In February of 2017, I traveled to Colorado Springs to take part of a prayer event and to spend some time with friends. During a down moment we headed to a department store for lunch and for some ‘light’ shopping. The checkout line was pretty long, filled with very pregnant women preparing for their new bundles of joy. My friends and I were waiting patiently at the back of the line.
I noticed an older white gentleman walking towards us. Upon reaching our proximity he stops, scanning me, up and down. He turns to one my friends and says sarcastically and loudly, “I see you brought your nigger along with you.”
It was as if the entire store stopped breathing for a moment. You could hear the audible gasps from those pregnant ladies and even from the sweet cashiers. My white friend became angry and started to confront the older man. I restrained my friend, thinking to myself how sad it is that a moment like this is still so shocking to him. Then I thought about how sad it is that as a black man I am, at least subconsciously, always prepared for moments like this.
I said to my friend, “If he’s crazy enough to say this to me, out loud, in a public place then I’m not sure what else he’s crazy enough to do. We should probably just let him go.”
Unfortunately, that was not the only thing I experienced early in 2017.
It was presidential inauguration week in Washington, DC. I attended an evangelical inaugural gala with some friends. Sitting next to a lovely older white woman from Northern Virginia who worked in publishing, I explained to her a little bit about my work on racial reconciliation. She stopped me at a certain point and said, “Can I ask you a question?” I’m painfully aware that this is a moment where she feels too comfortable. She continues, “Regarding Martin Luther King, Jr — wasn’t he unfaithful to his wife?”
I said to her, “Do you think that if he was unfaithful that somehow his dream for a more racially reconciled America is discredited?” She says, “Well, I think it does bring the credibility of his message into question.”
Imagine how stunned I was. Consider the setting. This is an evangelical gathering celebrating the election and pending inauguration of now President Donald J. Trump. A man, whether you support him or not, has had multiple affairs and been married more than once. I said to her, “Do you know where we are? Do your feelings about MLK also apply to Mr. Trump?” It was appalling to her that she hadn’t prevented this error. She didn’t say much. I don’t think she knew what to say. It had sincerely never crossed her mind to apply the same standard to Mr. Trump. The only thing she did offer was, “I didn’t mean it the way it sounded.”
Theatrically, I slowly backed my chair up from the table, addressed her kindly with my final responses of gratitude for the conversation, while suggesting that her incongruence may point to a larger problem in her heart. I then poetically poured her another glass of Trump wine — and walked away.
Telling you about these incidents is difficult. It puts me in a position of vulnerability, being one of many voices acknowledging that racism is NOT a thing of the past. It is indeed alive and well, and impacting my life today.
I am not sure about the older gentleman in the first story, but it’s likely that both of the antagonists in these scenarios are practicing Christians. If they were, I can’t help but wonder if their behavior has simply progressed due to lack of insight, conviction, and repentance.
Is it not the role of spiritual leadership to raise up the Church to be mature in Christ, Holy to the Lord? How are our Christian leaders redirecting this behavior? I’m not so sure they know how, though for some I’m sure it’s not for the lack of trying. Even so, collectively we continue to make distinctions between the White, Black, Hispanic, or ‘other’ type of church. While there are growing numbers of ethnically diverse congregations, there is still ignorance and avoidance of the root problem.
The root problem. These narratives are indicative of it, a sickness, a sort of plague in our midst. What is it? I talk a lot on this in the Behind the Seen podcast, that as a counselor and social worker I see this in leaders all too often. The position of not taking responsibility for ourselves, but instead projecting blame for the shame we feel about ourselves personally on to another person, in these cases on to a race of people whose slave history and struggle for shared human dignity feels too inconvenient and too painful to see with measured objectivity and culpability.
There are a lot of Church leaders that are doing an amazing job at addressing this issue. I don’t want to suggest otherwise. We are still not at the threshold of sustainable change in my opinion. Many of the leaders that I talk to are afraid of taking up the issue. Fear of being seen as ‘too progressive’ ideologically and as a result experiencing a downturn in membership. A downturn in church membership or attendance means a poor financial bottomline. Like it or not, our leaders must be concerned with such things. There is also the basic fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear of retaliation from the laity and fear of lambasting from the public if the approach to reconciliation seems too conservative. Additionally, I think that many leaders are under pressure to maintain the authority of their position and platform, making it difficult to admit how they’ve been commiserate with racial bias, prejudice, and discrimination. I have also seen the other side, where leaders exploit the issue of racial division in the Church in an attempt to make their voice more relevant and to gain more power.
The problem sisters and brothers is not more complicated than this fearful cohort of leaders sharing less and less of the full Gospel message that not only tells us that Jesus died for our sins, but that he also desires to live IN us and THROUGH us. Paul says, “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Denominationalism, political otherization, and overall judgmentalism have been masked and protected by a version of the Gospel taught and lived by the laity and more importantly by the spiritual leadership in order to avoid the consequences of really standing up for truth in our houses of worship.
We have grown accustomed to blaming and shaming those secular influencers for the demonization of the culture, as though somehow we were not called to be ‘in the world, while not being of the world.’ We have leaned too far on government, abdicating our priestly and royal responsibility to serve the poor, the widowed, and the orphaned (Isaiah 58).
Dear Church Leaders — please stop blaming and start changing. Stop pointing the finger at the world. Instead let us hold ourselves accountable to demonstrating authentic Christianity in the midst of a broken world. Let us encourage our leaders that they will not be thrown away when they show up imperfect and broken, but real. May we not hold them to a standard of perfection, but rather to the standard of love that speaks the truth.
Alone, I cannot change the minds and hearts of people who are aligned with any racist ideologies. But with leaders who are truly committed to the shepherding and discipleship of their flocks, we can only expect that situations like those I’ve experienced will not be taking place in our own houses. Such behavior will not be tolerated while the people will be met with much grace, love, and belonging.
The Church and its leadership should have an attitude that is consistent with her heavenly citizenship. In His first letter to the Church at Corinth, the apostle Paul tells us:
“[We] have the right to do anything,” you say–but not everything is beneficial. “[We] have the right to do anything”–but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.” – 1 Corinthians 10:23-24
We are not to conduct ourselves in a way that prioritizes our partisan beliefs over what is commanded to us by God. Rather we are to seek the good of others before seeking good for ourselves. Instead of calling each other ugly names or putting a figure like Martin Luther King, Jr. on the holistic chopping block due to some alleged moral failure, maybe it’s better to ask what are you doing that is bettering the world and advancing the Kingdom.
Rest assured — it will not be our judgment of others that leads those yet to be saved into repentance, that changes the heart of the racist, prejudiced, and biased, but rather it will be our kindness, our generosity, and our love for Christ and for each other.
In the hope of Christ,
Branden S. Polk is the CEO and Founder of Arrowhead Advising, LLC. As an innovator, social reformer, public speaker, writer, counselor, and creative artist, Branden has dedicated his life to advocacy for the most vulnerable, the developing of transformational leaders, and to changing the way society addresses today’s most sensitive topics such as race, sexuality, criminal justice, education, faith, and more. He is also co-host of the popular podcast Behind the Seen. Above all, Branden is a reconciler.
- Behind the Seen [Podcast]
- Scene on Radio: Seeing White [Podcast]
- The Rest of the Gospel: When the Partial Gospel Has Worn You Out [Book]
- Renewal: 4 Ways to Change Your Life — and Our Nation [Book]
- In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership [Book]
- I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. — Galatians 2:20
- I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. — John 17:14
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