How the Church Can Repent of Its Slaveholding Legacy

Christians in America must come to terms with how institutional racism has infected us. Few white persons in twenty-first-century America see themselves as racist. (Even fewer Asian, Latino or African American persons do.) Most American Christians—white, Black or brown—are horrified by the idea of a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) rally or by the public personality who occasionally gets caught saying the n-word.  But personal animus against others because of the color of their skin isn’t the racism that turned the gospel against itself. Remember, enslaved people were “family” to Paul Cameron and Thomas Ruffin.

The sin that ripped the gospel in two—the spiritual root of our political divisions and class disparities—is a lie that was told centuries ago to justify owning, using and abusing other human beings. Racism is about implicit bias as much as it’s about public policy. It’s why a white applicant with a criminal record is as likely to get a job as an African American with no criminal history. And it’s why African American veterans of World War II didn’t benefit from the GI Bill — legislation offering educational funding, low-interest housing loans and other support for veterans — the same way their white counterparts did. It is why, two and three generations later, the median disparity between the wealth of white and Black families hasn’t changed, despite the advances of the civil rights movement. Racism is why historically Black neighborhoods across America are gentrifying at breakneck speed while the families who built and sustained these communities are being displaced.

This is what racism means: we live in a society that continues to be divided, and we are, each and every one of us, split in two ourselves. When white Christians refuse to hear cries for justice from Black and brown sisters and brothers, it is one more symptom of the racism that has long divided our souls, our congregations and our nation. When middle-class Americans silence the voices of poor Black and brown people who know from daily experience that race and history still matter, our hardness of heart betrays a spiritual sickness that Jesus detected in the Pharisees of his own day. We, like them, have turned the gift of God’s law against itself. Splitting the good news in two, we refashion it as both a shield against God’s grace and a sword to wield against our neighbors. We turn God’s good news into our bad news.

Fifteen years ago, Leah and I moved to Durham’s Walltown community, a historically African American neighborhood whose residents have maintained Duke University since its first janitor, George Wall, moved here in the 1890s. Ignorant of much of Walltown’s history, we relocated to a place that has taught uswhat it means to be white. People like Sammie welcomed us into a community where we’ve worked and worshiped—where our kids play under the watchful eyes of grandmas who sit on their porches and young men who walk these streets, wondering whether their lives matter to anyone else. One of them knocked on the door not long ago and asked, clearly worried, if I knew my two-year-old was playing alone on the porch. No one needs to tell this young Black man that all lives matter.

In this place, neighbors and friends have taught us to see racism — to name the ways history still shapes the present and to doubt the certainties we inherited along with being white. These people, together with the Holy Spirit, have stirred up a passion within me to face America’s original sin in my own heart and to join the freedom movement that is committed to exorcising it from our common life. They have shown me how a gospel that doesn’t confront racism is no gospel at all. In a moment of clarity—seeing myself and my gospel ripped in two by this shared history — Saint Matthew’s helped me to finally name what had left me feeling sick on Christmas Eve.

For all my life I’ve known that the gospel must reconstruct my life. Whatever humanity’s problems, Jesus is the answer. This I believe. 

But what do you do when you realize that your Jesus has been ripped in two—that the name of the one who came to set us free has been hijacked by the principalities and powers that bind us? What happens when, like Mary in the garden, you realize they’ve taken away your Jesus and you don’t know where they’ve laid him?

It is not easy to pray in the midst of such a faith crisis. You find yourself questioning the One you’re used to going to with your questions—wondering if you’re talking to the true and living God or some projection of your privilege that you fashioned in your own image.

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But a good diagnosis at least clarifies the situation. Better to see how you’ve been deceived — how, even, you’ve deceived yourself — than to miss the gospel because you thought you already had the answer.

I call it the foggy morning of the soul — that liminal time when you can see just enough to pull the car out of your driveway — but you aren’t quite sure you see where you’re going. We turn our headlights on in such a situation. We sit on the edge of our seats, eyes wide open to detect whatever might emerge before us. We are afraid, yes. But we lean in, because there’s no other way to get where we are going.

This is why Jesus said that the poor are blessed and the hungry will be satisfied and the merciful will be shown mercy. Not because God loves them any more than he loves the rest, but because they know their need. They have a clear diagnosis. A hungry man knows he needs bread. A heart that’s been broken knows it wants mercy. And a soul that can see its own self-deception knows it needs good news, which is what the gospel is.

A friend of mine calls it the End-of-Your-Rope Club. There are a thousand ways to get there, but however we come to the end of our ropes, it is the place where we discover that our only hope is a love that comes from beyond us. Maybe you’ve thought you’ve known the gospel all your life. Maybe you’ve always thought it sounded like some crazy con. Whatever your background, the only good news that’s worth believing comes through loud and clear at the end of your rope. This is where you learn you need a Savior.


Taken from Reconstructing The Gospel  by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Copyright (c) 2018 by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com.

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