Race and the American Church

Otis W. Pickett
My name is Otis Pickett. By the sound and reading of my name, you might think my parents were either huge Motown fans or fans of the 1978 film Animal House ("Otis.....my man!!!"). You might also assume, as do most people before they see me, that I am an African American male. I am actually a white southern male and am the fourth generation of Otis Pickett's. My dad, his dad and my great grandfather were all Otis Pickett's from Charleston, South Carolina. My son is the fifth Otis and will carry on the great legacy of people hearing his name, promptly tilting their head curiously to the right while quoting Boone from Animal House (Wait 'til Otis sees us. He loved us."). I say all this to say that often when we think about race in America, we think about it in perceptions, stereotypes and we often prejudge the speaker or author based on our own racialized assumptions before they even begin. A few months ago, I was asked to write a piece for Reformation 21 on Race, the Church and American History. After writing it, I realized that it would need more space than one article because it's a complicated story of great inequality mixed with moments of equality, moments of love mixed with great hatred and everything in between. Also, the first thing you learn in the study of history is that if someone is telling you that history is simple then they are probably lying. History by its very nature is complex. I also realized that my own personal journey would be important for the reader to know in the telling of this history.  

I decided to start by telling you my story, which will be the second part of the series. It is a unique story. It has a lot to do with my name, my experiences, the work of Christ and what God is accomplishing in me. I want to share that with others. My hope is that white Christians will be able to read this perspective from another white Christian and thus attempt to listen to and understand their African American brothers and sisters, their experiences and their frustrations with a bit more grace and love. My hope is similar for my African American brothers and sisters although I know that many of them, having been raised in a society where they are the minority, grow up forced to think about whites. Indeed, to engage in and maneuver American society requires the minority to know, learn and understand those in a majority position. For those of us in the majority position, no such imperative is necessary or even commonplace. For my white readers, this is called privilege. Our society is structured so that non-white people often are forced to deal with whites in order to succeed, while white people can exist in communities where they rarely ever come into contact with minorities at all and are not dependent on their knowledge of minorities in order to succeed. If you are one who does not believe in white privilege then I beg you to continue reading at least the next paragraph. 

I also recognize that being a southern white male does not make me evil. I love the South, I love being from the South and I own my heritage. Although some historians like to make all white southerners out to be evil and reduce southern history to a story of "angels and demons," it is simply not the truth nor is it historically accurate. The truth is that we all are inheritors of an evil disposition and products of a system built upon that disposition. I am evil because I am a sinner and my "heart was only evil all the time" (Genesis 6:5). If our hearts are like this then surely we must recognize that those who have built the structures of our society might have taken certain biases or evil dispositions with them into the building of it in a systematic way. This we might call a systemic effect of sin. How else does someone explain a nation built on the institution of racialized slavery? I have also come to realize that my privilege or position in society as a white male is not sinful in and of itself. However, how I choose to use that privilege can be. 

We are all sinners and are in need of a savior. Because Christ is my savior I believe He is working on me, sanctifying me and causing me to see things differently. He is changing me. He is causing me to look around more at the suffering of others rather than to be consumed only with myself. I can therefore embrace my privilege; I can own it (not deny that I have it) and I can try to use it for the benefit of others.[1] The Lord has done this in my life already in countless ways. I can therefore shed anything resembling guilt; I can go to the cross with my guilt and shame. I can freely accept Jesus's great gift of forgiveness and mercy, while I can also embrace the other gifts he and our Heavenly Father have bestowed upon me. However, these gifts are not only for me, my family or my brothers and sisters in Christ alone. Like the Samaritan who stopped and used his gifts to heal a Jewish man in great suffering, my gifts are to be used for those in suffering around me. 

When we talk about suffering in United States history, we have to talk about race. It has taken much time, many experiences and much grace from MANY African American brothers and sisters who have taught me, pastored me, befriended me and listened to me and have been kind enough not to leave me in my ignorance. To my African American brothers and sisters (you know who you are), thank you for this! Thank you for your patience, love and grace. I beg your forgiveness for the many ways in which you suffer silently because to speak about your frustrations heaps labels upon you (accusations of playing the "race card" and race "baiting") from those in power in our culture. Thank you for your perseverance and I encourage you to persevere. 

