A new Christian book club launched this month by the group 1Charleston aims to make progress on the unfinished business of racial reconciliation in the church.
"We took down the signs that said ‘Whites Only,’ but we never said the opposite, you know: ‘Blacks Welcome,’" said Philip Pinckney, director of the ecumenical group.
"We just stopped asserting the lie, but we never started telling the whole truth. I think that’s why we’ve been at an impasse for the last 50 years when it comes to race relations."
The title of the book club's first selection has already turned heads: "Plantation Jesus" by Skot Welch and Rick Wilson.
Penned by the black and white former co-hosts of a Michigan talk radio show called "Radio in Black and White," the book traces the roots of a figure dubbed "Plantation Jesus" all the way back to the beginnings of American history — particularly to the Christian theology that supported chattel slavery and a plantation-based economy.
"Plantation Jesus provides a faith-based justification for racism," they write in the first chapter. "Plantation Jesus is a false god who lives within systemic and institutional racism, who continuously distorts an authentic Christian message, and who is complicit with unequal treatment for financial gain."
Later, they sum it up more succinctly: "Plantation Jesus is the god of white supremacy."
Pinckney said he knows the book's message will be a hard pill for some readers to swallow. But he said that when he read his friend Welch's manuscript for the first time, he knew that the connection between American history and present injustices would be a vital message for Charleston-area congregations to hear.
"We can't really talk about unity and reconciliation without talking about white supremacy because that is the system on which America was built," Pinckney said.
The book club will take the form of small groups across the greater Charleston area, where friends, coworkers or fellow church members can discuss the reading over the next four months. On the last Thursday of every month, starting July 26, leaders with 1Charleston will host a Facebook Live discussion of two chapters from the book, responding in part to questions sent in by readers.
Pinckney wanted the book club to forge close relationships, partly because the book itself is the product of a close Christian friendship.
Welch begins the book by describing his friendship with Wilson, a white brother in Christ who worked with him on matters of racial diversity and inclusion in Christian churches. Wilson died in 2014 after making Welch promise that he would finish the book they had begun writing together. The book made it to print in May, published by the Mennonite publisher Herald Press.
In an interview, Welch said he and Wilson had their share of successes and frustrations working to diversify churches in Michigan. One diversity committee they helped start at a megachurch fizzled out in part due to a racist backlash.
Welch has also worked in corporate diversity initiatives, and he said he has sometimes grown frustrated with the relatively slow pace of racial progress within Christendom.
"The glacial nature sometimes of how the church moves is not good because we end up following what culture is saying," Welch said. "We end up being the last to respond when we should be the first to respond."
Like Pinckney, Welch said he knows the book will ruffle some feathers. But he said he hopes members of the book club stick it out and keep working for unity.
"I would tell them to do it across a multi-ethnic canvas and refuse to walk away from the table if you get offended," Welch said.