In March, church leaders in the United States were driven from their pulpits by a pandemic. By June, they were driven to the streets to address the country’s racial reckoning. The two crises have brought new urgency to healing deep divisions in the American Christian family, starting with racism.
Across the country, clergy of all demographics have joined marches to reform police and bring equity to minorities, especially those disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19. That solidarity could be more than temporary optics. Many clergy have held video dialogues with their congregations to explore perspectives on racism. That’s a start to an empathy that could transcend intolerance and indifference.
A big test for religious leaders comes when the pandemic ends and the pews are filled again. That is when white ministers must confront followers with the hard questions of social justice that drew many into the streets. A sustained dialogue between mainly Black and mainly white churches should also begin.
Black ministers have long been weary of needing to tiptoe around questions with white colleagues about the use of Christian theology to condone or ignore social and economic inequality. Among American Protestant Christians, 2 in 5 white adherents say the U.S. has a race problem while 4 out of 5 Black churchgoers say racism is a problem, according to poll released in June by the Barna Group, which tracks the role of faith in America, and the Racial Justice and Unity Center. The poll also found 75% of Black Christians say the U.S. has a history of oppressing minorities while only 42% of white Christians agree.
Significantly, 61% of white Christians say racism stems from the beliefs and prejudices of individuals, while 67% of Black Christians say racial discrimination is built into society and its public and private institutions. In the poll’s look at only “active” Christians, twice as many Black respondents say they are motivated to address racial injustice as are white participants. Pastors from just 29% of the Protestant churches surveyed said their churches had actively addressed racism.
The research for the poll was conducted in 2019, six years into the Black Lives Matter era but well before the current moment. Initial polling since the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor shows that public concern about racism, particularly among white people, is rising. The support that President Donald Trump has from many white evangelicals, however, has made Black Christians deeply skeptical of that group’s concerns about racism. Black ministers lament that, from seminaries to the highest councils of their faith, their interpretation of Christian theology is often dismissed.
Christians “are eager to stand around the throne, but very reluctant to sit around the table,” Albert Tate, lead pastor of Fellowship Monrovia in California, said during a Barna podcast last week. “I’ve grown accustomed to being disappointed by the lack of engagement by my white siblings on this issue” of racial reconciliation among Christians.
Speaking on the same podcast, the Rev. Dr. Nicole Martin, executive director of healing and trauma at American Bible Society, expressed frustration that many white Christians are unconvinced that racism is in fact a religious question. Theology, she argues, has gotten in the way. Black and white Christians approach the Scriptures from divergent experiences and interests shaped by America’s troubled racial history.
Yet it is in that very divide that unity and healing are possible. “There are all these little nuances in the way that we think about theology,” she said. “Now is the time to break up some of that ... and let the Bible speak.” The shock waves of racial injustice coursing through societies around the world have opened a new opportunity for Christians to unify in America. That starts with seeing the sacred texts they share as deep resources of healing rather than the basis for division.