Racial Reconciliation and the Most Segregated Hour

Aug 16th, 2017 | By | Category: Blog Posts

My daily commute in St. Louis, Missouri used to take me down a three mile stretch of north Grand Avenue from I-70 to Saint Louis University in Midtown St. Louis. Each time I would drive that stretch, I would count the number of churches on either side of the road. I would count them because in driving regularly across and through these racially segregated areas, I could not but wonder what role the proliferation of divisions among Christians contributed to the racial segregation, economic disparity, and poverty I witnessed in those areas. And counting them reminded me regularly to pray for unity. The number was fourteen. Fourteen separated Christian places of worship, in only a three mile stretch the northern end of which is less than six miles as the crow flies, from where Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson on August 9, 2014.

St. Francis Xavier Catholic Parish, Durban, South Africa

Five years ago I wrote the following about this stretch of road:

Something similar can happen to Christians who grow up in the aftermath of the proliferation of schisms, where in a three mile stretch of road one can count the meeting places of fourteen different Christian denominations, some directly across from each other. Christians can drive such a road daily and think nothing of it. No grief wells up within them, no stab of pain in their heart, no silent prayer lifted to heaven: “Lord, have mercy.” What began as a separation in protest long ago has become so normal that it perceptually disappears, while the separation remains.

Of course all other things being equal, the presence of places designated for the worship of God is a blessing, as is the freedom to worship according to our conscience. Without these blessings these communities would presumably be much worse off. But as I counted these fourteen structures each day, my internal question was this: “If we Christians did not segregate into separate congregations of theologically and racially divided members, what would the broader community look like with regard to racial segregation, economic disparity between races, and unequal educational opportunities and resources between races?” What role, I wondered, were our on-going ecclesial schisms playing in the racial polarization and economic disparity I witnessed around me, even though these ecclesial schisms were not viewed as schisms, but only as branches, and perhaps where even the concept of schism has been lost? In short, does the proliferation and perpetuation of schisms have consequences with respect to social justice? Could the continued separation of Christians into like-minded, like-colored pockets or ‘bubbles,’ be a factor in the racial inequality, racial tension, and overall social injustice I saw and experienced around me? Dr. Martin Luther King used to refer to 11 AM Sunday morning as the most segregated hour in America.

Even a brief reflection allows us to see that it is easier to engage in “white flight” when the black Christians who move into my community do not worship with me, and I do not worship with them, when they do not receive Communion with me, and I do not receive Communion with them. It is easier to fall into us vs. them ways of thinking when the people with whom I worship look, think, and talk mostly like me, and have the same general tastes in music, and fall into the same income bracket as me. It is easier to be suspicious of black youths when I’ve chosen a place of worship in which there are few or none, and so I do not regularly see any as my brothers and sisters in Christ. It is easier to depersonalize black persons when I do not exchange the sign of peace weekly with black men, women, and children in Sunday worship. It is easier to find no empathy for the plight of those black Christians who for me are other, because I do not share a pew or sing together with them on the Lord’s Day. It is easy to ignore the poverty and homelessness of my black Christian neighbors when I choose to worship separately from them. And all the same things can be said of black Christians who choose to worship in congregations where there are no whites, in communities where there are white Christians.

In August of 2014, Amy Julia Becker wrote the following in Christianity Today:

It seems that, in the midst of black Christian outcry in 2013, the majority of white Christians pressed the snooze button on racial justice, sleepwalking into their churches where an individualistic gospel that doesn’t call them to say or do anything about racial injustice is preached, where white culture, rather than Christ, reigns supreme, and where the problems and perspectives of black people are ignored.

So wherein lies the theological problem? A few years ago I was in a conversation with a well-known black Protestant leader and in the course of the conversation he used the term “the black Church.” In my reply I said that while I understood what he meant, I do not believe there is such a thing, and I purposely do not use the terms ‘black Church’ or ‘white Church’ because I believe doing so is theologically misleading. If the gospel breaks down the walls that divide not only Jews and Gentiles, but even the walls that divide every race into us vs. them, then how can we rightly speak of “the black Church” or “the white Church” in a racially diverse society such as our own? Is not Pentecost in this respect to be the reversal of Babel? On November 26 of 2014 Voddie Baucham, the pastor of preaching at Grace Family Baptist Church in Spring, Texas, wrote:

More importantly, it worries me that so many Christians view themselves primarily as members of this or that ethnic community more than they see themselves as members of the body of Christ.

And thirty years ago, in an address in New Orleans in 1987, Pope St. John Paul II said:

It is important to realize that there is no black Church, no white Church, no American Church; but there is and must be, in the one Church of Jesus Christ, a home for blacks, whites, Americans, every culture and race.

