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Dr. Willie Jennings grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Recently, on Kate Bowler’s podcast, he was asked what it was like to grow up here, in the same place where I grew up.

Here’s what he said: “It was a very, very religious town, but a very, very racist town at the same time. And so, ergo, my life: trying to understand how something can be so profoundly, deeply committed to Christianity and so profoundly, deeply committed to racism at the same time.”

Since I heard that, I’ve thought about it a lot. Profoundly, deeply committed to Christianity. Profoundly, deeply committed to racism.

I have had to learn to see the ways that this describes… me. There is no other way to account for the longstanding disparities in the community where I live, but for the active participation of white Christians. Like me.

For centuries, white American Christians have had to shift our theologies to reconcile the Jesus we love with the inequality we enjoy. We have had to shape a faith that could accommodate a commitment to the racist status quo. James Cone gives an example, “The White Christ gave blacks slavery, segregation, and lynching and told them to turn the other cheek and to look for their reward in heaven. Be patient, they were told, and your suffering will be rewarded, for it is the source of your spiritual redemption.” A theology of redemptive suffering arises in a church which can no longer ignore human pain, but also does not wish it to be challenged.

It makes me wonder how much of what I call my faith is actually a reflection of racism. How has racism shaped what I have learned to believe about gratitude, about forgiveness, about salvation, about generosity, about providence. How has racism shaped what I believe about sin, about redemption, about evil, about justice, about prayer. How much has racism shaped what I believe about Jesus. About God. About me.

One part of Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree that angered me deeply was the silence of white theologians, white pastors, white Christians in the midst of the lynchings of Black bodies during the Jim Crow era. The parallels Cone draws – calling them modern-day crucifixions – seem so obvious from my place in history. How could they stay silent?

On Tuesday, not an hour after the three guilty verdicts in the Chauvin trial were announced, a new headline emerged: the death of 15-year old Ma’Khia Bryant at the hands of Columbus police. 

I’m beginning to understand what it sounds like to be profoundly, deeply committed to Christianity while also being profoundly, deeply committed to racism. 

Let’s pray for peace.

But she was holding a knife.

It was one bad apple.

Everybody makes mistakes.

The church should stick to preaching the gospel.

Photo credit: Eternal Seconds on Unsplash

Kate Kooyman

Rev. Kate Kooyman is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

12 Comments

  • mstair says:

    “ … understand how something can be so profoundly, deeply committed to Christianity and so profoundly, deeply committed to racism at the same time.”

    Yes … how does a professing Believer study Jesus’ interaction with Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles in The Gospel and miss His reframing of the issue?

    For Americans, I believe it is the all-too attractive presentation of The Gospel as particular in nature – as a “personal savior.” Holding one’s theology in that vessel, allows an exclusively singular view of it, and then the inevitable logic that follows: the ugly self-deception that “WE-are-better-than-YOU.”

  • Rev. Linda Rubingh says:

    Yes and AMEN Kate Kooyman, thank you!

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    It was hard to read this blog this morning, but it feels true. I think the struggle is the amazing amount of work to reimagine the whole of the faith/theology that I was given. From a place of privilege, I must do the work though, because it is one more place of privilege to simply say, “It’s too hard.” Thanks for the challenge … I hoping that I’ve already started down this road, but I’m reminded that I have a long ways to go.

  • Dean says:

    Like me. Too. Keep writing, Kate.

  • William Harris says:

    Perhaps a better way to understand the racism is to acknowledge how the peculiar, particularist theology of the Dutch immigrants provided the conceptual seedbed for this racism. At its core is the Eurocentric narrative of the spread of Christianity where “we” were the true believers, heirs of the Apostles (see Jennings on supercessionism, or McCauley’s Reading While Black). Confessional, covenantal theology looked askance at American religion and that of revival or Pentecostal varieties, these were outside the theological narrative arc. This division between the covenant blessed and the Americans was expressed in the Kuyperian establishment of separate schools; schools for them but not for “us.” And to this add the sociological fact that the successor communities to the Dutch immigrants were often Black. When the Black is theologically, educationally, and sociologically Other, the weed of racism takes easy root.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Oh c’mon. Quit trying to convince yourselves about why it happens and brooding about how sinful you are and wondering what to do and find a playground and shoot some hoops at a basket with no net. And shut up and throw an elbow.

  • GRACE SHEARER says:

    Very thought provoking, Kate. Thank you so much.

