Racism Is a Spiritual Issue: An Interview with Jerry Taylor

By Gincy Hartin

My first encounters with Dr. Jerry Taylor took place back in the 1970s and ’80s, when I was a child growing up in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, area. My family’s spiritual roots are in the historically black a cappella churches of Christ, and throughout my childhood, we frequently attended gospel meetings, singing fellowships, and other activities at numerous church of Christ congregations throughout that area. It was at these gatherings we would often hear the deep, rich baritone voice of Jerry Taylor—sometimes leading songs, sometimes preaching the gospel, and on numerous occasions, doing both. 

In every case, it was with a power and passion that still resonates within me several decades later. Whether he was preaching or singing, Taylor had a distinctive, commanding presence that filled the room and made others feel the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Today, Dr. Taylor is still making his voice heard in a powerful way. He serves as an associate professor in the Department of Bible, Missions, and Ministry at Abilene (Texas) Christian University. Aside from his teaching duties at ACU, Taylor often speaks at numerous workshops, conferences, and seminars across the country. He has been actively involved in promoting racial harmony and unity within the church, most notably by helping to establish the Racial Unity Leadership Summit, a conference that has been hosted in several locations over the past two years.

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Taylor. Here are some excerpts from that interview.

Talk about the racial unity summits you’ve conducted and attended around the country. What are some of the highlights, significant moments, and positive takeaways you’ve seen as a result of these summits?

The first one was held at the North Atlanta (Georgia) Church of Christ back in March of 2014. We moved from there to Nashville, Tennessee, then to Memphis, Los Angeles, Abilene, and Oxford, Mississippi.

Dr. Jerry Taylor
Dr. Jerry Taylor

In each place, we have met quite a few people with a passion and a heart for racial unity. We intentionally use the words “racial unity” because I think reconciliation is something that will grow as a result of people recognizing that we’ve all been reconciled to God through Christ, and therefore reconciliation is something Jesus has already established through the Holy Spirit. We’re yet to realize it and to reflect that unity in our relationships with each other.

Reconciliation is not achieved—it is received. And I don’t know whether we can receive it until we get the world’s voices out of our heads and actually believe we have received what Christ has already accomplished. But to see people realizing that—reaching out to one another, celebrating the reconciliation we have in Christ—I think that’s been the high point for me, and seeing relationships emerge and evolve from those meetings.

And now, people have become friends and are involved in each other’s lives even beyond the Racial Unity Leadership Summits . . . blacks and whites getting to know each other. I think without these gatherings, they probably would not have had that kind of in-depth interaction with each other.

What must happen to keep that momentum going? 

It’s almost like evangelistic work, set upon the model of the apostle Paul. When we go into cities with the Racial Unity Leadership Summit, our goal is to try to always leave a core group of people that will commit to spending time with each other. [The goal is to] find some creative ways to build memories together—not just having joint worship services, but actually doing some things together and relying on the Holy Spirit. They need to do some of those things across racial groups to build closeness and a sense of kinship.

We took a bus ride—10 white ministers and 10 black ministers—down to Alabama and visited some of the civil rights sites. We spent about two days on the bus together. There is a sense of closeness as a result of that; those relationships have deepened as a result of that experience.

In Memphis, we have a group of ministers that committed to meeting together after we had the event there. This regional collection of black and white ministers from Memphis, down to Oxford, Mississippi, to Jackson, Mississippi, are still gathering and meeting together.

It seems we’ve experienced something almost like a relapse in terms of race relations in our country. What are your concerns about racial issues in the U.S. today?

That is such a profound question that warrants complicated answers. There isn’t just one answer.

I believe there have been changes in race relations in America on the surface level, on the material plane, but the spirit of racism has remained intact since its birth in this nation. I think the expression of it—the expression of the spirituality of racism—has taken all different forms, but it has never gone away.

Now there has been a kinder, gentler expression of racism: it’s become more psychological and less physically brutal. You don’t hear of people being lynched every day, or people being whipped or physically tortured, but the spirit that produced that kind of brutality in the past is still alive. It has not so much been reformed but it has reorganized its expression.

It’s more spiritual now; you can’t put your finger on it, but you know it’s in the air. It’s almost like a bad odor. You can smell it, but you can’t see it or touch it. That’s how racism is operating today.

The only ones, I think, who are prepared to expose it through the practice of spirituality are people of faith. But we have been the most resistant to addressing it because, for the most part, we have been intimidated by it. We have not really believed what Jesus said: that the gates of Hell would not prevail against his church. We have not been able to make much progress in race relations because we have not been willing to spiritually evolve. We’ve allowed the government to exercise more control than we have allowed the kingdom of God to exercise authority in our hearts.

We have a government of this world that’s forcing Christians to behave like Christ told us to by treating each other right according to the law of the land, when we should be allowing the kingdom of God to influence us from the inside out. We shouldn’t need a federal government to tell us how to behave or how to act; we should be motivated by the kingdom of God that resides within us. I don’t think we’ve allowed the kingdom of God to influence us in the way we should have allowed it to, with regard to the way we treat each other across racial lines in the church and in the country.

People have different ideas about Christianity and politics—whether those two should be mixed, and whether or not Christians should actively engage in the political process. What role should believers play in politics and in government?

