(Article is by Ed Kelly Jr. For brief bio, see below.)
As a former Evangelical pastor, I spend a great deal of time reviewing and examining my theological ideas. In the process of doing so, I routinely check my mental filter to make sure my beliefs correspond to reality. I agree with Henri De Lubac, a Catholic theologian in France who explained:
Everyone has his filter which he takes about him, through which, from the infinite mass of facts, he gathers in those suited to confirm his prejudices…Rare, very rare, are those who check those filters.
I encountered De Lubac’s ideas late in life, but since then, I have been constantly checking my filter—my ideas, preconceptions, and world view. A world view is how a person pictures the world: their conceptual framework for understanding how life began, works, and how one ought to live ethically and purposefully. World views develop over time in the context of specific cultural and language frameworks through a process known as socialization. My task has been sifting through my inherited or learned beliefs and attitudes to determine whether they match reality.
One of these filters has caused me great dismay. I came to the realization that as an Evangelical minister, I had been complicit in racism and not only denied but promoted systemic or structural racism. I was the problem, not the solution, although I claimed to have the solution. This faulty filter was not unique to me. Studies have shown that a significant majority of white Evangelical Protestant Christians have the same problem. Unfortunately, the Church seems to be in a worse situation today than it was in the 1960s when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about his disappointment in white moderates and white churches. Dr. King described white moderates as the “Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom… more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice, (they) prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” This preference for negative peace continues to this day. Dr. King was also greatly disappointed in white churches, which he had hoped would join with black churches in advocating for justice. Instead, some white churches became “outright opponents,” while “all too many others remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” Dr. King added, “I have heard many ministers say: ‘Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern’.”
When I learned how to drive as a teenager, I was warned about blind spots: those areas around the car that one cannot see with mirrors. I was urged to be proactive, making sure to turn my head and look around carefully before changing lanes or turning. In the same way, as an Evangelical I had a blind spot caused by overreliance on my “mirror” of theological views. As a result, I was unable to acknowledge the existence of structural racism. My blind spot involved two basic ideas.
First, I proclaimed from the pulpit that racism is a sin problem, not a skin problem. From an Evangelical standpoint, this statement sounds right, yet it is unbalanced and oversimplified. It is based on the idea that racism is a problem of individual sin and that “all men have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” This perspective fails to acknowledge the existence of corporate and institutional policies that work against people of color. As an individual I was complicit in keeping those policies in place, yet racism is not limited to individuals. Racism is a disease that affects not only individuals but also institutions, churches, communities, and nations in which policies, laws, and rules discriminate against people of color.
Second, I proclaimed from the pulpit that the solution to the racist sin problem is the simple Gospel that Jesus saves and changes people. The Evangelical mindset is that Jesus is the answer to every problem, including racism, and that faith in Jesus promotes reconciliation. I preached reconciliation without justice, never realizing how untheological this viewpoint was. The Evangelical theology of sin and redemption states that God’s justice must be met before reconciliation can take place; hence the necessity of Jesus paying the price for the sins of the world. God’s justice was met on the Cross. I was blinded by my own assumptions and did not see the need to obtain justice for people of color even though the Hebrew prophets cried out for justice for the oppressed in their own nation and said that the nation was judged for its oppression. I was one of those ministers who proclaimed that the “social gospel”—the cry for justice—was not the true gospel.
Churches should be in the forefront of healing the divisions caused by racism in the United States, but sadly, the Church has failed. The failure is rooted in the unwillingness to acknowledge that systemic racism saturates all of our institutions, including our churches. Reconciliation does not mean forgetting past racial injustices or closing our eyes to current structural racism. Instead, it requires honest and truthful recognition of the wrongs committed and a sincere intention to restore justice. In this sense, the truth will set us free. When we face the truth of our “sinful” institutions, we will be moving closer to doing the real work of dismantling racism. Reconciliation will help repair the fractures in our society caused by centuries of systemic racism and the resulting mistrust. However, there can be no reconciliation without justice and no justice without truth—the reality that racism infects organizations, communities, churches, and the nation.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
BIO: Guest writer Edward Kelly Jr. lives in Red Oak, Iowa, with his wife Rose. He was a Fundamentalist Pentecostal preacher for 20 years and in 1995 began a journey out of fundamentalism through the influence of such writers as Paul Tillich and James Barr. He has a Masters in Theology from Franciscan University (Steubenville, Ohio) and is now a Humanist Chaplain and Celebrant.