To be sure, the social problems manifested in Ferguson in 2014 and in other parts of America including in Charlottesville this past weekend have a complicated causal history, and cannot rightly be reduced to some singular factor. I cannot help but wonder, however, whether one fundamental theological problem underlying these present social problems, at least insofar as the gospel of Christ is to play a key role in racial reconcilation, is the prevalence of an individualistic gospel in which God saves me individually, and I am to love and forgive my neighbor, but which does not include incorporation into the divinely-established institutional Church in which I am to worship and receive Communion side by side with every other believer in my neighborhood, whether white, black, rich, poor, employed, unemployed, educated, or uneducated.1 When the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” of the Creed is conceived as only the set of believers (or only the set that sufficiently agrees with me theologically), and not as a visibly unified institution established by the incarnate Christ Himself two thousand years ago, the necessary outcome is a kind of ecclesial Babel in which schism is inevitable, and its multiplication and sinfulness is, paradoxically, simultaneously both inevitable and inconceivable. In this Babel there is no principled difference between schisms from the Church and branches within the Church. In this individualistic spiritualized gospel ecclesial consumerism quickly divides us by tempting us to seek the comfort of racially-divided, economically-divided, educationally-divided sects, each affirming “the Church” as the set of all believers, including in the abstract those racially different from myself, meeting just across the street.

Of course diversity of culture ought rightly to be preserved and cherished, and grace preserves and does not destroy all that is good and true in nature, including the treasures of the various cultural traditions. But must we choose schism to preserve our respective cultures and traditions? Diversity without unity reduces to division. As Pope Francis explained in 2014, merely human attempts at diversity lead to division upon division, merely human attempts at unity lead to uniformity within each division. The Holy Spirit’s work, however, leads to diversity within unity, without division or uniformity.

Man is a social animal, and salvation comes to us not only through reconciling us to God depicted in the vertical beam of the Cross, but also through joining us to each other in the society He has established, depicted in the horizontal beam of the Cross. This horizontal reconciliation is not by the formation of communities of our own making or choosing, according to our likes or dislikes, but precisely and only through the very anti-thesis and utter rejection of ecclesial consumerism. Only by the visible unity of the Church are we forced out of what is comfortable to us, out of the ‘club-church’ dens we construct for ourselves through ecclesial consumerism. And only by the visible unity we receive from Christ’s Church are we able to effect reconciliation within the broader society outside the Church.

And thus we find ourselves faced with the imperative of seeking unity, along with the imperative of seeking social justice. The same escapism that says “There Won’t Be Justice Until Jesus Comes” is the same escapism that says “There Won’t Be Unity Until Jesus Comes.” But if I’m right that eschewing the pursuit of ecclesial unity, reconciliation, and healing of the schisms among us has social injustice as a consequence, then we have one more reason to seek the unity that our Lord prays in John 17 that we would have, so that we may be in the Father and the Son, and so that the world may believe that the Father sent the Son into the world. And every instance of racial strife or violence is, for us, therefore a reminder that schism and ecclesial consumerism have social injustice as their necessary consequence, and that we Christians cannot adequately address the roots of this racial strife while perpetuating the segregated character of the most segregated hour.

I vividly remember one Sunday morning in the summer of 2005, before I was Catholic. I was in Durban, South Africa, visiting my youngest brother. I got up in the morning, and walked to the closest Catholic Church, which happened to be St. Francis Xavier Catholic parish in KwaZulu-Natal. When I entered the building I noticed the cross hanging from two beams beyond the glass window behind the sanctuary, overlooking the Indian Ocean beyond the bluff. The photograph at the top of this page gives a glimpse of that scene. As I looked around at all the people gathered I noticed that there were blacks, whites, another group there called ‘coloureds,’ Indians, and some other Asians. At the front of the church was a priest with the blackest skin I may have ever seen. At the sign of peace we extended peace across so many races. And then I watched as Catholics of each of these ethnicities, including the whites, went up to receive the Body of our Lord from the ebony hands of the priest holding out the crucified and risen Lord to each one with the words, “the Body of Christ.” At that moment I experienced within and all around myself what catholicity, the opposite of ecclesial consumerism, looks and feels like, especially because I was not unaware of the racial strife in South Africa’s contemporary history. Persons of each race who would probably not otherwise come together by choice, especially if ecclesial consumerism were an option, were brought together in divine liturgy, extending Christ’s peace to each other, receiving together the Body and Blood of Christ, and praying for and with one another. This visible, liturgical Eucharistic unity is the unity to which Christ calls us all, and which fulfills the work of Pentecost in reconciling the races of Babel.

May the Lord bring us together in the unity of His peace, that we may be instruments of His peace to the world.

  1. For illustrations of this individualistic anti-institutional way of conceiving of Christianity, see comments #24 through #46 of “Angels trapped in stinkin flesh.” []

One comment
Leave a comment »

  1. Great article – thanks. I lived in Durban (note spelling correction) for four years and now live in Cape Town so your account of your experience in South Africa resonates with my own.

Leave Comment

Subscribe without commenting