Widening and deepening our understanding of a concept that’s been both weaponized and reclaimed

Written by Andrea Nwabuike

On June 17, 2015, thirteen members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina gathered for mid-week Bible study. The routine nature of their gathering failed to dampen the zeal behind their fellowship. 

When a stranger walked through the doors of Mother Emanuel, as the church is affectionately called, he was welcomed with warmth and grace. Sitting in folding chairs under a halo of fluorescent lights, they discussed the parable of the sower from the Gospel of Mark. At the end of their time together, while their eyes were closed and their heads were bowed in prayer, the stranger pulled out a gun. Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Depayne Middleton Doctor, Rev. Daniel Simmons, and Myra Thompson did not make it home that night.

As I watched the news reports about the shooting, I was shaken by a feeling of familiarity. On the same night, my dad and several members of St. Clair Avenue Baptist Church gathered in the prayer room for mid-week Bible study. Sitting in wooden chairs under a halo of fluorescent lights, they studied Acts 4. No strangers walked through the doors, but if one had, he would have been welcomed with warmth and grace.

The similarity that weighed heaviest on my heart was that both Bible studies were attended by Black men and women. The shooter, motivated by hatred, felt justified in killing those men and women because of their race. I was haunted by the thought that it could have been my family. It could have been my loved ones who didn’t make it home. 

In university I learned race is a social construct, a form of classification arbitrarily created out of ignorance and often used as a tool of oppression and exploitation. It was strangely comforting to receive academic confirmation that there was no inherent difference between myself and people of other races. 

But discussions of race in lectures and tutorials often ended with the insinuation that since race is not biologically relevant it held no meaning or significance. This view felt incompatible with the history and present realities of racism, inequality, and racial trauma. I graduated from university just a few days before the massacre at Emanuel AME. In processing a grief that felt like it was not fully mine to carry, I realized that race cannot simply be discarded as irrelevant. 

While attempts to overlook race may come with pure intentions, colour-blindness creates barriers to genuine reconciliation and healing. In his Christianity Today article, “The gospel has never been colorblind,” Dr. Malcolm Foley writes, 

“You must ‘see color’ for true ethnic conciliation and racial healing to happen. To insist on colorblindness ignores the beauty of God’s creation and shields one’s eyes from the historic subjugation and demeaning of His image-bearers. As a Black man, to see me means to understand that I navigate the world in a different way from my non-Black brothers, sisters and neighbors. Due to the racialization of American society, I must navigate differently to survive. If you are blind to my Blackness, you are blind to me.”

To truly see the worshippers from Mother Emanuel, St. Clair Baptist, and other racialized communities, we must acknowledge how race has been weaponized to wound—and reclaimed to galvanize solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized. 

Adopting a healthy view of race is particularly important for Christians as we often find ourselves pulled between extremes during critical cultural moments. To see your brothers and sisters in Christ is to recognize that race neither defines who they are, nor limits their humanity. 

The Bible outlines the character and temperament we ought to display in moments of conflict and tension. Scripture does not primarily prescribe opinions for the Church to articulate, rather it commands a posture for the Church to assume. We must be slow to speak and slow to anger, quick to listen, kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving (James 1; Ephesians 4). There are two approaches that should inform how the Church engages our culture in discussions about race.

Firstly, we must humbly listen to the stories of those who lament and are desperate for healing. When my mom instructs me about something important or gives advice, she asks, “Andrea, are you hearing me?” She isn’t asking if I have heard her voice. She is asking whether I have considered, understood, and received what she has said. 

Listening is a lost art in our culture, but believers are primed to listen well by nature of our faith.

Despite the noise and chaos of our lives, we listen for the still small voice of God. In the same way, we must cut through the noise of opinions, hot-takes, and debates to listen to the stories of the men and women God has entrusted to us. Listen to their hurts, questions, confusions, and frustrations. If it matters to God to hear from the downcast and oppressed, then it should also matter to His people.

Secondly, we must engage with a wide range of information that is thoughtful, truthful, and that aims to support human flourishing. This includes listening to individuals outside the Church too. The Bible is all true, but it does not contain all truths. If we have a physical ailment, we pray to God for healing and we seek the wisdom of a doctor. To seek medical help is not an abdication of our faith in God but an outflow of our faith. 

In a similar sense, engaging with literature about the history, politics, and the psychology of race does not suggest that we do not believe in the power of the gospel to reconcile or to establish justice. When we are grounded in the gospel we are freed to engage with the world in a meaningful way. We can see God’s fingerprints in the wisdom of those inside and outside the faith.   

It has been seven years since the massacre at Mother Emanuel, and there have been many more instances of racial violence since. A pattern has developed wherein each incident is followed by a flurry of opinion pieces, social media debates, and political posturing. It is exhausting, scary, and discouraging. And yet, God continues to work through His people, bringing healing, rest, and hope. While race may be a source of division, conflict, and fear in our culture, God equips His people to respond with graciousness, clear sight, and wisdom. 

Andrea Nwabuike is a Nigerian-Canadian mental health counsellor and writer. Her love of words began in childhood when she would hide under the covers with a flashlight and a juicy mystery novel. Those reading sessions expanded her imagination and ignited her curiosity. Andrea’s passion for the written word has drawn her to write about the intersections of faith, ethnicity, and gender. When she isn’t writing or counselling, you can find her eating plantain chips or belting out 90s R&B classics.

Read more columns from “Church of many cultures.”