Also, please forgive me and my white brothers and sisters. Many white Christians want to know and do more, but many of us don't really know how. Many of us don't possess the tools, language and experiences necessary to engage in this. We need someone to lovingly teach us and we need the Holy Spirit to soften our hearts. We also tend to get defensive because our ancestors might have been a part of that history and we are fearful of what this could mean for us today. Many also feel castigated for something they did not participate in. Forgive us for this. This is yet another characteristic of privilege. We want all the positive benefits of what was passed down to us (our faith, land, wealth, education, honor, a "good" name or reputation) without also accepting and owning the consequences for the negative aspects of our ancestors (racism, greed, segregation and cowardice). By cowardice, I mean the inability and failure of our forefathers to speak the biblical truth of the imago Dei and that we are all equal in the eyes of God into a society, which believed until recently that one race was superior to all others and codified this belief into law. This cultural captivity driven by economic greed on the profits made from slaveholding kept Christians from speaking into this injustice. I have come to learn that if I accept the benefits of privilege that have been passed down to me, I also have to accept and own the sins of my fathers, repent of them and work hard to undo them. I am comfortable with the fact that I will be working my entire life and my children and their children will be working their entire lives to undo the mess made by our forefathers. To me, this is what it looks like to bear the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation (Exodus 20).   

To my white brothers and sisters, when our African American brothers and sisters want to talk about race, do not dismiss them, disregard their feelings or attempt to silence them. There is a great decompression that needs to happen after almost three centuries of forced silence in the face of injustice. Our country's racial tension is like a 2 liter Coke bottle that has been shaking for the last three hundred years. Pressure must be released. If it is not released then the bottle will burst. Do not continue to oppress a voice that needs to be heard and needs to speak because you are not comfortable with what is said. You need to listen and you need to be uncomfortable.     

By the grace of God since childhood I have had experience after experience, largely through family, pastors, friends, educational opportunities and the church, to glimpse into the experience of what it must be like to be an African American in the United States. Even after a lifetime of trying to comprehend, I am only beginning to understand. I have spent the larger part of 35 years seeing, reading, visiting, studying, listening, writing and processing race in America and only after this and having obtained a Ph.D. in History, teaching American History for the last five years along with attending a multiethnic PCA church, do I only now feel like I might be starting to "get it." I'm slow on the uptake folks. Decades of privilege have blunted my senses. 

My goal in this article series is twofold: 1) to inform the reader of history concerning race, America and the church and 2) to bring people together in the love of Christ. I believe that in order to have true reconciliation we have to openly and honestly walk through our shared history together and "truth tell." I also believe that only in Christ can true reconciliation happen. Only Christ can take something as dark as two centuries of the institution of slavery, plantation brutality, legalized Jim Crow segregation, lynching without due process, violence against peaceful protestors during the Civil Rights movement, the murder of innocent leaders such as Medgar Evars, James Chaney, Emmitt Till and Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as a continued violence against black males, racism on college campuses and our current situation of mass incarceration and redeem it. Further, it is only through Christ that our African American brothers and sisters will have the grace necessary to forgive us and love us.  As my friend Ligon Duncan says, "It is not us who ask for forgiveness who are the heroes, it is the ones who grant it who are the heroes." He is a hero who was wronged, who was innocent and can stare in the face of hate and say...."God, forgive them, they know not what they do." 

To my white brothers and sisters, our role is not to continue in a hard-hearted ignorance and to say things like "racism is over," "get over it," "pull yourselves up by your bootstraps" and "I didn't do anything, why are still bringing this up?" Our role is to listen, love, serve, repent, humble ourselves and provide our African American brothers and sisters with opportunities to be heroes. We can do this by asking their forgiveness, forging a trusting relationship/friendship with them (if they will have you) and then, using all the benefits of our privileged status to wade into people's lives (of every tribe, tongue and nation) who are in suffering and be advocates in the best way we can.  

Otis Pickett is Assistant Professor of History and Political Science at Mississippi College, Clinton, MS. You can follow him on Twitter @OtisWPickett


[1] Anthony Bradley has spoken widely about this idea of white's embracing their privilege and I am borrowing heavily from his ideas here in a talk he gave at Mt. Helm Baptist Church on February 22 of 2013 through the "Bradley Rhodes Conversation" event held there.