“If we truly desire a world of racial justice and religious integrity, understanding the sin of white supremacy — that is racial and Christian — and the church’s role within it is an important step forward.”

The Rev. Dr. Aidsand Wright-Riggins called attendees at this year’s Shurden Lectures to re-examine their preconceptions about race and justice. Co-hosted by Central Baptist Theological Seminary (CBTS), the 2019 Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden Lectures on Separation of Church and State were held in the greater Kansas City area, at William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri, and on CBTS’ campus in Shawnee, Kansas.

In his presentations, Wright-Riggins – an ordained American Baptist minister with more than 40 years of community and congregational service who currently serves as the mayor of Collegeville, Pennsylvania – explored the contradictions and the “cracked clay pots” of racism and white supremacy that often carry the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Sharing his personal experiences encountering racism and reflecting on the colonization of cultures by Europeans, Wright-Riggins pointed out that white supremacy is not just the result of bias, discrimination or hostility; there is another dimension that depicts non-Christians and people of color as the “other.” “This long-term and persisting way of framing reality was created in the origins of the United States as a way of justifying the exploitation of non-white, non-Christian peoples from the very beginnings of American Christianity,” he said.

But, he offered hope. “The Jesus I encountered in my youth and attempt to grow closer to with each passing year was a radical,” he said, noting how Christ protected the poor, rebuked the abuser of power, and celebrated the “least of these,” the disenfranchised and the vulnerable. “If there ever was an anti-colonial, anti-hierarchical force on this earth, it was Jesus,” he said. “It was this Jesus, who died upon the lynching tree to remind the marginalized everywhere, ‘I know exactly what you’re going through. I am there with you. I will be with you.’”

After reviewing the roots of rage and frustration in cultures built on supremacy, Wright-Riggins offered hope and a path forward, resisting the temptation for anger by focusing on repentance. “We are called to repent of our complicity and toleration of white supremacy,” he said.

“We are called to have the courage and commitment to be honest about what has been done in the name of Christ, under the flag of God and what the very clear incarnational and structural damage that
has been done in the name of Christian supremacy.”

He said we also can resist by re-imagining evangelism, makingsure that sharing the Gospel is not treated as a contest “chalking up souls like notches on a belt and as mission targets of opportunity to
advance our notions of empire, religious and otherwise.”

Instead, he called listeners to focus on Jesus’ Great Commission, directing followers of Christ to build a “world house” where the relationship of humanity and creation is “based on the cruciform call to love God with all of our heart and mind and soul and to love our neighbor as ourselves.”

Disciples of Christ are not simply “believers,” he said, but “becomers, belongers, and counter-cultural behavers in an inclusive and just community.”

Moving from supremacy and ranking to a place of reparation and reconciliation requires more than a simple “kumbaya” moment, Wright-Riggins said.

“The project of reconciliation is daring to learn a new calculus of decolonializing a society that was built through the theft of land, labor and lives.

“Jesus talks about this as the Kingdom of God,” he said, reminding the crowd that it’s up to them if they will just see it as a “pie in the sky” concept or dig in and fight for a just future for all.

While in the Kansas City area, Wright-Riggins also spoke to groups outside of the scheduled lectures. He spent time with students in a class on religion, conflict and peacebuilding at William Jewell College, discussing his work at the intersection of race and religion, including his time serving as the Director of Peace with Justice at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Wright-Riggins also appeared on the local NPR affiliate’s “Up To Date” program, talking about his work as a mayor of a small town in Pennsylvania and the confluence of faith and politics.

Dr. Walter B. and Dr. Kay W. Shurden endowed the annual lecture series in 2004. It is held at Mercer University in Georgia every three years and at other colleges, universities or seminaries the other years.

In spring 2020, the Shurden Lectures will be held on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. For more information, click here.
For more from the 2019 Shurden Lectures:

This story appears in the Summer 2019 edition of Report from the Capital. You can download the magazine as a PDF or read a digital edition.