The Presbyterian Church of America, which for those who don't follow denominations is the most recent splinter group off the mainline Presbyterian Church USA (and the more conservative of the two) has issued a pastoral letter on racism. Thanks to TulipGirl for pointing it out.
It's fairly interesting for a number of reasons. It gives a biblical theology of race and race relations. It contains an apology for and expression of repentance from the racist past of Presbyterians, whom they see as their direct forbears.
Then they describe racial distinctives, with awful punctuation because it's a list, so I'm taking some liberties with that without changing the words. First, they're "distinguishable categories; they are not irrelevant, but they are not defining categories that prohibit unity in the worship, fellowship and mission of the Body of Christ, and they are categories included in the distinctive and eternal celebration of God's work through the ages." This is an excellent summary of the biblical emphasis in ways that I don't think most people today would think to focus.
I do have to be picky about a couple things. Their definition of racism ("an explicit or implicit belief or practice that qualitatively distinguishes or values one race over other races") seems to me to rule out some things that are perfectly fine. For instance, if someone develops a fashion sense through growing up in a black community, thus valuing ways of dressing that are more common in that community, one has made a value judgment of what one race tends to do above others. There's nothing wrong with this.
They say that racial differences "always include physical appearance and its underlying genetic structure that are hereditary and unalterable." I just can't agree with that. Racial differences, to some, arise merely from parentage, even if the physical appearance (and therefore the genetic struxture that gives rise to it) aren't present at all. That's how the one-drop rule is supposed to work, and many people function with exactly such a rule, racist though it is.
They helpfully divide racism into three categories, admitting that it may not be exhaustive. Racial dogma is explicit beliefs affirmed against another race. Racial prejudice is "judging people by the color of their skin, rather than by their character" and involves fear, hated, suspicion, and preconceived judgments. Racial dominance is any inequitable treatment because of race.
I'm fairly impressed that they've given the resources here to have what's probably more exhaustive an account of the various kinds of racism than they seem to think. I'm a little disappointed that they didn't draw out those kinds, because I think those are the most damaging but least visible kinds of racism still around. Their description of dominance, for instance, does allow any kind of institutional racism you want to describe, provided it really is inequitable. (It even could include affirmative action if that can properly be described as inequitable.) It doesn't draw that out, though. It should. In the places where there are structures in place that cause racial dominance, most people in positions of authority don't notice it, and those affected by it can be hindered in their attempts to succeed in that place. A good example would be the tendency to provide roles for black women in popular films but to fill those spots with light-skinned black women who better fit the aesthetic sense of most white men's concepts of beauty. This policy derives from racism of the past, which caused current standards of beauty, most of which are simply unquestioned by the people who have them who don't see it as residual racism.
The second place I think they've done a good job giving the resources to name racism as racism is with residual racism itself. They don't explicitly point out that it's racism to have unquestioned assumptions about people simply because of race. If I assume a young black man dressed a certain way is dangerous when I drive through a certain part of town and roll my windows up and lock my doors, I've exhibited a racist attitude. They've nicely distinguished this from racial dogma. I'm not a racist for doing this. A racist is someone who espouses racist dogma. I'm residually affected by racism in society, though, and it's a manifestation of racism. Another example would be Crayola's use of 'flesh' as a color for crayons in the 80s. They just weren't thinking about black people, which is a result of thinking of white people as the norm, which is a result of racism. Racism is at work in the decision of those people who were not themselves racists. They were continuing a racism they wouldn't have endorsed if it had been pointed out to them (as evidenced by their recall of it upon request from those who did understand its significance).
What I don't like is that the definition as stated doesn't make clear how easy and how common the prejudice involved with residual racism is. I don't believe there's anyone in the United States who doesn't have some residual racism. This document gets into that later, but it doesn't focus on what seem like natural responses. It focuses on judging, not on false assumptions or even immediate and reflexive reactions. This kind of residual racism is especially common among those who don't spend a lot of time with people of other races (or with whatever particular race is in question). Even those who do whose particular roles with people of the other race are of the wrong sort aren't going to make as much progress in this. I tutor a lot of black athletes at Syracuse Univerisity, and I think it's helped me understand people in that group of people to some extent. It hasn't made me their peer, however, and I think their white teammates, especially the ones who make serious attempts to be part of their lives, will grow in understanding of the young black male in ways I haven't through my tutoring.
A couple implications of racism were thought-provoking. They say it's idolatry, because it involves finding your primary identity in your race rather than in God. I think this is true even of much residual racism, and most white people don't see this in themselves. I also see it in black identity that's placed above identity in Christ, as many black politicians seem to do. I think they're right to label that idolatry. They also want to say that racism corrupts the doctrine of redemption, since redemption involves bringing those who are far away (i.e. the Gentiles) near to God. If some who are far away are denied being brought near to those who have also been brought near, it's in effect denying this crucial consequence of the gospel. I don't think outright racism is require for this kind of denial, though. Merely refusing to darken the door of a church that's primarily of another race also does this (as one prominent black leader even claimed Jesus would do). Refusal also doesn't require insisting on it as a principle. Refusal can involve simply not ever doing it. This is a problem among both black and white Christians.
