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Racism Through the Lens of Faith

By Jim Sliney Jr

On Friday June 19th, there was a virtual gathering of faith leaders who took on the colossal task of looking at racism through the lens of faith and religion.

Introduced by Jennifer Jones Austin of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, Monsignor Kevin Sullivan of Catholic Charities of New York, and Eric Goldstein of the United Jewish Appeal, this discussion dove bravely into the role that religion and faith has had and can still have in racism in America. Having it on June 19th was appropriate because that day was Juneteenth, the commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States.


The discussion began with an acceptance voiced by Reverend Jacqui Lewis, of the role that Christianity and Judaism has played in sustaining racism. How our institutions of faith, from their foundations in America, have been built on principles that were complicit with racist practices.

While teachings of Judeo-Christian faith promote the sacredness of all life without discrimination, the lived reality often falls short. But why does it fall short? Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum explained how it is so easy to nourish a narrative where people of faith highlight their better moments, like the Jews who supported the civil rights movement of the 1960s, while allowing that believe to camouflage ongoing practices that, when looked at plainly, only feed inequity.


Often religion has supported narratives that downplay the history of racism and inequity, perhaps in part because the telling of religious history, like all history, is subject to contortion over time. Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein referred to the phrase “Say little and do much” as a way to address the inevitable failings of our words, allowing our actions to speak our truths instead.

The dangers of how we put our faith into words was echoed by Deacon Rodney Beckford, who circled back to the idea that pulpit often avoids confronting racism because there is a fear of the bigotry within the congregation. In certain religious models, where donations to the church rely on giving from the congregation, the risk of alienating them, even for the most noble reasons, can impact the institution’s financial health. The panelists responded to this by expressing the importance of coming to terms with that discomfort and fear. The difficult mission of Judaism and Christianity includes upholding the inherent value of all people everywhere.


To learn more you can visit and listen to the discussion in full.

You can also turn to literary sources. These were recommendations made by the faith leaders in the discussion:

Why We Must Work to Undo Racism as Jews?, an article in Huffpost by Rabbi Ellen Lippman

Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, a book by Bryan Massingale

The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity, a book by Eric L. Goldstein

Letter from a Birmingham Jail, an essay by Dr. Martin Luther King

God in the Ghetto, a book and collection of sermons by William Augustus Jones Jr.