I grew up in the white Christian church. If you had asked me what made it white, I would have answered that its pews were filled with mostly white people. On Sundays the people I saw basically looked like me and thought like me, invoking Dr. King's famous assertion that the worship hour was the most segregated hour in American life. Yet as I grew, I began to learn what really made my church white. The stories we told and the way we told them were offered from the point of view of those with social and political capital. Our church had a colonial mindset; it bred a sense of exceptionalism.
As a young man, I began to learn the larger story of American Christianity. White church wasn't the only option. There were churches where people didn't look like me or think like me. And the stories they told were different. I was embarrassed to discover my ignorance, which was a feature of the de facto segregation of American life and the bubble of white privilege in which I had been raised. I was delighted to hear a story that emphasized the freedom struggle and the ways faith could sustain it. The more I learned, the less I wanted to remain in my white church. I doubted how Christian its stories were.
In a conversation with him last year, Princeton professor of African-American religion and history Albert Raboteau summed it up succinctly. There were always two distinct narratives in American Christianity, he said. One was white, the other black. The white narrative said this: We've made it to the promised land. Life is good here. It's the city on a hill. What a blessing. And the black narrative said this: We've been brought here in chains. It's the new Egypt. What a curse. We've got to get the hell out of here. And therein lies a founding contradiction in American Christianity. One version celebrated and reinforced the status quo and another version sought liberation from it.
It may be more important than ever to understand these contrasting religious stories, because they may help us to understand where we are. If you know the essential difference between white and black Christianity, for example, it will be easier to see why so many clergy of color linked arms to protest white supremacy in Charlottesville, Boston, and Phoenix, and why so many white clergy on the president's evangelical advisory board didn't say a mumbling word. For the record, that board is 92 percent white. Of course, we don't all fit neatly into one of two categories. Yours truly can often be found at vigils in the street or wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. But I had to lose my white religion to get there. I had to give up a narrative that supported the suffering of the status quo for one that dreamed of the liberation of all people from social and political oppression.
It might be high time for us, then, in a city that calls itself holy, to ask what kind of religion we're putting into practice. Do we move in circles of people who look like us and think like us? Do we blithely go along with the de facto segregation we see and the gentrification that deepens its divisions? Do we accept and venerate the status quo in a town where a Confederate towers over Marion Square and a freedom fighter is hidden behind the bushes of Hampton Park? If we do these things, then we're certainly mimicking a form of white religion. Yet if we lost that religion, we might find something better.
For too long white Christianity has been part of the problem. Its narrative of a promised land has never rung true with those who were left out of the promise. If those of us who are white gave up that old story or walked away from it, we could begin to tell a larger truth. And we could find something more deeply American in the black church's struggle for freedom, dignity, and equality. That's a struggle we are all invited to join, whether we're religious or not. But for those of us churchy types, we might ask what stories our congregations are telling and how they relate to the moment we're in.
Jeremy Rutledge is a writer and pastor of Circular Congregational Church downtown.