Church dialogue on race relations necessary after recent turmoil

Even before the recent turmoil in Ferguson, Mo., one of the few African-Americans in my Presbyterian congregation came to me with a suggestion.

She said the Faith Development (adult education) Committee I chair should create some opportunities to discuss the ways in which the brutal history of slavery still lingers with destructive consequences in American culture.

Eventually, she said, our congregation would do well to talk about the controversial question of whether the government should, in some form, make reparation payments to black Americans similar to the reparations made in 1988 to Japanese-Americans who were sent to internment camps in World War II.

Although that money in no way undid the damage, I favored reparations to those Japanese-Americans, including one of my brothers-in-law, who was born in such a camp in Arizona. But the question of reparations for African-Americans strikes me as considerably more complicated. So although the reparations idea has been around for quite a while, I don't yet know what I think about it.

I do know, however, that before we can get to a reasoned discussion of the matter, it will be necessary for blacks and whites to understand one another better when it comes to such matters as ongoing bigotry, economic injustice, lopsided incarceration rates and what gets called "white privilege."

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In fact, this is the conversation that every congregation in America -- Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, whatever -- needs to have. Ferguson was simply a violent confirmation of that need.

So the committee I chair is working on ways to engage in those conversations. One of the first things we're doing is bringing in as a speaker the deputy police chief of Kansas City, Mo., who oversees officer training and the way police interact with youth. She may be able to help us grasp some aspects of what went wrong across the state in Ferguson and how a mostly white congregation like ours might be part of the solution.

We've also suggested that the church's regular book discussion group add to its reading list Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

And it's possible that we may employ resources from a 15-year-old initiative called the White Privilege Conference to help us get a handle on race-based privilege, to say nothing of other kinds of privilege.

These are small steps that I hope will lead to larger ones for a congregation full of good-hearted people who, on the whole, are pretty sensitive to such issues and, in many cases, already engaged in finding solutions.

One of the problems of dealing with this from a faith perspective is that Christianity's record on matters of race in the United States is extraordinarily spotty. And we need to be careful not to fall into some of our old habits.

Some branches of Christianity, as we know, were shamelessly supportive of slavery, even drawing on certain passages from the Bible to justify this inhuman institution. It was a bleak era for segments of the church, and echoes of that old support continue even today.

By contrast, Christians were in the forefront of the modern civil rights movement. Indeed, the most famous leader was a pastor, Martin Luther King Jr. Christians and Jews from all over the country joined arms and marched toward the end of legal segregation in many corners of society. That was a proud time for segments of the church, even if other branches were standing in the schoolhouse door, saying, "Not today, not tomorrow, not ever."

I don't know how successful my congregation will be in handling all of this and learning how to proceed. But I do know it's the right thing to do. I also know that we should be making sure our national faith leaders are on board and even producing resources to help us. I'll check on Presbyterian resources if you'll check Catholic ones.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and award-winning former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for the Star's website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. Email him at wtammeus@gmail.com.]

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