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US churches wrestle with complexities of race and religion

Ecumenical and interfaith voices gather for ‘Act Now to End Racism’ rally

by Jim Winkler | NCCCUSA/WCC release

NCCCUSA general secretary and president Jim Winkler addresses the participants of the rally in Washington D.C. (Photo by Steven D. Martin/NCCCUSA)

WASHINGTON — Defying gathering clouds, “Act Now to End Racism” rally attendees on Wednesday joined rousing choruses of Gospel standards and pledged to recommit to the cause of racial equality. Throughout this week’s three-day event in Washington, D.C., they grappled with a stubborn and pernicious reality amid a tense and uncertain political environment.

A checkered legacy

A remarkable feature of the rally and “Act Now” initiative, initiated by the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC) and 50 U.S. churches and partner agencies, is the frank admission of the churches’ complicity in systemic racial injustice in the U.S. and its wide-ranging effects. Meeting just a few blocks from the White House, a symbol of American power constructed partly with slave labor, participants were frequently reminded of the complex interplay of race, religion, and politics in American life.

With frequent and fervent invocation of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., many speakers recalled the pivotal role that U.S. churches and the NCC played in the civil rights movement. Yet many American churches and church leaders were reluctant partners in that pivotal battle, they acknowledged.

King himself, in his classic “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” excoriated fellow Christian pastors for their silence and even opposition to the nonviolent campaign for desegregation and recognition of black demands.

In fact, the checkered legacy of Christian churches on race and slavery goes back centuries. The Bible itself encourages enslavement of conquered peoples. New Testament epistles urge slaves to obey their masters—even the harsh ones—as if they were Christ himself (1 Pet 2: 18-20; Eph 6:5). African slave labor empowered the colonial conquest of the New World, legitimated by Christian authorities.

Even the present shape of American denominations since the American civil war can be attributed to racial and regional divides over slavery and its legacy. King himself famously observed that 11 a.m. on Sunday is the most segregated hour of the week.

Calling white racism and white privilege “America’s original sin,” theologian and activist Jim Wallis starkly concluded, “From the founding of America, we [white Christians] have been living a lie.”

The ecumenical contribution

Though often controversial, the ecumenical movement has supported U.S. churches’ quest for racial harmony and proven a global catalyst for overcoming racism and other vestiges of Christianity’s colonialist past.

In 1968, for example, the WCC had invited Dr. King to keynote its assembly in Uppsala, Sweden.  But he was assassinated the spring before the assembly. In his place, American novelist and activist James Baldwin addressed the delegates. His speech, critical of Christian complicity and complacency,  energized delegates to tackle racism and its theological roots. The ensuing Programme to Combat Racism, supporting black liberation movements in southern Africa, embroiled the WCC in controversy yet led to more than 20 years of active and eventually successful struggle against Apartheid.

The sometimes rocky ecumenical pilgrimage to racial justice continues today, not only in WCC support of U.S. churches and the NCC but also in the WCC’s own work in support of human rights and human dignity of stateless people, Indigenous Peoples, and decrying resurgent anti-Semitism.

Inviting repentance, nurturing change

Almost all speakers referenced the need for confession and repentance by Christians, and participants met at a particular moment in American public life that dictates a fresh effort and creative approaches.

“As we look at our society today,” said the chair of the NCC’s governing board, Bp. W. Darin Moore, “it is painfully evident that the soul of our nation needs healing.”

The three-day event comes as Americans again wrestle with racial aspects of policing, most recently in the killing of an African American youth suspected of vandalism in Sacramento, California. The incident has led to confrontations and public outcry over police training and protocols, especially in African American neighborhoods in the city.

The thoroughly ecumenical and interfaith initiative coordinated by the NCC is timely, targeted, and ambitious.

The heart of the new NCC programme is a flexible methodology—Awaken. Confront. Transform.—that embraces personal, congregational and political assessment and action. Because racism is more than just individual prejudice but a systemic pathology, said Wallis, “It’s time to apply our theology to our public life” and deal specifically with issues ranging from jobs and education, policing and mass incarceration, voter suppression and human trafficking.

That combination of theological reflection and programmatic action received full support on Tuesday from WCC moderator Dr. Agnes Abuom: “We are here to affirm our commitment to the church and people of United States of America that you are not alone in the struggle to repent, confess, end the sin of racism and be reconciled as one humanity in the household of our creator God,” she said. “Indeed we come to assure you that the WCC is revitalizing its work on confronting racism, and there is new energy for seeking and working for justice and peace, enhanced commitment and strategies for acting together to secure and build communities, nations, churches and a world that is free of racism and xenophobia.”

Let the churches say, “Amen.”


Learn more about the “Act Now to End Racism” event and initiative

“Dear white Christians: what now?” (WCC news release 5 April 2018)

Read WCC moderator Dr. Agnes Abuom’s remarks to the ecumenical gathering

Read a first-person account of the 1968 WCC assembly and the Programme to Combat Racism

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