It's incredibly refreshing to see prayer, self-examination, and repentance as the first steps in their recommendations for how each person should respond. There's an excellent sense of the biblical identification with one's group in passages such as Daniel 9, Ezra 9, Nehemiah 9, and Luke
9 11. Americans tend to be so individualistic that we reject group responsibility, therefore distancing ourselves with thoroughly biblical understandings of responsibility and identification with those who did things that we didn't personally do simply because they are in fact identified with us in Christ.
They list some helpful questions to ask about whether your association with those like you is merely natural association with those who have similar background, interests, and preferences, which they say is fine. Are the desires of any involved for racial separation itself? Do the separations seem to be viewed as important and worth insisting on or merely an accident of history and family relations? Is someone's presence in the group viewed as a choice that they could have made differently, or is it just assumed that they would do this without thought of alternatives? When a community has a shared culture, value system, and language, it's much easier to use that for shared public worship and ministry to the rest of that community that shares those things. Even so, they emphasize that "such affinities become barriers to the Gospel mission and testimony of the church when the desire to associate only with like persons becomes justification for the active or passive exclusion or segregation of persons from different backgrounds or for the devaluing of their contribution to the body of Christ."
They seem to be saying that when a group wants to be separate in a context of diversity, that's wrong. When they congregate together because of geography or language barriers, it's ok. What I'm not clear on is what they think of two churches across the street from each other, one pretty much exclusively white and the other pretty much exclusively white. What should they then do? Should they continue their ministry to their own racial communities? Should right-thinking people in each join the other and leave the segregationists behind? Should one congregation go join the other? Should they merge, and if so how do they deal with different philosophies of ministry, of worship, of teaching, etc? They clearly want to say that it would be best if there weren't these segregated congregations, and I agree. It's less convenient to resist such situations, because it's easier to have a ministry in which everyone shares the same cultural values, manners of speaking, and preferences for things we have freedom to differ on within biblical guidelines. What I'm not sure about is what they think should be done about it and if it's wrong if they don't, given that these congregations are already established, choose to merge or to send half their members to invade the other congregation.
They do list some helpful second steps (beyond prayer, self-examination, and repentance) for ways to begin racial reconcilation. "Examination of the patterns, language, and culture within our churches that erect barriers to other races" is something most predominantly white groups won't do. It's silly to expect a white congregation to produce the best gospel music so that black people will become members of that congregation. I think it's silly to insist on any particular musical style, no matter your racial background. I'm not sure that should be a barrier. I do think some things white congregations do will necessarily be barriers to black attendees. Social justice is one. As much as liberation theology goes too far in replacing the gospel with social justice, many white theological expressions refuse to acknowledge that social justice is part of the gospel. It won't be until white congregations can express the gospel in terms that include its significance for social relations, including racial problems in our own context, that racial reconcilation will take place. Justice needs to be seen not just as the judgment of God that mercy will balance out. It needs to be seen as God's justice for the downtrodden and helpless.
Another important step should be "intentional efforts to raise up church leaders and share leadership in the church across racial and cultural lines". I tried to argue for someone's inclusion in a ministry team a few years ago, someone who happened to be a minority in that context, and a friend deeply committed to racial reconciliation dismissed that as a legitimate reason at all. I agree that it shouldn't be a sufficient reason, and perhaps we shouldn't have policies that require us to select someone on a racial basis when someone else is much better qualified, but this seems to me to be a legitimate factor when trying to build up a congregation that glorifies God in its representation of the diversity within the church as a whole. If someone is capable of the task, fits the biblical requirements for leadership, and will help reach out to a minority community, I think a white church is obligated to consider very strongly whether they should appoint that person to a position of leadership, even if someone else might be a little more effective at the position. It may be worth it. Having a more diverse leadership will also lead to more situations where the forms of worship would grow more diverse, which would help lower the defenses of those with wrong but deeply-seated opposition to worshiping in a "white" way.
Their advice on the poor is very wise. Race and poverty are so associated in many people's minds, and to some extent real numbers back up a disproportion, so dealing with poverty is crucial to dealing with race. However, assuming connections between race and class is one of the most dangerous things someone might do in this whole area.
Finally, they point out that racial reconciliation is going to involve cross-cultural ministry in our own backyard. Missionaries are trained for cross-cultural ministry abroad. That's where we see the action. Cross-cultural ministry right here is just as important. Sometimes it's with immigrants, and sometimes it's just because two racial groups have in many ways treated each other as culturally distinct. Sometimes this is exaggerated, but compare the average black church and the average white church, and then try to argue that there aren't cultural differences.
I love one of the statements in the amendments section. "The heinous sins attendant with unbiblical forms of servitude�including oppression, racism, exploitation, manstealing, and chattel slavery�stand in opposition to the Gospel." They're excellent at pointing out exactly what was wrong with American slavery and the practices that followed it, but they quite rightly won't proclaim all kinds of servitude wrong. I like it when people are careful enough that they don't say false things. But what follows is what's really interesting. They admit that the effects of that wrongful slavery have led to social and economic aftereffects, and they insist on not allowing this document to go as is without confessing it and repenting of their pride, complacency, and complicity in these matters. The all-too-common "racial reconciliation is being nice to the person from across the racial line" won't be allowed here. Any practices in society that are mere effects of the history of slavery and its consequences are still something I'm involved in if I'm taking advantage of any ways that white people tend to benefit from those effects of slavery. I think that's right.