Behind every discussion in American life is the question of race. At this stage in our history, with the long shadows cast by slavery, Jim Crow segregation, the struggle for civil rights, and last year’s gathering of white nationalists in Charlottesville, the impact of race is not something we can ignore if we want to be honest about who we are. Race and racism are still the ocean we swim in, even if the vast majority of us are trying to shed old racist ways of thinking and behaving.
Recently we’ve had an opportunity to reflect on our racial history. Two weeks ago, some of my United Methodist colleagues participated in activities in Washington D.C. to recall the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee 50 years ago this month. Last weekend, the Virginia Conference sponsored the Bishop’s Convocation on Religion and Race in northern Virginia. Both gatherings recalled how Christians can be challenged by the gospel to confront the effects of racism in our nation and in our churches.
Next week we will recall another 50th anniversary—the birth of the United Methodist Church (UMC) from the union of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. The uniting of those two churches was not a sure thing. The Methodist Church still carried, as part of its legacy from a previous 1939 merger, a racially segregated Central Jurisdiction for its African-American churches. The integration of those churches into the larger church was a condition for the creation of the UMC.
When delegates gathered in Dallas on April 21, 1968, just 17 days after Dr. King’s death, there was a conviction among many of them that whatever this new UMC would be, it would have to be honest about its difficult racial history and commit itself to racial inclusion. There were losses in the dissolution of the Central Jurisdiction. It had been an engine for developing African-American leader in the church. But the vision was for a church where racial equality could be achieved.
We’ve still got a ways to go. Fifty years later, our churches are still largely segregated. The practice of open itinerancy has brought clergy of color into largely white congregations and some white clergy have made the move in the other direction. But those appointments still bring unique challenges due to the lingering effects of our racialized history.
There was a time when the Christian churches might have imagined that they were on the forefront of the movement toward racial equality in the US, but now it seems we follow rather than lead. Sometimes we even resist. For all the progress we celebrate, we are still in the grip of principalities and powers that rule in our day.
Our national conversations spend a lot of time trying to delineate what and who is racist. Individual white people wonder if they are racist and try to convince themselves that they can be free of racism, like kicking a smoking habit. As an expression of purity, we can try to be free from racist sins.
But the truth is that racism is a manifestation of big ’S’ Sin and the only honest stance we can hold in relation to Sin is to admit that it infects our every action. It is the environment into which we are born. It is the air we breathe. And from that we need a Savior, not a resolution to do better.
There’s one more thing to say about Sin, though: God says ‘no’ to it. Said it definitively on an Easter morning. Delivered us from slavery to Sin and Death, as we say in the Great Thanksgiving. Has died. Is Risen. Will come again.
A conversation about where we are with race needs to start here—in confession that we all live in the deformed world that Sin has wrought and in confidence that God will reveal the restored cosmos announced in the cross and resurrection. If we’re all in this space, there’s no room to step outside into an imagined America that doesn’t have to deal with race anymore. We all live in the country where racism remains. We all need the conversation (not shouting match) on race that we’re avoiding. And Lord knows, we all need each other.