Kevin Murriel ~ Race: The Newest Old Issue Confronting American Christian Life

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This is the first in a series of articles on racial reconciliation in American Christian Life.

Several weeks ago I attended a conference in Houston, Texas that targeted ministry with large churches. Throughout the conference were presentations on technology, capitol campaigns, and “new age” ideas in ecclesiological innovation. Many left with concepts to take back to their congregations in hopes of implementation while others departed inspired with a rejuvenated energy for ministry. I, however, returned to Atlanta convinced that few recognized what was missing. There was no mention of the race problem we continue to face that affects American Christian life and the growth of our congregations.

Yes, I called it a “problem.” Problems are unresolved issues that stall progress. And needless to say, our inability as a country and as the Body of Christ to have productive conversations about the reality of racism is a problem. By race, I mean, our biologically engineered features (not to be confused with ethnicity) – the problem we often have with each other because of our color differences.

One of my confirmation classes experienced this problem first-hand. At their confirmation retreat two years ago, 35 black youth from an affluent Atlanta congregation were asked by a large group of white youth if their church was “ghetto”and if their hair was “real.” Where they were from and how prominent their parents were didn’t matter–only the difference in their skin color.

Because of the race problem, the nation now has to face itself in the way it did when Emmett Till was murdered in 1955. Ordering that the casket remain open at his funeral, Till’s mother wanted America to see that senseless killing as a result of racism is not just unjust, but evil. That no one regardless of their color should have their life end under such cruel circumstances.

Fast-forward 60 years and the nation now faces more media coverage of the killings of unarmed black men and women as well as the issue of racial profiling. Not that these things are new, they are just receiving more media coverage since the Travyon Martin case in 2012.

It is important to pause here and explain my intent. I am not a race baiter.  Neither do I believe that inciting rage is the way to productive discourse. Rather, I am a pastor who always seeks ways to unite God’s people regardless of the associated discomfort.

Race is an uncomfortable thing to discuss. It brings back memories for many who would prefer them remain in the closet in which they were locked. Some even ask if race matters at all.  It is the 21st century and by the way, we have a two-term black president, interracial families, minority-owned businesses and multi-cultural churches. Why is there a race conversation?

A recent New York Times article titled, “Racial Bias, Even When We Have Good Intentions,” cited a study conducted by Marianne Bertrand, an economist from the University of Chicago that highlighted the effect of race on job opportunities. Bertrand and her team mailed thousands of résumés to employers with job openings and measured which ones were selected for callbacks for interviews. But before sending them, they randomly used stereotypically African-American names (such as “Jamal”) on some and stereotypically white names (like “Brendan”) on others.

The same résumé was roughly 50 percent more likely to result in a callback for an interview if it had a “white” name–even though the résumés were statistically identical.

The conversation about race is important for the Church because it directly affects our parish–the world. And though every person has value, we each have intrinsic prejudices. Whether parents become nervous when a black kid shows up to a majority white youth group, or members of a primarily black congregation look suspiciously at a Latino man with tattoos who decides to attend worship, we often have the propensity to feel some kind of way towards the “other.”

So, where do we begin?

I contend that it begins with a desire to love all people and seeing the Kingdom of God as racially diverse. God did not create everyone to physically look the same so it is preposterous to think that God is White, Black, Hispanic, or any other race and only attends a certain “type”of church. Such a theology about God will keep the Church divided as it has for centuries.

One of my mentors, Dr. Gil Watson, is a white pastor serving one of the most prominent churches in United Methodism, located in the Buckhead area of Atlanta, Georgia. He is 40 years my elder and has been in ministry longer than I have been alive. We continue to see God, through our conversations, expand our understanding of each other and our calling as pastors. This relationship is intentional, and at times, uncomfortable for us both; and at the same time, one of the most rewarding experiences of our lives.

What he and I understand is that we are the Church–one, holy, apostolic, and universal–and our witness demands that we live in these intentional, uncomfortable relationships and lead the difficult conversations about the race problem. Society should not drive the Church; rather, the Church should be the influencer of society.

The race problem, however, does not have to remain. When reconciliation comes, such a problem is overcome. This will be the next subject in this series. So, stay tuned.

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Dr. Kevin R. Murriel is a pastor and scholar whose research focuses on translating the methods of the Civil Rights Movement into a modern day strategy for social justice and racial reconciliation. He completed his doctoral studies at Duke University and has a heart for training leaders who are passionate about multicultural ministry and improving race relations. He serves as the Senior Pastor of Cliftondale United Methodist Church in College Park, GA. For more information visit www.kevinmurriel.com.

3 COMMENTS

  1. “I contend that it begins with a desire to love all people and seeing the Kingdom of God as racially diverse.” Powerful. If we could all start there, we wouldn’t have much further to go…

  2. A view from the pew: I have not read the article beyond the excerpt on the homepage of seedbed linking this article. This article crossed my path a couple of days ago, and I have been trying to ignore it because I did not want to have to sit down and formulate my thoughts on what bothers me about the church needs to take the lead in discussing race relations.

