Don’t Lose the Thread of God’s Grace

Recently, J. D. Greear wrote about the danger of losing sight of God’s grace in our denominational traditions. Here’s an excerpt:

Religious traditions aren’t all bad. It’s important, even necessary, to respect our past. But religious traditions can go wrong. The biggest danger is this: our traditions are always at risk of losing the thread of the grace of God.

 

For Baptists, that tradition usually emphasizes standards of behavior. Christians are supposed to live a certain way, do certain things, and (this is important) avoid certain things. So read your Bible, tell people about Jesus, give money to the church. Don’t cuss, don’t watch R-rated movies, don’t drink beer. Follow the rules and you can feel pretty good about yourself.

Read the full post here.

Race & Faith (4): The Life of Christ

As noted in the previous posts, secular models fail biblically and properly to point the way forward in creating an environment hospitable to racial unity-in-diversity. They fail for various reasons, but they especially fail to understand human depravity, which underlies racism. They also fail to account for the life of Christ, which overcomes racism. In the most recent installment of the series we addressed human depravity. In this post we address the life of Christ.

In chapter nine, Yancey looks to Jesus for elements of the mutual responsibility model. He claims that we can learn much from Jesus because Jesus was at once part of a majority group, the Jews, living under the foreign rule of the Romans. Yancey finds the heart of reconciliation in Jesus’ high priestly prayer (John 17; 114). From Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), Yancey observes that Jesus surpassed all the weaknesses, while keeping all the strengths, of the four secular models for dealing with racial issues (115–118). Jesus also dealt in grace and truth in his interactions with Romans, those “in power” over him and other Jews. At the same time, however, he did not try to overthrow Caesar (120; cf. Matt 22:15–22).

The life of Jesus, therefore, illustrates the motives Christians should seek in mutual responsibility for racial reconciliation: “In Jesus we see the balance that we rarely see in our society. We see a man who, whether he was part of the majority or minority, sought relationships but also addressed issues of power . . . in all of his encounters with people of different groups, Jesus never deviated from the truth” (122–123). Thus, Jesus provided different lessons for majority and minority groups. “To those in the majority Jesus showed that it is inappropriate to focus on the maintenance of their own social position. . . . To people of color Jesus showed that even though he had concerns about societal evil, political revolution was not the heart of his ministry” (124). The next chapter addresses why Christians often fall short of Jesus’ example.

Yancey, in chapter ten, points to a subtle but powerful aspect of our sin nature that hampers any hope of racial reconciliation: fear. Out of fear of others and not God we can do things either to please them and gain favor, or excoriate them and gain emotional safety. Fear thus creates a vicious circle of dysfunction in race relations: “Whites are afraid of being labeled racist. . . . As a result, whites avoid addressing racial issues . . . .” On the other hand, “People of color . . . fear they will be ridiculed when they bring up their racial concerns.” This causes minorities to look for someone to point out racism and seek justice. Often times, “as a result, people of color begin to support leaders who foolishly play the race card but who at least uphold the importance of racial justice” (127–128). What, then, can Christians do to counteract this nexus of fear?

Yancey states that Christians “should work harder to create safe places in our churches” where we can “rid ourselves of the fears that drive racial mistrust” (132). Yancey proposes that the mutual responsibility model can help create such an environment. By applying corporate repentance and forgiveness to private and public discussions on race, churches might eventually become such environments. What is more, Yancey remarks that this environment must begin in our own hearts. After describing his fairly natural but racially motivated response to a news report of a police shooting of a man (“I hope that man was not black,” Yancey thought), Yancey discovered a scary but vital point: “racism is in me” (135–137). For racial reconciliation to begin, we must search our hearts for the sin that may lie buried deep within.

