December 1, 2005, marked the fiftieth anniversary of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus for a white passenger. As the saying goes, the rest is history. Her recent death draws attention to her faithful witness and the difference her life made for so many. Her death also reminds us of the continuing challenge of racism for church leaders.
We must acknowledge that racism has a more profound impact on the church than most of us can ever fully appreciate or understand.
W. E. B. DuBois wrote in 1901 that the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line. What prophetic words he spoke. The century ended and a new one began with a color line still running through the heart of America. Events in the United States and around the world make it clear that racism still stands as the pressing challenge for us who would be leaders of the church and society. Racism is real, alive, and no one of us can deny that reality or claim exemption from its insidious power.
There are signs that the growing urbanization and diversity of America are producing potentially destructive reactions. Joel Kotkin believes that some of the movement away from cities is a reaction to the cacophony of urban life. He calls this the “Valhalla Syndrome” — a yearning for a heavenly retreat, with the promised reward of a simpler, less complex existence. He predicts the America of the twenty-first century will be shaped by a growing racial and cultural chasm between the cosmopolitan cities and the Valhallan hinterland — a division not unlike the struggle between the urbanized North and the rural South in pre-Civil War America. Ultimately, Kotkin warns, this conflict between cosmopolitan and Valhallan visions “may determine whether the society meets the challenge of becoming a harbinger of a new world culture, or whether it will seek to freeze itself, like other declining civilizations, in the comforting outlines of its imagined past.”
(International Herald Tribune, March 14, 1996.)
The Church and Racism — A Mixed History
No understanding of church leadership today can avoid the issue of racism. The Christian passion for justice, combined with a very mixed history in regard to racial justice, mandates such leadership. The church’s passion for justice comes directly from the biblical witness. From the earliest days, it has sought the redemption of society as well as of individuals. Historically, it has not been that some churches involve themselves with social issues and others do not; rather, the difference is the variety of issues with which they concern themselves.
All churches have mixed records regarding the handling of race. Whatever political and social progress we have made has not always been matched by spiritual progress. The church is not immune to this deadly “virus” of racism. Many people in mainline denominations bring the culture’s racist social conditioning to church with them. They come from communities and institutions where they have not experienced diversity, and they have far too little experience in understanding those who are different from them.
A few years ago, one of the denominations surveyed members of its churches asking, “What issues is God calling the church to address?” Another question asked how optimistic they were about the possibility of success in dealing with each issue. The survey found racism to be the top issue they felt called to address, even though the denomination is ninety-five percent white. There was an equally significant, and far more disturbing, finding. Racism scored highest regarding the need for attention, but lowest in terms of the probability of success in dealing with it.
We must acknowledge that racism has a more profound impact on the church than most of us can ever fully appreciate or understand. We must grieve every instance of hurt endured by a child of God because of words or actions based on race, no matter what the motivations or intentions. But grief is not enough. We must acknowledge and confess our shortcomings. Only decisive action will make the church a truly hospitable environment. The church can become a place where all are safe. The church can become a place in which all are honored as God’s precious and unique creations for whom Christ died.
The Leadership Imperative
Racism has no place in the Christian church. It is a sin against God and everything for which the church stands. Only those who can understand and accept that we are one in Christ can be credible ambassadors for Christ in a world growing more diverse daily. Leadership requires us to declare that racism is wrong, and we must work constantly to confront it and end it. All leaders must rededicate themselves to the monumental task of eliminating the racism among us. As leaders we must set a plan of action.
The task at times appears overwhelming. Yet, despite its magnitude, God is calling this generation, through the church, to move forward in faithfulness. There is no one solution. But no progress takes place unless many become involved in many efforts for leadership by the church. We will do well to remember Dr. King’s admonition that justice requires many approaches. “Anyone who starts out with the conviction that the road to racial justice is only one lane wide,” he said in telling the Montgomery Bus Boycott story, “will inevitably create a traffic jam and make the journey infinitely longer.” (Stride Toward Freedom, 1958, 19)
So it is that we in the church will need to find new ways to recognize and value distinctive identities and cultures. At the same time, we may discover anew the unity that comes from “doing justice” to our diversity.
This issue of Leading Ideas honors the memory of Rosa Parks and her courageous act of obedience fifty years ago this month. Portions of this article are adapted from Leadership in the Wesleyan Spirit by Lovett H. Weems, Jr., (Abingdon, 1999.)