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The Church Enslaved: A Spirituality For Racial Reconciliation

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The Church Enslaved: A Spirituality For Racial Reconciliation, by Tony Campolo

The Church Enslaved: A Spirituality For Racial Reconciliation, by Tony Campolo

One of the most significant aspects of American Christianity which no one wants to talk about, much less seriously engage, is the legacy of racism, slavery, and segregation. Too often people act as though it was simply a part of American culture and politics, detached from the Christian experience; yet the truth is that defenses of racism have been integral to Christian churches for centuries. Ignoring this requires misrepresenting American Christianity itself.

Summary

Title: The Church Enslaved: A Spirituality For Racial Reconciliation
Author: Tony Campolo, Michael Battle
Publisher: Augsburg Fortress
ISBN: 080063697X

Pro:
• Balanced arguments, pointing out the faults and failures of both white and black Christians

Con:
• A bit more history of slavery, segregation, and racism would have improved the book

Description:
• Analysis of the history and legacy of segregation and racism in American churches
• Argues for radical solutions to heal the racial divide in American Christianity
• Designed for church activists — includes study questions and resources at the end

Book Review

It’s true that opponents of racism, slavery, and segregation have been inspired by religious beliefs. It’s true that anti-slavery activists, like civil rights activists, organized and worked from Christian churches. If this activism has been anywhere close to the equal of activism on behalf of racism, slavery, and segregation, though, why do Christian churches seem to remain the most segregated institution in American culture?

The truth is that while anti-racism has been inspired and promoted by religion, pro-racism — as well as denial of racism — has a stronger track record.

It is likely that the general legacy of slavery and segregation won’t really be alleviated until it is fully dealt with in the churches, given just how important churches can be in people’s social lives. This won’t happen until American Christians come to grips with how their own churches defended slavery and segregation in the past, not to mention how they continue to allow racial problems to persist in the present.

Initiating dialog on the matter is the goal of the book The Church Enslaved: A Spirituality For Racial Reconciliation by Tony Campolo and Michael Battle. These two activists in racial issues believe that American churches need to assert more leadership when it comes to overcoming America’s legacy of racial discrimination, but this means overcoming current racial discrimination and neglect within the churches.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book for non-Christians will be how the authors reveal all the subtle ways in which churches perpetuate segregation and racial division. Suburban white churches, for example, fail to try to understand the culture of black churches, the ways in which storefront churches can be appealing, and even why black ministers are hesitant to work closely with white churches.

At the same time, though, the authors also recognize that there are ways in which separate churches have advantages. So many black leaders in religion and politics have come out of black churches — would the same have happened had the churches been fully integrated? Perhaps there is something to be said for fostering the development of black churches with unique cultural experiences.

Key to the authors’ arguments is the idea that Western notions of extreme individualism have a fundamental role in perpetuating racism and racial divisions. Belief that the individual is entirely responsible for what happens to them in the social and political sphere has been carried over into the religious one as well; this, in turn, helps strengthen political and social individualism.

Why has individualism been a problem? According to Campolo and Battle, the idea that Christianity is a “personal relationship with Christ” encourages radical distinctions between Us and Them, damned and saved, superior and inferior. This, in turn, makes all forms of oppression easier because it allows people to feel separate from each other and eliminates feeling of responsibility for what happens to one’s neighbor.

The Church Enslaved: A Spirituality For Racial Reconciliation, by Tony Campolo

The Church Enslaved: A Spirituality For Racial Reconciliation, by Tony Campolo

Evangelicalism’s focus on the individual also leads to dismissive attitudes towards how social and political structures can encourage racism. If everything that happens to someone is attributable to their actions and attitudes, then there is no point in trying to reform institutions to help those traditionally oppressed by racism. There certainly isn’t any need to reform church institutions in order to accommodate racial differences. At the same time, though, the authors recognize that black Americans bear some responsibility for failures to take full advantage of what opportunities have existed for them.

The authors’ solutions, naturally, focus on creating a greater sense of community in Christian churches. They find inspiration in African expressions of Christianity, in particular the statement from former archbishop Desmond Tutu that “I am because we are; and since we are, therefore, I am.” Community was the focus of the early Christian church and it’s unlikely that the earliest Christians would recognize what American Christianity has become. Unfortunately, it’s also unlikely that many American Christians will make the changes recommended by the authors — extreme individualism is too deeply ingrained in American culture.

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