Churches and the race issue - Word&Way

Churches and the race issue

Even churches and church leaders have reacted differently to recent racial crises in Ferguson, Mo., New York City and other places in America.

Bill Webb

Many people see the rancor over the shooting deaths of African Americans by police officers as something that will blow over when the media moves on to other issues and when emotions settle down.

But many pastors and others are meeting with people not like themselves to figure out how to support victims of shootings and help restore peace to affected communities. They want to help families and communities through the crises.

Many religious leaders have come to the conclusion that racial discord has deep roots in towns and cities across the nation and that contributing causes and their structure must be thoughtfully but aggressively addressed. They see systems, practices and attitudes they know inhibit the full and fair implementation of civil rights in towns, cities, states and the nation.

They believe it is past the time when such issues should have been resolved.

Churches — especially predominantly white congregations — admittedly have a spotty record on race relations. Church people over the past several generations have literally been split over equal rights for black Americans.

Not until 50 years ago was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Amazingly, that was 101 years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, an important wartime executive order that was a precursor to the abolition of slavery.

Civil rights tends to be viewed as a social and political issue, and a large part of the faith community has in the main been content to follow the lead of society and legislatures on the issue of racial inequality up to and including the 21st century, at least thus far.

To be sure, there have been exceptions. A number of church leaders and laypeople entered the fray when leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. pressed African Americans — and Americans in general — to mobilize and protest by nonviolent means to secure equal rights — basic human rights — in America for citizens of every color and culture.

Americans have been reminded in recent days that protests can be uncomfortable, even if they do not turn violent like those recently in Ferguson and elsewhere. But some change has required formal protest.

Students of the Bible know how Jesus turned societal and individual prejudice on its ear by challenging entrenched systems and relating personally to individuals and groups his own religious tradition regarded as off-limits. He did so at personal risk.

It is time for the church to courageously extend its influence in this area anywhere such civil rights have been and continue to be abridged in practice.

What exactly can churches do?

Listen. Church people need to become active listeners. They cannot know about the challenges and struggles faced by others until they invite people not like themselves to tell their stories, share their hurts and voice their dreams. This also will afford intentional opportunities for building supportive relationships.

Pray. Believers know that faithful prayer produces results. It is a good way to demonstrate support for others and it changes the “pray-er” for good. In matters of racial tension, prayer is something every believer can do, and it may be the most important action. Pray for the Ferguson Commission’s work.

Influence for change. Ferguson Commission co-chair Richard McClure said one thing faith communities can do to effect positive change is to look at themselves and “determine what the gospel calls them to do.”

The commission is looking at citizen-law enforcement relations; municipal government and courts; and disparities in education, economic opportunity, housing, transportation, health care, child care, business ownership, and family and community stability.

Certainly the faith community will want to influence everyone involved to address issues that can help make an ongoing difference in how people are treated.

The faith community can lend a prophetic voice as legislative remedies are formulated and proposed. They can make sure they and their congregations demonstrate acceptance and support themselves.

Churches not only can make a difference, they must.

Bill Webb is editor of Word & Way.