A few weeks ago, I (Bobby) was privileged to participate in a conversation on racial issues at Mt. Helm Baptist Church in Jackson, MS for the Bradley-Rhodes Conversation. Among those who spoke were Rev. CJ Rhodes, Dr. Anthony Bradley, Dr. Ligon Duncan and Phillip Holmes of the Reformed African-American Network. Mr. Holmes led a panel of white and black seminary and college students who discussed their views of race in the Church.
I was asked to give an address that provided a history of the theological justification for racism, slavery and segregation in the US Church with a focus on the South. You can watch the address and other conversations here, but I closed with four actions that I perceive to be needs addressed by denominations, local churches and Christians. I will paste those below at the request of Dr. Ligon Duncan.
Let me offer a few words about practical repentance and how I believe we can move forward. These are not intended to be comprehensive by any means.
First, we need public confessions of repentance at denominational and institutional levels on the part of those whose history played a role in propagating racism. I realize that is not a popular stance in my own denomination, but in the book of Nehemiah, the Jewish people repented of the sins of their forefathers. This has to happen. I believe in denominations and I believe denominations, like my own, need to move beyond generic statements and move toward the pain. Because pain is honest and repentance will bring the seeds of reconciliation.
Second, we need honest stories. When Propaganda’s rap “Precious Puritans” was released last year, the white Reformed world in the US went ballistic that he talked about the reality of Puritans and race. Yet, academics have talked about it for years. Academics have talked about the racist views of white Southern church leaders. Academics have told us about sexual, cultural and physical brutality. Academics have told us these stories that seminarians and pastors and parishoners do not know about their own theological forbearers. If the writer of the book of Judges wrote that story the way most white Christians understand the history of Christianity in the US, it would be propaganda, plain and simple. We need honest stories even when they are uncomfortable.
Third, we need honest conversations and cross-cultural, cross-racial friendship and dialogue. We will never move past the sins of the past until we are willing to talk about it. I need to hear stories of my friends who get pulled over for “driving while black.” I need to hear stories about my friends whose parents and grandparents faced discrimination. I need to be told how my own privilege prevents me from understanding the world the way it does my African-American friends. I need to know. We need to talk about hard things, about social structures and the fact that there aren’t enough black Presbyterians and the fact that Evangelicalism will host Gospel Growth or Church Growth conferences but never explore the cultural and social issues of race and privilege.
The last thing I will offer is this: we need a resurgence of prophetic Christianity. One of the things I have realized over the past few years is that politics and markets have reinforced the racial divide among Christians in the United States. Prophetic religion always challenges the status quo. It always speaks boldly. It always makes everyone uncomfortable. Prophetic religion is not left or right or black or white, but it is hungry to show that change is needed and that change is possible. I believe that prophetic Christianity will breathe life into the American Church and awake her from the complacency and captivity to the Republican and Democratic parties; awaken her from the power of the marketers and corporations and will persuade others to heed the radical words of Christ who calls each of us to take up our cross and follow him.