Race Relations In America: Nation And Church Divided [1]

Once again, racial tensions in the USA are in the spotlight again with the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota. We’re not sure what we can add to the debate, but we can draw upon the resources of those in the Church who are at the forefront of the action, and clearly one of the big problems is in the Church itself. Racism in America is, inasmuch as it is here, firmly entrenched in the massive economic and social inequality in the US and will never be addressed until politicians are willing to tackle these substantive divides in society. Sadly even in Australia and New Zealand there are those within Christian circles who have been quick to divert blame from political systems and try to shift it elsewhere. These are generally people who are of a right wing political persuasion and are often supporters of Donald Trump. The Australian Christian Lobby appears to be an organisation of this type, which has issued press releases on its pages highlighting some of the violent protests that have occurred in the US and criticising them, whilst sidestepping the racism issues.

Thankfully there have been some responses from the evangelical church worldwide that have been thoughtful and informative. Here we are going to list two videos which can be watched on Youtube:

So as you can see, this one is Hillsong East Coast’s Pastor Carl Lentz talking with Bishop T D Jakes, a well known black American preacher who runs the Potter’s House megachurch in Dallas, Texas. Jakes captures the heart of racism as it affects him personally pretty well in this message. Carl Lentz has been a vocal supporter of “Black Lives Matter” in his preaching and church work in New York. This message was broadcast as part of Hillsong East Coast’s online services on May 31, 2020 and it is a recorded interview between Lentz and Jakes via videoconferencing.

“Become The Bridge” is an interview-style message between Pastor Steven Furtick of Elevation Church, Ballantyne, North Carolina, and Pastor John Gray of Relentless Church, Greenville, South Carolina. It was recorded at Elevation Church Ballantyne with both pastors in attendance there in person, and was broadcast as part of the services held there on May 31, 2020, as well as the services the same day at Relentless Church. Pastor Furtick is white and Elevation Church is one of the largest megachurches in the entire United States; Pastor Gray is black and he established Relentless Church in Greenville two years ago. Gray, like Jakes in the previous clip, is well qualified to talk about his experiences of racism, as well as his efforts to address it through his ministry.

These messages are completely topical and among a growing number of appropriate responses from the white evangelical community, but as both black pastors have made clear reference to in their messages, this community does not have a good track record of addressing these types of issues in general, largely because so many pastors and other Christian leaders in the evangelical community have sold out to right wing political causes. The key objective of right wing politics is to excuse and justify all forms of social inequality, and this means they have no intention in general of addressing systematic racism in the United States or anywhere. A key question we would have for the Australian Christian Lobby is whether they have any ability to recognise the existence and effects of racism in Australia in relation to the indigenous people of that nation. ACL does apparently claim to seek the relief of global poverty worldwide, but we think there has to be a real question over their ability to address root causes in issues like colonialisation, for example.

Worldwide, we are aware at this time of writing that at least two high profile evangelical church leaders have backtracked on inappropriate responses to this situation. Chris Hodges, senior pastor of Church of the Highlands, has apologised to his congregation for following and liking tone-deaf social media posts by a far-right Trump supporter, whilst Hillsong Church senior global pastor Brian Houston has rebuked comments made by Hillsong London’s senior pastor Gary Clarke (according to a short extract on Youtube purporting to be from Hillsong London’s online service last Sunday, these comments appear to amount to Clarke stating he did not believe he was qualified to offer an opinion on the events in the US because he did not live there, an unfortunate sidestep although not an overtly racist viewpoint). Research we did for this article has made it clear that there has been widespread condemnation like we have never known before, from all across the evangelical church in the US, particularly with the high profile ministries and megachurches, of the George Floyd murder. These responses are still coming at the time of writing, and we are becoming more confident that the tone-deaf responses by a relative few, like ACL, and Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr, are well out of step. Hodges’ comments in particular illustrate just how easy it is for evangelicals to be unaware of the social issues of their day, through issues such as getting wrapped up in a church / ministry bubble or adhering primarily to a conservative political viewpoint. To his credit, Hodges gave his apology online in his 31 May message broadcast live from his church.

But what remains necessary is for the Church, especially evangelicals, to agree a path forward, and the correct path, which right wing commentators frequently gloss over, including many who profess to be of the Christian faith, is that forgiveness is simply not enough. The principles which are outlined very clearly in the law given to Moses, in the books of Leviticus and Exodus, require that restitution is made for wrongs committed. Now see if you can get anyone to agree to that. OK, it may not be possible to actually make full restitution, but then if you can’t, you can make steps towards it. New Zealand has been going a long way along that path by our Waitangi Tribunal processes since 1984, and whilst that may not be a perfect system, it has achieved a lot of good and is at least in part the reason why we have lower levels of concern about racism in this country and are not seeing the kinds of issues that are happening in the deeply divided US. But we still have major social problems caused by a sharp increase in inequality since about the same time, and this deserves to be acknowledged from a Christian perspective. Sadly it is a big indictment on the US that so many churches there have sought political influence with the Trump Administration, which as they have found can become a liability, and with this issue occurring so close to the US elections, it may well become significant to the campaigning there.

In one sense the police forces in most countries are the meat in the sandwich, between communities affected by crime, and political leaders focused on implementing their policies, especially those who adhere to right wing policies that create social injustice in society at large. If New Zealand is going to be able to avoid the massive entrenched social inequality that exists in countries like the US, then it must be necessary to elect politicians who are going to ensure as far as possible, these policies are turned back. The extent to which the response of the police forces in US states has been disproportionately targeted against the African-American community, is partly a reaction to the involvement of this racial group in higher levels of criminal activity. But again, that is a product of the entrenched social injustice and racism embedded in US society. So the appropriate response is to address those issues rather than militarising the police forces as is already commonplace throughout the US, which in itself is simply evident of a moral failure at the highest levels of governance across America, and a major indictment on the profession of its various leaders to support the Christian faith.