THE TRUE COST OF UNITY
JUSTIN E. GIBONEY
“This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed… ”
I’m convinced that most Christians desire a reconciled and fully united Church. We long for the day when believers have “everything in common…break bread in their homes and [eat] together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:44-46). I highly doubt most Christians would argue the Church’s current racial and ideological divides are anything other than heartbreaking and far from what God intends for His people (John 13:34-35). We’re generally united in our aspirations to achieve oneness in the Church, but something’s missing.
On countless occasions, we’ve prayed, planned, and acted on our desire to achieve racial reconciliation. We’ve recreated the optics of “Acts 2 unity” in churches and large arenas with big hugs and the best of intentions. Majority Christian institutions all over the country have taken steps to add people of color to their teams and platformed minority speakers at major events. These efforts are sincere and shouldn’t be overlooked. Our prayers certainly aren’t in vain nor are they trivial. There are also a number of programs that seek to help us build relationships across demographics and those initiatives should be embraced.
"Most Christians appear to want unity across racial differences in the Church, but it doesn’t seem to be what is happening in the American Church."
But despite investing time and mastering the optics, attempts to bring Christians together often have fallen short. They end with the event or remain on a surface level. People of color are increasingly uninterested in these racial reconciliation initiatives. I believe it’s because the majority church has failed to count the cost (Luke 14:25-33). The Church’s history of racism has been devastatingly painful, but Christians often seek painless paths toward restoration. Many Christians very simply don’t want to sacrifice enough to get the job done. Physical proximity and symbolic gestures can be a helpful start, but we can’t build something greater without taking the time to fully evaluate the damage that’s been done. Racism didn’t cause all this destruction through small misunderstandings and surface-level intrusions. The most significant destruction occurred through theft and a dismissal of human dignity.
As Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson explain in Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair (2021), the ravages of racism are best understood “as a massive multi-generational project of cultural theft.” It was a theft of truth, power, and wealth. Kwon and Thompson explain that truth was stolen through the romanticization of American history and the demonization of the Black identity. Power was stolen through subjugation and laws that disenfranchised African Americans. Lastly, the theft of wealth robbed Black people of the opportunity to build generational wealth through unpaid labor and discriminatory housing policies. This helps explain why the average Black household only has a tenth of the wealth of the average white household.
Sadly, the American Church was often complicit in this theft. Historically, at best, the majority Church took the anemic and passive position that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. exposed and dissected in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. At worst, in the words of Frederick Douglass, “the American Church was not only indifferent to the wrongs of slavery, it, actually takes sides with the oppressor.” Such pervasive and long-lasting wrongs can’t be corrected through symbolism and half measures. It must be addressed with the love and self-sacrifice described in 1 John chapter 3.
"We should all keep in mind that our God is greater than what divides us, but we must count the cost as we move forward."
Unfortunately, the Church’s issues with race aren’t confined to the annals of history. We still have significant internal problems to address today. For instance, history books in some K-12 Christian schools still say the Civil War was primarily about state’s rights and the books repeat all kinds of false equivalencies between the Union and the Confederacy. The theft of power is still a major issue in the Church as well. Adding people of color to your team is good, but do they really have voice and power or are they simply expected to assimilate and improve the optics? Is power really being shared or do majority Christians always maintain the upper hand and take their ball and go home when there’s a disagreement? Duke and Kwon point out it’s well documented that some Christian denominations, churches, and educational institutions benefited from the exploitation of black labor, yet many are still slow to share resources with Black Christian institutions that are struggling financially. When resources are shared, there’s usually culturally-driven strings attached that incentivize assimilation and create resentment.
If the Church has been complicit in the theft of truth, power, and wealth, then it must be deliberate about restoring the same (Exodus 21:33 and 22:15, Leviticus 6:1-7, Luke 19:1-10). Our unity efforts should be truthful about the Church’s historical failures regarding race and should commit to sharing power and resources for the sake of repairing the relationship.
As a people committed to truth, majority denominations and churches can endorse an American History curriculum that is honest about racial injustice. They should seek out qualified people of color for positions of authority and take their opinions seriously. And able majority churches should seek out struggling Black and Brown churches in their area and support them financially based on best practices, not by attaching culturally-driven conditions. Doing these things would make our unity efforts substantive and make our relationships more loving and self-sacrificial.
Majority Christians aren’t alone in their need to count the cost and respond accordingly. God commands we all be self-sacrificial, including people of color. The Black Church has long fought off cynical and belligerent movements in its community and minority Christians must continue to do the same. People of color must vocally reject race essentialism and other non-biblical secular theories and systems that discourage forgiveness, hope, and cross-cultural unity. We must prayerfully find a way to be patient and charitable while maintaining a sense of urgency.
We should all keep in mind that our God is greater than what divides us, but we must count the cost as we move forward.
Justin Giboney is an attorney and political strategist in Atlanta, GA. He is also the president of the AND Campaign, a Christian civic organization focused on raising civic literacy and dismantling the false dichotomy between social justice and moral order. In 2012 and 2016, he was a Georgia delegate at the DNC. Giboney has written extensively about the intersection between faith and politics, including the book Compassion (&) Conviction.