More Than Mere Creeds and Cheap Grace: Racism and Apple Pie

by Rev. Dr. Winterbourne Harrison-Jones, Pastor, Witherspoon Presbyterian Church, Indianapolis, Indiana

“If you don’t understand racism/white supremacy – what it is and how it affects you – everything else you think you understand will only confuse you.”

Dr. Neely Fuller, Jr.
The United Independent Compensatory Code System Concept a Textbook/Workbook for Thought, Speech and/or Action for Victims of Racism

As a Churchman and scholar in the tradition of Critical Race Theory and Black Liberation Theology, I am taught that at the onset of any piece I write, I am to claim my positionality – thus – I am Black.  As far as I am concerned, God is Black. Nina Simone, Amiri Baraka, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Dubois, Angela Davis, Nikki Giovanni, Stephen Biko, Gil Scott Heron, Huey P. Newton, John Hope Franklin, Frances Cress Welsing and Toni Morrison are my twelve ideological disciples – and James Cone, Howard Thurman and James Baldwin make up my theological trinity.

Out of this prophetic legacy of truth-telling, I move through time and space listening attentively for the marginalized voices often left out of the Master narratives of his-story.

As Amerikkka pauses to remember with disjointed orchestration the 400th year anniversary of slavery in this country, how fitting it was that Dr. Chalmer Thompson, Associate Professor in the Department of Counseling and Counselor Education at IUPUI joined us this session to offer us a glimpse into the dark history of racism in Amerikkka and its devastating impact on our communities.

With grace and cunning candor, Dr. Thompson both exposed and charged us as faith leaders to deal not with what the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” but rather to commit our hearts and hands to the long and enduring struggle of building an equative and just community for all. As Dr. Derrick Bell asserts, one of the five basic tenets of Critical Race Theory is “the centrality and intersectionality of racism.” This means that “racism exists everywhere in American life – from within our own thoughts, to our personal relationships, to our places of work, to our educational and judicial systems.” Racism isn’t just the actions of individuals, but it is embedded in our institutions, systems, and culture. Like apple pie, baseball, lynchings on Sunday, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the murder of Travon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman – racism is a part of the Amerikkkan way of life. It was Dr. DuBois who aptly said that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line” – unfortunately, DuBois’s prophesy fell short of another 100 years.

If Dr. King had not been murdered in Memphis on the evening of Thursday, April 4, 1968 and had lived to make it back to his Atlanta church on Sunday morning, the next sermon he intended to preach was entitled “Why America May Go to Hell.”

In this glorious message never preached, Dr. King warned that if Amerikkka did not get serious and commit itself to eradicating what he called the triple threat of “racism, poverty and militarism,” that it too like Dives in Luke 16:19-31 would meet its end.  

Even today, Amerikkka still very well may go to hell – not because of her wealth – but because the cries of her children go unheard and their knocks at the doors of justice go unanswered.

Racism is a cancer in the DNA of Amerikkka. This cancer cannot be merely prayed away nor ignored – its eradication demands more than mere creeds and momentary movements. We who are called to be leaders in this ever-changing and deepening landscape must charge ourselves to be both faithful and responsive to the ills of injustice that pervade our communities. What we need today, more than anything, are leaders and programs like the Wabash Pastoral Leadership Program who possess what Dr. Walter Brueggemann calls – prophetic imagination.

When I lived in Rochester, New York, I was honored to serve on the planning committee with Action for a Better Community as we partnered with the YWCA in their initiative called Stand Against Racism. As part of this annual national movement, the YWCA invites people to “take the pledge” and to live its words as a sign of solidarity and commitment to their mission – “to eliminate racism, empower women, stand up for social justice, help families, and strengthen communities.”  I could think of no better way to close to this reflection than to offer you this same invitation to “take the pledge” –


Mindful of the continuing affliction of institutional and structural racism as well as the daily realities of all forms of bias, prejudice and bigotry in my own life, my family, my circle of friends, my co-workers and the society in which I live, with conviction and hope:

I take this pledge, fully aware that the struggle to eliminate racism will not end with a mere pledge but calls for an ongoing transformation within myself and the institutions and structures of our society. 

I pledge to look deeply and continuously in my heart and in my mind to identify all signs and vestiges of racism; to rebuke the use of racist language and behavior towards others; to root out such racism in my daily life and in my encounters with persons I know and with strangers I do not know; and to expand my consciousness to be more aware and sensitive to my use of overt and subtle expressions of racism and racial stereotypes;

I pledge to educate myself on racial justice issues and share what I learn in my own communities even if it means challenging my family, my partner, my children, my friends, my co-workers and those I encounter on a daily basis

I pledge, within my means, to actively work to support public policy solutions that prominently, openly and enthusiastically promote racial equity in all aspects of human affairs; and to actively support and devote my time to working to eradicate racism from our society.

Each of us – regardless of our age or stage in life – have a role to play in making this world what it ought to be. If you write, then write unapologetically with passion and zeal, so much so that in the words of Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, “the living, the dead and the yet unborn can’t do it any better!” If you sing, then lift your voice and bring forth songs of liberation and redemption! If law is your profession, then guard the doorways of justice and ensure that justice and equality are experienced by every human and not just some!

Dr. Thompson’s presentation ignited a flame in our hearts, one that I hope will continue to burn and weigh heavily on our spirit. As people of faith we must answer the prophetic call to think critically and act boldly as we lift high the light of the Gospel – anything less is sin.

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