In July of 2016, Rick Warren felt compelled to preach a sermon on racism at his church in Lake Forest, California. A Louisiana police shootout that very Sunday had left three officers and the ambusher – a black former Marine sergeant – dead. Only 10 days earlier, five police had been killed in a Dallas ambush.
Warren is the founder and senior pastor of Saddleback Church, an evangelical megachurch – the eighth-largest church in the United States. He is the best-selling author of The Purpose Driven Life and delivered the invocation at the presidential inauguration in 2009. As such, his voice figures prominently among white evangelical leaders. It was, in fact, a white evangelical who sent me this link to the sermon, adding, “This is a talk by Rick Warren that expresses my feelings about race very thoroughly.”
As I listened – and re-listened, what became alarmingly clear is that one of America’s most prominent evangelical leaders doesn’t understand racism at all. Warren’s views on racism are profoundly misleading and, to the extent to which they represent white evangelical views, help to explain why there is so little progress on this topic among Christians in conservative white America.
Warren’s sermon outlines “attitudes toward race…from very bad to very good”. On one end of the spectrum is “The Racist – who hates, bullies and discriminates.” On the opposite end is “The Reconciler – who is an active bridge builder.” There are five other categories in between.
While he does briefly reference an Old Testament scripture (2 Chronicles 19:7) that proclaims God’s distaste for perverted justice, Warren otherwise spends virtually the entire 75 minutes focused on racism as a matter of interpersonal relationships. And this is why he misses the point. Racism in America has relatively little to do with interpersonal issues – based on how nice I am to people of color. Racism has almost everything to do with political and economic issues – based on power systems that afford advantages to whites and impose disadvantages on non-whites.
Certainly, there is a degree to which personal relationships play an important role. Any time we come into contact with another person, we have an opportunity to behave toward them with kindness and respect – or something else. It is easy to identify me as racist if I call a black person the N word, refuse to shake their hand, or tell them they will never amount to anything more than a janitor based on their skin color. But these situations are largely anecdotal and fail to provide a more holistic understanding of the problem. Anecdotal evidence is a weak way to describe racism because it can so easily be denied or reinterpreted. A white legislator may be extremely pleasant with her black employees because it is in her best interest to treat those employees well. Yet her legislative policies may deal unfairly with people of color. Her employees may describe her as loving and anything but racist, while blacks she does not employ may experience her policies as being preferential to whites. Is she racist or isn’t she?
Where the heart of racism really pulsates is in our political and economic systems – which whites and non-whites experience very differently. Racist policies and practices pervade virtually every aspect of our culture. Consider the housing market:
African American veterans were denied many of the benefits of the GI Bill – including access to affordable housing and education. Banks generally wouldn’t make loans for mortgages in black neighborhoods, and African Americans were excluded from the suburbs by deed covenants and other subtle tactics. These practices continue to this day. Eugene, Oregon still has significant numbers of properties with deeds which technically prohibit sale or even rental to people of color. The deed on my own parents’ home reads, “No lot located in the above described tract ever shall be sold, leased, rented to, or occupied by any except members of the Caucasion or white race; but such occupants may employ domestic servants of any race.” While this deed article may rarely be enforced or utilized (although, who knows – there aren’t very many African Americans in Eugene!), the fact that it continues to remain on many Eugene deeds is telling. What would people say if instead it read: “No families with adopted children,” or “No women shorter than 5’3””, or “Only families of the Lutheran persuasion”?
No greater evidence of systemic racism exists than in our criminal justice system. According to data compiled by the government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2016, African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 5 times the imprisonment of whites. In five states, the disparity is more than 10 to 1. In Vermont, 1 in every 14 black males is in prison. This in spite of a general U.S. population which is over 60% white and only 13% black. And because of a lack of data in some states, these statistics may actually be understated.
Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, in an August 2014 conversation with another Fox News anchor, Bill O’Reilly, enumerated some alarming statistics regarding blacks and whites in America. O’Reilly agreed with all of them:
- Black unemployment rate in Ferguson is three times the white unemployment rate
- Black men in Ferguson between the ages of 16-24 experience almost 50% unemployment rate vs. 16% for white men of same age group
- In U.S. black children are almost four times as likely to live in a poor neighborhood as white children
- In U.S. 20% of white kids are in single parent homes vs. 52% of black kids
- In U.S. the incarceration rate is six times higher for blacks than for whites
- Segregated housing and under-performing schools both correlate strongly with low prospects in life
- Blacks in America are almost three times as likely to be threatened with force by police
- Pew Research Center shows that 18% of blacks are confident vs. 52% of whites
- 65% of blacks say cops go too far, 33% of whites do
Warren’s intentions in tackling the topic of racism are good, but that is precisely why they stand to do so much harm. Limiting his definitions to the realm of the interpersonal keeps the discussion out of the realm of white supremacist ideologies – allowing whites to continue to feel entitled at the expense of people of color. In so doing, whites are comfortable ignoring the call to social justice.
Our nation’s very birth was at the cost of millions of Indigenous North American lives (as much as 95-99%).1 Our country was then built on the backs of the African slave – by the tens of millions (conservatively, with some estimates close to 100 million) – with as many as half of them dying in the process either in transit or as working slaves.2 To acknowledge that would be to face the guilt that necessarily accompanies that realization, and for most whites, that is too much to bear.
In the end, any discussion of racism necessarily involves a discussion of power, how it was gained and how it is used on a daily basis to perpetuate the privileges to which whites feel entitled. As long as the evangelical response to racism is limited to the realm of the interpersonal, it will continue to ignore core Christian teachings that demand we “…act justly, love mercy and walk humbly…”- Micah 6:8
- A Little Matter of Genocide, Ward Churchill, City Lights Publishers, 1998.
- Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations, Joe R. Feagin, Routledge (New York), 2001.