We were black, beyond the visible spectrum, beyond civilization. Our history was inferior because we were inferior, which is to say our bodies were inferior. And our inferior bodies could not possibly be accorded the same respect as those that built the West. Would it not be better, then, if our bodies were civilized, improved, and put to some legitimate Christian use?
Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Letter to My Son”
We live in a culture that is testing the church’s credibility.
Fr. Bob Schelling, homily, July 5, 2015
Before you do anything else, go and read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Letter to My Son”. Block out some time in your schedule if you have to; it’s a long read. Do not look away. Do not put it down. Read it to the end.
I read it this morning, before I got up, and I was still turning it over in my mind when I arrived at church. I therefore owe our visiting priest an apology because the only thing I gleaned from his homily today was the above comment about the church’s credibility.
Now, the church in the United States is a very broad, very fragmented, and, sadly, very segregated institution. We already lack credibility in our collective inability to get along as “one body”. If the American church were to be summed up in one word, “schismatic” is as good as any. However, the more I hear from voices like Mr. Coates’, the more I realize that the white majority of the church has yet to meaningfully reckon with its role in the darkest pages of American history. Until such a reckoning occurs, the American church will remain fundamentally incredible.
One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, white American Christians have a tendency to wave our hands in dismissal of the Christians who argued and fought in support of chattel slavery. We say things like: “That’s ancient history.” “Our nation has moved past that.” “We’re more enlightened now.” “Why bring up such an ugly subject in polite company?”
Even less thought and conversation is given towards what our Christian forebears did to the Native Americans.
But it’s not ancient history; black people have been free for less time than they were enslaved. (And can you even count the years under Jim Crow as freedom?) America has not “moved past that”; we have buried the skeletons in the closet, but their blood continues to cry out from the ground for justice. If we’re more enlightened now, please explain to me why American Christians are more supportive of institutionalized torture than people who are not religious? We must bring up these ugly subjects because otherwise we will never move past them, and our children will suffer their consequences to the third and the fourth generation.
The reality is that America is a country that was conquered through the systematic massacre of its native peoples and built on the backs of slaves, and we, the enlightened white Christian majority who are so grateful that racism is a thing of the past – we have a black President now, you know – every day we reap the tangible and intangible benefits of the pernicious, white supremacist system that our forefathers constructed.
We do not have to concern ourselves about driving while black.
We do not have to concern ourselves about redlining.
We do not have to give our sons The Talk.
Until the majority of the church can figure out how to put our white privilege to appropriate use – until we’re even able to admit that we are privileged by the sole virtue of our whiteness – the American church will remain fundamentally incredible.
You do not have to look far in America to find a church proudly displaying the Stars and Stripes. For many of us in the white majority of the church, our identity as Americans is
as strong stronger than our identity as Christians. We put our faith in our Second Amendment rights, drape our crosses and altars with red, white, and blue, and we preach American exceptionalism. How many of America’s churches didn’t incorporate patriotic music into their worship services this July 4th weekend? The ones that didn’t are probably all full of godless liberals, amiright?
Yet America is a violent country, born of a violent heritage. We have a higher violent death rate (10 per 100,000) than any other wealthy country. We don’t even have reliable records of how many people our police forces kill. (At least 1149 people were killed by police in the U.S. in 2014. By comparison, police in the U.K. have killed 27 people so far this century.) Our foreign policy has not evolved much from Theodore Roosevelt’s soft words and big sticks, except these days we don’t bother much with the soft words. Prince of Peace, we hardly knew ye. God bless America.
Until we unwrap ourselves from the blinding tangles of unexamined patriotism, the American church will remain fundamentally incredible.