How are churches in North America dealing with issues of race, recently so conspicuous and contested in US and Canadian society?
Church leaders are keenly aware of struggles over race and racism not just in society at large but also within and among Christian congregations, in Christian institutions, and in the long entangled history of Christian churches on the North American continent. Race is front and centre.
“The priority for the current period, and for the foreseeable future, is working to end racism,” said National Council of Churches in the USA associate general secretary Antonios Kireopoulos. “The horrific extent of this problem is painfully obvious to any and all global observers, and thus it commands the attention of the churches called to be co-instruments of societal healing, reconciliation, and peace.”
Many of the churches in North America date to the colonial period, when assumptions about racial superiority suffused the colonial and missionary enterprises. Both slavery and ill treatment of Indigenous Peoples were often justified through appeals to Christian values and the biblical tradition. And today’s denominational picture in the USA owes much to pre- and post-Civil War splits over race, abolition, and segregation.
A racial pandemic?
In recent years, the highly public deaths of Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, the growth of Black Lives Matter, and controversies over policing, critical race theory, reparations, and voting rights have led to a kind of racial reckoning yet also sparked racial resentment and backlash, including the rise of a kind of Christian nationalist movement.
“The marches in May and June 2020, after the death of George Floyd, were powerful to observe. Diverse voices came together in protest,” said Bishop Teresa Jefferson-Snorton of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Alabama. Even then, she said, “I don't think the church was visible enough.”
The issues play out somewhat differently in the US, with its 250-year history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, and Canada, where cultural genocide against native peoples was enforced in governmental and religious educational institutions until a generation ago.
Still, Indigenous Peoples and African Americans across North America—or Turtle Island, as it is often called by native groups—share a legacy of displacement, trauma, and economic marginalization, noted Anglican Archbishop Mark MacDonald, WCC’s president for the whole region.
MacDonald chaired a consultation on 10 February of 34 church leaders, ecumenical officers, and allies in specialized ministries from North America who are among participants in this week’s WCC central committee meeting, held mostly online.
MacDonald said he was encouraged that, in recent years, “We have wrestled in North America with some very important issues,” he said. Indigenous groups have stressed that their poverty is enforced by colonialism and racism. They have zeroed in on indigenous rights as key not only to their well-being but to the sustainable future of the whole planet and its climate. “People on the margins are beginning to articulate what a livable life would look like,” he said.
The WCC is renewing and deepening its engagement. “I am encouraged by the proposal of the new WCC initiative of the Programme to Overcome Racism, Racial Discrimination and Xenophobia that plans to seek and redress the matter of how we visibly live out the unity we seek,” said Rev. Dr Angelique Walker-Smith of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc.
Conversion within the churches
Dozens of American churches have issued statements that offer clarity about the moral core of racial and social justice. But how do they effect change?
Along with its foundational theological studies, said Kireopoulos, the NCC’s public witness “offers an opportunity to the NCC to bring forward a moral voice, through the convening table on Joint Action and Advocacy for Justice and Peace.”
Perhaps the NCC’s most conspicuous and ambitious ecumenical initiative aimed at personal and congregational conversion, he says, is “A.C.T. Now to End Racism” (A.C.T. meaning Awaken, Confront, and Transform), which compliments their policy work and engages churches even beyond their membership primarily to address racism as it affects the black community.
Others have pointed to upcoming events this year that tie these concerns to preparation for the WCC 11th Assembly, set for 31 August through 8 September. An International Day for the Elimination of Racism will take place 21 March, while the Women’s Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace will sponsor two sessions this spring. The Canadian Council of Churches is sponsoring a series of orienting webinars for the 45 assembly participants, said its general secretary, Peter Noteboom.
Still, “Anti-racism work is hard,” said Jefferson-Snorton. “It is time-consuming. It requires commitment beyond one seminar or workshop, or even one program or one department devoted to diversity issues. Racism is so engrained in the fabric of the USA, that we often just accept it (both blacks and whites). Giving up ‘white privilege’ is a starting point, but I see few people willing to do so.”
Is she optimistic? No, she says, “yet I have hope for God to help us bring about the ‘beloved community’ that Martin Luther King envisioned.”