Race & Faith (1): A Prayer for Racial Unity and Diversity in our Churches

Over the course of the past twenty years, I have filled the pulpit of several hundred churches in the United States. Those churches belong to more than 20 denominations, though most are Southern Baptist. During this twenty-year stretch, I cannot remember more than, say, 20 churches that were multi-racial. Although I rarely encountered churches that were overtly racist, increasingly I have come to recognize the monochrome racial uniformity of our churches as an obstacle to the gospel. What is true of our churches often is true also of our seminaries.

For the past twelve years, I have been a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where I also currently serve as Provost. For better and for worse, our seminary reflects the Southern Baptist churches that created and support it (especially the churches in the South), and which populate its classrooms with budding ministers of the gospel. I am profoundly grateful for Southern Baptist churches and recognize the myriad ways in which they represent well God and his gospel. However, my love and appreciation for our network of churches causes me to reflect upon ways in which we do not yet reflect well God and his gospel, and one of those ways is racial unity and diversity.

Each semester when I sit on the platform for convocation and graduation, I notice the overwhelmingly white sea of faces. Similarly, when I preach in our churches, I am reminded that MLK’s famous statement still holds true: the Sunday hour of congregational worship does appear to be in many communities the most segregated hour of the week. This segregation appears as an odd anomaly in the midst of our broader American social and cultural context, where Anglos, African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans live, work, and play alongside of one another. Each semester I pray that God would bless us by making our seminary a preview of his new creation kingdom in which all tribes, tongues, peoples, and nations will worship together.

As the faculty and administration at Southeastern we are working to make our seminary environment hospitable to non-Anglo students. We seek to teach to and for the concerns of non-Anglo students. Thus, I have been doing some reading toward that end. Among various books on race and racism, George Yancey’s Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility stands out, providing a very helpful introductory treatment of racial unity from a Christian perspective.[1] Yancey’s book was in fact so helpful that I decided to craft a five-part blog series on race and faith, of which this post is the first installment.

Yancey argues that Americans in general, and Christians in particular, have not quite made the progress we might think we have in our battle with racism. Yancey argues that racial issues, not unlike life/death issues, are moral issues (11). However, while many evangelical Christians possess clear categories for conceptualizing and evaluating other moral issues (such as life/death issues; and can clearly articulate, for example, why abortion is immoral), Yancey argues that most Christians have not worked out moral categories or responses for racism. He writes, “My reading of secular and Christian literature on issues of race has not uncovered any unique stance on the part of the Christian church. When Christians write and speak about racial issues, they sound much like their secular counterparts. Instead of initiating our own solutions to the problem of racism, we merely copy the solutions offered by the rest of the world” (11).

Yancey recommends, however, that evangelicals more than most people should understand the doctrine fundamental to understanding racism—human depravity. “To understand how to best eliminate racism, I propose that we start with the Christian doctrine of human depravity. Secular solutions are incomplete because they ignore the reality of human depravity and our sin nature” (13).  For this reason, Yancey devotes the first part of his book to describing and critiquing four secular solutions to racial gridlock. In the second part Yancey provides his own constructive Christian treatment of the issue. Yancey’s categories and arguments are helpful enough that they will form the backbone of the current blog series.

[1] George Yancey, Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006). Yancey is associate professor of sociology at the University of North Texas, and is an African-American.

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On Evangelicals and Race: Two Recommendations

Next EvangelicalismYesterday, my fellow contributor Bruce Ashford published an important blog post titled “On Affirmative Action and ‘Wishing You Were Black.'” Bruce accurately points out what I’m just beginning to learn: it is difficult for caucasians to understand exactly how minorities view racism because our position of cultural privilege so informs our perspective. The whole idea of a “colorblind” approach to race matters is really only beneficial to those who are already sitting in the proverbial catbird seat in our culture. I would add that it is also a decisively “modern” interpretation of race since it assumes a sort of neutral vantage point that simply doesn’t exist.

The reality is that white evangelicals have often botched the race conversation, normally without intending ill toward minorities. Just look at the way so many of us fumbled the Trayvon Martin tragedy, often sounding more like rightwing radio and television personalities than redeemed vessels called to be instruments of peace in a fractured world. Perhaps closer to home, or at least white evangelical subculture, are the recent reminders that some evangelicals are profoundly ethnocentric in their understanding of African American culture and history. (See the articles here and here, but note that several of the men who participated in the controversial event have offered apologies in recent days.) It has never been more important than now for evangelicals who look like me to work hard to engage the race conversation winsomely, thoughtfully and with an open mind and a teachable spirit.

aliens-in-the-promised-land-cover2I want to recommend two books that evangelical pastors and other leaders should read, especially if they are caucasian. The first is Soong-Chan Rah’s book The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (IVP Academic, 2009). Rah is a professor of evangelism and church growth at North Park Seminary in Chicago. Rah argues that  American evangelicalism is thriving spiritually and numerically, though most of this vitality is ignored by evangelical leaders and the media because it is primarily among ethnic minorities and immigrants. Rah provides numerous suggestions, some of them quite provocative, for how white evangelicals can better understand these trends work to create space for minority evangelicals to make a more meaningful contribution to evangelical institutions and leadership.

