by Wayne Stapleton
NAB VP of Cross-Cultural Engagement
This past August marked 400 years after the first enslaved Africans were recorded as coming to the shores of Jamestown, Virginia. That moment was transformative for the United States, and it is impossible to describe the history of this country without including racial oppression of minority groups, notably people of African descent. Over the years since, the nation has been marked by racial division, resulting in many wounds and strife.
We who represent Jesus Christ often pray for His influence in our nation. But in light of that desire, it seems fair to ask if the church of Jesus Christ has any role to play in healing the legacy of national trauma brought on by slavery. Surely the influence of Jesus Christ is a necessary healing force for all trauma, including the trauma of racial oppression and what it has done to our culture.
In 2018, the Barna Group asked over 1,500 practicing Christian adults, including 600 Protestant pastors, just that question. The results were recently published in a document called Where Do We Go from Here? As the title would indicate, the document presents even more questions than answers. The stated intention of the survey was to “primarily reflect on the impact of the enslavement of Black people in the United States and the attitudes of the church.”
One notable takeaway is the fact that one half of the respondents believe that the history of slavery continues to impact Black Americans today. Mathematically that means one half does not. There is a racial disparity regarding these results; nearly twice as many Black Christians than White Christians believe that the history of slavery continues to impact Black Americans today (79 percent to 42 percent).
There were other visible divides in the study as well. Generationally, two-thirds of Millennial respondents agree that the effects of slavery are still felt today, but only 40 percent of Boomers agreed to this. As far as theological differences regarding this question, 38 percent of conservative evangelicals agreed that the effects of slavery are felt today, while 76 percent of liberals concurred, a similar disparity as that between Blacks and Whites. Further, 90 percent of mainline pastors believe communities still feel the ripple effects of slavery, while 57 percent of non-mainline pastors agree.
The data reveals differences in attitudes about the impact of slavery among Christians. Why are conservative Christians, older Christians, and White Christians less likely to believe that the effects of slavery still impact Blacks than their liberal, younger, and Black counterparts? What, if anything, could this mean?
Perhaps the reason is proximity to affected people. In another Barna study referenced in the document, 75 percent of American adults stated that their current friends are mostly similar to them in racial or ethnic background. However, for evangelicals that number climbs to 88 percent. That being said, two in three practicing Christians say they have a long-term friend of another race or ethnicity, which is great, and respondents in multi-racial community show “spikes in spiritual engagement, compassion, and cultural awareness.”
Perhaps the point of the data isn’t to completely understand it but to allow the survey results to guide us to ask even deeper, more probing questions. For instance, is there a connection between a traditional conservative reading of the text and a lack of relationships across race and ethnicity? If so, what role has the church played?
It would be one thing if the division stemmed from informed belief and an understanding of brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ who are directly impacted by slavery. However, the data indicates that the division is not informed by relationships. This is not good enough for people who represent the very presence of Christ to the world. This is not good enough for a church that has been given the Great Commission to go into a whole world preaching the Gospel and drawing all people to Jesus Christ. This is not good enough for people who have died to the things of this world and whose lives are hidden, not in Washington, D.C., not in the suburbs, but in Christ.
My belief is that one of the things exposed in the Barna survey is that a lack of relationships leads to a difference in view. The clear invitation presented through the data of this study is for us all to intentionally invest in relationships outside our racial background. The church of Jesus Christ in the United States is not mono-racial, not mono-ethnic, and not monolithic. And yet, overwhelmingly we live that way and our attitudes and beliefs reflect this mono-ness. And this uniformity is directly contrary to the oneness Jesus envisioned for His people as He communicated in John 17. The disagreement over the impact of the legacy of slavery on US culture exists because there is a lack of relationships across race, a lack of biblical relationships that feature the kind of harmony reflected in 1 Peter 3:8: “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (ESV).
The biblical text we hold dear communicates God’s desire for a kind of unity and selfless love among His people that, if actually practiced among the people of God across racial and ethnic distinctions, would be transformative. Not only would the church be increasingly prepared to engage the world with the Gospel but hidden idols of racial and cultural superiority, as well as internal wounds due to racism, would have a real chance at healing. May we challenge ourselves through Christ to become that kind of community. But this will be a hard-fought battle. Nonetheless a battle well worth it, as the battle is about faithfulness to be a unified though not uniform body of believers representing the love of Jesus Christ to a broken world.