American Christians—black and white—must confront a national history that involves good and evil. Black and white Christians should be among the first to recognize the universality of the effects of the fall on human history—good and evil compete in every race, ethnicity, nation, or continent. Depravity is universal and deeply engrained in the human race regardless of skin color or physical features.
Racial reconciliation between black and white Christians is a topic frequently raised, and groups meet together with the intent of achieving it. The question is, “Do all black and white Christians need to reconcile?” Generically speaking? Do both black and white Christians understand what reconciliation is based upon and by whom it needs to be sought from a biblical principle and/or its common definition in the English language. An appropriate follow-up question is, “Is there any entirely guilty race?”
There are diverse definitions of the words reconcile and reconciliation. It is difficult to find one simple, direct biblical definition. However, fundamental English defines reconcile as “to restore to friendship or harmony.” Reconciliation is “the reconciliation of friendly relations.” Perhaps these are the definitions to consider, and why this may or may not be true of all black and white Christian relations.
Where does one begin on such a controversial issue? American slavery may possibly be the starting point. It was definitely based on race. Black Africans were the slaves, and white Americans were the slave owners. True? Yes and no. Black African slavery began in black Africa where black Africans were owned by other black Africans and then sold to white European and American slave traders. They were captured, kidnapped, enslaved, and sold by both black Africans and Arab middlemen. African chieftains engaged in such a profitable commerce sent delegates to European capitals to plead they not abolish the slave trade. Millions of black slaves were sent to the Middle East and continue so yet today.
Before any European or African set foot on American soil, slavery existed among the Native Americans and was quite brutal. Nonetheless, the tragedy of American slavery went beyond white ownership. Black slaves were owned by several Native American tribes, e.g., Seminole, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Cherokee. They even refused to free their slaves at the end of the Civil War and reluctantly did so when signing a treaty with the United States later.
Noted African American historian, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro. In the November 2, 2017 issue of Time interview, he was asked what he found to be the most amazing fact. He responded: “One of the most shocking facts to me is that there were black slaveholders.” There were thousands of black slave owners and thousands upon thousands of black slaves under black ownership.
African American historians, Carter G. Woodson, Luther P. Jackson, John H. Russell, and John Hope Franklin, and others, discovered and researched this phenomenon. There were over 3,000 black slave owners in New Orleans alone. The wealthiest slave owner with the most slaves in Louisiana was allegedly a black slave owner. Thousands of blacks were owned by black slave owners in the Carolinas. They found it was not specifically to protect family members, but involved profit, power, and avarice. Brutality was also involved—rapes, floggings, poor nutrition and cheapest clothing.
American slavery involved a collusion and complicity of races. This doesn’t absolve any white Americans involved in legislation approving of slavery—especially by race—trading, selling, owning, or catching escaped slaves. It simply balances the saga of this American tragedy and historical blot. Millions of white immigrants coming later had no association at all with the institution. Racial enmity or broken relations cannot be totally justified based on the institution of slavery.
American history involves egregious injustices to and oppression of African Americans. Slavery by race, Jim Crow laws, segregation, underfunded public education, real estate redlining, high interest rates, lynchings, white supremacist groups, riots, and more exacerbate the black American experience. Sadly, American Christian experiences where denominations practiced segregation or ignored injustices experienced by African Americans also played a sorrowful role.
American Christians—black and white—must confront a national history that involves good and evil. Black and white Christians should be among the first to recognize the universality of the effects of the fall on human history—good and evil compete in every race, ethnicity, nation, or continent. Depravity is universal and deeply engrained in the human race regardless of skin color or physical features. One has to read widely to recognize this truth. The unfortunate fact due African American history is they suffered a greater measure of evil in the United States perhaps than most based on group and racial identity. Other racial and ethnic groups also suffered. Individually, one can never possibly know which individuals suffered the most injustice or brutality because we do not have everyone’s individual story.
