Racism of Church of Christ members is a relatively small problem today, according to It’s There in Black and White (2020), written by four male ministers, two black and two white, who claim to offer “scriptural answers” to questions about racial tension.

Racism is “uncommon” in individual members, and the authors “seldom see or hear anything that would hint of racism” in their travels to many Church of Christ congregations.

Systemic racism does not exist in the Churches of Christ, they declare without explanation, and they disagree on its existence in American culture.  Similarly, the authors, Glenn Colley, Ben Giselbach, Hiram Kemp, and Melvin L. Otey, disagree “on white privilege and its prevalence or lack thereof in American society.”

Today, such rare individual racism and having separate white and black congregations near one another are the two racial problems lingering in the Churches of Christ, the authors conclude.

The lone female voice in the book testifies briefly in support, a black Churches of Christ member who has “never witnessed racism, or any consequences of racism … happen in the church or among brethren” and “outside the church, … did not experience any kind of prejudice from white people ….”

Stark Contrast With Other Scriptural Efforts on Race

The book stands in contrast to an open letter published last year and signed by over 300 Churches of Christ ministers decrying systemic racism and urging ministers to abandon “hollow words,” to take action against racism—particularly against police violence and selective enforcement against African-American persons—, and to advocate for fair and equitable treatment for black lives.

The book also stands in contrast to recent scriptural analysis of racism by other ministers and theologians.  Indeed, the authors of It’s There in Black and White appear generally unaware of others’ scriptural insights regarding racism, as there are virtually no recent theological treatments of racism cited or discussed in the book. 

It is difficult to imagine many books on race and scripture written in recent decades leaving out Amos 5:18-24, including “let justice roll down like waters,” and Micah 6:1-8, including “what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy,” but this one does.

Defining Away Racism

A major flaw running through It’s There in Black and White is, under its framework, a person is not engaged in racism unless the person believes their own race is inherently superior and the person has enmity toward a person of a different race.  Racism, the authors claim, is a form of Biblical enmity, defined by the book as “hostility; hatred, ill will; animosity; antagonism” towards another person.

Very few white Christians believe they are a white supremacist or think they act with hostility, hatred, ill will, animosity, or antagonism toward black persons, though.

The corresponding is true for black Christians.

The problem of Christian racism is thus reduced to almost nothing by the book’s definitional framework and discounting of systemic issues.

It Isn’t Just Feelings of Superiority and Enmity

The book includes no or little discussion of racism as other forms of sin, none of which require a person to believe in the superiority of their race or to have such enmity for others — such as “oppression,” negligent inaction instead of being a “neighbor,” “favoritism,” “judging by appearance,” lack of “love” (not simply active hate), not following Jesus’s example, not actively engaging in “hospitality,” not opposing harm, and failure of “justice” and “mercy.”

Many Christians, knowingly or unknowingly, engage in, cause, or support major racism problems that reflect these other forms of racism and sin.

Examples include segregation, discrimination, and inequities in education, housing, employment, and medical care today, biased policing, criminal-justice inequities, mass incarceration, unconscious bias, attacks on voting rights, and social discrimination.

The book asserts that it speaks to Christians about the church—the body of Christ, all Christians—and how to keep racism out of the body. But Christian action and inaction relative to these other forms of racism and to major racism problems largely go unaddressed in the book.

Such Christian action and inaction hurts others, including members of the body of Christ and their families.

Comfort Book for Churches of Christ, Diligent Need to Look Elsewhere

If Churches of Christ members want to reinforce that they are part of the right religious group (one free of systemic racism) and that they, as individuals, are not engaged in racism or supportive of it since they believe they lack feelings of superiority or hatred based on race, then this is the book for them.

But if church members want to diligently consider race and their duties as part of the body of Christ in view of scripture, they will need to look elsewhere.

Far-Right Talking-Points

Much is left out of the book, but far-right and fundamentalist talking points are advocated there as “scriptural answers” with dubious justification —

Planned Parenthood and the “pro-abortion movement” are guilty of racism today, people should not apologize or repent for past racism in which they did not themselves directly engage, Critical Race Theory should be rejected, MLK Day and Black History Month should not be celebrated or observed by a church congregation, rioting against racism will keep people out of heaven, and others.

Racism is Not Racism, It’s Just “Love” and Scripture-Following?

The book’s narrowly defining racism has a broad impact.

Christians engaged in even clearly racist actions, like advocating laws barring interracial marriage, will explain those are not due to a belief in superiority or any enmity.  They will state they believe the Bible, as part of “God’s order,” prohibits black and white people from marrying one another and their actions are based on lovingly following their conviction on scripture. 

Similarly, Christians advocating the “Curse of Ham”—including that the Bible requires black people to be the slave and servant of white people— explain they do not hate black people. They claim that recognizing that God asks black people to be the slave and servant of white people does not make black people “unequal” or “inferior” to white people.  They follow the interpretation that God designates people of different races for “different roles.” 

