Thursday, July 9, 2015

Phil Wingeier-Rayo: Race and tradition in American Christianity

Today's post is by Philip Wingeier-Rayo. Dr. Wingeier-Rayo is Director of the Mexican American and Hispanic-Latino/a Church Ministries Program, Director of the United Methodist Regional Course of Study School for Local Pastors, and Professor of Christian Mission and Intercultural Studies at Perkins School of Theology.

The last two weeks in June have posed significant challenges to mainline Christianity in America.  One such major challenge to predominantly white Christianity occurred when Dylan Roof attended a Bible study at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and then shot and killed nine people—including the pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney. If Christianity is to retain its relevance in the United States, the church will need to reflect on its past and make significant adjustments to play a role in the spiritual direction of the country.

The June 17th shooting of nine African Americans at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston poses a threat to traditional white Christianity. Background checks on the killer, who is white, have revealed that he was baptized and raised in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and then radicalized through online contact with a conservative white supremacy group.  The media is associating conservative white America with Christianity.

In the ensuing days, seven African American churches have been burned down in four southern states.  Authorities have categorized some of these acts of arson and the others are still being investigated.  Although the perpetrators of all these crimes have still not been caught, the general interpretation is that Christianity, white supremacy and hate are peas in a pod.  Traditional white Christianity in the United States has been tainted by its subtle—and sometimes outright—support for white supremacy.

Generally speaking, Christianity is not being portrayed in the media as an institution of love and inclusiveness.  Many times Christianity has earned this reputation and other times it is guilty by association. Christians many times would rather associate with another person of their same race and similar background, regardless of his or her religious affiliation, than associate with a Christian of another race or different orientation.

Often times there are immigrant churches in our communities that have little connection or interaction with traditional churches.  This could be due to cultural or class differences; however, race plays a big role.  American Christianity is made up of primarily monocultural churches of Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, or Koreans, among others.  Other institutions in society such as schools, companies or the military have become much more integrated than churches.  One is more likely to mix with a diverse group of people outside of church.  In many instances young people who grow up in integrated schools, sports teams and communities who decide to attend church have to leave their diverse friendships outside the church.

While the shootings in Charleston are a particularly heinous example of the connection between traditional white Christianity and racism, that connection is forged every day in smaller though still destructive ways. I recall an experience twelve years ago while attending a small white church on the South Side of Chicago.  The neighborhood was transitioning from Eastern European to predominantly Latino.  While the middle school a block away from the church was already 90% Latino, the church remained all white.

When my wife (who is from Nicaragua) was named lead pastor and encouraged the congregation to open its doors to its neighbors, the long-time church members resisted. We proceeded to offer an after school program, ESL and citizenship classes, and eventually Sunday evening services in Spanish—without the members’ support.  The members held out and fought the transition tooth and nail.  There were verbal attacks left on my wife’s church computer and physical threats.  The members came and picked up dishes and furnishings that they had donated, rather than allow Latinos to use them.

When the membership declined to 10 people the annual conference took the formal action to close the church, and re-opened the building as a Spanish-speaking mission in the community.  The programs continued in the same building and the mission grew to a worshiping congregation of 70 people before we were assigned as missionaries to Mexico the following year and a new pastor was appointed. 

This unfortunate story teaches a great deal about the relationship between traditional white Christianity and race relations. One would assume that Christians would be delighted when a church building is used for new ministries that serve the community.  Likewise, Christians should rejoice when new believers give their lives to Christ and join the church. However, the existing congregation had their identity so closely tied to race that they were not able to see past their prejudices to see a God who is bigger than race and nationality.

As the racial demographics of the United States continues to change, traditional white Christianity must seriously reflect on its inability to be welcome people of other ethnicities or it will be in serious peril.  The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by the year 2044 the United States will be majority minority, i.e., it will have no racial majority.  This is more the result of birth rates of ethnic majorities than immigration.

If the church in the United States wants to be relevant to what will soon be the majority of the United States, then it needs to radically change its attachment to white supremacy and place its highest loyalty in a universal God who loves all people without exception--regardless of the color of their skin.  Predominantly white churches must repent from any association with white supremacy or accept that it will be an irrelevant institution for the majority of the U.S. population.  Christianity, in general, must disassociate itself from any form of racism or hate crimes and immediately welcome people regardless of the color of their skin.

Christians can resist attempts to identify God with their own race or to exclude persons of other ethnicities from attending their churches. Christians can wrestle Christianity away from those who propagate hate and division by restoring a biblical understanding of Jesus as the Son of God who proclaimed the in-breaking of the Reign of God where God’s love, peace and justice will prevail.  The Church can be a welcoming place that is a foretaste of the Reign of God.  The Gospel of John states: “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes may not perish but may have eternal life.”  Jesus came for the whole world to know a better way.  This vision of God demands our faith and loyalty above race, nationality or other differences.

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