Confronting Racism in the Church: Part 2 of a Conversation with Anthony Walker
*Editors’ Note: With some of the horrific recent stories of infuriating injustice done toward African Americans (e.g., Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd), I wanted to reach out to my friend Anthony Walker, an African American minister at a church in Murfreesboro, TN. We should all be feeling grief over these losses, and we need to hear the pain and frustration that the African American community is experiencing right now. Anthony talks about the pain and also suggests ideas for racial reconciliation. For Part 1, click here.
Q: Could you share a story of when you were blindsided by the realization that there are people looking down on you because of the color of your skin? A story that could help me better understand what it can be like?
When I was a sophomore in high school and we were getting ready to dissect a pig, our teacher broke us into pairs. I was the only black kid in class, and I ended up being paired with this white girl. I began working on one end of the table, but the girl wouldn’t sit down on the other side of the table. I didn’t know why, but I started working because I wanted to get a good grade. When the teacher asked her why she wasn’t sitting at the table, she said, “I ain’t working with no [n-word].”
We both got sent to the office—for her to talk to the principle and for me to talk to the guidance counselor. The counselor and teacher were really apologetic. But it was on that day that I realized that I was an n-word to some people in this school and that’s how I was going to be seen.
Another time that really took me aback was less than 10 years ago. I was preaching somewhere, and they served us food. An older white gentleman sat down at the table where I was sitting. And he said, “You know what? You’re a good colored.”
I was like, “Excuse me?”
He said, “Yeah, you’re not like the rest of them. You’re a good colored.”
Q: Racism in the church. It’s scary that his attitude could have gone unchallenged for decades from certain pulpits.
Yes, even now there’s a sector within the church that just doesn’t believe that we should be talking about racial issues. Why? Well because, “We’re all the same in Jesus’ eyes. There’s no Jew and Greek, etc.” And that’s true—in how God receives us. But we exist in a society where we do have differences. God made us all different for a purpose. There are things we are supposed to learn from each other because of our differences. Our brotherhood becomes better because of that. Jesus brings us together by the cross.
“Jesus brings us together by the cross.”
As Ephesians 2:14 says,
“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.”
So if I cannot address this by the cross, I cannot address it at all.
One of our problems in the church is that we often merge Christianity with particular political persuasions. I have nothing against if you’re a conservative, a Democrat, or whatever. You have your political persuasion. But when we come into Christ, we are citizens of the kingdom of God first. Everything else follows. If my country is mistreating people systematically, then we have got to address the issue. If I can’t address the issue because it’s seen as unpatriotic to bring it up, then we’ve got a problem.
Q: What are some honest conversations that need to take place?
The country needs to admit where we’ve messed up. Racism is sin, and as such, James 1:14 -15 describes it well:
“But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
So racism is an internal sin that needs to be admitted and apologized for.
Yet apologies are only valid based off of the actions that follow them. If I tell you I’m sorry and I keep stabbing you, my apology really doesn’t matter. Our nation needs not just apologies, but action.
At the same time, I have an issue with trying to fix everything through policy. At one point in time, policy said I was three fifths of a man. Policy can get caught up in political tribalism, with the political pendulum swinging back and forth. In the meantime, we’re left in the middle of it.
So even though policy is limited in what it can accomplish, I definitely think it’s time for the country to have real, honest conversations about how slavery, Jim Crow, etc. significantly set back the black minority.
“It’s often simplistic to assume that the only reason why people don’t have what they need is that they don’t work hard enough.”
There are generations of white families that lived off the efforts that black families put in. Black families often had to go without the opportunities and family safety nets. For generations, our people were ripped from their families. With family structure taken away and economic opportunities withheld, the black community has been significantly set back. So it’s often simplistic to assume that the only reason why people don’t have what they need is that they don’t work hard enough.
We also need to talk about how our people were mistreated and terrorized for years. Yes, we had a civil rights movement and a few laws and affirmative action. But black people continue to be mistreated. Even still, the common narrative is that racism is basically gone. We are told things like, “Oh, what that person did may have been insensitive, but it wasn’t racism.” Being dismissive just means that we end up doubling down on the abuse.
“Being dismissive just means that we end up doubling down on the abuse.”
Could you imagine if someone abused you as a child—and then when you finally spoke up and said, “Hey this is what you did,” they denied it?