    A smidgen of background: I am a genetic Methodist.–for the longest time it was the best part of who I was until all of a sudden, several years ago, it no longer was. If anybody literally “grew up in church”, I did. Unfortunately, I led a compartmentalized life in which God was only present in church on Sundays–that did not work out so well. I am of white European descent from multiple countries–I am my own melting pot. I grew up in various towns in the eastern half of Texas. I am old enough to remember the race riots of the ’60’s and Martin Luther King’s civil rights efforts. I became very aware of the racial issues and the “plight of the blacks” when my mother became Head Start Director for two counties in north east Texas, aka the deep south. In that setting, we had questionable social standing for two reasons: first was because my mother was recently divorced and in 1967, nobody, including us, knew how to deal with that reality; second was her job.

    More recent history is that last month my husband and I visited Fort Sumter and a few days later we were in Marietta Georgia where we visited both the National Cemetery and the Confederate Cemetery. I truly wonder how anybody can discuss race relations in the US, without visiting those sites.I learned the story of why there are two cemeteries; I find myself wondering how different things might be if all the fallen soldiers were buried in a single cemetery, which was the wish of the man who donated the land that ultimately became the National cemetery. But bottom line is, I came away convinced more than ever that this is not an easy fix. In fact, the evening of the same day we visited the cemeteries in Marietta, we were having supper in Birmingham, Alabama with long time friends who grew up in rural Mississippi. I flat out asked the wife if the Civil War was over–and she flat out said “No”. Later in the evening, both the husband and wife expressed their distress over the discovery of a forgotten, overgrown black cemetery in their home town–they would both like to see it cleaned up out of respect to those buried there. The wife also talked positively about the young black women she works with as a nurse; they are RN’s which means they have a Bachelor’s Degree. But, at the same time, the verbiage used in talking about blacks was peppered with what would, today, be considered racial slurs.

    In between Fort Sumter and Marietta was a stop in Charleston, SC and the Boone Hall Plantation. There we heard a presentation from a black woman who talked about what strong Christians many of the slaves were because they were a determined people. She herself was raised by a great grandmother and a grandmother in SC–she never clearly identified herself as being a descendant of slaves–but from the description of her great grandmother, they were not well off. But one of the things that was instilled in her was a belief in God, and after prayers every night, she was taught to curtsy to God because God had given her one more day.

    This is not an easy fix. The race relations/slave issue has been a core divisive issue since this country was formed. The Civil War did not fix the problem–it just changed the name of the issue from slavery to race relations. I question the success of the Civil Rights legislation because 50 years later it feels like I am back in the ’60’s with race riots destroying towns, the same verbiage and hand wringing over the plight of the “poor black folks” and the mean old police that are “whupping up on them”. I am dismayed at hearing the same verbiage and hand wringing from a new set of hands and voices. Talk to anybody who grew up n the “60’s–this is just more of the same old thing!

    As I have learned the past couple of years church has more to offer than one more round of “discussions” on race relations. I was struck by the quote from Brian Foster. For me, based on my lifelong experience as “good Methodist” it strikes at the heart of where the church has drifted and why it has become ineffective in dealing with this issue. What the church needs to be reclaiming to help ease racial tensions is a robust gospel message of creation, sin and redemption; it needs to frame the problem of race relations in the bigger picture of the brokenness of humanity–none of us are who God created us to be.

    In hindsight, we see that slavery was wrong, but for two groups of people, it was a way of life–part of who they were–for better or worse. And the Civil War left massive scars in the South, which, right or wrong resulted in the loss of a way of life as they understood it and believed it! As recently as last year, things were added to the Confederate Cemetery that clearly state that side of the story. There is no easy fix! As a nation we bear deep wounds when it comes to relations between blacks and whites.

    If the church wants the Kingdom of God to be racially diverse, then unite the people in the clearly stated greater story of a triune God of holy love who is most definitely way more verb than noun who is determined to love each of us more than we could ever think about loving ourselves by transforming each of us into the truly human person he created us to be. In focusing on social justice issues, the Methodist Church has lost sight of the fact that society can only be transformed one person at a time. And this is sad because Methodism is in existence for that very reason. The Wesley brothers did not change the world–they facilitated God changing individuals! People were enabled to live a holy life centered in God DESPITE THEIR CIRCUMSTANCES! Wesley has been credited with keeping England from going up in flames at the hands of people trapped in poverty. In fact the economic status of Methodists as a whole improved so much that Wesley correctly predicted that the movement would become the form of religion without the power.

    Race relations is a problem of cosmic proportions because we are dealing with the aftermath of the sins of our forefathers. This is not something that can be legislated or discussed out of existence. In his book “What is So Amazing About Grace”, Philip Yancy gets it right when he states that legislation only changes external actions; only the grace of God can change how we view and treat each other. If white people need to stop oppressing blacks–something I have not personally done, so I refuse to come at this from a sense of guilt–then blacks need to learn to forgive and move on.

    I personally know that, as stated by John Wesley, being “amazed and humbled into the dust by the love of God in Christ Jesus for [me]”, handily levels the playing field for anybody and everybody that encounters it! So get busy church and craft a robust message of the good news that there is a Savior and it is most definitely NOT any of us!

    • Yet, as much as I can agree with a lot of what you wrote, the phrases “poor black folks” and “mean ol’ police” jump out at me. In a way, you have just denigrated the experiences of quite a number of people who aren’t like you. This too is an example of how very far we have to go when it comes to race. I will not despair, God is still on the throne, but his people can certainly miss the point.

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