The second book is Anthony Bradley’s recent edited collection Aliens in the Promised Land: Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (P&R, 2013). Bradley is a theologian and ethicist who teaches at The King’s College in New York City. Bradley assembles a theologically and ethnically diverse set of evangelicals to engage topics such as the paucity of ethnic minorities in evangelical institutions, the relative lack of minorities on the faculties of evangelical colleges and universities, the non-participation of many minority scholars in the evangelical academy and the challenges and potential perils of white churches and denominations planting congregations in minority-dominated communities. Bradley’s introduction, which recounts his own experiences with evangelical racism, is particularly poignant.

I hope you will read these books and find them as challenging as I have. I know there are loads of other helpful books out there, so please feel free to recommend some in the comments. And for those of your who are Southeastern Seminary students, I would urge you to consider taking Prof. Walter Strickland’s January course on Black Theology.

Briefly Noted: Hoping that the March On Washington Finally Reaches the Church

A recent edition of The Chronicle Review caused me to pause and reflect on the progress the United States has made, in terms of racial unity, but also on the long way we have to go. More particularly, it caused me to reflect upon how far we, God’s church in the United States, are from his ideal for racial unity. In the article, “Our Long Walk to Freedom,” Peniel Joseph reflects upon the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington (August 28, 1963), in which several hundred thousand Americans marched in a unified effort to address racial disunity, economic security, class struggle, and voting rights.[1] Peniel, Professor of History at Tufts University, is right that the 50th anniversary “provides an important milestone to reflect on race relations in America. It’s natural to ask: How far have we come? And what has brought us here?”

Toward the beginning of the article, he notes that during the 2012 presidential election, black voter turnout surpassed white voter turnout for the first time. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, 66.2 percent of blacks turned out to vote, which (in contrast to 64.1 percent of non-Hispanic whites), which “represents a potential game changer for American politics” (B10).

Peniel writes that Democrats and Republicans read this data in different ways. Democrats see it as evidence of an emerging political consensus built around minorities. Republicans argue it is a result of Obama’s (2008) election itself and thus only an outlier in the otherwise normal voting trends. Joseph argues however that both narratives underestimate “the political intelligence and sophistication of black voters.” According to Joseph this is an intelligence and sophistication founded upon the hard, culture-shaping work of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The Democratic Party was not always the party of minorities, or especially of blacks, in America. By the late 1960s, however, the “Democrats found themselves identified primarily with the struggles of black and poor people” (B11). Though George McGovern was trounced in the Presidential election of 1972, as were most democrats from 1968–88, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream of a multiracial democracy did not die. It was, in retrospect, simply deferred: a sleeping giant waiting for demographic changes to come.” According to Joseph many of those changes may have come. The recent so-called “browning of America” “may turn the [Democratic] party’s identification with racial minorities from a political negative into an enduring electoral majority” (B11).

The possibility of such “an enduring electoral majority” has its beginnings, and its most important era, in the 1960s. As Joseph states, “The historic makeup of the Obama coalition can be directly traced back to events that took place a half-century ago.” Officially titled “the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” the demonstration pointed toward public policy issues such as economic security, class struggle, and voting rights that lay “beneath the surface of a battle for equality that many viewed, then, primarily through a racial lens” (B11). These issues arose again and again throughout the 1960s in the midst of conversation, debate, and outright battle over racial equality.

The March on Washington occurred in the most significant, and most tumultuous, year of that decade: 1963. The centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation witnessed several epoch-marking events. King was imprisoned in Birmingham, but from there wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In it he evoked the nation’s founding as the “well of democracy” from which the civil rights movement was nourished. On June 11 of the same year, President Kennedy “voice full-throated approval of King’s words.” After asking “who among us” would like to switch places with King or other black Americans, Kennedy “concluded by defining civil rights as a ‘moral issue’ as ancient as Scripture but in dire need of public policy, as well as spiritual, intervention” (B12). Following Kennedy’s speech, the next day, Medgar Evers was assassinated.

The same month King served as keynote speaker at the Walk to Freedom in Detroit, which was at that time the greatest demonstration of the civil-rights era. That was until the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. This event “seemed to cull the year’s triumphs and tragedies to carve out what King described as a ‘stone of hope’ from a mountain of despair” (B12). Indeed more tragedy followed, with the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham (which killed four girls) and Kennedy’s assassination in November. Yet these events, especially Kennedy’s assassination, “created the moral high ground that was absent while [Kennedy] was alive” and enabled President Johnson to enact several landmark legislative acts. The Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) are two of the most notable.

