Christianity and Racial Reconciliation Strategies

Peter Slade’s Open Friendship in a Closed Society examines Mission Mississippi, an organization that encourages African American and white Christians to form intentional friendships across racial lines. Prayer breakfasts, picnics, and similar interactive events facilitate this process. Some sociologists, however, find this approach individualistic and present multiracial congregations as the future of religious racial reconciliation:

The sociologists Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith conclude from their study that white evangelicals’ solutions to the race problem in America are “profoundly individualistic.” They characterize this approach as, “become a Christian, love your individual neighbors, establish a cross-race friendship, give individuals the right to pursue jobs and individual justice without discrimination by other individuals, and ask forgiveness of individuals one has wronged.” This approach simply does not address, what Smith and Emerson call, “major issues of racialization.”

The first step for white evangelicals to address the problems of racialized America, Smith and Emerson argue, is to “modify their cultural toolkit” so they recognize there is a systematic dimension to the problem. In a remarkable agreement between sociology and theology, Smith and Emerson’s conclusions, as to how such a change might occur, converge with Miroslav Volf’s theory of double vision. For white evangelicals to extend their individualistic culture toolkit to include an understanding of racialized structural issues, their perceptions of society, Emerson and Smith argue, must start “to resemble those of African Americans.”

Smith and Emerson discovered, rather unsurprisingly, that this change in perceptual toolkit among white evangelicals occurs in direct relation to their contact with black Americans. Interestingly, however, they found that individual friendships seem to have little effect on this perceptual change; instead, “changes in racial perspectives occur mainly in the contexts of interracial networks.” These include networks of family, neighborhood, work, and church. The two sociologists noted that in white evangelical culture, outside of family, church provides the most significant and time-consuming social network. Because most of these churches are racially homogenous, Smith and Emerson concluded that churches tend to function as monochromatic networking machines that perpetuate and reinforce a racialized society.” (167-8)

However, subsequent research, some by the same sociologists, cast doubt on the practicality of racially integrated congregations to drive societal change. “Their study of six different religious organizations led them to conclude, ‘Interracial organizations are inherently unstable.’ It seems that multiracial churches, despite their best intentions, are more likely to be in a state of transition than sustainable integration” (168).

So, acknowledging the limitations of Mission Mississippi’s individualism, Slade still believes it provides an appropriate and realistic starting-point, with the prospects of a bright future.

If evangelicals’ emphasis on individual friendship as a solution to the problem of race is as ineffective as rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, then those sociologists proposing the solution of multiracial congregations are drawing up blueprints for a better liner as the ship sinks. Designing a better vessel will not help the passengers and crew in their current predicament….

Mission Mississippi’s prayer breakfasts and other events are creating new multiracial church networks without expending energy on trying directly to change the racial makeup of preexisting congregations. Mission Mississippi carefully avoids the suggestion that member congregations should integrate or become multiracial. This avoidance draws criticism, but the strategy makes sense in light of the sociologists’ findings. Just considering the prayer breakfasts, we find people in networks of open friendship constituted by the Christian practice of narrating their life stories as part of the drama of salvation. Maintaining these delicate cross-racial, cross-cultural, and cross-denominational networks is difficult enough without saddling the project with the insistence on achieving this in the statistically near-impossible environment of a single congregation. (168-9)

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Published in: on May 13, 2011 at 9:54 am  Leave a Comment  

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