If you are one of those people who thinks that racism is created mainly by the way we talk about it—or by talking about it at all—you should cancel your appointments one day in the next week, and read Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. This almost 20-year-old book of sociological reflections helps me see our nation more as it really is.
I purchased the book when it first came out (because the topic was and is of great interest to me). And I put it on my shelf. And it lived there, closed and ignored. Fifteen years later, a good friend of mine, Shai Linne, told me to read this book. I knew Shai well and knew that he knew me, so I trusted his recommendation. I took it with me on vacation and devoured it.
It’s not a thrilling biographical narrative (which is my preference for vacation reading), but in helping me to perceive and explain what’s wrong in our country, and even in our churches, this book has helped me immensely. As an older white pastor, I walk around simply not having seen what so many of my friends (like Shai) have lived and known by experience every day of their lives. Empathy is part of understanding and love. And this book has helped me in that.
The term “racism” is a hard word for anyone who self-consciously entertains no negative prejudices against someone because of their ethnicity. This book explains, and documents irrefutably, the simple fact of the racialized nature of our society. If racism is blatant prejudice, racialization is simply the state of race being significant enough for it to regularly be mentioned.
The term “racism” is a hard word for anyone who self-consciously entertains no negative prejudices against someone because of their ethnicity.
For example, why would I mention that John Jasper was an African-American preacher in Richmond, rather than simply a preacher in Richmond, especially if I do not introduce Billy Graham as a Caucasian-American evangelist in the 20th century, but merely as an evangelist in the 20th century? Race has not been so significant in every time and place. “Racialization” seems like a more accurate description of the thought-structures of our culture than the blunt personal prejudice that “racism” evokes.
Such structures, the authors maintain, are easily invisible to evangelicals like us, who tend to see everything in individual terms. If you’re reading this as a Caucasian-American, circumstances are not arranged for you to have to engage this issue. But if you’re reading this as an African-American, you’ve never been given that choice. As our authors put it, “Not having to know the details or extent of racialization is an advantage afforded to most white Americans.”
And yet, for us to live out the kind of Ephesian unity that we’re called to, we need to be able to see what is inhibiting us. If that is personal ill will, we need to see and confess it. But where there is no personal ill will, there could still be structures which perpetuate and even increase such racialization. In fact, one of the unintended consequences, our authors argue, of the church growth movement was churches that are even more racially homogenous and therefore more divided from each other.
This won’t be the most exciting book you read this year, but it may have the most exciting results in your life.