Racism Dressed In Choir Robes

My FB friend, James, linked an article yesterday, and I read about a Kentucky church voting to ban interracial marriage, along with a ban on interracial couples becoming members of the church.  The Baptist church in Pike County separated itself from the majority of Christian churches in the area by deciding that, for itself, interracial couples won’t be permitted to join and participate in the life of their local church.

When I read the article, I kept thinking that the issue was a small one, that the church was smaller than the average church in the USA, under 100 people.  I kept wanting to convince myself that what happens in small local churches doesn’t matter.  I read the words about this black man and his white wife-to-be, and I whispered that this was a hardly noticed incident, that it wasn’t worth thinking about for two minutes.  And then I corrected myself with my real opinions.

I’ve never thought that the decisions and choices in small congregations were insignificant.  In fact, I’m of the opposite opinion.  Small congregations mirror the people in those congregations, and those congregations make up communities.  Communities, not simply cities, combine to form a nation.  I remembered my stronger thoughts about history and about how for centuries this country’s history (and not just Kentucky’s history) was lived by people who had been told who to love and who not to love.  My lips trembled as I talked to myself about how new and somewhat jarring it still is for people to marry “outside their race.”  Four other things came to mind as I read about this church’s decision.

This is bad for Christianity.  Christianity, at its core, is an inclusive religion.  It is a faith of following a person who accepted unacceptable, disinherited people, who pushed just about all the social margins of his day, and, while pushing those margins, said that the kingdom of God had room for everyone.  At the bottom of Jesus’s way of life is a ground of openness that doesn’t tell people that they shouldn’t love particular people but that they should love all people.  You can’t get away from a superficial reading of the gospels and miss this.  Jesus was bad at the restrictive nature of narrow social and theological interpretations.  He was much better at saying, “Look at it this way.”  Or, “I have another way for you to think about this.”  I have trouble seeing how a pastor, a Bible teacher, or congregant who is committed Christianity, when Christianity is following Jesus, can say to another person, “You can’t marry that person because they aren’t…”  It is baldly out of step with the One who gave his life for the outcast and cast out.  Interracial couples, along with a slew of other folks, are the outcasts at least in this case, and they’re cast out on nothing stronger than flimsy, cracked racist opinions dressed in choir robes.

The church loves to tell people who to love.  This is not a new approach.  Part of what made the early church so attractive to people in the first centuries after Jesus jumped was that the church had strong opinions about sex and race and generosity.  My pastor, Peter Hong, talks about how the early church-goers were generous with their money and stingy with their sexuality.  They kept themselves sexually pure until they married, practiced celibacy when they didn’t marry, and they gave their money to the poor and to those who needed.  Those behaviors made the church strange and interesting.  So it’s not that the church has no history with the issue of marriage and love.  But we get into trouble when we draw lines for the people in our pews.  When we force or manipulate or teach that love is defined by something as socially soft as race, we’re practicing racism and doing so in the name and under the banner of God.  There aren’t many things worse for a church.  I’ve talked about that, in pieces, before here and here.

Dating and marriage are tools of reconciliation.  I told a couple I married this summer that their relationship was a grand opportunity for reconciliation.  They came from different backgrounds, in every way.  To start, the husband is African American, the wife Japanese American.  I told them that they didn’t appear to belong together in the eyes of some.  I told them that their relationship was an opportunity to bring together visibly opposing parties.  I tried to tie that into the Christian story because the story is chiefly a narrative about how two parties (estranged and yet full of love) return to one another.  In fact, as I think about it, that theme was in all of my wedding messages this year, with the possible exception of one, because all my marriage ceremonies were interracial.  If marriage is anything it is a community of forgiveness.  A marriage’s success or fruit or longevity is not ground up in the similarity of backgrounds and races of the couple but in the free, liberal, and frequent offering of the hardest thing in the world–forgiveness.

I hope people read and discuss this.  That last thought is the reason I’m writing this post.  I want to generate dialogue about this.  Not because I’m a church-basher.  I love the church, every church.  I’m ordained as a pastor in the Christian Tradition because I love the church.  I gladly wear the banner of Christian and pastor, even when I’m on a plane  or in the park.  I’m not suggesting we bash, but I do think we should criticize and hold to account the people in our Christian family.  Whether we agree with the church in Kentucky or disagree, we should say something, speak up, and float our opinions about these things because it’s in communicating our thoughts that we communicate our faith.  If we say something, if we discuss these things, it enables honest and quality dialogue about race and love, even when that dialogue is complex and nuanced and poetic.  I think we should talk about things like this.  So I’m blogging about it.  I’m running my mouth–or my fingers.

If you’re interested in the story, I saw it here.

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2 thoughts on “Racism Dressed In Choir Robes

  1. Having grown up in the church in the Deep South, this is sadly not surprising to me. One of the biggest problems I had with the church when I left was the level of racism I saw. This is one of the reasons why I am so grateful for our church.

    • Byron, I am grateful too. And I’m struggling with these types of things. No matter how normal and fitting it is historically, that little man in me knows that the church has a different history and a different future when we look to Jesus as our history and future. I’m glad for your experiences in the past, and I’m glad that you’re at our church.

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