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How Black Lives Matter Is Changing the Church

One December evening, in 2014, Brenda Salter McNeil, a pastor and Black evangelical leader, descended into a church basement in Ferguson, Missouri, to meet with young activists from a broad-based group called Ferguson Action. In the four months since Michael Brown, a local eighteen-year-old, had been fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a police officer, Ferguson had become the national center of protest against police violence and the proving ground for the new Black Lives Matter movement; some of the activists running Ferguson Action went on to lead the B.L.M. movement nationwide. Salter McNeil, who is in her fifties and wears thick-rimmed glasses, had come with a handful of other evangelical leaders on a pilgrimage sponsored by Sojourners, a progressive evangelical organization, to ask the activists what role the church should take in addressing police brutality against people of color.

Several of the religious leaders who came that day were proponents of a church movement called racial reconciliation, which seeks to end racism by addressing it as a sin in individuals that can be eradicated through Biblical study, confession, and prayer. Salter McNeil—who became Christian at the age of nineteen and went on to receive a master-of-divinity degree at Fuller Theological Seminary, where she began to identify as evangelical—was one of the most prominent figures in the racial-reconciliation movement. For the previous thirty years, she had touted reconciliation around the world, often addressing tens of thousands of listeners, mostly conservative white evangelicals, at conferences and megachurches. When she spoke, she explicitly avoided talking about aspects of structural racism, such as the racial wealth gap, or the high death rate of Black mothers during childbirth; she sought to insure that her sermons were rooted in the Bible and not, as she saw it, in politics. She also stayed away from topics such as sexuality and abortion, for fear that she’d be labelled a liberal with a hidden agenda. Her workshops focussed on inspiring personal stories but left listeners with few practical tools to root out racism in their communities.

To the young activists in Ferguson, the church’s failure to address systemic racial injustice in the United States rendered American Christian leaders like Salter McNeil part of the problem. In addition, they took issue with what they saw as the church’s culture of homophobia and misogyny. That evening, when Salter McNeil and others asked the activists how the church could support them, the young activists expressed their rage. “They told us that they hated the church’s misogyny and hypocrisy, and how we treated L.G.B.T.Q. people,” Salter McNeil told me recently. “They said, ‘It seems like you work harder to keep people out of the church than to let them in.’ ” The more she listened, the more Salter McNeil began to think that the activists had a point. “It was that night that I really understood how disappointed young people of color had become with the church. They experienced us as not simply irrelevant but on the wrong side of justice.” The next day, the activists sent a text to the evangelical leaders. “We are meeting on the steps of the municipal court building at 4 P.M. Are you coming or not?” it read.

“The message was put up or shut up,” Salter McNeil said. Although she was accustomed to preaching before thousands of listeners, she was terrified to take part in a street protest: she worried that she would get trapped in a crowd and attacked by the police. She didn’t know the basics of preparing for such an endeavor: that, for example, she was supposed to carry a driver’s license in case she was arrested, to scrawl the number of an emergency contact on her arm, and to have a cloth mask to cover her face in case the police shot canisters of tear gas. She decided to attend anyway. When she arrived at the courthouse, she was startled by the diversity of her fellow-protesters. She saw older white Mennonites dressed in bonnets holding a white sheet that said “Black Lives Matter.”

The police had put up barricades to stop the protesters from reaching the courthouse steps, and some of the protesters began to shake them, trying to pull them down. Salter McNeil watched as a young white protester with spiky hair rushed ahead and climbed the fence. “I thought, This little white guy is going to cause the police to react, and they’re going to react with violence against us Black people,” she said. Overwhelmed with terror, she knelt in the street and began to pray as the swirl of bodies pressed around her. One by one, although she didn’t notice, the other faith leaders knelt nearby, and so did some of the young activists who, the night before, had expressed disgust with the church’s failure to take a meaningful stand for Black lives. McNeil told me that, in that moment, she felt the nearness of God in a way that she never had from the pulpit or stage. “It changed my life,” she said. “That day, Jesus came into the neighborhood.”

Brenda Salter McNeil finds inspiration in the Biblical scenes that depict Jesus as a radical figure.Photograph by Brandon Hill

Salter McNeil is one of a growing number of leaders in both evangelical and mainstream churches for whom Black Lives Matter has prompted a crisis of moral conscience. “What Black Lives Matter did was highlight the racism and white supremacy that still has a stranglehold on much of white Christianity,” Jemar Tisby, a prominent church historian and the author of “The Color of Compromise,” told me. “You have this phrase and this movement that is forcing people, essentially, to take sides.” In her new book, “Becoming Brave,” which came out in August, Salter McNeil writes, “I began my journey sincerely believing that if I could convince evangelical Christians that reconciliation was not some politically motivated agenda but a Biblical calling rooted in Scripture, they would pursue racial justice.” She now believes that this has proven na├»ve, and that religious leaders must begin more actively campaigning against systemic racism if they are to effect change.

Black Lives Matter has created this reckoning in part by prompting a backlash against the racial-reconciliation movement, which has held sway in evangelical circles since the nineteen-nineties. In 1996, Bill McCartney, a former football coach and the founder of Promise Keepers, an influential evangelical men’s organization, helped to launch a wide-scale effort to “disciple” a million men in the project of undoing racism through Biblical teachings. The project was idealistic: in 1997, as Chanequa Walker-Barnes writes, in “I Bring the Voices of My People,” the organization “declared a lofty goal of eradicating racism in the church by 2000.” At its inception, the movement’s aims were intensely practical: it funded efforts to rebuild Black churches targeted by arson, agitated for the hiring of more racially diverse staff in evangelical organizations, and developed curricula around racism. But early efforts to spur broader policy changes fizzled. At the Promise Keepers conference in 1996, when conversation turned to practical ways of dismantling racism through programs like affirmative action, white evangelicals became upset and derailed the discussion. As McCartney told the authors of the book “Divided by Faith,” “Of the 1996 conference participants who had a complaint, nearly 40 percent reacted negatively to the reconciliation theme.”

Over the next two decades, racial reconciliation moved away from efforts to combat institutional racism and focussed instead on addressing personal feelings about race. This focus sits more easily with the theological underpinnings of evangelical Christianity, which emphasize a believer’s personal relationship with Jesus and portray sin and salvation as matters of personal choice. Today, the reconciliation movement centers around gimmicky one-off events, like pulpit-swaps, in which Black and white pastors switch congregations. Conversations abound race are reduced to “relational” confessionals, often one-sided chats in which white Christians share the ways in which they’ve committed the sins of racism, and Christians of color are cast in the role of confessors, required to hear and then to absolve their white counterparts. Subjects such as mass-incarceration or economic inequity are written off as outside the purview of the Bible and tainted by politics.

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