Hard truths are sacred

As a professor of theology and ethics at a divinity school as well as a layperson with experience in African American churches, Nigerian immigrant churches and predominantly white churches over the course of my life, I know this much to be true: there are numerous Christianities in the world that, despite their diversity, are intricately intertwined.

Those of us who are products and members of the Christian church are not as disconnected as some may think. In fact, suffice to say, church history is not necessarily about grasping doctrinal beginnings and parsing theological foundations but mainly about recognizing where people and their beliefs come from.

History is integral to a perceived Christian togetherness. Consistently recognizing the details of such history, especially the forgotten or forgettable ones, is what etches itself into a healthy church’s ecclesial memory and function.

Within the United States, a common detail many do not know what to do with, or would rather not truly grapple with, is race. Where does race fit into a church’s history, and what needs to be recognized and named for it to be accounted for properly?

Racism in U.S. churches is a problem created by whiteness. Are white churches ready to recognize and do something about this?

What is white people’s responsibility if their Christianity, knowingly or unknowingly, takes its cues from whiteness? What is their responsibility if the veins of their ecclesial rhythms are historically connected to a heart intent on doing good in the world that has instead cauterized the lifeblood of God’s creative diversity?

Only time will tell — and in this short life, the only thing we have time for is the truth.

Whiteness, the superiority complex attached to having white skin or white European ancestry, has done a fantastic job of making itself appear to be a theological category.

Whiteness has tricked too many people into mistaking white people for purity, white cultural Christianity for righteousness, a European interpretation of piety for goodness. Whiteness overvalues European-based ideology and anoints it as holy, then goes on a crusade to convince the world, through violence and force, that clinging to rigid Europeanness signals the right way of living.

Black culture knows about white ethnocentric rules: anyone who does not agree with these rules is under threat. White Christianity becomes “right Christianity.”

It is the responsibility of white Christians to stop the oppressive piety, to stop the spiritual bullying, the shutting off of their ears to “others,” or worse, the appreciation of “others” and their practices as distant ideas that have nothing to do with their white community.

Historical examination and acknowledgment are a start to taking responsibility.

White Christian churches, their leaders and parishioners, their individuals and families, their theologically progressive, moderate, and conservative minds, must never stop learning about the history of the United States from minoritized perspectives, because history is still happening!

History must become like liturgy. It must be given a permanent space in the rituals of white ecclesiology.

And it must become so because it is a burden. It is already a burden for Black and other minoritized communities to bear what white parishioners and pastors and their ancestors have historically been involved in, advocated for, benefited from or remained silent about.

It is time for white churches to carry, for the remainder of their lives, the burden they have created for others, even those whose families never owned slaves, even those who are aware of their privilege and are already doing the best they can.

Whiteness has bestowed on all white people a gift — the gift of being perceived as pure, fundamentally correct and morally right-standing. This gift that was given to a blossoming whiteness established centuries ago continues to work hard to blanket the world in the same false perceptions today.

Taking on the burden of not turning away from or denying whiteness’s historical actions forces white Christians to choose: acknowledge history and walk in truth (one completely unsteadying to what they may “know”) or downplay history as a weapon minoritized communities or political pundits wield to make white people feel bad.

Remembering this truth, all of it, incites affect, feeling. White Christianity is grounded in a foundation of positive feeling — about one’s understanding of spiritual wellness and right living in the world. If it does not feel good, white Christians are convinced it isn’t God.

Upend feeling good with a dose of historical truth, and white Christianity becomes unrecognizable and — dare I say it — unwanted. But if white Christians pay attention to the messages of how one group should live well or rightly with another in Scripture, it hardly feels good.

It feels hard. And for many, it is difficult to equate “hard” with “right.”

The call to adjust and learn a wider way of being in the world is constant throughout the scriptural text. Hardly anyone lands on feeling good; they do, however, land on learning God.

Concretizing the hard truths of history permanently into the rhythm of the white church is a critical responsibility for white churches.

They will soon learn that being changed by the truth in this way will provide enlightenment about what must come next — whether it be dismantling denominational loyalties, revising practices of ecclesial and social community, talking about the immorality of land ownership, or insisting that the undoing of whiteness requires the building up of all minoritized communities historically affected by whiteness.

