Why Doesn’t the Church Engage Race Issues?
February 26, 2015
To put it mildly, 2014 was not a great year for race relations in America.
The cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Tamir Rice in Cleveland and Eric Garner in New York as well as other stories highlighted that the conversation about race in the U.S. still has a long way to go.
The conversation about race in the Church has a long way to go, as well. American churches remain largely segregated, and race issues can be a tricky topic to know how to engage from the pulpit.
That’s something Latasha Morrison is working to change. Shocked by the racial division she witnessed when she moved to Austin, Texas, Morrison decided to gather a diverse group of women to start meeting to discuss their experience with race and how they could work toward reconciliation.
Earlier this month, she and a group modeled such a conversation at this year’s IF: Gathering conference and drafted a group guide to help others have similar dialogues.
We talked to her about why the Church tends not to engage on racial issues, why Christians should take the lead in reconciliation and what that might look like.
How did you get involved in the work of racial reconciliation?
It’s always been a part of my unique makeup, how God has wired me. But it really didn’t become a great need until I started working in a predominantly white church and seeing the division. I’ve just really seen the divide and how it’s not even addressed. People are oblivious to the disunity and the barriers. Before, I didn’t have to speak about it because it was addressed. But now I feel the need to speak about it.
"[God] is diversity in itself, and He created all of us in all these races in His image—and they’re beautiful. Why wouldn’t the Church have that same initiative to model what Christ represents?"
I grew up military, so I grew up in a diverse community. I’ve always had friends of different races. I guess it was just surprising, especially moving to Texas, how so many people have not even had a friend, worked with or went to school with someone of a different race. And then you start realizing why churches find it difficult and why it’s off their radar: Their personal world is not diversified. When your personal world is not diversified or you don’t see the need for it, then that overflows into every aspect of your life. And that’s when you make assumptions because you don’t know anyone of a different race. And you can build on those assumptions and prejudices that can lead to other things.
Why would you say it’s important for the Church to be talking about race issues?
For me, I want to be a credible witness to those who are far from Christ. I want the Church to be a pioneer in this conversation. I want to exemplify biblical oneness and what it means to have unity, the very thing the Lord prayed for in John 17. The enemy has done the opposite and through the Church he has orchestrated disunity.
This is a Christian nation. We were founded on Christian principles. But with those same various Christian principles, Puritans used the word of God to distort and to oppress people. So even as Christians, we have to redeem that time and redeem those conversations and redeem those opportunities. We should be leading.
Some of the Fortune 500 companies have diversity initiatives. So secular organizations have diversity initiatives, but the Church [doesn’t]. God’s the creator of diversity! He’s the triune God. He is diverse. He is father, He is son, He is Holy Spirit. He is diversity in itself, and He created all of us in all these races in His image—and they’re beautiful. Why wouldn’t the Church have that same initiative to model what Christ represents?
It seems like churches—especially white churches—are hesitant to engage on race issues. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s a couple things. There’s fear. There’s shame and guilt.
And then the other thing is we try to attack these issues from a political standpoint, and politics are designed to be divisive. We need conversations that unite. You can’t jump into a conversation on race and the very next thing you jump into is affirmative action. The process of reconciliation includes righting the wrongs, but it also includes repentance and forgiveness. In those processes, you will deal with the injustices and the marginalization and the disparities, but that’s not where you start. You start from the standpoint of “Lord, we want to represent who you are. We want to be one like you and the Father are one.”
Oneness doesn’t mean me being one with everyone who looks like me, talks like me, acts like me, comes from the same community as me. We’re reconciled to Christ so that, in turn, we can be reconciled to each other. The ministry of reconciliation—that’s who He is! That’s what we do.
People try to approach it from a political standpoint, and when you do that you’re going to fail every time because people are going to put up walls and barriers. There were so many political things that were going on when Jesus walked this earth. The Pharisees tried to pull Him in on some of these political issues. They thought He was the king that was coming to set them free from the Roman Empire, but that’s not the path He took. He took a different stance, and the Church has to be able to lead in that neutral standpoint.
"You start with prayer: How can we pray for unity in that community? I think we forget that. That’s the starting point. And then from there, it can lead into more of a discussion."
A lot of times people, especially as a white male, they feel like “I can’t address it,” but that’s when you lock arms with another church or another pastor maybe of a different race to help you. But if our lives are separate, and we don’t have Asian friends or Latino friends or black friends, we’re in this little box where there’s no understanding. If our Christian leaders’ lives are like that, their congregaton’s lives are going to be like that, their children’s lives are going to be like that. So that same sin that divides is going to perpetuate itself.
What are some ways the Church can move forward in healing in this area?
One of the things as it relates to moving forward is to not be fearful of the conversation. The first thing we can do is listen. We’re so oblivious and we’re in our own worlds, we’re in our own boxes, where we can’t even connect paths. So one of the things we have to do is just to really connect in listening to people. Before you talk, even if you don’t understand, what I advise people to do is listen.
The conversation we modeled at IF is something people could use to start the conversation. We’re not necessarily talking about anything that’s going on in the news right now, but we’re just having a dialogue of friends and our experiences. I think starting there. Doing a study—starting with John 17 and looking at what that really means—what does biblical oneness look like? How are we to be one?
The thing is we’re all broken. That community is broken. So you start with prayer: How can we pray for unity in that community? I think we forget that. Why aren’t we praying for unity? Why aren’t we praying for reconciliation? Why aren’t we praying that we see each other as Christ has created us? That’s the starting point. And then from there, it can lead into more of a discussion.
In Scripture it says “that they would know you by the love that you have for one another.” We’ve been given the tools. It’s clear in the Word of God, but I think it starts by listening. Sometimes, when we don’t like what we hear or if it’s an awkward conversation, we don’t want to engage it. We have to embrace the awkwardness. We have to embrace the uncomfortability if we want to move on and begin to heal. That healing process involves reconciliation, but I think the first step in that is being willing to pause and listen, especially to your brothers and sisters of a different race.
I think the issue breaks the Lord’s heart. And it should break our hearts. Not talking about it—it’s not going to go away, it’s always going to resurface.