In honor of Black History Month, I’ve asked a number of friends and colleagues to contribute guests posts sharing their wisdom about how to live in a world where so much is shifting, and so much stays exactly the same. I encourage you to let these words sink in. – Mike
I recently viewed Raoul Peck’s new film I Am Not Your Negro, which is essentially a radical narration about race in America, featuring the social commentary of James Baldwin. I came away from this film with many thoughts and emotions, not least of which was the profound realization: if white supremacy is ever going to be curtailed and derailed, those who created it will have to do it.
As Baldwin classically asserts “If I’m a nigga, you invented me.” This point cannot be under-emphasized. Though many white Americans constantly bemoan the divisive state of race relations in the United States of America and feel that race is constantly placed in conversations where it doesn’t belong, they forget that this is a conundrum of their creation. Whiteness created ‘race.’ Thus giving birth to racism and creating the context for centuries of conflict between so-called whites, blacks and others.
Given this reality, one wonders why more whites don’t see it as their responsibility to tear down the racial tower of terror they created.
Moreover, it is really sad and shameful that more White Christians have not stood up in the name of their loving God to oppose the evil that is white supremacy.
The Rise of White Christian Resistance
The fight to combat white supremacy in the US has, by and large, been led by Black Churches that came into existence in response to Christian-based racial discrimination. But the time has come for White Christians to step up and take the lead in terminating the nagging racial pest that their heritage of privilege has unleashed in our shared social home.
For years, blacks have led in this cause for the sake of our own humanity and equality. And though, we, Black Christians, are happy to share from the wisdom of our many years in the struggle against racial injustice, we cannot continue to be responsible for this fight.
To be sure, there have always been White Christian abolitionist and freedom fighters who have courageously supported the cause of equality. However, there has never been a major coordinated Christian-based movement for racial justice led and sustained by whites in this country. This reality must change, and I dare say that it is changing.
With the rise of the Trump presidential administration with its neo-fascist, white nationalist and draconian sensibilities, it seems like a new diverse coalition of justice-seekers is finally forming.
Learning from the Black Christian Freedom Struggle
If I’m correct that a new coalition of White Christian justice-seekers are rising up, they would do well to learn from the church that white supremacy created – the Black Church. Without a doubt, Black Christians have a long and productive legacy of engaging in communal combat against white supremacy.
Here are a few things that I think White Christians can learn from the black Christian freedom struggle.
Here are a few places to start:
The liberation struggle requires theological imagination.
Historically, most white scholars and theologians have not made the pursuit of justice and/or combating racism central or even marginal to their work. Instead they have chosen to put forward so-called Christian ways of being that either ignore white supremacy or cutely divert by talking about the more palatable topic of racial ‘reconciliation.’
[Mike’s note: As my friend Melvin Bray asks, “Re-conciliation? When have we ever been conciled to begin with?”]
In order to rise above this un-artful dodge, justice-seeking white Christians will have to use their theological imagination to construct their own theologies of resistance and liberation.
They will have to write books, construct sermons and give talks that tell the ugly truth about the rages of white supremacy and why it’s a divine necessity to deconstruct whiteness. This is what some the enslaved Africans did when they constructed the spirituals and what Benjamin Mays, James Cone, Jacqueline Grant and others did when they wrote about black liberation theology. In similar fashion, we need white liberation theology focused on liberating whites from the bondage of their conscious and unconscious white supremacy.
[Mike’s note: I resonate with everything that Reverend Billy is saying here, especially the need for a white theological imagination digging in deep for beauty and justice. An early popular example of this is Rob Bell and Don Golden’s book Jesus Wants to Save Christians, which Don once described to me – at a Wild Goose Festival planning retreat – as “liberation theology of white people.” But if you’re white and reading this, don’t read Don and Rob’s book unless you pair it with at least one of the books linked in the paragraph above! Let’s educate ourselves.]
The liberation struggle requires institutions animated by freedom.
No real movement can be sustained long-term without forming institutions that extend the liberation moment into a lasting cause. Black Christians demonstrated this by building schools, churches and civic organizations rooted in the pursuit of freedom, justice and equality for all. White justice-seeking Christians need to do the same. They need to build new educational institutions devoted to unlearning white supremacy and colonial mentality. They need new churches rooted in the radical gospel of subversive love and Holy Ghost-filled truth telling. They need to form civic organizations invested in the liberation of modern society from the perils of racial injustice and systemic inequality. In short, they need to turn the historic trend of pro-white institution building into pro-human institution building.
The liberation struggle requires moral resilience.
Because the work of justice-seeking and equality is often difficult and full of setbacks and disappointments, moral resilience is necessary for this journey. If the Black Christian church knows anything it’s that the freedom march is a marathon, not a sprint. It took 400-plus years to get equal protection under the law for African Americans in the US, and the fight still continues today. In like manner, I’m quite sure white supremacy and systemic inequality will not die tomorrow or the day after. White Christians seeking justice must pack their bags with resilience and prepare for a long ride down the road of freedom.
He is an ordained Presbyterian (PCUSA) minister and the founding pastor of Pulse Church in downtown Atlanta. Billy travels domestically and internationally speaking about issues relating to faith and culture.
His writings and sermons have been featured on the Huffington Post, On Scripture, Day1, Sojourners, Yahoo Voices and the Grio. He is also a graduate of the Candler School of Theology, the Interdenominational Theological Center and Beulah Heights University. Billy resides in Atlanta with his wife, Kaldeen. You can follow his work online here.
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