(RNS) — Since my book “White Too Long” came out in the summer of 2020, amid nationwide Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, I’ve had the privilege of speaking with dozens of predominately white congregations and denominational institutions about the legacy of white supremacy in American Christianity.
One of the most common questions I get — once people have moved past denial — is, “What do we do now?”
Often this question is understandably accompanied by a great amount of anguish, stress and a sense of being overwhelmed — feelings I myself encountered while researching and writing the book.
The recognition of the longevity and enormity of the problem in white Christianity can often lead to a kind of paralysis that inhibits meaningful action.
In “White Too Long,” I shared a powerful exchange that occurred in a meeting between the two First Baptist Churches in Macon, Georgia — one predominately white and one predominately Black — who had begun a journey together to talk openly about racism for the first time in their shared histories:
If we get past denial, if we get past the magical thinking that time will settle our moral obligations for us, the next challenge for white Christians today is to deal with the paralyzing notion that the weight of this history is so enormous that meaningful action is impossible.
At one early meeting between the white and black members of the two First Baptist Churches in Macon, a white member confessed that she was simply overwhelmed and didn’t know what to do. After a painful pause, an African American woman responded calmly, “Of course you are.” This reply was a palpable moment of compassion and accountability. While giving the white woman permission to feel overwhelmed, the African American woman’s response also gently affirmed that this discomfort was not an excuse for inaction.
I recently wrote that the first step toward recovery from the distortions of white supremacy is “to separate being white from being Christian.” This is the heart of the matter. But given how long the assumption that white lives matter more than others has been with us, and how deeply it is embedded in our architecture, histories, liturgy, hymnody and theology, this is no simple task.
Faced with this formidable past, I’m convinced that the most important thing white Christians can do is to simply start somewhere. And to start somewhere local. The following suggestions are intended to be prompts to generate thinking. There is no boilerplate 10-step program or magic formula, just the courageous work to begin where we are, to see what we have been unable to see and to change what we have been unwilling to change.
Here are seven places to start.
- Take a walk around the church building and grounds. In what ways does the physical embodiment of your church communicate whiteness? If you have stained-glass windows, do they depict a white Jesus or other biblical characters who are presented as white? During Advent and Christmas celebrations that include a nativity scene, are Mary, Joseph and Jesus white? What about the paintings and bulletin boards that adorn the walls — are the images of people all white? And who uses the church facilities during the week? If only predominately white groups meet there, why is that?
- Examine the church website and social media sites. These days, potential new members are as likely to see the digital footprint of the church long before they encounter the sign out in the front lawn. On shoestring budgets, it’s easy to grab unreflectively stock images featuring white people for landing pages and events. Do these images reflect the body of Christ? And is there anything communicating a commitment to be in solidarity with Black and Brown congregations and people in your community?
- Review the children’s educational materials. One reader recently wrote to me that she was appalled to find how many 1950s-era materials that depicted only white people were still on the preschool library and classroom shelves. And what about those pictorial children’s Bibles, with all the characters depicted as white?
One way not to pass along white supremacist assumptions (and to communicate a more accurate history of what characters from the Middle East and Africa would look like!) is to correct the materials we use to teach the next generation about our faith.
- Tell a truer history of ourselves. Most churches that have been around for more than a generation have commissioned an official history that tells the story of the founding and early growth of the church. But these glossy accounts sitting in the church library or on tables in the foyer are typically incomplete at best. They, by design, are like a resume, usually written with a commitment to telling the most flattering, impressive story of the congregation.
Here’s one practical proposal. Pull together a group to write a more honest church history that begins with this simple question: Why is our church physically located where it is? Why is it in this part of our community and not another one? In nearly all cases this question will quickly lead to issues of racially segregated neighborhoods, white flight from cities to suburbs and land grabs from Native Americans, to name just a few. And other questions will flow from this beginning: Has the church ever had a policy or practice of prohibiting non-white members? Where was the voice of the church during past and present movements for civil rights? How different would a history of your church be if it were written by non-white members of your community?
- Evaluate the hymns and other songs being sung in worship. The imagery — associated whiteness with purity and goodness and blackness with sin and evil — performs powerful moral and theology work, often below the level of consciousness. Are we still unreflectively singing 19th-century hymns with lyrics like, “Whiter than snow, yes, whiter than snow/Now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow”? Or the militant, Crusade-invoking “Onward, Christian Soldiers, Marching as to War”?
- Assess what’s being addressed from the pulpit and other church-wide educational events. To give just one example from the Roman Catholic context: After 25 years of regular proclamations from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the importance of addressing racial justice, a 2004 survey found that 64% of Catholics had not heard a single sermon on racism or racial justice during the entire three-year cycle of the lectionary. Even in the midst of the effervescence last fall, following months of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, a recent Pew study found that only 40% of congregations heard sermons that even mentioned race or racism. Was this widespread silence from the pulpit the witness of your church? Historically, white pastors have heard a loud cacophony of voices warning them from speaking out against white supremacy. Does your pastor know there are congregants longing for leadership on issues of racial justice?
- Read your church budget as a document expressing its moral and spiritual priorities. This one is straightforward but vital if white congregations are going to move authentically from confession and truth-telling to the work of repentance and repair. We have it on good authority that “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Given the history and complicity of white Christian churches with white supremacy, every white Christian church should make a commitment to support a predominately non-white church or nonprofit that primarily serves non-white people in their community, with three stipulations: a) The support should be significant, an expression of confession and repair; b) The support should not just consist of a one-time offering but be incorporated as a multi-year commitment reflected in a regular line in the church budget; and c) The support should be in the form of “no strings attached” general operating funds rather than to a specific project. Relinquishing control is an important spiritual practice for white Christians.
Starting somewhere and starting local will mean you may perhaps be the first person to voice these issues in your congregation, but you are likely not the only person on this spiritual and moral journey of transformation. And there are other churches engaged in this work who have found it enlivening and life-giving.
One sure sign of the continued presence of white supremacy is the outright resistance you will inevitably encounter from some and the protests of discomfort from others. But this is also evidence of the importance of the work.
(Robert P. Jones is the CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute and the author of “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity.” This article was originally published on Jones’ Substack #WhiteTooLong. Read more at robertpjones.substack.com. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)