Such progress would seem to indicate that the U. S. presidency of “a son Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas” would be marked by an increasing resolution of race relations. Yet, as Joseph notes, these relations “remain contested” (B12). President Obama, for example, received 39 percent of the vote of whites in 2012, compared to 43 percent in 2008. Furthermore, John Kerry (2004) and Michael Dukakis (1988) both scored higher on this measure than Obama in 2012. Though young voters are less concerned with a candidate’s race than any previous generation, the racial tension remains and progress continues “in fits and starts,” according to Joseph (B12).

The recent not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman touched off a series of nationwide protests. President Obama reflected publicly and personally on the effect of the verdict for many black Americans. Such tension, then, marks Obama’s generation. He did however strike a hopeful tone with regard to the next generation: “they’re better than us” (B12). Joseph also comments on the disproportionate number of blacks imprisoned on drug charges as evidence of remaining racial tension. More generally, Joseph states, “blacks and whites are still more likely than not to live, work, socialize and die apart” (B12). (One may also think of the oft-quoted line, “Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week.”)

Good and bad fruit has come from the events of the 1960s, but no doubt fruit has come. Joseph sees this 50th anniversary as landmark for several reasons. “The most profound lesson that 1963 has to offer the present is about the power of collective, organized action . . . . Most of all [the civil rights activists, especially King] promoted a radical vision of American democracy with a tenacity that has almost allowed us to forget the long road we’ve traveled since then, and to pay scant attention to the hard journey that remains” (B12).

Some Reflections

In response to Joseph’s article, I’ll limit myself to four theological reflections which, taken together, underscore my hope that the March on Washington will finally reach the church, that our churches and seminaries will increasingly be places known for racial diversity, racial unity, and interracial healing. For the deepest and truest racial reconciliation is wrought by the cross of Christ, just as the ultimate reasons for honoring and loving our racially-different brothers and sisters are theological rather than social or political.

First, God built diversity into his good creation. In Genesis, we are told that God created the heavens and earth and declared it “good” and even “very good.” Part of that goodness is the multi-splendored diversity which marked both the human and non-human aspects of his creation. He could have created the world dully, grey, and monochrome. But instead, he created it pulsating with life and color. At the center of his creation stood humanity, who he created to live in a unified diversity, loving him and loving each other.

Second, Christ’s atonement enables the racial unity God desires and overthrows the racial arrogance he detests. During the dramatic narrative of Revelation 5, all of heaven’s inhabitants gather around the throne, as “they sang a new song, saying: You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (5:9). This verse is a culmination of a major theme in Scripture: the God who created humanity is so profoundly true, so comprehensively good, and so strikingly beautiful that he will find for himself worshipers among every type of person who has ever lived on the face of the earth. If God were worshiped merely by one race in the United States, his glory would be diminished. But as it is, he is worshiped both by black Americans and white Americans (and Asian, Hispanic, and Native Americans), and this togetherness is an object of God’s delight. Christ shed his blood to win white and black worshipers, so that he could delight in their unified worship.

Third, we will not know Christ in his full glory until we know him as the King of the Nations. As we noted, Revelation 5 depicts a scene in which Christ is worshiped by every type of person who has ever lived on the face of the earth. And at that moment, in this midst of this unified worship, it will be crystal clear that our God is not some tribal deity who is worshipped in a corner by one tribe of people (e.g. white Americans or black Americans). Instead, he is the King of the Nations, whose truth, goodness, and beauty is made known by the combined worship of all his people (both black and white, and other). We will not know him fully until we see him riding in as the King of the Nations.

Fourth, God calls us to shape our communities (socially and politically) in ways that preview his kingdom. As believers, we live in a time “between the times,” and one of our tasks is to bring every aspect of our lives (including social and political aspects) under submission to Christ’s Lordship. In so doing, God’s people provide a glimpse of the goodness that waits in Christ’s kingdom. In relation to racial unity and diversity, we are well served to ask three questions: what is God’s creational design for racial unity and diversity in the social and political realm? How has God’s design been corrupted and misdirected? How can we as Christians bring healing to this realm by redirecting it toward Christ? To be concise to the extreme in answering those questions, God’s design is a unity-in-diversity fueled by Christian love. This design has been corrupted and derailed by racism and segregation at the personal and institutional levels, and often is perpetuated by our society’s mediating institutions (of which the church is one). Following the lead of men like Norman Peart (Separate No More) and Jarvis Williams (One New Man), we must build churches which picture the gospel in their racial makeup and witness, and which work hard in the social and political realm to make racial reconciliation and unity a tangible reality.

When our churches are racially divided, and when they are monolithically uni-racial, we send a message that is diametrically opposed to the gospel. In effect, we say, “Christ is a tribal deity whose gospel is not powerful enough to transcend racial barriers, and whose beauty is not great enough to win admirers from all races and cultures and teach them to worship together.” For this reason, we need to pray hard and work hard for a powerful display of Christian unity between believers of all races—Caucasian, African-American, Asian-American, Latino, and Native-American. In these days following the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, may we pray that God will glorify himself among our churches, and will do so first of all by teaching us to worship him alongside of one another.

[1] Peniel E. Joseph, “Our Long Walk to Freedom” in The Chronicle Review (August 16, 2013: B10–12).