It is no longer possible for millennials to pretend that we live in a post-racial society. In truth, it probably never has been.
Yet many persist in relegating racism to the realm of past generations. But, the reality is that racism is alive and well in the millennial generation, both in society and the Church, and the denial of that fact by white Christians actively and continually causes harm to our brothers and sisters of color.
The myth of a post-racial church has its roots in a dangerous combination of whitewashed history and dubious biblical hermeneutics. Verses like Galatians 3:28 (“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”) and Matthew 18:15 (“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone”) are reinterpreted and weaponized to shut down productive public discourse about real, experienced inequalities in the church, and those that continue to draw attention to such inequalities are branded “divisive.”
Take, for example, the recent dust-up at Moody Bible Institute over a vandalized poster belonging to the African-American student group Embrace. The poster was for an event (led by their white vice president) to discuss white privilege.
Tiana Taylor, the president of Embrace, says they have always had their posters ripped down or vandalized in some way—it’s a common occurrence. But this time, someone posted a picture of the vandalized poster to one of the Moody student Facebook groups, and an online firestorm erupted.
Students and others came out of the woodwork to defend the act of vandalism and chastise Embrace for “causing division in the body of Christ” and “categorizing white people as elite oppressors.” Many others—students and alumni—showed up to defend Embrace and started a hashtag on Twitter (#mbiprivilege) that allowed for sharing of information and stories and galvanized the administration into issuing a public statement acknowledging the reality of white privilege and condemning the vandalization. Moody Bible President Paul Nyquist released a thoughtful, forceful statement which read, in part:
People who are white, such as myself, because we are of the majority culture, often fail to understand the privileges we enjoy due to our skin color, for it is all we have ever known. Therefore, the conversation hosted on our campus last week is part of an ongoing effort to bring greater campus-wide understanding to the issue and I applaud and affirm its purpose.
It’s a good start. But the real question is, why did this happen in the first place? It isn’t an isolated instance.
In interviewing people for this article, I heard tales of being followed by campus security officers, students displaying Confederate flags in their dorm rooms, African-American students being told they “weren’t black like all the other black people” and that’s why they were cool. Guests and visitors of white students have been asked to leave the premises.
John Pendleton, former president of Embrace, said it felt like he was “the unofficial ambassador for the black community for four years” as white students assumed that because he was black, he was an authority on gun legislation, racial violence and more.
In spite of story after story of experienced racism and racial prejudice, there are many who insist that white privilege simply doesn’t exist—that it’s a construct employed to cause division in the Church and since we’re all one in Christ, we would be better off just “moving on.” But the fact of the matter is that the very ability to deny the reality and prevalence of racism—and the necessity of vigorously deconstructing it—is a function of white privilege, and it is racism, not the exposure of it, which is unworthy of Christian discourse.
It’s not fair to blame all this on one school or institution. Wheaton College, another well-respected Christian institution, has been dealing with similar issues. During the same week #mbiprivilege was making the rounds on Twitter, students at Wheaton dressed up as KKK members and paraded around as a part of a “comedy” sketch. Evidently, the sketch was an attempt to mock the KKK and racism, but the tone was very off.
This is, of course, not exclusively or even primarily a Christian college problem; the disgusting video of the racist fraternity chant from the University of Oklahoma is a much more blatant expression of subtler, more ingrained sentiments heard in Christian halls. However, Christian colleges shouldn’t let that lull them into complacency when it comes to address lingering racial prejudice on their campuses. In the OU video as well as many hundreds of smaller ways in colleges all over the country, the white experience is prioritized and glorified over against the black experience, whether in the Church or in society in general.
Nickolas Gaines, Moody Theological Seminary alumni, said it felt like his cultural identity was stripped from him using theology: “Three white guys were the pillars of systematic theology, and whenever I would bring up other perspectives from black theologians, they were either deflected or not acknowledged—which was ironic that as an urban ministry major, liberation theology and its framing of Jesus and His ministry to the oppressed wasn’t being represented … It’s hard to appreciate diversity (and minister to others) when your training doesn’t esteem other experiences as equally worthy and valid.”
Gaines sees the problem as systemic. He says, “They’ve learned these attitudes at home. That tells me the system is the problem.”
And that certainly seems to be the case—Christian institutions are churning out pastors and ministry leaders in record numbers, many of whom somehow manage to leave their campuses without a working knowledge of the historical and cultural issues relevant to the very ministry they’re trying to do. They, in turn, pass on their assumed prejudices to the next generation, and so on and so on until we reach these crossroads, where lines in the sand are drawn and it’s made clear who stands on the side of the marginalized and who stands on the side of the status quo.
And what’s important to remember is that these events at the crossroads are happening on college campuses. With millennials. This is not a situation of the older folks still clinging to “the way it used to be” and the younger folks forging a new way forward. It’s sometimes millennials who think “the way it used to be” is either God-ordained or not really that big of a deal.
And that’s telling. The fact is that we have an entire generation of people who profess Christ and many of them have no idea what that looks like in the context of relating to their friends of color. They are unable to muster up a basic human empathy to weep with those who weep, to listen and to make space for the experience of others, to consider that perhaps the way they have always viewed the world is not the only legitimate way to view it. They know one way to use Scripture, and that is to bolster their preconceived notions about who God is and how the world works.
Gaines says the first step is to address it on both a systematic and an individual level. Yes, having conversations with friends about race is important, but “racism isn’t new, and until we’re honest with how the Church has contributed to the systemic problem and supported white supremacy, nothing’s going to change. This is a systemic Evangelical Christian problem.”
Chenier Alstin, a 2004 alumni and Chicago-area pastor, believes education may hold the key for a lot of students. “Some of these kids do these things because they literally don’t know any better, because the came from a town where they didn’t know anyone different from them. And some of these kids should know better and just have negative, racial prejudices.”
Either way, he says, they need to be taught about the history of white supremacy and racism in Christianity and discipled in how to be sensitive and inclusive of cultures that are not their own.
It has to stop. And we must do better. No excuses. There is no “both sides” when it comes to racism—there is either justice and equality … or sin. The Gospel is abused when it is used to justify anything less.
Emily Joy Allison is a writer and spoken word poet currently residing in Nashville, TN. She cut her teeth on the Chicago slam poetry scene while getting a degree in philosophical theology from Moody Bible Institute. Emily is passionate about challenging the status quo of the universe through art and empowering people, especially women, to pursue justice, speak their truths and ask hard questions. Her new spoken word album, All Prodigal Daughters & Sons, will be released early this summer. Her work can be found at emilyjoypoetry.com.