White churches serious about being Christian will begin to see what whiteness has done for and meant to them and will, hopefully, be horrified into leading a different type of existence.

How do white Christians jar themselves loose from a stagnant posture and live in the uneasiness?

They concede decision making and control over their churches, their land, their money, their social ideals, their government and their schools to imaginative, forward-thinking, liberation-minded and willing Black or other minoritized women and persons. They grant them power over white spaces and, in this, gladly welcome the erosion of such spaces. White churches must be OK with, even excited about, their disintegration.

It sounds drastic because it is. Whiteness has ensured that any equitable world sounds like an impossibility.

For those of you I may have lost with my words, I invite you back in. And I invite you to dig in to what is being offered here: there is no easy way to bring in a new world if the old one stubbornly insists on the benevolent parts of itself.

Loosening the grip on “how we’ve always done it” is the best place to start.

Truth and history must make their way into the lifeblood of a church. In liturgy, litanies of truth telling and repentance can become a common practice. In a church’s financial life, permanently supporting minoritized communities on whose land and in whose lives the church’s presence has trespassed — in ways that the minoritized communities themselves designate — is a risk worth taking.

In everyday life, outside of the sacred meetings together on Sundays or Wednesdays, every soul of the church should ask: “What hard and risky action am I taking today to make right the complicated history within me?”

Then, even if it is painful, they should make that shift.

For those of you I may have lost with my words, I invite you back in.

The wave of white Christian nationalism sweeping through various levels of government in recent years is showing up prominently in education. Proposed and passed legislation constrains or prohibits public schools from teaching children about our nation’s history of racism and racialized violence and how society can address racial inequities and racial justice. Books have been taken off public library shelves.

In the face of these realities, what can churches do to infuse their spiritual formation curricula for children and youth with a robust anti-racist theology? I’d suggest three shifts that churches, faith leaders and volunteers can and should make to be more explicitly anti-racist: epistemological, material and structural.

Epistemological shifts

Before making any material or structural changes, those involved in spiritual formation must make some epistemological (or cognitive) shifts in their own understandings of race and racism. This means beginning to evaluate their unexamined assumptions of race, how racism works at individual and societal levels, and how predominantly white culture influences the reading and understanding of the Bible.

First, they must learn what “race” is and how race categories shape people’s life experiences. There is an abundance of materials out there that can assist in accomplishing this. One resource I’ve found helpful is “So You Want to Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo. This book is easy to read and addresses many common questions around race and racism with a targeted yet graceful poignancy.

Second, those involved in spiritual formation must begin to see the relationship between interpersonal racism and structural racism. One of the definitive studies on children’s socialization into race is “The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism,” by Debra Van Ausdale and Joe R. Feagin.

Van Ausdale’s research shows that children as young as 3 use race and skin color to categorize, include and exclude other children in play. Further, she found that young children learn to employ racialized rhetoric from the larger culture beyond the direct influence of family and school.

Third, spiritual formation practitioners must learn how their cultural standpoints shape their reading and understanding of the Bible. Esau McCaulley’s “Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope” challenges readers to see the Bible through the lens of Black church tradition to connect messages in the Bible with Black experiences and questions.

As churches, faith leaders and volunteers do the work of shifting their perspectives on race and racism, they become better equipped to tackle more material shifts in their formation practices.

Material shifts

My research has found an overwhelming lack of diverse racial and ethnic representation in illustrations, pictures and media. Further, Montague Williams shows in his book “Church in Color: Youth Ministry, Race and the Theology of Martin Luther King Jr.” that conversations about race and racism are typically either avoided or restricted within youth formation spaces.

Among the simple things churches can begin to do: diversify their materials. This goes beyond being “historically accurate.” Through the centuries, multiple cultures have depicted biblical characters and stories through the lens of their own ethnicities. Alongside white representations of Bible stories, those involved in spiritual formation can include renderings that are African American, Korean, Guatemalan, Navajo, etc.

They can draw from Bibles and storybooks with different racial, ethnic and cultural representations in illustrations and perspectives. These materials can easily be found through searching online or reaching out to diverse networks of practitioners in spiritual formation.

