Angela Sabates’ book “Social Psychology in Christian Perspective” since it really gets too complicated to boil down in a way that is both accurate and simple. In chapter 8 there is a section on this very issue. Lots of factors were added in, including the reason for one’s religiosity, or the intensity of the person’s faith. In the end, it seems like the more religious one is, there is a slight tendency to be more prejudiced than one who is less religious.

So let’s put this into perspective for a moment, and then apply it to Christians. The typical non-religious person is, frankly, a bigot. He will identify himself by a number of labels or groups that establish a complex set of dualities– US versus THEM. He will tend to attach positive traits to those he identifies as being in the US side of the duality, and more negative traits to those on the THEM side.

So if we acknowledge that non-religious people are bigots, we then must face the uncomfortable truth that it is likely that devout Christians are even more bigoted.

Why is this? Paul said that in Christ, there is no Greek nor Barbarian, Jew nor Gentile, Male or Female. Seems clear enough within the church. Jesus said that we are to love everyone, even our enemies… that includes everyone else. And the Imago Dei in Genesis 1 seemingly would erase any more questions about race. But problems remain. Why is that? I don’t think saying that it is due to sin is really enough. Presumably (hopefully at least) devout Christians are not more sinful than the non-religious. Since the psychological studies don’t give clear-cut answers, here are a few tentative thoughts.

  1.  Many devout Christians see answers in the past, rather than the present or the future. Many idealize other times. Despite the warning of Ecclesiastes 7:10, many Christians see an absence of today’s problems in the past… whether it is the New Testament (first century) church, or it is the 1950s, the 1780s, or the 1620s. Why would this matter? Well, with the exception of the first century church, where racism was a major concern, the other times in history did not prioritize racism. Many Christians during this time both practiced and defended systematic racism. So for example, if one thinks that things were wonderful in the 1950s and different races related to each other just fine by staying on different sides of the railroad tracks and attending different schools, then racism is not really a concern.
  2. Some Christians misunderstand the Biblical metaphors. A number of dualistic metaphors are used in the Bible, such as the Narrow Gate vs Wide Gate, The Way of Life vs the Way of Destruction, and Children of God vs … those who are not. While useful metaphors, they can be easily confused with the cultural tendency to create US vs THEM… and from there to prejudices of various forms. After all, if we are the US in church, who are the THEM? Typically, they are “the Lost,” “The Unrepentant,” and “Sinners.” The same issue applies towards the War metaphors in the Bible. In war, who are the THEM? The Enemy. Many Christians like the War metaphors to describe their attitude to dealing with the world. War stigmatizes and divides, and it is not surprising if Christians forget that we do not war against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12-13). Misusing metaphors can often lead to stigmatizing others, and it is a small leap from there to all different forms of prejudices.
  3. Many Christians confuse their Christian faith with Nationalism. I see this problem a LOT in the USA. But it can happen elsewhere as well. I say this with a bit of caution, because I have many friends who are wonderful people in so many ways, but take their honor of and duty to country to rather… ummm… disturbing ends.  (Google “cross and american flag images” if you doubt this.) Strong nationalism tends to breed strong prejudices.
  4. Religion is the biggest institution in America, the Philippines, and many other countries that has resisted racial integration. Tony Evans has stated that in the United States, Sunday Morning is the most segregated time of the week. Some of this comes from very active and intentional racism. Some on the other hand flows more passively from Protestant values of Individualism and Voluntary Religion, as opposed a parish or community understanding of the church.  In the end, the result is the same, that churches, unlike schools, government, military, and business has maintained the right (and tendency) to segregate. Is that wrong? Hard to say, but a survey of military personnel will to some extent demonstrate the influence of how the military operates. In the same light, a survey of church members is likely to reflect how churches operate.
  5. Poor Theological Anthropology. While many Christians may look to the church and to the Bible for a clear understanding of God and salvation, they often go to culture for an understanding of humanity. I teach cultural anthropology and recognize considerable value in it. But there is much to be gained from theological anthropology. Interestingly, although many Christians have problems with prejudice and racism, even those who would describe themselves as devout, it has been found that those who  are “orthodox”– theologically, biblically grounded– in their Christian faith do have less of a problem with prejudice/racism.

So what to do? Not fully sure, but some obvious things would be to:

  • Confess to God and others our sub-biblical understanding of mankind. Related to this, we need to take Theological Anthropology more seriously, to see Mankind as God made it. (At risk of annoying some people, the move in different parts of the world for the so-called “Biblical Manhood” and “Biblical Womanhood” appears to be more of a tug-of-war with culture (pulling towards an idealized cultural past, and pushing against a less-than-ideal present) rather than a theologically integrative understanding of God’s revelation as to the nature of Men and Women.
  • Stop making things worse. I am not against Ethnic Churches, and in some locations they have provided a strong sense of support and community where there was and is oppression from the outside. Additionally, as noted by many, people prefer to worship in their own language and in their own context. That being said, there are downsides. Consider this– I know a churchplanter who establishes ethnic (single race) churches. He does it by finding Christians of that ethnicity who are active and integrated members of multicultural churches and convincing to leave to join the new homogeneous church. I must say that I have problems with that. If multi-ethnic multi-lingual worship is described, and extolled, in Revelation 9, it seems like it should be seen something not to reverse. Churches should learn how to embrace those who join regardless of their ethnic background. If a church is not ready to actively reach out to other ethnicities, at the very least they should LEARN to passively accept and then to embrace those who come in. When my wife and I were in Virginia, there was a church in town that most of the Filipino Protestants attended. My wife is a Filipina, and if she really wanted that, I would have gone along. But instead we attended an almost completely “White” church. Despite its lack of diversity, she was not only welcomed but seen as a potential asset to the church.
  • Embrace dialogue and an ecumenical view. For many Evangelicals, “dialogue” and “ecumenicism” are ugly words. They point to a weak, wishy-washy, lowest common denominator type of relationship. But that understanding of those terms developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We no longer live in that time period, We can grow up. The view from the 60s and 70s is due to the problem they had with dualism. If we are seeking to interact with others and talk with them while still maintaining a strong US versus THEM dichotomy, the common solution is to find some sort of common ground, while ignoring differences.  But properly done, ecumenical dialogue is creative and accepts and wrestles with differences, rather than white-washing them. Connect with others of other denominations, and with people from other ethnicities and nationalities. It is an enlivening experience.

None of this is easy. I am a member of two separate churches separated by 12 timezones. One of them was racially integrated over 160 years ago, but being in a “slave state” in the United States, there were deep inequities underlying the integration. After  the American Civil War, the church became segregated as African-American members formed their own separate church. That might be seen as healing at the time, but it has taken over a century to work towards a multi-racial church of equals. I am also a member of an intentionally multi-ethnic church here in the Philippines. It is far from perfect. But it does see its strength and unity coming from its diversity. That is not such a bad place to start.








Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s