A House Divided

Oh, man, time to go fishin’ cause I opened up a can of worms!  For ten straight days my Inbox has been full of emails concerning race relations in The United Methodist Church.  The emails are troubling on two separate levels — one, that people don’t feel safe airing their views publically on the blog (“please don’t post these comments publically…), and two, the stories reflect a serious problem in the way we treat those who are different.  I have received 126 emails — 3 saying that there is no racism in the church today, 21 saying that racism goes both ways and that whites are the current victims of racism, 18 saying it isn’t really racism if it is justified (i.e., if minorities are indeed inferior then we’re not being unfair, just telling the truth…), and a whopping 84 telling heartbreaking and painful stories of racism encountered at all levels of our church systems.  I’ve heard from three bishops, seven district superintendents, one agency general secretary and a whole boatload of pastors who say, unequivocally, racism is alive and all too well in The United Methodist Church.

The problem with such overwhelming response (at least, overwhelming for this small, humble blog…) is that it highlights all the symptoms of the problems, without addressing the root causes.  The bottom-line root cause is simple: we are allowing racism in the church.  And I find it troubling that 2/3 of the stories indicate that racism is a real problem, while 1/3 dismiss it as irrelevant.  We have yet to declare once and for all time that racism is evil and violent and unChristian and unacceptable.  I’m not talking about racism grounded in ignorance or negligence.  I am talking about outright prejudice and bigotry grounded in the hate of people based on heritage or skin color.  I am talking about overt, unapologetic racism.  Now, it may remain hidden and secret for a long, long time, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.  If you want to discover whether there is “underground” racism in your midst, accept a cross-cultural appointment.  Regardless of your feelings about cross-cultural appointments, regardless of how “good” or “qualified” the pastor is (both smokescreen issues), if there is racism in the congregation, it will be revealed.

In this case, unChristian is to Christian, as undead is to the living.  We have our emotional and spiritual equivalents in the church to the great monsters of gothic horror fiction — vampires who drain and dissipate positive energy and life, zombies who infect and consume and turn others through their poison, and werewolves who attack and savage and tear apart.  We are talking about creatures who are bent on doing violence, and they don’t care who gets hurt.  These are not merely misunderstood “sinners,” these are the people who are actively doing evil to their brothers and sisters.  Am I overstating?  I don’t know.  This past week I have heard of:

  • death threat phone calls in the middle of the night
  • vandalism of homes and vehicles, with hate messages scrawled in a disgusting variety of substances
  • actual shots fired from weapons at homes
  • children being followed from school or called at home while alone
  • hateful rumors being spread
  • physical assaults
  • name-calling and racial slurs in church
  • destruction of property
  • dead animals left of doorsteps
  • people dressing up in sheets and hoods and running across pastor’s lawns

Now, you may want to defend that these things happen everywhere and they aren’t necessarily racially motivated.  Great.  Sorry, but there is no justification for these types of behaviors in churches, and I believe there is a much higher incidence in race-related situations.  No, this isn’t just about the sin of racism, but about the evil of racism.  This isn’t just “bad” behavior, this is “monstrous” behavior.  Sin is about weakness and wrong-headedness; evil is unrepentant, intentional and self-righteous.  When people repent their racism, there is hope — sin can be forgiven and grace may abound.  But let’s be brutally honest, some folks love their racism and cloak it in a twisted form of Christianity, never acknowledging that the two orientations are mutually exclusive.  One cannot be Christian and racist at the same time.  One precludes the other.  To pretend otherwise is to… well, pretend otherwise.  We will always have to battle bias, prejudice, bigotry and ignorance, but racism is intolerable.  It is a form of evil, and as such we are complicit with it in any system where we do not work to eradicate it.

It is a source of shame that we have named racism (and sexism) as the evil that it truly is (see our Social Principles) yet allow it to continue unchallenged in so many places in our church and society.  It is a virulent infection, a toxic poison, and a debilitating cancer.  It turns people into monsters, and it only takes a few infected hearts to corrupt an otherwise healthy system.  It undermines the integrity of the body, and it accepts disease as normal while rejecting health and vitality.  It becomes part of our witness to the world, thereby destroying our credibility with a hurting, multicultural world.  It proclaims to all the world that we believe intolerance, injustice, exclusivity, and bigotry are simply part of who we are.  Until we take a stand against such behaviors and make racism absolutely unacceptable in The United Methodist Church, our witness is tainted and unChristian.

So, what does this mean?  Do we tell racists they can’t be part of the church?  Yes.  When people join The United Methodist Church, they make a promise before God and the company of believers to reject evil.  We still need to be in ministry to all of God’s people, including racists, but we do not have to allow those who practice hate, violence, and destruction to infect the body.  Racism is a clear violation of our membership vows, our Social Principles, our Theological Task, and our mission and vision.  There is no place for racism in the body of Christ.  But this is just my opinion.  I have been told by many that I am wrong and that you cannot hold people accountable to their vows.  But I question whether people with such hate ever become “members,” no matter what words they say or promises they make.  I cannot quite believe that we would stand by and let one member do physical violence to another, especially repeatedly.  Certainly, we would continue to care for such a person, but there would be some limits.  This isn’t about “kicking people out” of the church, but being clear what “being in” the church is all about.

One email really took me to task for being a “pansy” when it comes to the question of race, and wondered why I “buy into” the lie.  I have in my files a picture that was taken at a church I served.  The picture is dated 1915.  It shows the pastor of the church in his robes standing with two men in three-piece suits near the front of the church building.  They are laughing together and appear to be celebrating.  Behind them, hanging by the neck from a tree branch, hands tied behind his back with barbed-wire, is a young, black man.  Surely we have come a long way since 1915…  A few years ago I showed this picture to a well-educated pastor in Nashville, Tennessee.  I will never forget his response.  “Hmmm,” he said, “I wonder what he did to deserve that?”

This story isn’t any worse than the dozens I have heard this past week.  I know there will be many in our church who think I am just rattling on about something that isn’t very important.  But I have lost sleep this week thinking about the future of our church and the future of our world.  I think about how we pride ourselves on our open hearts and minds and doors, but I wonder just how open we really are?  One of the emails I got this morning chastised me for “focusing on a few isolated instances and making a big deal out of nothing.”  Maybe this is true, but I guess I feel like even a few isolated instances are too many for a church the professes the love of God and the grace of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

47 replies

  1. Well, I appreciate your blog immensly – as a Duke Divinity School 2 year student who relocated from Florida to NC your stories affirm and confirm the challenges future Elders face today. I am a Hispanic Female who plans on serving in the North Carolina conference. Suffice to say – this is a completely different world where I grew up in suburban Florida.

    I have experienced some of the stories, logistics aside – the “open hearts, open doors, and open minds” logo weighs on my heart …

    Thanks for providing a forum for discussion. We continue to face discrimination in the process of ordination in regards to race, age and gender. The church “affirms” the gifts of younger certified candidates readily but struggles with those who are middle aged or older. The participation in a UMC seminary no longer gives provides an “edge” into the process. Many of my graduating classmates face, gruelling questions and some have not passed the BOM process.

    The system is broken and biased, we need to own it and move forward!

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