Divided by Faith?

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Mar 22, 2011 by Alex Mekonnen | 0 Comments

 “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the problem of race in America” by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith has given me the current reality of race relationship in this country.  As I went through the book, I asked myself the following several questions: what caused this division? How come the gospel of Christ that enabled the ethnocentric Paul and many others transcend their bias of race and culture and joined a new community did not work in the U.S effectively? The Christian faith was supposed to unite us instead of dividing us. We’re supposed to be light in the darkness and salt in the corrupt world. What went wrong to make us treat each other like worldly people and live lower than what the Lord expected us to be? Before I reflect on the assigned book, I had to answer these questions in order to avoid simple generalization. Hence, I did extra reading to get to the root problem of Christians division by race in the United States.

It is a historical fact that African Americans landed in this country as slaves. Even if they had names, they were not called by their names but numbers. They were treated like chattel and property which dehumanized them to this day.  Without freedom, they had gone through many kinds of injustice. Interestingly, I found out that how the American white Christians reacted to slavery and treated African Americans then still bears fruit of division in our society. Soong-Chan Rah writes, “The deep levels of racism, cultural insensitivity, and incompetence have yielded a deep-seated rift between different communities in the United States. Not only explicit examples of racism generated animosity and mistrust, but implicit approval of racism and a passive inactivity toward injustice have perpetuated the racial divide”[1]. Yes, there were some white Christians who opposed slavery and the first American abolitionist were white American Christians. However, the general picture of the white church was that of indifference attitude and explicit and implicit endorsement of slavery. “Even being a minister did not preclude one from being a slave owner”[2]. In his letter to the Clergies from the Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King stated: “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives in the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country…I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride towards freedom is not the white’s citizen Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…I’ve been so greatly disappointed with the white church and leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions…”[3] To this Fredrick Douglas add, “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ I recognize the widest possible difference.” In his book, “My bondage and My Freedom” (1855 edition) Douglas narrates his upbringing and slave labor in the hands of white American Christian masters. His conclusive statement as well as Martin Luther’s assessment doesn’t come out of philosophical reflection. It was a brutal fact of life partly enforced and endorsed by the church. It is a startling rather disappointing discovery to me that, the root cause of division by faith in the United States is much deeper than Emerson and Smith present to us. Because of its thwarted and unjust beginning the values and freedom the oppressed fought for became a dividing tool than a unifying means. Emerson and Smith concur: “Choice and freedom are two of the dominant American values that today maintain the racialized society. Contemporaries may view these values as the realization of America’s destiny, but these values are at the same time now essential tools in dividing people along socially constructed racial lines” (2000:11). Choice and freedom is God given rights and virtues to mankind. Out of all people, I would say, Christians were supposed to make the best of it to confront evil, destroy any kind of barrier between people, and create the foretaste of the kingdom to come in our society. It is a paradox to me to read the story of white American missionaries who died out of their love for God and Africans and yet their white brothers and sisters at home cannot treat black Americans as humans. The action of the church during Nazi Germany, apartheid in South Africa, and slavery and segregation in the United States is the saddest and darkest chapter of Christian history. In both cases, thank God, there are exceptions. In the words of Roseau, the French thinker; “From the altar of history, [we] need to take the fire not the ashes.” Instead of making a sweep generalization and condemnation, we Christians and leaders of the present generation have to look at those who were embers of righteousness and became a huge fire that consumed the straw of injustice, inequality, and broke the chain of bondage. One way of doing this kind of leadership is by creating a healthy platform for honest discussion and reconciliation both for white and black Christians. The discussion should always lead to sincere confession and repentance before the Lord. In the issue of racism, both the victim and perpetrator of injustice need the grace of forgiveness and humility to accept one’s wrong doing. Harboring bitterness and hatred is as sin as torturing and enslaving another human being. Christ can redeem and heal people on both sides of the isle.

As Emerson and Smith described, the economic inequality, the difference in life expectancy, literacy and illiteracy rate, choice of life style in terms of television programs, causes of poverty and crime, etc is largely related to the outcome of segregation and injustice. For a Biblical faith to be one of the causes of division in American society than being instrument of healing and restoration is a huge failure that needs to be restored and healed.

[1] Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church, Moody Publishers Chicago, 2010; Pg. 56

[2] Ibid, 49

[3] The Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, JR. Edited by James Washington. Harper and Row Publishers, San Francisco, 1986:289-303.


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