Discussions of race and class often ignore religion, relegating it to the distant margins or explaining it away as a cover for something else. If we examine American history, as historian Mark Noll does in God and Race in American Politics: A Short History, we see that religion and race have often been interconnected. Class and religion also intersect; religious people, institutions, and symbolic resources span social classes and have played important roles in working-class movements. In Youngstown, Ohio, religious leaders responded to deindustrialization by organizing social justice projects. More recently, they have initiated processes of racial reconciliation. If we want to understand how class and race fit together, we must take religion more seriously. We need to see how race, class, and religion work together.
A number of top-notch scholars have already moved in this direction. For example, the authors of Divided by Faith contend that racial segregation is maintained less by intentional racism than by sins of omission. People are so absorbed with attaining the good social and spiritual life for their own selves, families, churches, and communities that their “brothers and sisters” on the other side of racial and class boundaries are left to be their own keepers. Religion, which could bring people together across race and class divisions, may in practice reinforce segregation.
Rev. Rob Johnson pastors a church that sits on a dividing boundary of race and class in Youngstown. He sees segregation and its effects daily, including during Sunday morning worship. Below, he invites us to consider visions of heaven, for many a real place and for others a metaphorical one. Anthropologists tell us that views from outside and afar, including visions of heaven, reveal what we cannot see from the perspectives of our own class, race, gender, and so on. What can our imaginings of heaven reveal about our social places and experiences here on earth? Are our visions of heaven as segregated as our lives?
Rev. Rob Johnson:
While the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement that “Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week” is still prophetic and true, what is happening now is not what most concerns me. It’s what is going to happen in the future. In the Christian Bible, Matthew 25:32 tells us that all nations will stand before Jesus’s throne. Revelation 7:9 is even more precise: “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” For Christians, our destiny is bound up in eternal Sunday morning with every tribe, every language, every people, every race.
In his song “Thugz Mansion,” rap artist Tupac Shakur asked, “Where do niggaz go when we die?”
“Nobody cares, seen the politicians ban us
They’d rather see us locked in chains, please explain
why they can’t stand us, is there a way for me to change?
Or am I just a victim of things I did to maintain?.
…Just think of all the people that you knew in the past
that passed on, they in heaven, found peace at last
Picture a place that they exist, together
There has to be a place better than this, heaven
So right before I sleep, dear God, what I’m askin’
Remember this face, save me a place, in thug’s mansion
Ain’t no place I’d rather be
Chillin’ with homies and family …
… Chromed out mansion in paradise
In the sky”
For Tupac, being segregated by race and economics in this life has direct implications for eternal life. Heaven is a good place, a peaceful place, where family and friends live together forever. As a place of forgiveness and grace, heaven is a place where even thugs can “kick it.” However, Tupac’s “thug’s mansion” is segregated.
Many White Christians may bristle at the idea of heaven being segregated. A recent CNN.com story regarding interracial churches quoted Theodore Brelsford:”[White church members would] say, ‘Can’t we just get along without talking about race all the time? Can’t we just be Christians?'” And yet, the same article observes: “integrated churches are rare because attending one is like tiptoeing through a racial minefield. Just like in society, racial tensions in the church can erupt over everything from sharing power to interracial dating.” In the past, the American Protestant community has been a sad exemplar of a segregated heaven. Most notably, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists have either splintered or divided over race issues at some point in their histories. If this is the example that Christianity offers, what was Tupac supposed to think about heaven?
Research by Curtiss Paul DeYoung, professor of Reconciliation Studies at Bethel University, shows that “only about 5 percent of the nation’s churches are racially integrated, and half of them are in the process of becoming all-black or all-white.” If this is our example, then what are Christians teaching our children?
Paul Gordiejew, with guest Rev. Rob Johnson