Race Relations in the Church in the Age of Obama

At 12:00 noon on Tuesday, January 20, 2009, the United States inaugurated its first African American as president with great pomp, circumstance, and hope. Those from virtually every corner of the nation looked on in pride at this tangible manifestation of our nation’s promise of opportunity for all citizens. The moment was especially poignant for African Americans who, according to reports, finally felt themselves to be members of this country in a way they had never before experienced. Observers described Obama’s gains among non-evangelical religious people as dramatic, and it may be that he did so well among people of faith because of his message of unity and reconciliation. His vision was one of an America unified by our common hopes and aspirations, a nation coalescing across race, region, and political party, where we all affirm, “Yes, we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.” I remember that at one point in early 2008 I thought that the church might not have need of my scholarship at the intersection of race relations and New Testament interpretation since concord and unity were breaking out all over the country. But then came the summer of 2008 and a vicious return to partisan politics with a twist, the usual brew spiked with a not-too-thinly veiled draught of race-baiting from “birthers” and others.

That summer turned out to be nothing in comparison to the ensuing six years as race lurked as an undercurrent in much of our public discourse. With deeply fractured politics and dysfunctional polarization, we’ve lost the capacity to seek the common good. For example, polling indicates that a majority of Americans approve of the Affordable Care Act and its provisions while simultaneously disapproving of Obamacare, despite the fact that these are two ways of referring to exactly the same legislation. Our political discourse has degenerated into anxieties about whether giving benefits to those people over there will take money out of the pockets of my kind of people over here, even when the changes are those from which we would all benefit. Most recently, cell phone video cameras document institutional disparities in the policing of communities of color, while the attendant media analysis focuses on remedies for managing the ensuing protests rather than addressing the underlying causes of the hyperviolent encounters between law enforcement and unarmed blacks themselves.

The Obama presidency has been noteworthy in many respects and will be examined by political scientists for many years to come. But what believer could forget the controversy that exploded during the 2008 campaign over remarks made by Obama’s former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright? I was deeply pained by the way this controversy exposed the racial divides in the church, but I was more devastated that the uproar filled the space of a much-needed interracial dialogue in the church. That evangelical churches are more deeply divided by race than the rest of American society is well documented,1 but the controversy over Jeremiah Wright’s preaching was not the way that I wanted to see evangelicals or the broader church engage in a dialogue about race. When Wright’s prophetic voice in the best tradition of the African American pulpit was cavalierly dismissed as an alien, radical, and scary “black theology,” the denunciation only added insult to injury.


Illustration of Bill Pannell by Denise Louise Klitsie for FULLER magazine“The bottom line is that the church is still the most segregated community in America. We have not found each other, except on the annual rent-a-choir day. So a moratorium on church growth for the purpose of majoring in reconciliation would not be such a bad idea.”


+ William E. Pannell, from his book The Coming Race Wars. Pannell served on Fuller’s faculty for 40 years and, in 1971, became the first African American to serve at Fuller as a trustee. The Pannell Center for African American Church Studies was recently named in his honor, and he has been a constant voice for reconciliation within our community. He holds a Bible to symbolize his faith that has compelled him toward a life of public leadership.

The state of the racial reconciliation movement in churches today varies from region to region. In my own experience in the upper Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic, the Southeast, and Southern California, the vast majority of Protestant churches are segregated, and where integration exists it lacks the intimacy that characterizes true reconciliation. Smaller churches that are intentionally working to achieve a vibrant demonstrable union across race and culture struggle numerically and financially. Visitors to a Methodist missionally minded, multiracial church in North Carolina frequently remarked that they were impressed with the witness that that local congregation offered to the power of the gospel, but that the church was “too hard” for them to consider as a church home. It was too uncomfortable to sing in Spanish, to deal with the choppy nature of a translated sermon, or to understand cultural differences in childrearing. Here on the West Coast, multiethnic Protestant churches are somewhat less scarce but usually come in a megachurch flavor that often lacks the kind of community that could produce real progress in race relations. Much more common are congregations that are either culturally homogeneous or nearly wholly ethnically homogenous save for a few hardy souls who align themselves with a given congregation for a variety of reasons. Again, in my experience, the valiant efforts of these few isolated people of color in culturally and/or ethnically white churches are no substitute for a thoughtful and intentional decision by a local body to take up this difficult and painful cross.