Racism?

White Christians discouraging their children from relationships with black children explain that they do not hate all black people and that they feel, while black people are not inherently inferior due to their skin color, “black culture” is inferior and promotes drug use, theft, and promiscuity.  They do not want their kids near it. 

Also, some forbid such relationships to avoid the possibility their child marries a black person, not due to a belief in superiority or hate, they explain, but because of how difficult interracial families have it and they do not want their kids or grandkids to have to go through that.  

Few Christians Engage in Racism?

Many white Christians support politicians favoring narrowing voting opportunities — such as requiring picture ID and limiting early voting — while knowing such policies are intentionally designed to lessen the number of black persons voting and disproportionately impact black persons. This might be the result, those Christians explain, but it is to “protect the vote” and a required ID does not cost much. These voting policies are not an unnecessary or unjust exercise of power by a controlling political party toward a minority group — and thus not oppression — even if any alleged fraud such policies might solve is essentially non-existent today, they contend.

White Christians who cross the street, clutch their pocketbooks, or lock their car door when black persons are coming toward them say they do not do so because they feel inherently superior or hate black people, but because they have heard that statistics show crimes in that area are most often committed by black people, so it is a loving thing to protect one’s family. 

Compare these white Christians’ actions — from regarding interracial marriage to crossing the street when black people approach — to the book’s narrow definition of racism.

With none of those Christians feeling they are inherently superior due to the color of their skin or having hatred or similar feelings towards black persons due to the color of their skin, none of those actions constitute racism?  Racism — when considered in all its forms — is uncommon among Christians?

Some Positives

Simply raising the issue of racism in the church is commendable.  The book condemns racism as it defines it.  Encouraging attention to the gospel, scripture, and Jesus in addressing racism is a welcome feature. 

Racism should be addressed from the pulpit and in Bible classes, it says. It suggests racism is disunity and should be discussed honestly, with an open mind. The book is short, mostly speaks plainly, and its question and answer format makes its sub-topics accessible.

The book teaches that interracial marriage is not prohibited by scripture.  Moreover, it advocates considering “walking a mile” in the shoes of others. It is fair to label as inconsistent or hypocritical certain behaviors by Christians regarding race, including silence regarding “problems of racial hate and discrimination” in the United States and our communities, the book explains.  

Notably, the book advocates reconciliation, a key in healing.  It acknowledges Christians have sometimes been silent regarding racial hate and discrimination.  It explains that claiming to be “color blind” can fail to recognize particular challenges faced by a specific group.   

However …

Often, though, when the book appears to begin a productive analysis relating to race along such positive lines, it adds or intertwines limitations, caveats, or vague and ambiguous declarations. 

As an example of the latter, Galatians 3:28, one of the most cited verses in the book, includes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek,… there is neither male nor female ….”  It is cited to support statements that black and white persons are “equal” and that black persons are “valued,” “loved,” and “not inferior” (or something similar) and to oppose discrimination against people based on race.

But, despite Galatians 3:28, nearly all Churches of Christ completely bar girls and women from speaking, leading, and actively serving in the assembly, all while asserting they are “equal,” “valued,” “loved,” “not inferior,” and not discriminated against based on sex and that those doing it are not sexist or engaged in sexism.  Indeed, the book’s male-centric language and paucity of female voices and sources stand out.

If prohibiting people from speaking and from various offices and service opportunities based on one immutable characteristic (sex) is considered by a person to be “equality,” “love,” “not sexism,” etc., then what do their assertions of “equality,” “love,” and “not racism” relative to another immutable characteristic (race) mean?

Participating in Oppression?

The authors say near the end of the book that “those who participate in oppression … must repent to be right with God,” but do not describe the contours of such participation.

Does participation in oppression of black persons include ignoring the existence and influence of systemic racism and white privilege? 

Does it include advocating views that support politicians and policies that continue racial inequality in voting rights, criminal justice, education, and other systems?

Does it include prioritizing not being perceived as divisive in my congregation above advocating for justice and mercy for others?

Does participation in oppression include remaining silent and inactive on these matters? 

Are you participating in the oppression of black persons?  Am I?

Conclusion

My criticism of It’s There in Black and White is meant to further God’s kingdom and all of our work in that regard. The authors should be appreciated for giving attention to racial issues, working together, sharing their experience, making several productive points, and challenging us to think about race and scripture. 

Unfortunately, the book’s positive contributions are far outweighed by its substantive flaws, including its overly narrow racism definition, failures on systemic racism, male-centric approach, dearth of theological sources considered, ambiguities, and non-engagement with racism in the form of a variety of kinds of sin.

Such flaws tend to promote more Christian comfort and inaction on racism than understanding and action.


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