In this week’s McCormick Herald, you can find community announcements, an interview with senior Leslie Deslauriers, and Derek Elmi Burrsma’s great run-down of the Christian Reformed Church’s current initiatives to combat racism and focus on reconciliation.
In 1857 a group of Dutch immigrants se led in West Michigan and founded the Christian Reformed Church in North America. The families that settled the areas ‘stuck together’ and the local church developed into the foundational institution of the community and culture. The CRC has increasingly wrestled with the church’s cultural and Christian identity as global mission efforts spread CRC communities throughout the world.
Such moments of wrestling intensified during the civil rights era; when a CRC school in Chicago barred the admission of black children, the issue came before the denomination’s synod. The subsequent formation of the Race Commission worked to eradicate racism and increase ethnic and racial diversity throughout the denomination. While the name and structure of the commission morphed throughout the years, the function of the group has largely remained the same. In 1992 the CRC published a comprehensive statement on race relations entitled God’s Diverse and United Family. This document has remained the cornerstone document of the denomination concerning race relations.
I recently evaluated the CRC’s official statement on race relations according to Jennifer Harvey’s argument from her book Dear White Christians. Harvey argues that the traditional paradigm of racial reconcilition adopted by mainline Protestant and evangelical churches has done lttle to combat racism and promote healthy reltionships between people of dfferent races, both in the US generally and in the church specifically.
Harvey claims that churches “begin with inaccurate assessments of the significance and meaning of racial divisions” when contemplating and working towards racial reconciliation (Harvey, 66). Harvey offers a few examples of ‘inaccurate assessments’ promoted by reconciliation models that favor white perspective such as seeing the problem as diversity rather than white supremacy or focusing efforts on relationship building rather than direct redistributive efforts.
The CRC’s statement, God’s Diverse and Unified Family, exists as another example of mainline Protestant efforts geared toward racial reconciliation. The statement is “a comprehensive review and articulation of the biblical and theological principles regarding the development of a racially and ethnically diverse family of God” (7). Viewed The lens of creation, fall, and new creation allows the committee to highlight Biblical passages that affirm diversity inherent in God’s creation, the relational aspect of sin, and the unity of all things in the person of Jesus Christ.
Yet, such a lens frames the conversation of racial reconciliation in terms of personal relationships, encouraging people to engage with the issue of race on an individual or communal level. The individualistic lens offered in God’s Diverse and Unified Family calls individuals to adopt positions of self-denial in regards to their racial identity.
According to the document, “we never cease to be of a certain race, ethnic group, and culture, but in Christ, those ways of identifying ourselves are no longer definitive of who we are” (23). This sentence seems loaded with white supremacist ideology and highlights Harvey’s fear of a reconciliation paradigm that struggles to move beyond an individualistic perspective to promote dialogue from a structural and systematic perspective.
The CRC’s solutions to racial divisions struggle to go beyond calls for repentance and prayer: “Obedience in matters of racial reconciliation calls us individually and corporately to continually repent, to strive for justice, and to battle the powers of evil” (25). The ‘striving for justice’ or ‘battling of evil powers’ that are proscribed fail to men on historic or contemporary examples of racial injustice such as slavery, share-cropping, Jim Crow segregation, restrictive covenants, or mass incarceration
Instead the Chris an CRC community sees the issue of racial division in a spiritual light and thus calls its members to ‘radical repentance’ through confession and prayer. The individual focus and relational lens in which the CRC sees the problem of racial division one can see in some of a committee’s recommendations to CRC churches, such as praying and working for the church to better reflect the diversity of the country, ensuring equitable representation for minority members in leadership and calling individual members to promote interracial dialogue in their neighborhoods and workplaces.
In reviewing the CRC’s racial reconciliation, it has become apparent the serious need of the denomination to update their 20- year-old statement. While the CRC has made progress in the inclusion of ethnic minority voices, the denomination’s only seminary, Calvin Theological Seminary, only has four faculty of color. Such a simple statistic clearly illustrates the denomination’s struggle in giving up control when it comes to institutional power and theological perspectives. Harvey’s recommendation of a reparations paradigm is an essential first step for denominational leaders to begin framing their conversation regarding race relations in a new light.