Indeed more often these days I find that I want to challenge the whole category of “racial reconciliation,” since I am now profoundly troubled by the phrase. As the earliest generation of evangelical activists articulated it, the concept was complex and nuanced and always included a focus on institutional racism in society along with the discussion of interpersonal relationships. However, recent evangelical discourse about racial reconciliation tends to diminish the notion by focusing only on overcoming personal prejudice while turning a sometimes deliberately blind eye to structural matters of inequality like poverty, education, health outcomes, criminal justice issues, and the like. I prefer to talk about “race relations in the church” as a category for this kind of work rather than to focus on “reconciliation” as an overarching theme. The former surely includes the latter and is broad enough to include a topic like restorative justice, a biblical concept that usually receives short shrift in evangelical discussions of race. In other words, the divisions we face today are not going to be healed by weeping for an hour followed by a hug.

Photo of Fuller Seminary faculty member Kyong Jin Lee“The emerging world economic and political situation needs an ethical frame that matches the informational and technological advancements. Esther tells how an ancient version of modern-based globalization—that is, integration and expansion of transnational production, migration, communication, and technology—went awry when control of power was concentrated in an entity that was dangerously devoid of any ethical consciousness.”

+ Kyong-Jin Lee is assistant professor of Old Testament studies in the School of Theology. Read more from her and other members of the community here.

The truth is, many of our local congregations do not foster the kind of interpersonal interdependence between the races that is at the heart of the New Testament vision for the church. The earliest narrative about the growth of the church in Acts emphasizes this intimacy, describing how believers shared their possessions with each other so that every need in the community would be met (Acts 2:44–47; 4:32–37). A similar picture emerges from the Pauline epistles, in Paul’s account of the purposes behind his relief project for the Jerusalem church. Invoking the Old Testament tradition of God’s gracious provision of manna for the people during their exodus wanderings in the desert, Paul exhorts those with abundance to provide for those who lack (2 Cor 8:13–15). Moreover, he urges his readers to mimic the generosity of people who gave while experiencing their own troubles, all for the sake of being a means of grace to others in need (2 Cor 8:1–4).

Indeed, the idea of interdependency is at the very heart of Paul’s gospel. Paul’s discussion of Jewish and Gentile salvation in Romans 11 maintains that each group is implicated in the salvation of the other. He believes that Jewish rejection of the gospel opens the door to Gentile salvation and that the riches of Christ among the Gentiles will in turn provoke the Jews to embrace him (Rom 11:11–26). Paul’s emphasis on interdependence is even better known via the body-of-Christ metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12. In this text, mutual interdependence is integral to life in Christ and is not restricted to the subject of entrance into the community. Each member of the community is gifted with resources and abilities to improve the common good in the context of shared responsibility for each other. Using modesty in clothing private body parts as a metaphor, Paul explains that God gives greater honor to those Christians who need it, since the strong have no need for additional esteem (1 Cor 12:22–26). Honoring the weak, according to Paul, preserves the unity of the body of Christ in which each believer is an individually gifted and necessary part of the whole. Further, this practice has the additional benefit of protecting the body from being infected by a spirit of arrogant individualism (12:21–25).

Christians in the United States must recognize how race is inextricably bound up with the history of the birth and growth of the American church. The church is one of the few remaining institutions in the American scene that normalizes the effects of slavery, with most Christians preserving these segregated spaces in the interests of cultural comfort. Racially separate churches violate the interdependence that should characterize authentic Christian communities. Further, this individualism blocks churches from the blessings of gifts preserved in separate traditions. For example, segregated white churches celebrate the confessions and the rich legacies of the intellectual giants of the faith, but too often preach a weak and disembodied gospel that reduces spirituality to symbolism, and that separates material concerns from moral choices and the pursuit of righteousness. In the black church, the effects of racism not only created intractable social, economic, and political disparities between blacks and whites, but it also subverted black access to the intellectual tradition and history of the church. Hence, while the best of the black church tradition still preserves a full-bodied worship where spirit is real and connected with body and matters of everyday life, the combination of socioeconomic hardship and fractured moorings in the intellectual tradition of the church can produce an overemphasis on these same material matters. It is ironic that both races thus contribute to creating the void that makes possible the flourishing of the prosperity gospel now virulently sweeping the church in the two-thirds world and American cities alike. In other words, life in the body of Christ is impoverished because aspects of the transformative effects of the gospel have been preserved in separate segments of the church, each handicapped by the lack of the other.

