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Ethics and Religion Talk: Is Religion a Force Against Racism?

How has religion advanced us towards a world with less racism?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at

This week, we address a second way to read a question submitted by Victoria and addressed last week, regarding religion and racism. Despite religion’s flaws which contributed to racism, as last week’s responses addressed, religion has also been a positive force in the world: “How has religion advanced us towards a world with less racism?”

The Rev. Steven W. Manskar, a retired United Methodist pastor, responds:

Speaking as a Christian I must admit the Church remains much more a part of the problem of racism than a force for good. Denominational leaders make proclamations and statements denouncing racism, but very little actually changes in the church. The Church remains silent because it is afraid to confront the problems of White privilege and systemic racism for fear of offending the majority of members. 

Denominational agencies and local congregations encourage members to read and discuss books about racism, White privilege, and how to be anti-racism. But they seldom go beyond reading and talking among themselves. 

The Church must do more to form people as followers of Jesus, the ultimate anti-racism teacher. White congregations need to form relationships with Black congregations. White and Black Christians need to work together. White Christians need to listen to the experience of their Black neighbors. Education, reading, and talking about anti-racism does not change anything. Only building relationships of mutual respect and empathy will bring real change.

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

From its beginnings, Christianity has gloried in the knowledge that among those who have ‘put on Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:22, 23). Even so, it must have been quite a stretch for people who grew up with high walls of ethnic separation and class distinction to associate freely, on such terms of radical equality, in the fellowship of the church. 

The inherited problems appeared early on, with a complaint that widows of one religious background were not afforded the same care as widows from another (Acts 6:1). James describes the way in which some early Christians fawned over richly-appareled visitors while showing contempt to those who had no gay clothing to wear (James 2:1-9). James calls this sin ‘showing respect of persons,’ that is, treating people according to outward or superficial appearances. 

Racism and discrimination on the basis of race belong to a later period of history, but once ideas of the superiority of some races and the inferiority of others took hold, they stayed with us down to our own times. The advent of Darwinism only reinforced racist thinking and practices among Christians, as it did among others.  

The tide began to turn, but only by degrees. Reformed Presbyterians were among the early Christian voices raised against the American institution of chattel slavery in the 18th century, and when slavery was finally abolished, were early on the field to provide relief and assistance for the newly-emancipated slaves, establishing churches and schools among them. Sadly other Christians opposed what was being done, and cooperated with ‘Jim Crow’ policies of the state to keep black Americans in poverty, segregation, and subjection. A day of better things has begun in our time, but all the problems are still present, and the solutions still seem beyond our reach.

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

In the past 20 years multiethnic congregations  (no more than 80% of any one ethnic group) have increase 6%-16%.  The numbers of nonwhite pastors in those churches has also increased.

But measuring the decline of racism by increased diversity in the  pews continues to hide what happens beyond the church walls and in the hearts of the worshippers. Racism is a sin.

Earlier this month my denomination’s regional body, Lake Michigan Presbytery, recognizing the active and passive racism among church members and in our approved a document urging congregations to repent of the ‘role we as individuals and as a predominantly White dominated church played in history and continue to perpetuate today, even if unknowingly’ and recommended that the PCUSA churches in our region ‘develop and adopt an antiracism polity in their bylaws’ as well as calling the church to do the hard work of reconciliation. These are words, but point us toward right action. Active antiracism is growing among Christian churches even as deeply entrenched racism persists in both society and church communities. 

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

I sought the advice of two African American Catholic priests, Revs. Thomas M. Jackson, O.P., and Bryan Massingale. The former is my Dominican classmate, and the latter is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and a theologian at Fordham University. I use their words in my response.

Religious practice, at face value, seems to promote Sunday morning as the most segregated day of the week. Everyone typically chooses to worship within a comfort zone. God, amazingly, speaks to each one through the desired mode of worship. Problems arise when one culture perceives its mode of worship as normative and proceeds to disrespect other practices.

The Catholic Church names racism a sin. Rev. Massingale refers to racism as a “soul sickness” because it is a “profound distortion of the human spirit.” A sign of conversion is the recognition that thoughts, ideas, and practices of one group projected onto others are wrong. 

Rev. Jackson indicates that throughout Church history faith is planted and grows around the world. Growth is demonstrated by how faith blossoms in the culture where the seed is sowed.

Churches contribute to or make advances against racism based on the openness to other cultures and languages. God nurtures faith through the ministry of the Church. Men and women witness faith by allowing the Word of God to blossom in the world. 

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

Our scriptures are replete with encouragements to view everyone with equal sight.  The Maha Upanishad (Chapter 6, Verse 72) states that “One is my brother and the other is not – is the thinking of a narrow-minded person. For those who are broad-minded, liberals, or noble people, the entire world is a one big family.”

But this question cannot be fully addressed without acknowledging the great work that people inspired by faith have done to encourage racial comity. The abolitionists were mostly dedicated Christians fighting for freedom. The Jews banded together in great numbers to support last century’s civil rights movement. And in my own community there is a great effort to battle both colorism and caste discrimination.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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