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Sunday, June 23, 2013

"Ye Shall Know Them By Their Fruits"

Jesus told us that we would recognize His prophets, those that follow Him and love Him, by the fruits that they bear (Matthew 7:16-20). When it comes to race, does the world see Christianity, in particular white Christianity, as bearing good fruit (See post: The Cross and the Lynching Tree)?

In More Than Equals, Spencer Perkins observes that "Blacks have not been able to distinguish between white Christians and white non-Christians when it comes to racial issues." Our poor track record is further delineated in Emerson & Smith's Divided By Faith. Like secular white Americans, most white Christians "see no systematic discrimination against blacks; indeed, they deny the existence of any ongoing racial problem in the United States."

White Christians have not been allies for their sisters and brothers in the face of racial systemic oppression. Indeed, many white churches and clergy actively opposed the work of Rev. Martin Luther King and vehemently objected to the justice work coming from Black churches at the time. The unity of Christ was, and remains, severed. 

To be fair, there have also always been allies acting in the name of Christ for racial justice and reconciliation. But they are often the outliers, the 'extremists,' those whose theological priorities are questioned. They often act as individuals, or perhaps as small groups, but not as a unified body of Christ in the face of a world of racial brokenness and sin.

As white Christians, rather than producing the good fruit of Christ, we have instead born 'strange fruit.' And it has severely damaged their witness to the world. 

Strange Fruit
Billie Holiday first performed 'Strange Fruit' at the Cafe Society in 1939 to a stunned audience. Racial violence in all of its brutality was poignantly juxtaposed with the natural beauty of the south. The raw imagery of Jim Crow lynching captivated listeners. Holiday's haunting presentation cut to the soul, and she was met with great resistance in recording and performing it. 

I wrestle with referencing this song in this blog's title. The reality of violence, both past and present, against people of color is not to be trivialized, sensationalized, or appropriated. The magnitude of the injustices represented by this song deserve more than to be reduced to pithy turns of phrase. The song is not for callous consumption, and if its use here crosses a line, then no amount of good intentions will justify it. 

But the reality of the violence and injustice represented in the song are not only ongoing in today's society, but are often actively perpetuated by those who profess to be believers of the Christian faith. It is no hyperbole to suggest that people are dying in our streets because of the Church's inability to bear prophetic fruit to the nations. Too often we bear strange fruit instead.

This is a matter so grave it should shake us to the core of our souls and jolt us into action. And yet, white Christians stand by as black and brown youth are killed in the streets by state-sanctioned aggression. We send thousands of black men to prison every year. We allow a judicial system that is three times more likely to execute a black prisoner than a white one. We selectively revoke voting rights, and pollute neighborhoods. We kick children of color out of schools and into jail. We allow racial disparity across housing, healthcare, education, and employment, resulting in immensely disproportionate rates of  hypertension, anxiety, and heart disease. And we hardly blink an eye. This is very much the fruit of Holiday's song. It is no exaggeration to suggest that the terror and urgency she conveyed in her song are every bit as salient now. 

In a very real way, when we trifle with God's children, we are dealing in eternal consequences. Lives are at stake. Souls are at stake. Our current racialized power dynamics are in direct opposition to Christ's call to "to proclaim good news to the proclaim freedom for the prisoners." We are like Israel, wailing for our offerings to be received, while we "exploit all [our] workers...striking each other with wicked fists."

Who would believe that our God is powerful, loving, or in any way an agent of life-changing grace? Is it any wonder that Christians are known as hypocrites more than as healers? As condemners, more than as allies? 
Strange fruit, indeed. 

Bearing Good Fruit
The Church's broken history with race needs to be acknowledged before we can move forward. Our legacy of privilege and injustice has very real consequence for the Kingdom. It is time to prune the branches of our own indifference, so we can bear good fruit for Christ in our witness to the world. 

Despite our history, the Church has tremendous potential to usher racial justice and reconciliation on earth. It is the hope in Christ's promise of redemption and holy partnership that is at the heart of By Their Strange Fruit's mission. The Gospel is powerful in its capacity to affect hearts and minds, if we would only show the world that it is possible in Christ. 

I believe in the power of Cross to bring redemption to a broken world, to make allies of oppressors, and saints of sinners. This is the transforming image of Christ that we can present to a hurting world.
This is the good fruit that we can bear. 


  1. Thank you. Thank you for what you are doing. We need this voice.

  2. I feel uplited by your hope for the word but at the same time when I experience so many people (both white and non-white) who vehemently believe people's problems are caused by their own indiv being of an individual nature and not systemic.


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