I maintain that interdependence is critical for authentic, gospel-shaped race relations in the church. There is no doubt that there are any number of homogeneous churches of all colors that fail to embody the kind of interdependence that Paul had in mind in 1 Corinthians 12; one imagines that this would be especially true of churches whose members are comfortable socioeconomically, where the needs of congregants are focused on personal fulfillment over survival.2 Interdependence is critical for healing racial schisms in the church not because there is a Bible verse that demands it, but because the lingering legacy of our troubled racial past demands the greater sensitivity and sacrifice of a higher righteousness going forward. We will know that we have finally overcome when local congregations reflect the ethnoracial composition of their communities, towns, and neighborhoods, when the draw of the Christian family supersedes the pull of cultural comfort. We will have finally overcome the legacy of destructive ethnic and racial stereotypes when skin color or speech patterns do not inhibit the affirmation of leadership gifts in these multifaceted congregations. We will have finally arrived in the territory about which Dr. King dreamt when our best friends in church really are people from other races and ethnic groups, when the people who know our greatest fears and deepest longings do not look anything like us.

Without a doubt, this is terrifying work. We are here describing an interdependence-based racial healing that exhorts believers to acknowledge and share vulnerabilities and weaknesses with the ethnic Other. That we are talking about depending on people who look like those who have hurt us in the past, who’ve been insensitive to the pressures or difficulties we face on a daily basis, only raises the stakes in this already risky undertaking. Such risk-taking in relationships would be especially dangerous for people who are already in a weakened position, though we should not underestimate the difficulties in exposing one’s inner life even when done from a seeming position of strength. There is nothing comfortable about building these kinds of relationships. Visitors to mixed congregations speak honestly when they confess that they have no interest in subjecting themselves to this degree of discomfort, and their sentiments are completely understandable. Whether the sentiments are also faithful to the gospel is another thing entirely. Indeed, we have reached a sad state of affairs when we are all unwilling to be challenged when we go to church.

Photo of Fuller Seminary faculty member Johnny Ramirez Johnson“Justice ought to begin at home, but it does not stay there because you cannot keep the fourth commandment in a cave. You can keep the Sabbath as long as you are in relationships. God’s command to keep the Sabbath reminds us of the irreducible, inscrutable, and relational nature of God’s demand on Christians and the world—an ecological community with a Christian oikos that creation-driven Sabbath rest demands of Christianity.”

+ Johnny Ramírez-Johnson is professor of intercultural studies. Read more from him and other members of the community here.

It is not surprising that President Obama was unable to usher in a new era of political unity singlehandedly. The interests of those on each side of our political landscape are preserved by maintaining divisions, as political popularity seems to operate on a zero sum basis wherein losses on one side translate directly into gains on the other. This dichotomy, this gulf that lies between our highest aspirations and the pedestrian interests of power and position, between the comfort of the status quo and the challenges of vulnerability, also applies to the inertia in the movement towards Christocentric race relations in the church. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that the appeal to unity in part propelled Obama to a convincing victory, striking deep chords in the minds and hearts of so many. I am convinced that multiethnic and multicultural unity and interdependence in the church would be just as compelling and winsome, though with far higher stakes.

We will find fresh energy for this task when we recognize that we cannot achieve our destiny as the people of God unless we work together, inasmuch as we are called to demonstrate a supernatural capacity to love one another and to bear one another’s pain. We should not move too quickly to a cheap reconciliation that forgets the past rather than honoring it as a clay vessel that contains a refined treasure bearing witness to the presence of Jesus at the margins. We need to make space for the histories of ethnic pain to be shared and revered among whites and all peoples of color, and to be instructed by them. That is, we need to understand how our past impinges on the present before we can move forward together toward our future. We cannot be who we are called to be unless we can gain access to the treasures of the gospel that have been preserved in the separate traditions of now segregated ethnic churches. We will not testify to the glory of God and the manifold riches of his mercy to the nations until we do.


1. See Jason E. Shelton and Michael O. Emerson, Blacks and Whites in Christian America: How Racial Discrimination Shapes Religious Convictions (New York: NYU Press, 2012); also Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem with Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
2. For more information on the similarities of the belief structures of black and white evangelicals alongside the dissimilar religious habits of these groups, see Shelton and Emerson, Blacks and Whites in Christian America.