“As a minister of the gospel, I am ashamed to say that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning … is the most segregated hour in America, and Sunday school is the most segregated school of the week.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
We are killing ourselves
I had a few people talk behind my back when I resigned from being a pastor of an African-American Baptist church to become an Orthodox Christian in a predominately “white” church that, before we relocated, was in one of the most segregated towns in the state. But looking at the toxic climate of racial hostility in some communities in this nation, I and others who have dared to cross the color line in matters of religion may have stumbled on the solution to the real source of what is wrong with American society. The body of Christ in the United States is still deeply segregated and until Christians humbly repent of this division and build Christianity that has no race or ethnicity; things can only get worse in this country.
If we go back in the history of Christianity, we will see that race was not an issue that separated believers. In Acts 13:1, the church in Antioch had brown skinned Middle Eastern and black African leaders. By the Holy Spirit and through thier prayers and fasting, two of them were set aside to take the gospel message to Southern Europe. The apostles also went different directions to proclaim the same message of salvation. Andrew went as far as the British Isles, Matthew was in both Iran and Ethiopia. Thomas went to the west coast of India. Yet, the church was one during some 300 years of persecution by the Roman Empire and other nations. No Christian was ever sent to die by crucifixion, wild beast or some other cruel means because of ethnicity or skin color. Our ancestors of all races were martyred because they refused to accept a state religion that held the empire and emperor as a god.
The Russian Orthodox Kursk Root Icon
Some scholars say that rivalries between Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople as early as the third century and coming to a head with the Eastern/Oriental schism after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. was a sign that there had always been ethnic divisions in the church. However, worship was still very similar so that an Armenian could be at home among Celts and Nubians. The Great Schism of 1054 between Constantinople and Rome was also more about church authority and doctrine with little or nothing to do with race. Skin color was not a part of the arguments put forth by European Reformers like Calvin and Luther.
When European explorers and colonist made it a point to exploit the land, people, and wealth of the “new world;” race became an issue in the Christian Church. Dr. King noted that even before the first African came to these shores, the Native Americans were regarded as an inferior race.” The Protestant denominations set up mission schools to eliminate Native languages and cultures rather than add the best of who they were to the body of Christ (as the Russian Orthodox did with the Alaska Natives). Slaveholders refused the evangelization of their “property” fearing it would lead them to thoughts of racial equality and freedom. However, they taught the scriptures to the slaves in a way to “keep them in line.” While many congregations in the antebellum South were racially mixed on the surface, false doctrines such as the “curse of Ham” kept blacks and whites spiritually separate. After the war and even in the North, the spiritual separation became physical as many purely African American congregations. There were a few congregations, clergymen, and denominations that sought to bridge the gap between the races. However, the prevailing attitude of the “white” church was that the race problem could be solved when blacks willingly assume a subordinate position to whites.
While Dr. King frequently bemoaned the fact that Sunday morning was the most segregated time in America, few blacks sought to change that. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, there was a strong backlash of black theologians against the decades of white supremacist ideologies in Christianity. For the sake of “you reap what you sow,” the backlash was expected and served as a useful teaching tool. But, the anger and hurt expressed by the backlash was so harsh that there was little or no room for a movement of black and white Christians to put aside animosities and fears. Both races of Christians felt more comfortable with ministers and churches that nourished their points of view rather than ones that either sought to build a new racial reality or the original multicultural church found at Antioch and other cities in the New Testament. Combined with the two major political parties who thrive on division, “black” and “white” churches often lose focus on the kingdom of heaven because they are too concerned with gaining and maintaining power on earth. Christianity is becoming more and more a side issue as more Americans of any race are more likely to swallowed up by consumerism and hedonism to make any real effort to end Sunday morning segregation. Rather than each individual Christian humbly repenting and bearing the fruit of that repentance for racism and other sins, we get in our “groups” and point fingers at each other.
Let us worship together
Repentance and defying our animosities and fears of each other on Sunday morning is the only way to heal racism in America. No amount of protest marches against police brutality or blaming President Obama will change anything. We must admit that we, ourselves, are the problem with our sinfulness and deny ourselves and carry our crosses. We must humble ourselves and see Christ in everyone else, no matter what they look like. We must see our primary citizenship as the kingdom of God and that of being black or white as far less significant. The body and blood of our salvation comes from Christ and not from our ethnicity.