Chapter 11 contains Yancey’s conclusion to his argument for mutual responsibility in race relations. In responding to the question, “what would a Christian solution look like?” Yancey replies honestly: “I cannot say” (138). He can only sketch out some implications of his mutual responsibility model. Yancey theoretically applies this model to a controversial topic, affirmative action. He recognizes that it is not a popular answer for most whites. Yet rather than ask if Christians should support affirmative action, Yancey claims “we should ask whether or not this program serves the interest of all races” (142). There is no uniform “Christian” answer. Rather it is about Christians repenting, forgiving, and sacrificing for one another. “The Christian solution is not a direct answer but an attitude which leads to the correct answer. It is not unlike the attitudes of both partners in a good marriage. Both partners take into account the interests and needs of the other so their relationship thrives. A marriage in which one partner must acquiesce all the time is not healthy” (143).

According to Yancey, there are, however, some practical steps that Christians can take to demonstrate a Christian attitude of the heart. First, we need more multi-racial churches (144–145). Second, we need to belong to and create social networks (not only online, in person) with people of other races (145–146). Third, “we must reconsider how we participate in the political process” (147). Elevating one’s political party and goals above Christian fellowship does not hold promise for racial reconciliation. Fourth, we need Christian academic institutions––colleges, universities, and seminaries––that engage in honest, charitable discourse on race issues and reconciliation (149). Yancey concludes with the acknowledgement that he has painted an incomplete picture; his mutual responsibility model requires us to fill in the painting (150).

The Sword of the Lord…and of John R Rice

John R. Rice was, arguably, the leading voice of Fundamentalism in the 20th century. At its peak in the early 1970’s, his weekly paper, The Sword of the Lord, boasted a circulation of over 130,000. Back in those days, as a young Southern Baptist disturbed by the direction of the Convention, I read the Sword faithfully. Articles such as “Southern Baptists–Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing,” “Death in the Pot at Furman University,” and “Liberalism at Southern Seminary Exposed” convinced me and others similarly concerned that something had to be done. For the last couple of years Joy Martin, one of Rice’s six daughters, has entrusted the Library at Southeastern with the task of being caretaker over Rice’s papers. As we finish the process of digitizing his letters, sermons, and other personal correspondence, Southeastern will transfer the papers to Southwestern Seminary, where Rice attended. Now Andrew Himes, one of Rice’s grandsons, has written a new biography about his grandfather, and it is not the hagiography one might expect.

Himes, by his own admission, was the black sheep of the Rice family. Though he made a profession of faith at an early age and surrendered to preach under the ministry of Rice, by the time he went to college in the late ’60s he had abandoned his faith. When Himes graduated from the University of Wisconsin he was an atheist and a communist, and he spent the next decade as a union organizer. By his own admission, Himes traded one fundamentalism for another. By the time of Rice’s death in 1980, Himes had realized the futility of Mao’s and Stalin’s utopia, and was at the end of his rope. In many ways Himes’ biography tells the story of how he went “from worshipping his famous grandfather, to hating him, and finally to loving him.”

Through the story of Rice’s life, Himes attempts to tell the wider story of Fundamentalism. In broad surveys he recounts the influences that birthed Fundamentalism–the 1st and 2nd Great Awakenings, Reconstruction, the Scopes Monkey Trials–with varying degrees of success. But the best parts of the book are the portions which tell of Rice’s relationships with those who played such a significant role in the formation of Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. John R. Rice got his start in evangelism in no small part due to J. Frank Norris. In turn, Rice would play a pivotal role in launching the career of Billy Graham. Rice and Graham’s eventual falling out illustrated the larger break up between Fundamentalists and Evangelicals. Himes had a front row seat to many of events which shaped Evangelicalism in general and Baptists in particular. You really want to read his account of having lunch with Jerry Falwell at his grandfather’s funeral (Falwell extolled to Himes, the communist, the Christian virtues of Ronald Reagan).

In many ways The Sword of the Lord is a very sad book. Himes’ regret over the broken relationship between Rice and him comes through often. This is no whitewash: Himes deals with Rice’s failure to deal properly with the race issue during the civil rights movement. But his days as an angry communist ideologue are over. Now approaching retirement age, Himes has come to admire his grandfather’s character and courage. Without endorsing every page, I recommend The Sword of the Lord as an insightful work about a crucial person and his role in modern church history.