In addition to diversifying representation in materials, churches need to normalize conversations about race and racism as part of spiritual formation. There have been scant attempts at creating lessons that deal specifically with race and anti-racism. While any such attempts are a good start, anti-racist conversations must go beyond special topics or series.

Anti-racism needs to be woven throughout the practice of spiritual formation. As churches teach through the Bible, Scripture must be allowed to speak for itself on issues of race, racism, anti-racism and racial justice. They may find it helpful to use supplemental materials like “The Gospel in Color,” by Curtis A. Woods and Jarvis J. Williams (there are versions for kids and parents).

Finally, churches can tell stories of racially marginalized Christians, their histories and their experiences. Churches predominantly made up of racially marginalized people can tell their own stories of encountering God as a racially marginalized group and how their racial and ethnic identity forms them spiritually. Other good sources for stories include materials like People of Color Who Inspire, from the Godly Play Foundation.

Structural shifts

After doing the work of making epistemological and material shifts, churches need to implement some structural shifts to sustain anti-racist spiritual formation practices beyond the immediate public crisis we find ourselves in.

These structural shifts include creating external accountability to maintain anti-racism as part of the explicit spiritual formation curriculum, such as joining or creating networks of racially and ethnically diverse spiritual formation practitioners. This has become easier in the past couple of years as we’ve navigated a steep learning curve to connect virtually in various ways.

Another structural shift is to include racially and ethnically diverse voices in the leadership, teaching and oversight of spiritual formation. Predominantly white congregations can seek out such diverse voices, through books, podcasts, trainings, etc., can spiritually form and influence how congregations approach the spiritual formation of their children and youth.

Most importantly, churches need to pray for God’s help to make these shifts. They can pray for wisdom, courage and insight on providing youth and children with a robust anti-racist theology in their contexts. They can pray for opportunities to stand alongside parents as they partner in the spiritual formation of children and youth. They can pray against the sin of racism in their communities and for ways to push back on the forces that would erase the experiences of racialized minorities in the public square.

Anti-racism needs to be woven throughout the practice of spiritual formation.

Christianity is not the white man’s religion. A tradition of Christian faith and practice emerged from the underside of America, from enslaved Africans in the antebellum South. There were no steeples, stoles, or stained glass. This tradition had no such luxuries. The Christianity of enslaved Africans was not a religion of privilege and position. It was a religion of freedom and revolution. Deep in the wilderness of the plantation slavocracy, enslaved Africans would escape to practice a communal spirituality that challenged them to love their bodies and their heritage, and to refuse any conditions that said otherwise. Welcome to the hush harbors, the invisible gathering places where enslaved Africans met to praise the God of the oppressed, pay attention to one another’s needs, and plot the abolition of slaveholding Christianity and the plantation economy. Hush harbors are a place to turn to refashion for our times a Christian community shaped by risky love.

The Terror of the Plantation Economy

The environment of chattel slavery was no walk in the park. Cultural artifacts like the film Birth of a Nation depict Africans as happy with being slaves. Such propaganda numbed and concealed what really took place in the plantation economy. Africans in America were legally and politically considered not fully human. They had no rights that white people were expected to respect and uphold. Any deference given to Black people was out of respect for them as the property of a white master. Black people were legally denied access to the kinds of privileges that uplifted and bettered white people, like government programs, economic self-determination, and voting. Without the honor of human dignity and any rights to ensure their well-being, as property of the plantation economy, enslaved Africans were treated for how they could meet white pleasures. Rape, forced “breeding,” mutilation through beatings, and lynching were only some of the violent bodily tactics white people used to punish and control enslaved Africans. Even the mundane parts of enslaved Africans’ lives were not respected. Enslaved Africans were forbidden to gather or assemble together except under the supervision of white folks. They had curfews to prevent their escape at night. Their leisure was policed to control as much of their time for work on the plantation and to ensure the leisure of the white master and his family. Even the term plantation does not do justice to the racialized economic exploitation Black people faced. Author Nikole Hannah-Jones in her book 1619 calls these Southern sites of oppression “labor camps.” The terror of the plantation economy was a totalizing vision. Every part of the lives of enslaved Africans was expected to be under the gaze of white supremacist, patriarchal capitalism.