  • Doug VandeGriend says:

    This article seems to making the case that Christianity — at least that version of it inherently held by “white people,” the author being of such “race” — is simply racist. If one concludes that, I would think one would either embrace the racism or abandon the Christian faith.

    Another possible view, assuming the facts claimed in this article, is that Grand Rapids is a particularly racist place, much like the southern Jim Crow States were (pre and) post-civil war. If that’s the case, and if “white people” who grow up in particularly racist place — like Grand Rapids — just can’t escape their permanently embedded racist nature (and CRT would indeed suggest such is the case), then perhaps moving somewhere less racist might be the remedy, at least for one’s children even if the adults are irredeemably lost.

  • Paul Kortenhoven says:

    Thanks Kate. When you grow up in a church that has all the answers and very few questions like the CRC or the RCA in Roseland (Chicago) or Grand Rapids you will absorb the “superiority complex” of your faith whether you like it or not. People you don’t know become the “other”. Just maybe you will be fortunate enough to move out of that community and see the world from a different perspective. That’s when you begin to question realize your racism. I love your questions.

    • Doug VandeGriend says:

      Hmmm. Maybe the “racism” problem isn’t associated so much with Christianity, or even Christianity of the reformed variety, but geography? I grew up a farm kid in rural NW Iowa. No one considered me or my family “superior,” nor did we; rather, the consensus was in the other direction. When I lived there, there was only one “race” represented — they were farmers of European descent (mostly Dutch but we farmed were there were German Lutherans and others unknown).

      I attended Dordt College back in the 1970’s–yes, that would be the rather disrespected “corn college,” at least in the view of Grand Rapidians, at least those associated with Calvin College.

      I moved to Salem Oregon after college. I’ve practiced law (solo practitioner) for about 41 years and have for nearly that long lived in a part of town that is devoid of CRCers (or RCAers or even OPers or anything else smacking of reformed, or of a “superiority complex”). Culturally, my neighbors in the area quite a blend of European, Asian, and Pacific Islander, but probably dominant Hispanic. The law group I practice with in, beside myself: two agnostic (white from various backgrounds), one Bulgarian immigrant who is Seventh Day Adventist (she passes for Hispanic and does immigration law); one Chinese American (second generation) who is ex-Mormon; one Baptist from California; one Catholic who is ex-Pentecostal. No one claims any kind of “superiority,” racial or otherwise.

      My CRC church in Salem is small and relatively unknown in the community of Salem churches. I’d be hard pressed to say who the “culturally dominant” church group is. It might just a likely be Mormon as anything Protestant. Oregon is a leading state for the “unchurched.”

      The members of my church are not racists, not even the “white” members (which do dominate statistically; hey, we are a CRC even if the Dutch % is trending downward). There are very few “black” people in Salem but lots of Hispanics (mostly of recent generation), Asians (some also recent generation, Russians (many coming over before the Communist revolution but they have their own Amish-like community/culture), and Pacific Islanders, among others. The dominant cultural group, if that can be said to exist, is probably the religiously uncommitted (they think at least, would probably call themselves “secular” but not really know what they mean by that). We are 50 miles South of “weird” Portland, and that shows a bit).

      But racism? It’s really next to non-existent here, certainly not “profound,” and I wouldn’t be able to suggest which or what “group” are the racially (or culturally, etc) oppressed. Salem is the capitol city of Oregon so we get protests there (four blocks from my office), but know one I know, or anyone that I know knows, are part of them. The protestors are almost entirely folks from somewhere that isn’t here (this is probably unlike Portland). BLM with some accompanying Antifa protesters come through every now and then (don’t know where come from) and they chalk up the downtown sidewalks, have vandalized the capital building and a bit in the downtown area. BLMers spray paint graffiti (says BLM and Black Lives Matter) on the park fences and signs of the park near my house (that I get to clean up). The gang presence here used to be Hispanic, but now is mostly BLM, at least if measured/identified by the graffiti, despite the near absence of a black population (2%) in Salem.

      So yeah, maybe the problem of racism is mostly associated with geography, with places like Grand Rapids. I haven’t claimed that but Grand Rapidians do, seemingly all the time, especially CRCers and RCAers. Don’t like it? You can always move to Salem, Oregon. 🙂 And I’m sure there are plenty of other places in the US that aren’t racist, whether to a profound or even significant degree.

  • Nate Johnson says:

    Searing and searching – thanks Kate.

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