I think the church has to ask itself a question: is the church going to be primarily subject to the teachings of Jesus Christ, or is it going to subject itself to the wisdom of the world? Either we as the church are going to live according to the wisdom that comes from above, or we’re going to live according to the wisdom that comes from below.

James 3 tells us how those two wisdoms differ from each other: it says one is peaceable, kind, easily entreated, sincere—that’s the heavenly wisdom, the godly wisdom, the wisdom that comes from above. The wisdom that comes from below is earthly, sensual, devilish, and unspiritual.

I believe the church has been influenced to a great degree by the wisdom of this world, the wisdom from below. A church living according to the wisdom from above will not be calling for war. It will not be calling for hating and killing the enemy. It will not be calling for a lot of things the church is calling for today. You cannot walk according to two wisdoms; you must choose which wisdom you’re going to abide by.

I think that’s where the church has become heavily influenced by the politics of this world. We’ve been engaging in political warfare, even in the church. We have become entangled in the affairs of this world, and we’re trying to gain political worth and power, which Jesus never endorsed. James and John (the sons of Zebedee) asked for power, and Jesus said, “Let the greatest among you be the servant of all.”

Here we are, fighting over who is going to control the throne of power in the country. We’ve become sidetracked. If Christians can stop playing politics in a world that is being run by the god of this world, we may actually be able to be light and salt in a world that is rotting and decaying by the moment. The church needs to call its sons and daughters together. The church needs to get the politicians who are members of churches of Christ and Christian churches and Disciples of Christ and both political parties and sit them down at the table.

The preachers with influence can do that, but the preachers need to get some courage to convince these folks from across party lines to sit down together and inform them that religious leaders expect them to do better and be better. We can get U.S. senators and representatives, legislators on the state level and the national level—get them in the same room and remind them of who they are and whom they’re representing.

We allow people to go out into the world and use the name of the church and the name of Christ and say, “I’m a Christian,” but the leaders of the church do not follow up and hold those people accountable for the dispositions, the attitudes, the kind of rancor that we hear. Where is the church holding its sons and daughters accountable for how they conduct themselves in the public square in the name of Christ and Christianity?

What role should the church play in bridging the racial divide in our nation? How effective or ineffective do you think the church has been in playing this role, and what are your suggestions for next steps the church must take?

I think it’s going to demand that the church return to the tool a lot of church people don’t take seriously anymore—the spiritual disciplines. Go inward as individual Christians and deal with the racist attitudes we all have been indoctrinated with. We need to allow our hearts to undergo a spiritual exorcism.

People cannot assume they have overcome racism. That is an assumption nobody can afford to have. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Everybody born and raised in this country has been infected by the disease of racism—black, white, Hispanic. And so everybody has to take responsibility for his or her own heart and bringing it before God and confessing.

We have to reclaim the practice of confession, not just getting up and making a general statement (“brothers and sisters, I’ve sinned”), but actually pouring out before another brother or sister, in private confession time, the thoughts, stereotypes, hatred, and bitterness we carry. We’ve got to get that toxic stuff out of our system. The only way to do that is to find the courage to go into private places of solitude and practice confession. As James says, “Confess your faults one to another and pray for one another.”

We don’t confess our faults to one another because we don’t talk to one another, and we don’t talk to one another because we don’t spend time with each other. Everybody’s on the go—everybody’s out grabbing and scratching and trying to get more material stuff, and we’re neglecting the matters of the heart—those things that make us human beings and sons and daughters of God.

What will it profit a country if we gain the whole world? If we are the most powerful, gain the greatest military, the greatest wealth, and we are the richest nation on the earth, what if we get all of that and then lose our soul? It’s going to require Christians in the church doing what the church was put here on the earth to do by its founder.

List some folks making positive contributions toward the work of racial unity within the church. What are these individuals doing that others in the church ought to be imitating?

I would say Don McLaughlin of the North Atlanta Church of Christ is preaching about it, teaching about it, and practicing it in his lifestyle, not only as a preacher and leader, but as a person. He is leading the congregation to think through these issues.

It’s been a rough ride, but I think a lot of things don’t come out except by fasting and prayer. There will be convulsions and shrieking as there was back in the first century when those things that were anti-light were being cast out of people. I really do think racism is a demonic spirit, and it’s not going to be adequately addressed until it is viewed as such.

I think Don McLaughlin understands it as a spiritual entity and is helping his church to think through that, and he has done a great job with that.

Dudley Rutherford of Shepherd Church in Porter Ranch, California, is another one. Shepherd is a very diverse congregation and Rutherford has really done a great work through the Dream of Destiny program.

And, of course, the people who are part of the Racial Unity Leadership Summit have given their time, talent, and energy in addressing that issue.

Travis Hurley of Ozark Christian College is doing a great job. He’s just a courageous person. He’s saying it, not just talking about it, but living it.

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Dr. Taylor will be the keynote speaker at the Dream of Destiny Breakfast at this year’s NACC in Anaheim, California, on July 14. Log on at http://bit.ly/1SAXE2E for more information and to register for this event.

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Gincy Hartin serves as associate minister with First Christian Church of Chicago, a multiethnic church in southwest Chicago, Illinois.

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