Theology and Worship on the Plantation

What enables a race of people to exploit the labor of another race? To see them as their property? To colonize the land of Natives and the consciousness of Africans? What must a people believe about themselves to enact terror on another people and on the planet? “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything … , with reverence for the Lord” (Col. 3:22). These words summarize the theology of slaveholding Christianity. And from these few words emerged an entire culture and history of violent desecration of land and peoples. Enslaved Africans had regular opportunities to worship on the plantation in racially integrated churches led by white folks. These integrated plantation churches operated by a separate and unequal rule: Black people and white people sat in the same sanctuaries, but everything else about the worship experience was separated by race, from using different restrooms to separate seating, prayer and Communion rituals, and burial grounds and baptismal waters. Enslaved Africans could also attend segregated gatherings led by Black preachers under the supervision of a white minister and white religious customs. Worship in both of these plantation churches accommodated the terror of the plantation economy and slaveholding Christianity.

The theology of the plantation said that God works through white men to bring the world into order and submission. Most white plantation owners used Christianity, especially the words of Paul, to make Africans docile and numb to their plight, to believe it was God’s will for them to be slaves. Other white plantation owners forbade the enslaved to be taught Christianity because they were worried biblical themes would incite revolution. How can Christianity hold within it these two contradictory possibilities? Race was the theological myth used by wealthy, white, male plantation owners to uphold the chattel slavery economy with a whitewashed, domesticated, heretical Christianity. Only a small percentage of wealthy, white, male plantation owners were actually at the top of the caste. When the owner was not around to be in charge of the plantation economy, wealthy white women were in control. When the owner’s wife was not there, either a poor white man or woman or an enslaved Black man was in charge. Black women and children were always at the bottom. All Black lives were disposable. Race is a powerful myth because the racial caste system has never been consistent. Myths are only as true as people give credence to them and as they function to maintain the status quo. From the beginning of the chattel experiment, poor and working-class white people have shared more in common with Black and Native people than with the white elite. The power of the slavocracy system was that it operated at the intersection of white supremacy, white patriarchy, racialized capitalism, and the theological heresy of slaveholding Christianity.

Hush Harbors and the Plantation

Even if only temporarily, enslaved Africans escaped the plantation economy and slaveholding Christianity by organizing hush harbors. Drawing especially from documented slave narratives, hush harbors have been a treasure trove of study for religion scholars and theologians. The literature on hush harbors has centered two rich debates. First, there is the debate of erasure versus retention of African cultures or Africanisms. Much of the early literature about the period of slavery in the US claimed that the psychic and bodily trauma of the Middle Passage — of Africans being violently forced from their homelands in Africa by European settler-terrorists on ships under the most inhumane of conditions — stripped the first generation of enslaved Africans of much if not all of their memories of their African cultures and customs. Certainly, this cultural knowledge was not passed down to successive generations, the argument went. This psychological and cultural violence was strategic in making African peoples more susceptible to being chattel for white plantation owners. Other scholars contended that hush harbors provided evidence to oppose the erasure thesis. Hush harbors depicted a rich continuity of Africanisms — music, language, religion, stories, and more — that enslaved Africans disguised for their own safety when under white surveillance. Because of the need to disguise Africanisms, the unaware observer could not readily see how enslaved Africans did in fact retain a variety of African customs and practices.

The second debate is over the nature of the Christianity that enslaved Africans practiced. Did enslaved Africans practice the Christianity of the slaveholder, which accommodated their own oppression? Christianity was an empire religion that accommodated the status quo. For enslaved Africans, to accept Christianity was to accept their plight on earth as they awaited their true freedom in the afterlife. Again, by peering into hush harbors, this thesis has been contested. Through the testimonies of enslaved Africans themselves, scholars discovered that Africans in the Americas not only practiced an otherworldly Christian religion that accommodated their oppression; hush harbors that enslaved Africans organized were sites of protest against the dominant Christianity of the slaveholder. In hush harbors, enslaved Africans made plans for permanent escape to the northern parts of the US. Additionally, enslaved Africans carried a hush harbor mindset of freedom with them onto the plantation to both cope with daily terror and plot for abolition without being caught by white plantation owners. This mystical hush harbor was as much a site of interior protest as the material hush harbor was a site of physical protest. These protest actions and mindsets were rooted in particular Christian beliefs that enslaved Africans initially discovered from slaveholding Christianity and then reinterpreted toward revolutionary ends.

