In January I had the privilege of preaching during Spiritual Renewal Week at John Brown University in Arkansas. When I received the invitation, I thought the school was affiliated with the abolitionist hero John Brown who played an important role in leading antislavery protests during “Bleeding Kansas” before his raid on Harpers Ferry.
But that’s not the case.
Rather, the college is named after John E. Brown, an evangelist, educator, and author “who recognized the need for an academic institution that would prepare young people to serve Christ.”
Just prior to this visit, I had been spending time with one of my mentors, Barbara Williams-Skinner, the first executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus. I have heard Barbara tell many stories of walking the halls of Congress praying for our nation’s leaders and have been learning from her leadership since we were first introduced by John Perkins.
When Barbara learned I was going to be preaching at John Brown, she asked, “You are going to talk about white supremacy, aren’t you?”
Preaching about the legitimacy of Black Lives Matter to a multiethnic community just outside DC is one thing. Talking about white supremacy in a predominantly conservative white context in rural Arkansas is a whole different scenario.
I made a commitment to Barbara that I would be bold in my message and address white supremacy, but inside, I was scared to death.
When I arrived in Arkansas, I found the community to be welcoming and wonderfully receptive to ideas about spiritual formation and growing closer to Christ in our Christian journey.
The first day, I preached about God’s call on my life and how we are each uniquely called and gifted. I then preached a second sermon deeply rooted in Scripture about God’s heart for both righteousness and justice. In between messages, I had the opportunity to spend time in classes on campus and get to know the students a little bit. I love that the school is committed to both education and discipleship.
On the last day, I knew it was time to preach the message that God calls us to be reconciled to all people; to lament the sins of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other injustices; and to be honest about the deeply rooted white supremacy in American society.
My heart pounded in my chest, as I sensed that some of the things I was going to talk about would be deeply challenging for the students and faculty present, myself included.
John Brown University is predominantly white. The few students of color are mostly international students. And the very small number of domestic students of color face a lot of pressure within the community to “carry the weight” of addressing realities of white privilege and latent racism.
In my message, I began to call out how today’s society has been built on unjust systems from which many white Americans continue to benefit today.
I talked about how Native Americans were often converted to Christianity so that whites could take their land and confiscate their resources, with many Native people being moved to “prayer towns” where they were taught about God while also giving up access to the land where their communities had lived for centuries.
I also talked about slavery and how much of the capital invested in the Southern states during the antebellum period was slave labor.
The chapel was packed. The acknowledgment and truth spoken of past sins toward communities of color seemed to have a palpable effect on the room.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, a student near the front of the room stood up and shouted, “Lies! What you are speaking is all lies!”
He went on to say that it was not true that slave labor contributed to the economy of the South and that racism today does not exist. I don’t recall exactly how I responded in that moment.
But I’m told that I was both calm and firm, essentially asserting that what he was saying is not true but that I was willing to talk to him after the chapel if he wanted to discuss it.
During this encounter, it was as if there was a spirit of resistance in the room that had been spoken out loud by this student. But I truly believe the spirit of truth prevailed.
I tell this story because whatever was inside this young white man caused him to have a visceral reaction to hearing about how centering whiteness has caused great oppression and continues to limit the opportunities of people of color.
The internal resistance he experienced was so significant that he couldn’t remain quiet but rather shouted out in a chapel of a thousand people that white privilege and white supremacy is a lie and doesn’t exist.
His reaction demonstrates the resistance that many white people experience when we are exposed to the truth of our privilege, the inherent supremacy of whiteness in most of the systems within our society, and the ways white people uniquely benefit.
After the service, several of the students of color lined up to talk to me. They said it was one of the first times the sin of racism had been addressed publicly at the university and thanked me for acknowledging some of the realities they live with every day.
Racism in the United States
Gone are the days of thousands of lynchings, as in the early twentieth century. And it has been a long time even since the 1981 lynching of Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama.
But the underlying racist tendencies of these horrors against black bodies continue to exist today. One of the questions we must ask is why the deaths of black and brown bodies seem to matter so much less to our society than when white people are killed.
Standing with a group of leaders led by Bryan Stevenson of Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) over a hilltop plot of land in Montgomery, Alabama, I learned of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice that would be built there.
Holding hands and praying together, we dedicated the land in a spirit of both repentance for the sins of racism and remembrance of the thousands of lives that had been lost at the hands of racial violence and white supremacy.
Opened to the public in early 2018, the memorial is dedicated to the “more than 4,400 African American men, women, and children who were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950.”
The dedication of the memorial continues, “Millions more fled the South as refugees from racial terrorism, profoundly impacting the entire nation. Until now, there has been no national memorial acknowledging the victims of racial terror lynchings.”
Racism in twenty-first-century America is a reality. Acknowledging racism means understanding that white people hold social and institutional power over people of color. The growing face of white supremacy, which seems to have resurfaced in the public square after being less acknowledged for decades, must be identified and rooted out.
I heard the legendary black preacher and pastor James Forbes say that “racism is the primary center of all injustice.” In our cultural analysis of racism, however, it is so often seen as something that is peripheral, rather than a core issue that must be addressed.
Eddie S. Glaude Jr., chair of the Department of African American Studies and the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, responded to Forbes, saying, “We must demand that racism be recentered. . . . [As one] confronts the reality of the racial issue, we are confronting the reality of oneself.”
What can be done to combat white supremacy and racial injustice?
A commitment to learn and understand more, especially about history, is a good place to start for both white people and people of color.
The article “#Charlottesville: Some Gospel Thinking on White Supremacy” claims that “the acts of white supremacy that took place in Charlottesville, VA in 2015 should encourage the church to act aggressively to deter racist ideals within her ranks.”
The authors suggest five steps that pastors and church communities can take to admonish against racism and address white supremacy.
First, encourage participation in the festivities, remembrances, awareness events, artistic expressions, and historical displays of the various minority ethnicities within your congregation and the local community.
Second, give strong, clear responses to the issues surrounding local and national incidents of racial conflict, especially where racially charged threats, harm, police or judicial action, and/or tragedy has come to the fore.
Third, promote regular, active, intentional, personal fellowship of saints across ethnic lines. Such happenings, often involving the sharing of a favorite ethnic meal by the host family, allow for believers within the same congregation to reveal and understand the private, cultural backgrounds experienced by the marginalized.
Fourth, avoid denying the reality of racial insensitivity within your own fellowship, regardless of the numerical assessment of the ethnic diversity in your congregation.
And finally, in public gatherings and private moments, pray for those who are contending directly with episodes and establishments of racism and white supremacy.