By the Rev. Dr. Larry E. Thompson, the Rev. James A. Cobb, Rev Henry L. “Charlie” Sanders Jr., and Deacon Glenn Davis
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:24-25 NIV
Just a small amount of research will show that racism is embedded and hard-coded into American society. While those who benefit from a system of racism are perfectly fine with this arrangement, those who are continually oppressed and marginalized by the system cannot remain silent. While centuries of hard-fought battles have brought about needed change in housing, education, employment, the military, and other institutions, it is sobering to recognize that our religious institutions have remained heavily segregated.
Why have our churches been unwilling and unprepared to address the issue of race? We believe that there is a “keeper of the castle” mentality that has long existed within the church that simultaneously protects the current state of the church while guarding it from changes. It is this “keeper of the castle” mentality that keeps the church locked in time and space.
Racial Prejudice Is Not New
Racial prejudice is not a modern issue confronting the church. In Jesus’ day, racial discrimination was embedded in first century Jewish culture and practice, which held a deep abhorrence of Samaritans. Why? Because the Samaritans were a racially mixed group of Jewish and Gentile ancestry. Samaritans were seen as traitors to the Jewish people and even God Himself. In chapter 4 of the Gospel of John, we read of the story of Jesus and the disciples on a journey from Judea to Galilee. But, in what would have likely been a shock to Jesus’ Jewish disciples, they end up stopping in the town of Sychar located in Samaria.
While in Samaria, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well and asks her for a drink of water. At the time, Jews and Samaritans rarely had dealings with one another. So, for Jesus to drink water from the Samaritan woman’s jar was considered culturally unacceptable, against societal norms, and according to Jewish law, would render him ceremonially unclean. The Pharisees were a group of religious leaders who upheld and perpetuated a “keeper of the castle mentality” to make sure that the “outsiders” could never be “insiders.” Racial prejudice was given religious justification. And yet, in this radical act of love, Jesus breaks down these commonly held barriers of his day. He demonstrates how we too should overcome racial prejudice and work to put aside acts of inequality towards others.
Don’t Settle for Superficial Acceptance
“Superficial acceptance” is a phrase that may best describe how Christians may worship the same God but allow cultural and societal practices to override Jesus’ teachings. Superficial acceptance is when we simply talk about our togetherness as one Body in Christ but don’t walk out this togetherness. While we may talk about unity, we act in ways that show that we have allowed societal and cultural rules to prevent us from fully accepting others and discourage us from going out and worshiping with others. Actions indeed speak louder than words. Churches that really are not working towards breaking chains and knocking down walls of separation are upholding a “keeper of the castle” mentality.
Superficial acceptance has allowed us to profess our belief in Christ and deny his desire for us to be one as expressed in John 17:21. Superficial acceptance has allowed us to believe in salvation in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and yet, allow us to place our own comfort as a barometer for worshipping God in spirit and in truth. This is why we are most comfortable worshipping in our racially segregated traditions and prefer not to be discomforted worshipping as one Body in Christ.
Back to Love
The church today has overlooked the encounter that Jesus had with the Pharisees in Matthew 22. In this encounter, an expert in the Law tested Jesus with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” Jesus replied with a great guiding principle for the Body of Christ in the 21st century: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
The importance of love as a guiding principle is reinforced in John 13:34-35: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” In fact, it may be safe to say that a “keeper of the castle” mentality is one that is devoid of true, other-centered love. If only the church would learn to go back to the principle of love!
Racial prejudice and discrimination is self-love on a group scale. Superficial acceptance has the form of love but lacks its substance. True love as we see in Jesus’ greatest commandment is always self-emptying, self-sacrificing, and focused on the benefit of the “other,” the marginalized, the oppressed.
The Need to Address the Plague of Racism
Yet, how can the church be qualified to remedy the systemic issue of racial injustice in the world when it has not first looked inward and dealt with the racial division within itself? The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated famously in 1963, “It is still appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” The year 1963 is not much different than 2020. Even decades later, the church remains a segregated institution. The church remains relatively quiet concerning the issues of racism and inequality. Maya Angelou described racism well when she said that it was “a plague that is insidious, entering into our minds as smoothly and quietly and invisibly as floating airborne microbes enter into our bodies to find lifelong purchase in our bloodstreams.”
Racism is not something the church can avoid. It is not a denominational issue. It is not a Black issue, nor is it a White issue. Racism is a human issue. It is a church issue. If it is true that the church is the Body of Christ, and if Jesus does not act with partiality or favoritism, then shouldn’t the church be the place where partiality or favoritism is confronted and dealt with as seriously as any other false teaching about Jesus? Shouldn’t the church be shaped through and through by the way Jesus dealt with racism and social injustice in his meeting with the Samaritan woman?
Have we come to the time and point where we all must deal with racial injustice, especially within the church? Is this the appointed time and place for the church to deal with its racial division issue? We believe that the time has arrived for us to move from the superficial acceptance and politically correct racial interactions toward authentic, loving relationships as God has commanded.
The church must not continue to allow societal and cultural practices to override our Christian values. Racism and social injustice are tightly woven into our society and taught and passed down through our traditions and norms. Those who fight to maintain “the way things are” and are passionately resistant to change are those with a “keepers of the castle” mentality. It is time that we as the church recognize this, repent of this mentality, and move toward the love that we’ve been called to in Christ. The church has lagged so far behind for too long. It is time for us to lead the way.
The Rev. Dr. Larry E. Thompson is pastor of Beulah Baptist Church and a chaplain with the Chesterfield County Police Department in Virginia. The Rev. James A. Cobb is a pastor and teaches courses in Religious Studies. The Rev Henry L. “Charlie” Sanders Jr. has served as an ordained Baptist minister for 20 years in Alabama, Maryland, and Virginia. Deacon Glenn Davis has held multiple leadership positions within his local church.