Last Wednesday evening, a 21-year-old white man walked into Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, sat through Bible study and then murdered nine African Americans: State Senator and Pastor Clementa Pickney; librarian Cynthia Hurd; Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr.; speech therapist and mom Sharonda Singleton; Bible study teacher Myra Thompson; 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders who died trying to save his aunt; Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor; 87-year-old Susie Jackson; and, 70-year-old Ethel Lance.
Before the young man shot them, he stated he was shooting them because, "You rape our women and you're taking over our country." It has since been discovered that the suspected gunman, Dylann Roof, was heavily influenced by white supremacist hate groups, and it is clear his evil actions were motivated by racism.
The problem of racism has not been addressed by those most qualified to actually fix the problem – the church. Most Christians fall into one of three camps, the first camp argues racism is a thing of the past and since they do not consider themselves racist, think everyone just needs to move on. The second camp acknowledges racism still exists, but they do not want to rock the boat so they are silent. The third camp is actively working to demolish racism in their churches and communities.
Racism isn't just conscious hate like that of the Emmanuel AME murderer, it is a complex system of social and political structures set up to preserve the superiority of a particular race. In this country, racism created a system to perpetuate white supremacy first through slavery, then through black codes and lynchings, and then segregation. But, even with the formal end of segregation, the effects still linger, because when you spend 200 plus years building a certain power structure you cannot demolish it or its effects in 40 years.
Even for those who are not personally racist, the stain of racism still lingers in our society, in our individual prejudices, in our speech, in our jokes, in where we live, in where our kids go to school, and sometimes in our churches. Racism manifests itself in many different ways, but the core is always the same – sin. As believers, we know the only cure for sin is the blood of Jesus.
According to Ephesians 2:14-22, the blood of Christ allows us to be reconciled to God, but it also allows us to be reconciled to one another as God's people. The reconciliation of the gospel does not remove differences, but it does unite us as one body. Therefore, as believers we should not tolerate prejudice, favoritism or racism because we are all created in the image of God and to tolerate those things is to disregard that truth.
Given Roof's relative youth, we can no longer afford to cling to the notion that racism will die out on its own or that we live in a post-racial society. If we (the church) are to lead in the destruction of racism, it will require action. While prayer is powerful, we can no longer afford to simply #prayforcharleston/ferguson/baltimore, we must act. James 2:17 tells us faith without works is dead and it is time to move beyond just prayer for cities and the victims.
Taking down the Confederate battle flag, is an important first step, because symbols matter and the Confederate flag represents both resistance to desegregation and the fight to maintain slavery. For those who argue it is a symbol of heritage, you may interpret its meaning through your familial or cultural lense; we ask is your heritage more important than the gospel call to love your neighbor as yourself? The removal of the Confederate flag cannot be the end of our work on racial reconciliation. Too many structural and systemic racial inequalities exist for us to spend all of our time and effort on symbols.
It is not enough to not be personally racist. It is not OK to hear racist talk or see racist behavior and be silent. To paraphrase Bishop Desmond Tutu, to be silent in the face of injustice is to choose the side of the oppressor. Christians should begin to pray, "Lord, open my eyes to racism in my heart, in my home, in my community and show me what it is you would have for me to do" and then go do whatever God has called you to do.
If you are still having a hard time identifying systemic racial inequalities, begin with your personal circle of friends, talk to some of your African American friends, meet with African American pastors, attend an African American church, read books by African American authors. An important first step is to look beyond your limited worldview and really try to put yourself in the position of another person. This will require lots of grace-filled conversations full of tough questions, but the work must be done for the sake of gospel. If we are to demonstrate to the world what it means to be the body of Christ, to show our supernatural unity despite our differences, the church cannot wait.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Ephesians 3:28
For more on religious liberty and activism about the problem of racism watch this video.
Ferrell Foster is director of ethics and justice and Kathryn Freeman is director of public policy for the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission. The CLC speaks to Texas Baptists on critical issues in society from a Christian and biblical perspective.