To Race and Class Add Religion

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 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

This entry was posted in Class at the Intersections, Guest Bloggers and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to To Race and Class Add Religion

  1. Ganry64 says:

    However, greater emphasis and energy should be devoted to economic recovery. ,


  2. Cathy says:

    A great book that discusses this topic in great depth —>

    Race And Ethnic Conflict: Contending Views on Prejudice, Discrimination, and Ethnoviolence

    Westview Press


  3. Pastor Lawrence L. Thomas Jr. says:

    Taken from the book; From The Black Bar— Voices For Equal Justice— By Author Gilbert Ware—pg.#258.
    In the report from the 1968 Presidential Comm-ission.— The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. This Report said;

    ” We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

    Thomas Jefferson
    Discrimination and Segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American. Segrregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.
    What white Americans have never fully understood— But what the Negro can never forget— Is that white society is deeply implicated in the getto. White insitutions created it, white institutions maintain it, white society condones it.

    And taken from the book; The Souls of Black Folk— by W.E.B. DuBois:

    ” Let the ears of a guilty people tingle with truth, and every seventy millions sigh for righteousness which exalt nations, in this dear day when human brotherhood is mockery and a snare.”

    And finally I pose this question to all: Has anything changed? And how much has our society moved forward in 2008?


  4. Brian Howell says:

    May I suggest a resource in this conversation? “This Side of Heaven” (Robert Priest and Alvaro Nieves, eds., Oxford, 2007) is a collection of anthropologists, sociologists, historians, biblical scholars and theologians reflecting on issues of culture, scripture, power and history in the integration of the Church. (It is entirely focused on the U.S., so it doesn’t speak to examples in Africa. I guess that’ll have to be the next volume!)


  5. Jim Harries says:

    These ‘race issues’ I am sure can look quite different from Africa than they do in the ‘West’. Hopefully cross-fertilisation will be helpful, although it may not be – as a ‘view from Africa’ may cut across what is being attempted in the ‘West’.

    In a sense, churches shouldnt be too harsh on themselves for being racially segregated. What is being attempted; ingegrating two people’s who have a VASTLY different history, is no joke and no small matter. The church is trying, for all the struggles therein entailed.

    I have lived in Black Africa for 20 years, and currently my home is in an ‘African village’ with a dozen African chidlren, variously orphans. I have achieved this in many ways, by maintaining a ‘gap’ between that village home, and the social circles of my fellow Westerners. Otherwise, it couldn’t easily work.

    There are deep things in many African societies – illustrated by books like that of David Maranz (African Friends and Money Matters – available over the web) – that the West prefers to ignore I guess, because it can’t handle them.

    One thing that strikes me, is that it is always Blacks trying to be integrated into White society. What of the reverse? Westerners always have things to teach Africans and so on (what of the reverse?) Why is this? Whatever reason, I am not sure it is helpful, as the ‘Westerners’ remain ignorant.

    As for ‘religion’. There is a sense in which we have nothing else in Africa. But another error (perhaps) made is that it is assumed that African and Western views of God are the same. So, as soon as an African person or community comes to the West, they adopt the English name for God, and we all assume that we know what we are talking about. But do we?? Difference may be hidden rather than gone, and it certainly rears its head in due course. Even if there is one God, perceptions of him can still differ.

    Pardon me if any terminology I have used is inappropriate in the NA setting.



  6. Rev. Paul Camp says:

    When I moved to Youngstown to become pastor at Martin Luther Lutheran Church, the call clearly included the task of continuing to open this Church to the residents of the neighborhood –at Clearmount and Hudson, across from Sheridan School. I had asked about twinning with Bethlehem Lutheran, but Synod advice was that it was “too racist” to be open to such a project at that time. Yet Pr. Johnson has forged ahead to deal more decisively in this area than I was able to — and it is good to read his insights into the matter. I was unsuccessful in achieving significant movement in opening the congregation to that vision (for many reasons). But I rejoice that the challenge to make our Churches places that offer a “foretaste of the feast to come” is still alive!


  7. alvin mayes says:

    I think there are four issues that most Americans would rather bite off their hand than discuss.
    Two or three of these issues are quite prominent in the presidential race: race, religion and gender. Having spent most of my scholastic and professional life in primarily white, Jewish and female dominated communities, I am thrilled that the issue of race has made it to the table. It really is quite embarrassing that in 2008 we are still tiptoeing around it. Unfortunately along side it are shame, guilt, accusations, and greed. I have to tell you, I am not responsible for the opinions and deeds of every Black person in the nation, nor am I responsible for those of every Christian. As a Black Christian I am often asked my opinion whenever some headline or other singles out the action of a Black man or a Christian. And yes I do often have an opinion but it is my personal one not one that speaks for all Black men and all Christians. And I know it happens because I may be one of a few people of color with whom they have shared a meaningful conversation. Like all information gathering ventures, my opinion would be kept in reasonable prospective if the pool was, in general, more diverse. It is very hard to speak about race without implicating historical events and using them as a totem to not go forward. Whenever I find a good facilitator for such discussion I am simply awed by the common threads too numerous to ignore. Our common life goals, our common life experiences, our ways of celebrating stages in life and our rituals in spiritual life are just a few of the elements we can share easily. I cannot tell you how many times in my life I have heard someone say, “Well that’s not how so and so did it!” That statement in itself draws a line in the sand, setting boundaries defying others to cross. We do it all the time. We do it in our worship services too. How many times has a worshiper made a suggestion that was simply dismissed because that is “not the way we do things here”? How many beautiful and inspiring hymns have found themselves destined for the trash because “I have never sung that song before”? It does my heart good that Negro Spirituals are becoming a regular part of Christian music and many Christians are looking at Jewish Passover as a prelude to Easter Holy week. 20 years ago most educated Christians dismissed Passover as being simply Jewish and having nothing to do with Christ. We have taken some really important steps in opening up our habits and rituals. The next step is to welcome other points of interest and other points of view. I personally feel it is also why so many young people are fleeing the church. We do not accept their voice. As a culture we welcome our women. Let’s welcome their voice in the church. Their whole voice. Almost every church I know has missionary policies and practice where we take our message around the world. I know we are not so naive as to think we are the only ones who have something to say. So why not invite diversity into our own lives, our religious and social lives.


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