These debates have unearthed a rich legacy of the genius of enslaved Africans’ beliefs and practices. In recent times, however, Black prophetic leaders have grappled with the importance of hush harbors not only for their historical relevance but also as a site of contemporary reflection on a more radical model of church and activism.

From “Buried Seeds,” by Alexia Salvatierra and Brandon Wrencher, ©2022. Used by permission of Baker Academic.

The 12th-century philosopher Moses Maimonides writes in his “Mishneh Torah” that the work of restorative justice begins with the public confession of harm. The challenge of naming and owning harm is one that pastors regularly face when repairing relationships within their congregations.

But the stakes of such mediation are much higher when harm is embedded in the church itself. How do pastors and lay leaders navigate the work of repair when the history of their own church is implicated?

We’re a pastor (Lauren) and a sociologist (Gerardo) who, respectively, have participated in and witnessed this difficult journey of reparation at Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Gerardo watched this process unfold over the past year while on sabbatical, and Lauren has been involved with the process as an associate pastor at Highland.

In 2018, Highland was faced with a shocking discovery. In front of a citywide crowd at a racial justice gathering, a recently retired pastor reflected on the stained-glass windows of his former parish. He marveled that the windows showcased two enslavers, James Boyce and Richard Furman, and one radical segregationist, E.Y. Mullins. Even more, the church’s painted fellowship hall windows portrayed an additional enslaver, Basil Manly Jr.

Congregants in the room that day perked up at the mention of their church, only to realize that their former pastor had just publicly said something they had not known. They learned that their beautiful windows commemorated leaders committed to racist ideals.

Not only was the news startling — a true revelation to the current congregants and pastors — but it also conflicted with the church’s understanding of itself and its ongoing anti-racism efforts.

News of the windows and the enshrined enslavers spread quickly. Members asked questions, wanting to find out specifically which people in which windows owned slaves and when the windows were installed.

They found that the stained-glass windows in the sanctuary were installed in the early 1970s, and the fellowship hall windows were painted even more recently, in the mid-1990s — not at all in the distant past. How could this be? As the buzz about the windows gained momentum, the church’s anti-racism team, which had formed in 2017, petitioned the lay leadership body to appoint a task force to officially study the windows.

Before the windows task force first convened, it became apparent that Highland’s work on the windows needed a broader scope. Around the country, unarmed Black people were being killed while jogging in a white neighborhood, sleeping in their own apartments or selling knockoff cigarettes.

Further, a national debate was stirring around the removal of Confederate monuments. Highland members wondered about their own windows and how the church benefited from white supremacy more generally. Thus, the ministry council created a reparations task force, in which the windows were one focus of four.

Starting in 2020, dedicated lay leaders, with support from me (Lauren) and my ministerial colleagues, considered alternatives for addressing the enslavers in the windows, the call to a congregational confession and repentance, the obligation to offer financial repair from the congregation’s budget, and strategies for ongoing advocacy at both a local and a national level for the study and gifting of reparations.

The task force wrestled together about the best path forward. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic continued, the group persisted on Zoom. First, we revisited our own history. In doing so, our objective was to consider how the church has benefited from racist systems, past and present, and to recommend a path of response.

Together, we produced a report, titled “Grant Us Wisdom, Grant Us Courage: A Historical Summary of Highland Baptist Church; Louisville, Kentucky; and Race, 1893-2021,” which tells Highland’s narrative through a lens focused on racial inequities.

Second, the task force wrote a report detailing all of the subjects depicted in the windows, especially noting the troubling figures involved in slavery. Considerations in addition to racism arose, and figures were examined in terms of antisemitism, homophobia and other forms of colonization.

We took care that our research was honest, without judgment. It was hard to acknowledge so much pain peppered throughout the windows’ design.

With new revelations over the months of research and writing, polarizing viewpoints were expressed privately among members of the church, and the murmuring complicated the work of the task force and concerned the ministers.

Anxiety threatened relationships in the congregation, raising the potential for real division. Some folks unknowingly sought to maintain the status quo. “Touching those windows would be an affront to the art and artist who created them,” they argued.

“They tell our story, even the parts of the story we do not like — do not mess with them,” others said.

