The Church, Racism, and the Call to Do Justice
Linda Rich (Church of the Crossroads, Honolulu) is the Chairperson of the Hawai‘i Conference Justice and Witness Missional Team.
There is no place in the Kindom of God for racism, violence or hatred. The creation story in the Bible that tells that ALL (Humankind) are created in Godʻs image (Genesis 1:26-27). We have heard how the prophets cried out against injustice and corruption by their rulers and religious leaders. We know the words of Micah 6:8 that remind us that God requires that we “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God”. And of course Jesus gave us the new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34).
Sadly, the world in which we live, and the history of the Church and of America do not always reflect these teachings of our faith. The intention of the United States to be a nation of “Liberty and Justice for all” stands in stark contrast to a history of genocide of native peoples, slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow laws resulting in mass incarceration of people of color, internment of Japanese Americans, and US imperialism which included the overthrow and illegal annexation of the Kingdom of Hawaii. All of these actions have been supported by institutions and individuals who identified themselves as Christian. Racism has been called “Americaʻs Original Sin” (Rev. Jim Wallis, 2017). To better understand how the Church could have found itself so tainted by racism, we need a short history review. The Doctrine of Discovery based on decrees by Pope Nicolas V, in1452, and Pope Alexander VI in 1493, came at a time when the Roman church had become a power broker among the Christian nations of Europe. European “discoverers” were sailing to uncharted waters, hoping to claim new lands and riches for their monarchs to expand their empires. The papal decrees validated the rights of monarchs to take ownership of “discovered” non-Christian lands in the new world and to either to convert, enslave or vanquish the heathen inhabitants by whatever means necessary (Unsettling Truths, Mark Charles and Soong-chan Rah, 2019). The European Church developed a flawed theology based on the Doctrine of Discovery and the superiority of European Christians. In America, the related concept of Manifest Destiny emerged, claiming a God-ordained destiny for the US to expand across the North American Continent, justifying the taking of Native lands and the enslavement and genocide of non-Christian “heathens”. White supremacy, conquest and colonization had found their way into Christian doctrine. The missionaries who brought Hawaii the precious gift of the Gospel, transcribed the oral Hawaiian language into writing, and made significant contributions to education were also products of their Eurocentric culture and its belief in White superiority.
“The superior view which the missionaries and other American immigrants maintained certainly contributed in the eventual subjugation of the Natives…The non verbal messages of white superiority and native inferiority are prevalent throughout the entire process of Hawaiian incorporation into the United States, whether they were intended or not.” (Mount Holyoke Historical Atlas)
The attitude of White superiority can be seen in the newspaper writings of William Ellis who in 1906 lauded the missionary effort that, according to him, transformed Hawaii from “gross barbarism to an orderly and prosperous community admitted into the sisterhood of the American Union”. (Evening Star November 04,1906 P.8). This publication, The Friend, in February of 1893, described Queen Liliuokalani as a “half maddened queen” overly influenced by kahuna in “contrast to the “wise, determined, upright and honest, courageous, intelligent” men who had overthrown the monarchy. The author goes on to praise the “noble citizens of American and European blood who paid homage and devotion to the cause” and the God who “blessed them with peculiar care and protection and smiled upon” the new Republic. The United Church of Christ has apologized for its complicity in the overthrow, and offered reparations of land and money, but the work of reconciliation and correcting the long-term negative effects of occupation and annexation on the Hawaiian people is unfinished business. The UCC apology included a commitment to support Hawaiians as they seek justice. That work is before us now as the Association of Hawaiian Evangelical Churches bring forth a Resolution of Witness to the UCC General Synod and the Reconciliation Working Group seeks to create safe spaces for people to hear one another’s stories and understand pain of multigenerational trauma as well as the courage of those who carry the sovereignty movement forward.
The recent horrific shooting of 6 Asian women in Atlanta is also linked to racism. This hate crime is only one of almost 4,000 documented incidents of violence against Asian Americans in the past year. The racism that underlies these acts of hatred has been promoted by powerful public officials, tapping into the anti-Asian racism that is a longstanding part of our national history. People of Asian ancestry have shunned or scapegoated as carriers of disease or threats to their neighbors many times before. Our history includes the Chinese exclusion act, the torching of China Towns, and the removal of citizens of Japanese ancestry to internment camps during World War II and so many other examples of racism toward people of Asian ancestry. By linking Asians to the current pandemic and scapegoating them as the cause of the hardship and loss that many Americans have experienced, they have unfairly been made the targets of pent-up frustration and anger.
Perhaps we feel grateful that we are here in the Islands, far from the divisions, violence and hate crimes of the Continent. If we take an honest look, however, we must confess that race-based discrimination can be found right here at home. Our diverse ethnic backgrounds bring with them both the biases that we consciously or unconsciously absorbed from our cultures and the stereotypes that others attached to our ancestors. Pacific Islanders are the most frequent targets of open hostility and racism today. Every wave of Pacific Islander migration to Hawaii has faced it. Micronesian are the latest to be subjected to hostility and derogatory labels such as “cockroaches“. Why are they here? Their story is one of victimization by US militarism. In 1946 the people of Bikini were forced to relocate so that the US military could use their home for testing nuclear bombs. For 12-years the US military continued to bomb the Marshall Islands, spreading radiation contamination. Former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, is alleged to have said about the impact of the bombing on the inhabitants, “There are only 90,000 of them out there. Who gives a damn?” Could there be a clearer expression of White supremacy and American exceptionalism? They are here legally through an agreement with the US government, in recognition of the damage done by the bombing. Contrary to hateful criticism, Micronesians do pay taxes. They do not live off public assistance. The regulations actually exclude them from receiving welfare. They struggle to gain access to healthcare. They often face discrimination in employment and housing. Many are homeless and live in poverty. We are called to welcome the stranger “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, Leviticus 19:33-34 ESV / 292 .
As Christians, we are called to stand, as Jesus did, with the oppressed. We are called to counter racist words when we hear them, and to stand against discrimination however it manifests itself, with friends, at school, at church, at the workplace, or in public policy.
There are prophetic voices today, in and outside the Church calling us to work for justice and reconciliation. Many of our churches are engaged in acts of mercy and compassion in their communities, as we should be. We are called to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, care for those who are sick and in need, and extend care to those prison. We are also called to ask the tough questions such as why do we have so many neighbors who are hungry, or homeless or lacking access to healthcare? Why are so many Hawaiians still waiting for homesteads? Why are so many Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in prison when others receive lighter sentences for the same crimes? We are called to search our own minds and hearts for unconscious bias and racism. We must identify the remnants of White supremacy and American exceptionalism that may still influence how we live and work together as the Church.
When we quote that passage from Micah, we canʻt help but notice that the first requirement on that list is “Do Justice”. The HCUCC Justice and Witness Missional team lifts up local, national, and global issues, providing our churches with resources for education and opportunities to act for justice. Watch for notices in the Coconut Wireless and on our web page. Our national UCC office provides us with resources from Pacific Islander & Asian American Ministries (PAAM), the UCC’s Council for Health and Human Service Ministries (CHHSM), and the UCC’s Council for Racial and Ethnic Ministries (COREM), which you can also find on the HCUCC websiteʻs Justice and Witness page and the UCC.