Much has been said of the Religious Right’s racist past (and present) over the past year or so, but if we’re being fair, racism isn’t a problem exclusively drawn along party lines when it comes to the faithful. While many Christian leaders are quick to point to the role of churches in the Underground Railroad and their advocacy during the Civil Rights Era, they do so in hopes that we won’t pay attention to Christianity’s much longer defense of slavery and segregation.
A few individual churches, at least, are trying to atone for their role in such travesties. Take, for instance, the arguably progressive Episcopalian Diocese of Rhode Island.
As the New York Times reports:
One of the darkest chapters of Rhode Island history involved the state’s pre-eminence in the slave trade, beginning in the 1700s. More than half of the slaving voyages from the United States left from ports in Providence, Newport and Bristol — so many, and so contrary to the popular image of slavery as primarily a scourge of the South, that Rhode Island has been called “the Deep North.”
That history will soon become more prominent as the Episcopal diocese here, which was steeped in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, establishes a museum dedicated to telling that story, the first in the country to do so, according to scholars.
This isn’t the first time the Episcopalian Church has attempted to atone for its sins, but one has to wonder if it’s the best way to address these shortcomings.
Think about it.
Instead of engaging the congregation in robust discourse about the racist history of the Church, the subject is now relegated to a museum — a museum most likely to be visited by those least likely in need of its message. Instead of pushing members of the congregation to critically discuss the extensive racial inequity permeating American culture, the museum relegates the struggle to a battle of the past already won, making it difficult to prioritize the very real need for solutions today. It’s a celebration of triumph not yet tasted; we are, after all, talking about the denomination whose “Cathedral of the Confederacy” still stands, drenched in the symbolism of a past that feels quite present. The museum may make us feel better, but it does little to address the legacy of the racism that persists. If anything, it may detract from efforts that make an impact on the here and now.
Ultimately, these efforts are a form of apologia, and while remorse is certainly not a bad thing, it’s cold comfort when unaccompanied by progress. The Presbyterians have wrestled with this in recent times as well. During their 2015 Presbyterian Church in America’s General Assembly session, the group voted to defer judgment on an official apology for Presbyterian contributions to racial inequity in the past. Why? Well, part of it was a reluctance to apologize for something they don’t feel they’ve done (which is a whole ‘nother can of worms), but part of it has to do with casting the issue as settled. As Christianity Today reports:
After past actions on race, including a 2002 confession of “complacency” and “complicity” with slavery, the denomination “went back to sleep,” he said. If the civil rights resolution had passed, “we would have gone to sleep again.”
Shipman agreed, and stressed that unless a vision is articulated and recommendations for action are added, the PCA is likely to find itself apologizing again in the future.
This is not to say that no action should be taken; it’s that there are better ways to spend money and time than on museums that serve to soothe the conscience. If the Church wants to make things better, they’re going to need more than a building with lofty aspirations. As Pastor Eric Atcheson of First Christian Church in Longview, Washington explained in a personal interview on the subject:
We have to be able to return to Scripture and emulate Jesus in His regard for people not like Him. Bible studies, Sunday sermons, and other opportunities for study in church life can be — must be — used for this sort of transformation. It is, I think, a mistake to compartmentalize our need for racial justice and reconciliation into a particular ministry when in fact it must be a part of all our ministries. Otherwise, the people who hear our pleas against racism will be much like the museum’s guests — self-selected, the proverbial choir we are preaching to, certainly not all the people. Which, in the end, is a profoundly saddening commentary on the #AllLivesMatter perspective. It is an act of proclamation instead of the act of listening to the voices of people of color, the voices of victims of racial injustice, and that act of listening is what is required to make what should be truth a reality.
In other words: love the sentiment, Episcopalians, but the execution is lacking. There is much more work to be done.