The 2016 presidential election cycle has been deeply troubling for many Americans. One of the issues that has resonated most has been the racial divide. As a consequence, conversations and concerns about racism have surged to new levels of intensity.
To some, the combination of divisive rhetoric at campaign rallies, racial profiling in police departments, and structural racism in justice systems has opened a new door to racial unrest. However, many in the church realize that the scab has merely been pulled off an unhealed wound inflicted centuries ago.
There are those who maintain the hope that racism between whites and blacks eventually will be overcome. However, we can neither afford to underestimate the enormity of this task nor ignore the acts of depravity that have been cancerous to our society. If we are going to overcome, we must continue to acknowledge where the responsibility lies.
It lies in the church — not in government. Racism is a problem of religion and faith that is rooted in the heart and bred within the norms and traditions of the church. It emerges out of a belief system that is both inwardly and outwardly destructive. Because its impact is systemic, it must be addressed both individually and organizationally.
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In recent years within religious circles, there has been an increase in conversations about diversity and racial healing. As those discussions continue, there are several strategies that may be implemented in advancing the cause.
First, let’s engage in soul searching. Too often, we want to diagnose the condition of others without first considering our own state. Remember the question Jesus raised, “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye?” He suggested: “First get rid of the log in your own eye.” Every individual and every church must conduct self-evaluations to access where they are with racism and how to overcome it.
Second, let’s become active listeners. In other words, listen for understanding rather than opportunities to defend. In his book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey teaches what he calls the fifth habit: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” If we’re going heal the breach, we must listen compassionately, seeking to learn from one other, rather than defend and prove.
Finally, together, let’s study the influences and norms of the black church. Some theologians assert division between believers is partly due to the fact that biblical scholarship is driven by white, Euro-centric interpretation. As a result, the valuable contributions of blacks to theological studies have been minimized or overlooked.
A study of African-American religious history may reveal how racism gained an early foothold in the church and promoted division rather than unity. According to Maya Angelou, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” A great place to begin is with Cain Hope Felder’s book, “Stony the Road We Trod: African American Bible Interpretation.”
Truthfully, there is no simple solution to racism. However, scripture teaches God’s love has been poured into our hearts and the dividing walls of hostility are broken down. In other words, he jump-started the process. Now, it’s up to us to do the rest.
The Rev. Gail T. Smith is pastor of the Universal Light Christian Center in Macon.