The continuing scandal is summed up in a 1997 Gallup Poll: The Christian church remains the one "highly segregated" major institution of American public life. More than 70 percent of whites and blacks still go to churches that are, respectively, nearly all white or all black.
Surely adding insult to injury is Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson’s observation in The Ordeal of Integration (Perseus, 1998) that "the Christian church has failed miserably in the promotion of ethnic fellowship and is now the mainstay of segregation." But do we see this as a scandal? Desegregating American Christianity is very touchy ground. The biggest defenders of maintaining black churches are black Christians, not white. And for good reason. Birthed of necessity in response to the outright racism of white Christians, black churches blessed dignity, community, leadership, and cultural refuge upon a people in devastating oppression. They became the organizing base for perhaps the greatest nonviolent social revolution in world history. Nearly half of today’s polled African Americans credit black churches most for improved conditions among blacks.
But aspects of what was courageously created to survive and thrive in an era of intense oppression may become outdated, and even disabling, in a new era of progress and opportunity.
FOR THE FIRST TIME in a long and acrid history, white and black Christians enjoy vast opportunity for meaningful and mutual relationship and partnership without penalty of death, intense persecution, or economic devastation. Reconciliation is no longer reserved for martyrs. But it will cost you something. Perhaps blacks distrust whites’ calls to reconciliation because blacks are more honest about what is at stake.
"Racial reconciliation" is popularized in white evangelicalism in a way no one dreamed of five years ago. But the 30-year tactics by which blacks are gaining a national foothold—anti-discrimination laws, huge corporate lawsuit settlements (such as Texaco and Denny’s), affirmative action, greater educational opportunity—still have no parallel whatsoever within evangelical institutions.
And the desegregation of Christianity will disturb more than what is sacred to white Christians.
It is one thing to understand why blacks often resist racial reconciliation as much as whites do. It is quite another to condone it by a silence that only stunts growth toward deeper Christ-likeness.
The black church is a national treasure, but not without its cracks. From God’s perspective, genuine treasures only reside in "jars of clay," their power made perfect in weakness, "lest anyone should boast." And where it is not good, where it is pure power and ego, that—just as in the white church—will not be surrendered without a brawl. All Christians must now re-examine their sacred vessels and determine whether they can hold the new wine of the gospel of reconciliation.
Following through is complex. As Dr. King stated, "Black people need to be integrated into power, not out of it." And a racial minority (only 13 percent of the population) clearly has much more to lose than the majority.
I wonder if we can at least agree on the gospel’s starting point for race relations, and step forward from there: Black and white Christians are not family. We are more than family. We are more brothers and sisters than with our own blood and kin. Jesus said, "My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice" (Luke 8:21).
In contrast is the continuing scandal: Black and white Christians live like spouses subjected to a miserable shotgun marriage, pulled kicking and screaming into the house of God, departing our separate ways. I can’t imagine Jesus settling for separate black and white churches any more than he would for Jews and Gentiles. Living amidst centuries-long ethnic hostility didn’t excuse either group from the obedience of embrace.
A church without embrace cannot break the entrenched cycle of ungrace between us. It cannot cure the descendents of hard-core racists of residual cancers of shame and superiority, nor empty the descendents of former slaves of poisonous reservoirs of dislike and disdain for former oppressors. Only those transformed by God’s unfair, insane love (who then give it, undeserved as willing victims, back to each other) can break the cycle. There is no better place to stage that embrace than within our churches.
CHRIS RICE lived and worked in an interracial community in Jackson, Mississippi, for 17 years. He was co-founder of Reconcilers Fellowship and co-author of More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel. He is now a research fellow at Boston University’s Institute on Race and Social Division, and he lives with his family in Vermont, where he is working on another book.