This brings us to the question, “Do all black and white Christians need to reconcile?” If so, what is it based upon? My consideration of this issue relates to understanding what biblical reconciliation looks like. I became impressed that slavery involved a multi-racial collusion and complicity. Thus, not all whites were involved; therefore, not all are guilty. Moreover, not all blacks were uninvolved or all are guiltless. Are today’s whites guilty of what yesteryear’s whites did, especially in light of the other participants? So how can one race representing both oppressors and the oppressed hold culpable another race representing some oppressors and mostly non-guilty parties?
In all of history where all races represent both good and evil, can an entire race be held guilty? If so, what race could that be? And don’t we both, black and white Christians, know there is no guiltless race? “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3: 23).
When we come to the fact that some white Christian denominations overtly embraced a non-biblical misinterpretation of race and racial superiority, practiced segregation, and that many white Christians ignored or failed to recognize the duplicitous injustices and oppression African Americans suffered, the potential or need for racial reconciliation is more clearly recognizable. Here too, however, it must be noted that an entire race was not directly involved. Individuals, individual churches, denominations, and parachurch ministries, are in a historical position where reconciliation is needed. There may also be African Americans who hate or stereotype the entire white race—guilty and non-guilty alike—and are in need to seek reconciliation. Jesus’ command to us all was “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13: 34-35). There has been failure on both sides.
The English definition of reconciliation is simple and direct. Where enmity or broken relations have occurred, every effort to restore friendly relations and harmony applies. It does not appear this involves one entire race with another entire race. Can’t we agree with the famous Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. statement: “. . . where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character?” That relates to judging all individuals by character, not by skin color in both races—and even more so, in all races. Whether black or white, don’t judge the innocent as the guilty.
Let’s pursue the picture of spiritual reconciliation painted in Scripture. We have a primary illustration. Regardless of race, we are not in harmony with God. We are deeply alienated. That alienation is based on a perfect, holy, just, pure, righteous divine being who created us all for his purposes and glory and fallen, imperfect, sinful, rebellious, depraved human beings—that includes us all. Another question: “Do we all need reconciliation between this divine being and us, fallen, broken, evil human beings?” The answer, of course, is yes. There is an offended party and the offenders. That reconciliation requires acknowledgment of the offense on the part of all belonging to the human race to the offended party—Almighty God and Creator of heaven and earth. In this case an entire race—the human race—is guilty. Thankfully, the offended party, God, provided the gift of atonement, his Son, Jesus Christ, as the bridge to restored relationship and harmony—true reconciliation, regardless of race.
The same is not true regarding racial reconciliation. There are specific groups or individuals needing to be reconciled. However, entire races of people are neither totally guilty nor totally innocent—not even in Christendom—that necessitate the kind of reconciliation frequently sought. Not all white Christians are guilty. Not all black Christians are innocent. Let’s not judge entire races of people by what some of the people in that race do or have done. God’s image is in the individuals, and we must remember that.
If you, as a white Christian, possess a racist attitude, belong to a church, denomination, or any other group that owes blacks or black Christians an apology or steps toward restoration of unity and harmony, pray for humility and the will to achieve that end. God promised and gives both the desire and ability: “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Philippians 2: 13) If you, as a black Christian, tend to hate or stereotype all whites regardless of guilt or non-guilt simply because they are white, especially white Christians, pray for humility to be able to love them as Christ has loved and commanded you. Jesus also said: “But I say to you, love your enemies . . .” (Matthew 5: 44).
Let’s, as black and white Christians, lead the world in getting past a historical racial divide for the sake of the Gospel. The only entire guilty race is the human race. We’re not home yet. “Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus. . . I ain’t got long to stay here.” We’re on a journey through a world of darkness to our destined home together. We don’t “have long to stay here.” So why not try to astound this world with the light of truth and of our love for one another?
Helen Louise Herndon is a member of Central Presbyterian Church (EPC) in St. Louis, Missouri. She is free lance writer and served as a missionary to the Arab/Muslim world in France and North Africa.