This situation is like that. For years, we’ve been saying that black people are being mistreated. And everybody’s saying, “No, nobody would call the police on somebody and just make up a story so that a black person would be arrested.” Well, now we have it on video. Like, do you see what we’ve been telling you? Or, “No, they would never just kill a guy in broad daylight if he was unarmed and not doing anything.” But, again, now we’ve got it on video.
It’s frustrating. Yet I’m supposed to stay cheerful, happy. I struggle sometimes with how I am perceived in predominately white spaces. I’m thankful for opportunities to go before universities and churches and speak. But the thought comes sometimes, Hey guys, I’m hurting. But if I say what I’m really thinking, I can be perceived as an angry black man. People might think, oh, he must a liberal, or he must just think that the man is out to get him.
Q: It would be very frustrating and disheartening to feel like your voice is appreciated only if you fit a particular type of role.
Sometimes I just have to say what I’m thinking and trust that my white friends know my heart. And if some of this stuff is hard for white people to read and swallow, imagine how hard it is living it on a day-to-day basis. That’s not a complaint; it’s just the reality of it.
“What is needed is for us to be completely open and honest; then we can begin to deal with the real issues.”
I don’t really want people to say, “I don’t see Anthony’s color; he’s just my brother in Christ.” No, I’m a black man, and you’re a white man. But how do we address the connotations that come with our skin color? If I’m not uniquely who I am as God made me, then we’ve got a problem. Completely sidestepping the issues that come with color can mean that we end up denying the situation as it is. What is needed is for us to be completely open and honest; then we can begin to deal with the real issues. When we try to take race out of the conversation, we take the honesty out of it.
Q: Does it ever go too far to where people see racism everywhere?
Yes, that’s the other side of the struggle, to where now someone thinks that every statement is racist. Life would be miserable if every time someone is around friends of a different race, he has to think, Oh, I hope they didn’t think that was racist. I was really just trying to make a joke.
There are some people who write other people off as racist, and nothing can change their mind. But the truth is, the other person might not be a racist, and we can’t set ourselves up as the judge and standard.
I work hard at being and extending grace. I don’t want every time that I leave the house for people to think I’m a dangerous person. In the same way, I don’t want to imagine the other person in the worst light either.
“I don’t want every time that I leave the house for people to think I’m a dangerous person. In the same way, I don’t want to imagine the other person in the worst light either.”
I remember not too long ago we were at the grocery store, and I was struggling to get a basket unloose. I finally got it and pulled it out, just as a white guy pulls up and just takes it and walks on into the store. I’m thinking, What? Could it have been racism? Could he have thought I was just working there? That’s where you have to just kind of brush it off and say, “Okay, well maybe not.”
I want people to be able to sit down together and discuss these things in the arena of grace and compassion. We need the kind of relationships which are open and honest enough to be able to say, “Hey, you know what? What you said the other day kind of got to me.”
Q: Let’s say that you are a white pastor for a year. And you get to try to build some racial reconciliation from the position of white pastor. What do you do during that year?
If a student at school committed suicide on the campus, immediately they would bring in the counselors. They would treat it like the traumatic event that it is. In the same way, if I were a white pastor, anytime a national tragedy happened which centered on racial issues, I would be earnest about building bridges of racial reconciliation.
Anytime something happened like we’ve been seeing in the news, I would be calling my black friends. I would be saying, “Hey guys, how are you doing? Can you come help us to contextualize this?” I would imagine there are some nuances of some of these cases that white Americans probably don’t get.
So I would immediately have some forums where we can have these kinds of open, honest conversations. I would lead our church in praying about these national tragedies and in talking about them. I would need to be in a position to hear. Then additionally, I would have those kinds of conversations periodically anyway, not just when a national tragedy happens.
“I would have those kinds of conversations periodically anyway, not just when a national tragedy happens.”
I liken it to when my wife was in labor. I will never have the experience of going through labor. I will never know what it’s like to have a child kicking inside me. It doesn’t matter what stomach illness I go through, I’ll never go through what my wife went through with labor. The best and the most I could do for my wife in that moment was to hold her hand and be by the bed. I was there to hold her hand, doing the best I could.
That’s the kind of approach I would try if I was the white pastor. Look, I don’t know; I haven’t had the experience. I’m learning more, seeing more, becoming more aware. All the while, I’m going to be there holding your hand through it all. I’m going to be compassionate to your frustration, to your anger, to your sadness.