Culture At Large

The Church, Racism, and Historical Injustice


I learn from Camassia that this is International Blog Against Racism Week. The Washington Post recently reported that two Christian denominations are addressing their own church histories of racism (via Donklephant). The Episcopal Church and the Moravian Church both have apologized for owning slaves and are reflecting on how to address ongoing racial inequities. The Episcopalians are also considering compensation for their black members to make amends for the church's slaveholding bishops and the financial benefit it received from slavery.

This move toward reflection and repentance is not new. According to the Post, in recent decades, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) "admitted that its apathy prolonged the suffering of enslaved blacks," the Southern Baptists apologized for condoning racism for much of its history, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) "has supported the study of reparations within the church and has backed a federal reparations bill." Slavery has long been a contentious topic for churches, since many churches split over the issue (the Southern Baptists were formed as the pro-slavery Baptist church after that denomination's split) and many Christians used the Bible to justify the enslavement of African Americans. As a result of slavery and the subsequent injustice of Jim Crow, racism still causes much pain in America today, and churches are right to examine their own complicity in this sinful institution.

How does the church atone for its past sins of racism and slavery? How can the church make up for the pain it caused so many African Americans and how can it address the benefits it received from participating in sin? And, above all, how can the church do all this so many decades after the fact, when the guilty church members and their slaves are all long dead?

The Post article discusses the movement for slavery reparations (the notion that black Americans should receive financial compensation for the injustice of slavery) but many people (myself included) are skeptical of this solution. Reparations reduces the injustice to one of economics, when slavery and racism have had far-reaching repurcussions beyond just money, including violence, destruction of families, and segregation, among many other injustices. Additionally, racism today, as a legacy of slavery, harms many Americans who are not descended from slaves. Yet the justice of making an institution pay for its sins makes sense - wouldn't we make a repentant thief return the stolen goods? What about the church's profits from slave labor - shouldn't it have to give something back as well?

If reparations aren't an acceptable or viable solution, what other options exist? As racism continues to fester in our society, it is critical that churches continue to grapple with past and present sin. Although the sinful individuals in the church passed away long ago, the church as an institution still remains to take responsibility, repent, and make amends for its history. So what can churches do? How can they atone for historical sins and address the consequences of that sin that still afflict our society today?

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, News & Politics, Justice