Inclusion, diversity and tolerance are worthy ideals that many churches publicly affirm, but they often come with some unexpected baggage.
My church’s mission statement begins, “We are an inclusive community.” It’s one of the things that drew me here in the beginning and continues to be one of the most exciting and beautiful things about the church.
But like all ideals, it has a shadow side.
When predominantly white churches use these words, it usually means that it’s OK to be a white Republican or a white Democrat in this particular congregation.
We may want it to mean more than that. We may even think it does mean more than that. Yet, when we look at the actual makeup of our churches, this is usually a false hope. Even as beautiful as my church is, we are almost entirely white.
How is it that churches who specifically name values like diversity, inclusion or tolerance still end up racially homogenous? Could a passive commitment to those values actually be one of the things holding us back?
I wager that everyone reading this has been in a Bible study when someone said something obviously racist. Maybe they were called out on it but I bet nearly all of us also had an experience where they weren’t. More than one such experience? More than five?
I was teaching in this kind of situation and was at such a loss for words that I ignored the blatant racist comments. What has allowed me to live for 30-plus years and be on church staff for 13 years yet never learn how to confront racism?
I can almost guarantee you that at least once your pastor did confront racist comments only to have someone protest, “If this is going to be a church that includes everyone, then there has to be a place for Mr. Racist Comments also.”
But exactly how much racism can we tolerate before we become a church where people of color aren’t welcome? Judging by the overwhelmingly white makeup of most of our Baptist churches, the threshold is far lower than we think.
If we tolerate unrepentant racism in the name of inclusion and diversity, then we cannot be a community safe for or worthy of racial diversity.
By choosing not to confront racist ideas in Sunday School classes, Bible studies and from the pulpit, we are choosing to protect them. Some of us aren’t aware we are making that choice but the outcome is the same: Our churches remain places where people of color are not welcome.
We cannot tolerate racism and include people of other races in houses of faith. Racism is intolerant. By not making a courageous choice to confront racism, we are rejecting the values we post on our church signs and websites.
There is no middle ground. There is no compromise with racism.
Truly valuing diversity forces us to make hard choices about whom we mean to include. As James Baldwin famously said, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”
No institution can include everyone because some people’s ideology is inherently intolerant. When we make room for the intolerant person, we exclude those he doesn’t tolerate.
There are either/or choices with regard to inclusion and diversity. Refusing to believe that doesn’t mean the choices aren’t made. It means we let the intolerant make them.
I’m not arguing for kicking people out of church. I’m arguing for clearly defined antiracist positions and boundaries.
If I align myself with antiracism, then people are going to choose not to tolerate my position and find another church.
Many of those people are my friends and I miss them. There is a real grief there. Nevertheless, I am more concerned about the lives of my Black friends than the feelings of my white congregants.
It does my church no good to remain physically alive but wind up spiritually dead. “Fear not that which has the power to kill the body but that which can kill the soul,” Jesus declared in Matthew 10:28.
Racism will kill the soul of a church.
Active racism, passive racism, systemic, personal, overt or covert are all irrelevant. Racism cannot be tolerated.
It cannot be included. It is not a diverse opinion. It is a disease that replicates, blinds, spreads and kills.
Blame not the doctor for the diagnoses or the surgeon for the scar. Give thanks that we still have a chance to live and thrive. But only if we confront the disease.
Senior pastor of NorthHaven Church in Norman, Oklahoma.