Editor’s Note: The following is one of several interviews we will be sharing from individuals in our church community who have helpful perspectives and vantage points into the issues of race and the gospel.
Dr. Stephen Montgomery-Smith is a husband, father, and a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Missouri, having first arrived at MU in 1988. From 2000 until about 2014, he became heavily involved in university politics, and this brought him closer to God, and helped him to understand the power of prayer. So when in 2015 he was asked to serve on the Faculty Council Race Relations Committee, he felt it could be a calling from God. He has been serving on that committee for the past several months now. Stephen has been a part of our Christian Fellowship family since he came to Columbia in the late 1980s.
- What experiences or roles have you had that have given you a unique vantage point into the issues of discrimination or racism?
I self-identify as a white conservative Christian. For years I have wondered about race issues in America. For me the central question is this—is racism a thing of the past, solved by the civil rights legislation of the 1960s? Or are African Americans who complain daily about racism speaking truth? When I was asked to serve on the Race Relations Committee at Mizzou, I saw this as my opportunity to find out. What I have discovered is this: many white people believe that we live in a post-racial society, and they think that many black people are playing the “race card” to get unfair advantages. Conversely, most black people say that their daily experience of racism is so obvious that many of them think it is not that white people are deluded, but rather they are acting in bad faith when they say they don’t see it.
- How do you see God’s heart and the gospel as central to these issues?
From one point of view, I don’t think many Christians are perplexed. Of course we all believe racism is wrong. But different people mean different things by the phrase “racist.” The typical white conservative view is that one has to be overtly racist for that label to apply. But many minorities believe that to simply ignore or disbelieve in the problem makes one racist. The secular world is split along racial divisions on this question of how to define racism. Unfortunately the Church is split even further along the same lines, when we should be setting the example to the world for what unity looks like. We need to be mindful of 1 Corinthians 12:26, which says, “If one member suffers, all suffer together.” We also need to prefer others over ourselves (Romans 12:10; Philippians 2:3). We should consider the possibility that our jaded view of others is wrong and inappropriate.
- What do you see as some helpful practical steps toward change?
- We must pray. We must pray that God shows us the truth. And we must pray that God heals the racial divides in the USA. Even if we white people believe that oppression is merely in the minds of black people, both these prayers can be offered to God with a genuine heart.
- We must relate. We must talk to people of the opposite color about their experiences. It is important to listen, but it is also important to authentically ask those questions that trouble you. It can be helpful to read articles about racism. But talking to people with a different viewpoint is much more helpful. If you are like me, you will probably find it extremely hard to bring up this subject, but press through anyway.
- We must stop seeing someone who believes differently as evil, or stupid. For example, there is strong evidence that there is such a thing as subconscious racism. The white person needs to own this reality without seeing him or herself as an evil person. And the black person needs to understand that the person who subconsciously discriminates against him or her is not evil. Instead there needs to be a mutual conversation where one corrects the other, and the other receives the correction, both in love. In this last respect, the secular world has failed very badly. But so has large portions of the Church. I think this can only be achieved through God’s power, and if we can demonstrate this to the rest of the world, it can be a very powerful witness—as it says in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
- What is one particularly helpful thing you’ve learned in your own journey as you’ve wrestled with these issues that you could share with us?
Prayer, and seeking direction from the Holy Spirit, is all important for the following reasons (and more):
- We need to know God’s heart on this matter.
- Sometimes we need to be active in pursuing justice, and at other times we need to be passive and see what God will do. Only through a personal relationship with God can we know which action is appropriate for which time.
- We need to be able to wait when God is moving slower than we would like, yet ready to move with God when he is moving swiftly. That is, we need to be like the “men who had understanding of the times” (1 Chronicles 12:32).
- I have found that oftentimes God acts on my behalf, and either stops me from some action which I later realize would have been stupid, or causes the effects of my foolish actions to work for good.
I know all this might sound corny and fake-spiritual, but in my experience this actually works, and there is no other effective way. It doesn’t have to be hard—there is no “right” way to pray. You can pray on your knees in the prayer closet, or do what I do, which is to pray in my head while I am driving to work and throughout the day.
Also, the MU race relations committee has produced some helpful short videos on various issues dealing with race and discrimination. You can view the videos (featuring yours truly) at the following link: