Intentionally oblivious. Cold. Unseeing. Failing the second great commandment. Unsurprised.
Those descriptors were used by faith leaders in response to a Barna Group report showing a growing divide between Black and white Christians in the U.S. on whether the nation has a race problem.
While 81% of Black self-identified Christians said the U.S. “definitely” has a race problem, only 33% of white Christians affirmed this view, Barna revealed in its Sept. 15 report.
This is a 6-point increase for Black Christians from 2019 and a 7-point decrease for white Christians. Overall, U.S. Christians responding “definitely” declined 4 points to 43%.
Continuing this trend, Black self-identified Christians saw an increase in respondents who are “very motivated” to address racial injustice in the U.S. (rising 13 points to 46%), but white Christians saw a decrease (declining 4 points to 10%). Overall, U.S. Christians responding “very motivated” dropped 2 points to 16%.
The number of white Christians who said they are “not at all motivated” to address racial injustice doubled to 22% from last year, while Black Christian responses moved from 1% saying “not at all motivated” to 3%.
Contrasting these trends, white Christians who agreed that “historically, the U.S. has been oppressive to minorities” increased 5 points to 48% from 2019 to 2020. Those who “disagreed” declined 7 points to 23%. Black Christian agreement rose 10 points to 78%, while overall Christian agreement increased 9 points to 56%.
“As this increased acknowledgment of past injustice does not correspond with increased acknowledgment of present injustice, it might indicate that either more people are beginning to gain education and understanding of U.S. racial history, or that more people are beginning to regard racial oppression as an issue we’ve moved beyond,” the report said.
The margin of error for the survey is plus-or-minus 1.8%. The full report is available here.
I reached out to several faith leaders for their reaction and response to the Barna survey. Here is what they shared.
“When it comes to seeing the ‘big picture’ regarding racial injustice, it appears that many of our White Christian brothers and sisters remain intentionally oblivious, at the least, and cold, at the worst, to the pain, fear, struggle and collective outrage of African Americans,” said Chris Smith, pastor of Restoration Ministries of Greater Cleveland Inc.
“While significant numbers of individuals across racial lines, companies and corporations have begun to take steps to not only acknowledge, but tangibly address racial injustices in their spheres of influence, yet again, like during slavery and Jim Crow, segments of the Church continue to turn a blind eye,” she said. “Theologically, it is mind boggling that those who claim to be followers of Christ continue to walk the path of the priest and the Levite instead of the good Samaritan.”
Marcus Jerkins is senior pastor of Resurrection Baptist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland. He holds a master of divinity degree and a master of theology degree from Emory University and a doctorate from Baylor University.
Citing Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” addressed to white Christian leaders hesitant to speak up and step out in the work of racial justice, Jerkins noted that now, as then, we still “look in vain if we hope to see the vast majority of white Christians, especially evangelicals, arguing against the racist status quo of America.”
“If white Christians of the past could not recognize the ‘problem’ concerning race when racism was overt, supported in the law, then how could white brothers and sisters see it today?” he asked. “This survey reveals now what was apparent then: We have failed the second great commandment.”
“Then, it was thought proper that black people were not completely made in the image of God, that it was God’s will to exclude and degrade them. But what is occurring now is that we are not able to recognize that these ideas still very much exist,” Jerkins said.
“We need white Christians to try to recognize, first, the tremendous horror and trauma of what was done. We need them to imagine that this country – with the white Christian church colluding – terrorized, demeaned and dehumanized black people,” he said. “Until the books are opened, until we look at the statements and actions done against black people with the often-full-throated endorsement of white Christians, we will never be able to move forward.”
“Second, we ask for empathy. White Christians may have never experienced anything black Christians are discussing, but love demands putting the thoughts and needs of others before one’s own,” Jerkins said. “Love also demands that not being able to see something does not mean that it is not real. Many white Christians did not listen to the cries of their brothers and sisters during the time of King. It is incumbent upon us to learn the lessons of the past and listen to their cries now.”
A group of Black and white clergy from around Burlington, New Jersey, met following George Floyd’s death to discuss how they would address racism and racial justice in their congregations.
Cory Jones, a Good Faith Media board member and pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Burlington, agreed to lead the meeting. While the pastors affirmed that this “was a clear example of police brutality,” Jones pushed them to recognize it as “symptomatic of deeper issues” – systemic racism, white privilege and white supremacy.
Jones left the meeting hopeful because the pastors agreed to preach on these topics on an upcoming Sunday morning and to email a recording of their sermon to the group.
“I could not have been more wrong,” he said. “Only one pastor submitted a sermon addressing systemic racism, white privilege and white supremacy.”
“So, I am not surprised by Barna Group’s report. Race, and the consequences of it, are not welcomed subjects in many white churches. Their privilege allows them to disregard it,” Jones said. “I am now of the opinion that it is not my job to convince white people that racism is a problem. White people need to convince white people that racism is a problem.”
“It is clear to me that most (not all) of my white brothers and sisters will only go so far in addressing this matter,” Jones wrote in an email to the group expressing his disappointment. “‘White privilege’ and ‘white supremacy’ are concepts that might as well be profanity. There is too much pressure from white congregations, culture and embedded belief systems to truly address systemic racism in a substantive way within this particular group.”
“White fragility is a real thing, and any thought about the systemic racism that makes people ‘feel bad about being white’ is dismissed. The reality is that no one should feel bad about being anything. We should simply address when one group of people is being treated differently than another,” he said.
“I hoped that something could happen in a meaningful and beneficial way,” he continued. “But, that’s not how it goes. … So, I’m not upset; it just confirms what I already knew.”
“Two out of three White Christians must live in a white bubble if they aren’t crystal clear on the fact that our country ‘definitely’ has a race problem,” said Joe Phelps, a minister in Louisville, Kentucky, for 21 years as pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Phelps is justice coordinator for Earth and Spirit Center and co-leader of EmpowerWest.
“Their ignorance or apathy – ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t care’ – reveals the problem. Too many White Christians don’t know or don’t care about the legacy of racial inequality that continues to the present moment. Their attention and energies are focused on what they perceive to be spiritual matters,” he said.
“That’s where awakening white people comes in. It is our work to open blind eyes by offering a fuller picture, a new vantage point, an honest assessment, while constantly pointing to the promise that God is not done,” Phelps said. “Our world can become as it was intended to be – harmonious in its diversity, cooperative, integrated in the best sense. There’s no more fulfilling, spiritual work in all the world that being a small part of seeing God’s reign come on earth, as it is in heaven.”