For this assignment, I engaged in discourse with a pastor at a local Baptist church located near my home. The Church is large, consisting of several buildings, including its own preschool and sports complex. It is located in a suburban part of town, middle class, and some affluent neighborhoods. The pastor is white, 57 years old, and has been in his position for 16 years. He will be referred to as John for the purposes of this paper (name changed for privacy purposes). John took the discussion seriously, noting that American society is facing a reckoning currently about the issue of race, and there is much division. He advocates for listening to each other and trying to understand, engaging in civil discourse, and abandoning the position of privilege that many (especially of the Caucasian race) have to search for an answer to this highly complex issue.
The conversation began with the basics. What is racism, and what are its foundations? We both agreed on the definition it is the prejudice and discrimination, as well as general attitudes toward specific ethnic groups. The discourse focused on how racism is a product of our culture; it is so deeply ingrained in many subtle ways into American society, traditions, and beliefs that most do not notice. The way that whites perceive the world and the way that African Americans do are two sides of the coin because, for them, the reality that we take for granted is on a completely different dimension. Here I brought up a quote about white privilege, “is largely hidden from our eyes if we are white. Why? Because it is structural instead of psychological…Because we have never been on the other side, we largely do not recognize the structural access… Only the outsider can spot all these attitudes in us” (Wytsma).
John indicated that white privilege comes initially from our upbringing, so the issue continues for generations, where whites largely refuse to understand the plight of racism. He noted that the millennial and following generations are the first time that he sees an opportunity for meaningful change. The new generations raised in the age of technology have access to the Internet to open and honest conversations. New generations are increasingly more tolerable than ever before. I replied that while that may be true, white privilege still persists. Just because a freshman white girl reposts “I support BLM” but continues to attend a prestigious university, sipping her Starbucks latte and not having to worry where her next meal will come from – does not mean equality has been achieved. To which John agreed but noted that there is progress; for a young person to demonstrate support for African Americans’ fight for rights a short 50 years ago would have made them and their whole family a social outcast. As highly social creatures, bias is most likely evolutionary for humans, built on tribalism from humanity’s earliest days. However, as well known, bias is learned because, as seen in children, they do not care for race, gender, religion, or nationality. They embrace and accept one another, just as the Gospel says, “Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12). And how does God love us unconditionally and wholeheartedly?
I then brought up Kingdom ethics and sought to apply it to the issue of race. Kingdom ethics indicates that looking at a practice-based understanding calls for paying attention to context and the worldview, which gives meaning to the actions. Ethical decision-making stems not only from ethical reasoning but from social communities, broader worldviews, and views of a cultural context where change can take place. Therefore, can it be said that current society is not ethical because of the status quo where racism is still prevalent, and there is such an inherent divide that normative practices still largely ignore the issue rather than face it and resolve it?
John thought about it and then reminded me of one of the lesser-known parables from the Bible, about the Lamp. When putting up a lamp, it gives light to everyone in the house. “You are the light of the world… In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds” (Matthew 5:14-16). John explained that while the world is imperfect, it is ultimately to each individual to attempt to make it better, to be the light, and to do ethical deeds. He suggested that it’s impossible that one day we will wake up and racism will be gone. No, it will probably take centuries, more time, and considerable efforts before some level of an egalitarian society are reached. That is unfortunate, but that is the nature of true change; it occurs slowly. The main question is, are people willing to change because, without their own will, no belief can be forced? Those of us that adhere to the ethics and have compassion and at least some understanding of the issue should attempt to spread the light by educating. I was instantly reminded of the words from Scott B. Rae, “Ethics are important because they give direction to people and societies who have some sense that they cannot flourish without being moral.” To which John replied, yes, ethics are the foundation on which we can build a better society, a moral society, but for that, we have to achieve tremendous collective growth.
The last theme that I wanted to focus on was the presence of racism in organized religion and if the Church has a role to play in this social issue. A quote that I found important from the book was, “We don’t want anything or anyone disrupting or subverting the religious climate that allows us to get along by not talking about things that we find challenging or that confront our value system” (Wytsma). Sadly it seems that the Church has been complacent throughout history and, to this day, remains relatively silent on the issue; most of the Christian denominations have not openly taken a stance on race. John agreed with this sentiment, suggesting that to him personally, it is a great shame. He noted that Christianity had been the primary religion of the U.S. since the early colonies, our ethics and morals are based on Christian values, our legal framework revolved around Christian principles, and for centuries the Church had utmost influence in society. However, the Church, regardless of denomination, as all are guilty, has been directly involved or complacent to slavery, then segregation, and discrimination. Pastors such as himself had preached the Gospel that calls upon us to love each other, to give alms to the poor, to sacrifice everything for the fellow human if so called upon. Only to turn around and abuse humans worse than if they were animals, creating a literal Hell on earth. It is very hypocritical, and it is absolutely disgusting.
I mention that it seems that the Church was practicing relativism, “an ethical system in which right and wrong are not absolute and unchanging but relative to one’s culture (cultural relativism) or one’s own personal preferences (moral subjectivism)” (Rae). John agreed and immediately mentioned the concept that was also discussed in Rae’s book, when becoming a Christian or calling yourself one, partaking in the traditions and worship, one enters into a relationship with Christ with the goal to be like Him and inherit eternal life. However, to be a true Christian, you have to adopt a set of principles and change the way you look at the world. There is no inherent combination where racism and Christianity in their true forms fit together. However, our ancestors seemed to and in some parts of the country, continue to make it work superficially and hypocritically.
I asked John if the Church could do anything to play a part in making progress towards understanding and equality. I provided him with a quote from Wytsma, “I’m learning the need to actively seek diverse representation in decision making, leadership and speaker scheduling. To the degree we do not, we are consciously or unconsciously discriminating and thereby doing a disservice to the kingdom. To be clear, diversity doesn’t trump competence, character, or having a message. Leaders and teachers have, and should have, a high bar of accountability with regard to teaching and influence.”
John agreed with Wytsma that diverse representation in the church leadership, pastors, and educators are a good way to start. John noted that he was fortunate to work with some amazing Black and Latino Baptist pastors who really inspired him. He indicated that the Baptist church is one of the Christian denominations which has a strong black community and representation. However, the unfortunate thing is that churches end up unintentionally getting divided by race. African Americans prefer to attend the churches with the black pastors while whites stick to the white pastors, another example of the twisted element of culture that once segregated the churches and now is labeled as tradition. John believes the Church can be more active in bringing people of all ethnicities together. It has that power and influence, and it should encourage such interaction. Only through direct interaction and communication can people of various races and backgrounds learn from each other and understand that despite all the differences, there stands in front of them the same human with the same worldly challenges. In order to fix the problems in society, the Church has to begin with itself, diversifying its organizations and leadership and breaking the barriers to the convention. And most importantly, as John tries to do with his pastoral work, to communicate and educate on what is morally right, translating the Christian values into the real world of reducing bias or helping thy neighbor in need. I note that it is a very passionate ideal, but in the words of Wytsma, “If we talk only about one side, it can seem to imply that the other doesn’t matter. The challenge is to make sure everyone is heard, understood and valued.”
Rae, Scott B. Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics (4th ed.). Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan, 2018.
Wytsma, Ken. The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege. Westmont, IL, IVP Books, 2019.