Re-Tooling for Anti-Racist Christian Education

As a carpenter’s son, I spent a lot of time on construction sites. Over time, I picked up a few skills and even acquired some of the tools of the trade. More than anything, though, I picked up a fair number of workplace aphorisms like “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” and “Use the right tool for the job.” But for most of my early adult life, I moved from apartment to apartment and so had little need for the few carpentry skills I had learned in my youth. If something was broken, I could either ignore it or call the landlord to come and do the repairs. That changed, however, when I purchased an eighty-year-old house. With the house came its problems—the chimney and roof both had leaks. To ignore these problems or to expect someone else to fix them would have been both negligent and foolish.

Isabel Wilkerson says that when it comes to race relations, Americans are like homeowners inheriting an old house that through the centuries has, at times, fallen into disrepair. She writes:

Many people may rightly say: “I had nothing to do with how this all started. I have nothing to do with the sins of the past. My ancestors never attacked Indigenous people, never owned slaves.” And yes. Not one of us was here when this house was built. . . . But here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures in the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now. And any further deterioration is, in fact, on our hands.

As Christian educators who are committed to equipping students to engage God’s good but broken world, we cannot ignore how racially broken our country is, and so we must equip our students with the right tools for the job of seeking racial justice and reconciliation.

If It Ain’t Broke Don’t Fix It

Christians living in racialized America have inherited a house in dire need of repair; things are broken, and they need fixing. The cracks have always been there, but as a rainstorm can reveal leaks in a home, so 2020 has revealed the racial cracks that have been present in our society all along. The killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and many others and the subsequent racial unrest in cities across America did not create the racial divide, but they have exposed the systemic racial problems in our society.

We can see evidence of this all around. Study after study reveals the disparities between white and Black Americans. In virtually every measurable category—from criminal justice to economics, from employment to education and health—there are significant inequalities between white America and Black America.

When we turn our attention to the white evangelical church in America, we find that things are broken there too. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously stated, “It is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hours, in Christian America.” That was in 1960. Little has changed since.

Not only are our Christian communities largely racially segregated, even our perceptions of racism vary significantly depending on racial and religious backgrounds. A major recent survey found that while 86 percent of African Americans see racism as a very serious threat only 36 percent of white evangelicals agree. The report makes this startling conclusion: “The deepest and most consistent racial division [in America] is found between White Evangelicals and Blacks” (Hunter and Bowman).

Our students are living in a racialized world that is profoundly polarized.

The fact is that regardless of the social location or demographic makeup of our Christian school, our students are living in a racialized world that is profoundly polarized. This is the context in which we are educating and equipping our students to be “agents of renewal” or “ambassadors of reconciliation.” Are we equipping our students with the right tools for the job?

Use the Right Tool For the Job

When I rented my first apartment, my toolbox consisted of little more than a couple hammers, a screw gun, and a roll of duct tape. But when I purchased my home, I realized that my limited toolbox did not match the scope of the work to be done. I needed more tools in my toolbox.

In their seminal book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith make the case that white evangelical Christians have limited tools when it comes to addressing social problems like racism. According to Emerson and Smith, white evangelicals have three main “cultural tools” in their toolkit: freewill individualism, relationalism, and anti-structuralism (76–80).

As a cultural tool, freewill individualism is the conviction that “individuals exist independent of structures and institutions” (Emerson and Smith 76–77). So when it comes to racism and patterns of racial inequalities, the problems are understood as isolated issues and therefore solved individually. Put simply, there are racist individuals who do racist things, and those people need to be held accountable for their actions. Little attention is given to the cultural climate that may have helped foster such racist behavior. If individualism is the tool in hand, the problem and the solution rest solely on the individual.

The second cultural tool that white evangelicals use is relationalism, meaning they place tremendous importance on a “personal relationship with Jesus” and, by extension, the reconciling power of interpersonal relationships. Because racism is a sin of the heart, they believe if people simply had a better relationship with Jesus and a more diverse friend group, racism would go away. Of course, no one would deny that racism is a sin and that having diverse friendships is good, but relationalism alone is an insufficient tool to repair societal problems.

Another cultural tool white evangelicals use is antistructuralism, which is not really a tool at all. [This is only part of the article. Want to read more? Subscribe to the website by choosing "Register" from the menu above. It's free!]

Mark VanderWerf (MDiv, MEd) teaches Bible and theology at Grand Rapids Christian High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he is also the high school chaplain. Previously, he taught history and literature at Calvin Christian High School in Escondido, California. He is an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church in North America. He and his wife and three boys live in the Alger Heights neighborhood on the southeast side of Grand Rapids, where he frequently visits the local hardware store seeking home repair advice.