Writing for First Things, George Weigel strongly rebukes liberal Catholic clergymen like Belgium’s Cardinal Danneels for their racist statements about African Catholicism. He comments on the scandalously low Mass attendance rates in Europe before saying, “African Catholics are not interested in learning what to do with empty churches, convents, and seminaries.”
As a student at an ecumenically diverse college, I’ve noticed that my friends who are drawn to more liberal expressions of the faith are often drawn in this direction because their souls have been deeply shaped by a strong sense of compassion and justice. For example, my Episcopal-leaning friends are well aware of the various ways in which the Episcopal Church involves itself in feeding the poor or advocating for victims of bullying related to sexual orientation. Here, say my friends, is a Church engaged with the world and ministering as Jesus would.
Well, yes, I want to say, this is also the same Episcopal Church that threatens African Anglican churches with the loss of aid because those churches will not endorse its affirmation of homosexual relationships. This is the same denomination that is stunningly not racially diverse (for all its progressive talk) and might actually be more racially prejudiced than Evangelical and Catholic churches.
Most concerning to me, as an African-American, has been the way in which the Church of England and the Episcopal Church have continued to perpetuate a condescending and racially-charged air of superiority over their African brothers and sisters. I recently heard Anglican Archbishop Benjamin Kwashi of Nigeria (and other Nigerian clergy) give testimony to the incredible advancement of the Gospel in Nigeria. They spoke of a flood of converts, an increasing number of ordinations, and churches filled with worshippers every week.
And this despite the pervasive and constant threat of terrorism. Archbishop Kwashi and his family, which includes 54 orphans whom he and his wife care for, have suffered directly from violent attacks by Boko Haram that almost claimed their lives.
After that, to hear the way in which the leadership of the Church of England continues to dismiss African clergy’s concern with the liberal abandonment of the Gospel in the West and the conflation of progressive secular agendas with their church’s teaching on marriage and the family is deeply saddening. To hear firsthand accounts from various bishops and clergy about the way in which governing bishops within the Church of England openly mock African clergy, including referring to them as “boys”—when these men of God are risking their very lives to preach the Word—that is infuriating. This air of condescension is certainly correlated with the stunning lack of racial diversity among the clerical governorship of the Church of England—a problem described by the Anglican Bishop of Chelmsford as directly affecting the credibility and mission of the Church.
Also deeply upsetting to me, as one who holds to a traditional understanding of marriage, is the way in which the Episcopal Church has, like secular progressive voices, conflated the history of the enslavement and oppression of African-Americans with the opposition to gay marriage. In his response to the recent sanctions placed on the Episcopal Church by the Church of England, its Presiding Bishop Michael Curry (himself an African-American) referenced his descent from African slaves to say that these recent sanctions conjure up that history and that pain. Commenting on the injustice of this conflation, Esau McCaulley (an African-American ordained in the Episcopal Church) writes:
More to the point, it is one thing for Presiding Bishop Curry to articulate his interpretation of the black experience, it is quite another for white progressives confidently to adopt this posture and rely on it to criticize black people who disagree with them. That is not your story, you do not own it. There is no canonical interpretation of the black experience that progressives can use to berate Africans or African-Americans who disagree with them.
Conservative Voices Pushing Back
As Weigel’s article illustrates, there are plenty of skeletons in our closet and there is plenty of need for racial reconciliation in the Catholic Church. To be clear, what the racist dismissal of African and African-American Christians by certain Catholic and Anglican leaders have in common is a shared dedication to a progressive script that hypocritically claims to represent minorities while dismissing my black experience if I do not forsake the traditional teaching of the Church on marriage and sexuality.
Yet it is conservative religious voices, including Catholic voices, that continue to push back against racism even as they affirm a traditional understanding of marriage. Who would have thought that a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention would be the one to declare that the Cross and the confederate flag cannot exist together, as Russell Moore has done?
Meanwhile the Evangelical magazine that Billy Graham founded, Christianity Today, recently brought onboard African-American social psychologist Christina Cleveland to write about racial reconciliation as a regular columnist. Even the Acton Institute—the free-market think tank run by Catholic priest Robert Sirico—boasts African-American Dr. Anthony Bradley, a man who writes extensively on race, as a research fellow.
The college I attend is on the Main Line outside Philadelphia. This area has one of the highest per capita income concentrations in the nation, and it fits the very definition of racially homogenous. There are a bevy of churches in the area making it the perfect consumer-choice area for young college students seeking to commit to (or at least faithfully attend) this church or that.
I’ve seen how progressive Christianity continues to promise in its public speech that it is the future of committed engagement with the downtrodden of the world—but I know from the kind of experiences that I’ve described that it is not. The boundaries of progressive interests are clearly marked both by who sits in the pews (and who doesn’t) and what is said in private about the vibrant, growing, global (non-white) Church.
But pointing out progressive hypocrisy and limitations won’t help the people we both care about. And it is through our actions and not merely our words that we must demonstrate that we’re the ones who are championing human dignity, sanctity of life, the rights of the family, and the dignity of work. Jesus taught a “traditional” understanding of marriage when addressing divorce (Matthew 19) but that’s one small slice of his ministry: he spent much more of his time eating with prostitutes.
Taking Christ Seriously
We spend too much time talking about what we’re against and arguing for our liberties, but not enough time seeking to listen to the concerns of minority communities and striving to address systematic biases, whether in the parish or the town hall. We would do well to take seriously Christ’s instructions to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned. Speaking as a Millennial, I realize that “social justice warfare” is immature and ineffective but I also know that my peers and I are intensely aware of justice issues and we care deeply.
Progressive Christianity, as I’ve argued here, does not provide a better framework for combatting racism, but if progressive parishes are feeding the hungry and our parishes aren’t, well, actions do speak louder than words. I would hate to see my friends embrace the false promises of progressive Christianity because we failed to live out the Gospel as we ought.
David Mills’ Jeremiah and the Enlightened Racist
Michael Bradley’s Ordinary Rights, Extraordinary Claims
Catherine Palmer’s Freakonomics, Racism & Hot Fudge
Peter Leithart’s Tool Kits
Stephen M. Krason’s The True Story—And Tragedy—of Race in America