Others focused on the money that would be spent if the windows were amended or contextualized. “Money spent on [changing] the windows would be better spent in the Black community,” some argued.

“Dismantle and destroy the enslavers immediately,” those distressed by the windows insisted.

Ultimately, the enslavers in the windows put our church at risk of losing members, as some indicated they would leave the church. “I cannot worship in a sanctuary that venerates people who owned other people,” they said.

Further, we hired consultants, leaders in Louisville’s Black community, for their feedback; naturally, their opinions differed as widely as those of the congregation. However, they unanimously agreed that the white Jesus figure in the revelation window needed to be darkened.

As the palpable discomfort among church members grew, our lead pastor, the Rev. Mary Alice Birdwhistell, and I (Lauren) preached on the controversy, but our messages did not readily alleviate tensions. For example, I preached two sermons in the summer of 2021 that spoke to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and David McAtee.

In one sermon, I invited people to turn and look up at the figures who watched over the sanctuary. In so doing, I emphasized that the task force would and must continue discussing the windows, specifically the ones depicting Boyce, Furman and Mullins.

Though the sermon was an attempt to assure folks that the church would work together as a community to consider options, the effect was further division and angst. Contradictory pressures on the reparations task force emerged, with urging by different congregants to hurry up and to slow down, to stop and to keep moving. Even members of the task force were not in agreement. Zoom meetings were occasionally emotional and intense.

At this point, Mary Alice and I (Lauren) committed to communicating explicitly and frequently that the church would work through these issues together: by listening to one another, studying reparations in community and (in the words of the church hymn) being “brave of foot” in the race set before us.

In affirming the call to accomplish this work together, we began sharing with the church the benediction we co-wrote to conclude each task force meeting:

MAB: Friends, may God bless us with restless discomfort 
in the work of reparations.

LJM: May God bless us with holy anger at the injustices around us, and even within us.

MAB: And may God bless us with grief to honor all that has been lost along the way.

LJM: Until we meet again, may God continue guiding us toward liberation.

MAB: May Christ continue showing us the way of love.

LJM: And may the Spirit continue provoking us in this hard and holy work.

MAB: For even as this work challenges us, know that we are equipped and suited precisely for it.

LJM: Go in peace. Amen.

Highland’s leaders took collective responsibility for the church’s association with white supremacy, so we patiently urged a corporate response from the congregation.

In their book “Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair,” Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson write, “Some may insist that individuals and discrete institutions alone are responsible for the aforementioned failures, but this line of reasoning simply will not do. These sins are our sins.”

Calling out, initiating dialogue, responding to new knowledge — these are the practical steps we sought to enact ecclesially. As Kwon and Thompson state, “The church, after all, is one body, and its members are irrevocably bound to one another in Christ by covenant.”

Conversations continue with pastoral and lay leaders dedicated to accomplishing the work in community. The task force hosted three congregational listening and processing conversations. The first, in 2021 via Zoom, oriented around reading and discussing the history report. The second, in late 2021, also via Zoom, conveyed the four-prong approach adopted by the task force and solicited general thoughts on reparations. In 2022, a third conversation offered the opportunity to attend in person.

With repeated reassurances from many directions that the task force is not a decision-making body, members were able to participate in a hybrid meeting with earnestness, even amid uneasiness.

The task force presented its findings, and congregants asked meaningful and thoughtful questions. Members expressed their viewpoints with grace, and most importantly, all those present deeply listened to one another. The tenor of the meeting built up the confidence of the task force for its next steps.

Highland’s process to date reveals how the work of restorative justice is challenging for congregations dedicated to working in unison.

Our pastoral team and lay leaders are moving through the process of repair in a manner that includes all stakeholders without jeopardizing anti-racist values. At this point, the church has established a designated fund to receive donations specifically for reparations, and the church will commit 1% of its budget to the fund annually.

Further, the anti-racism team is researching the options of installing plaques that explain the church’s lament over the figures and why they are darkening the skin tones of the biblical figures, including the Christ figure.

Although no final decisions about the windows have been made, the reparations work continues taking shape on the racial justice journey. As a consequence, the leaders of Highland have achieved greater confidence in the capacity of our congregation to address controversy directly and to confront injustices in the world without compromise.