I have been writing about and trying to convey a certain perspective on racial tensions in the United States and the response of the American Church to those tensions, but I fear I haven’t done the subject justice. An article I read today on the Resurrecting Orthodoxy blog[i] clarifies some of my thoughts and prompts this article. The author’s subject is the book by Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: An African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. (I have the book and intend to read it myself.)
To be clear, when I speak of the “American Church”, I am really thinking of my own tribe – the evangelical church in the United States. My tribe are the people who the political pundits label “white evangelicals”. I don’t like the label, but these are “my people”.
That doesn’t mean that “we” don’t have African Americans, Mexicans and Latin Americans, and other ethnicities in our churches. We do. We are predominantly white, though, in the evangelical circles in which I have grown up as a Christian since my college days.
Regardless of the pews where people sit on Sundays and who sits next to them, political pollsters separate “white evangelicals” from their black counterparts. This distinction has bothered me because it suggests a false dichotomy.
Theologically, we agree on primary beliefs. The article on Reading While Black describes those beliefs as follows:
“(1) The importance of a ‘born again’ experience, (2) The demonstration of the Gospel in missionary and social reform efforts, (3) The upholding the authority of Scripture, and (4) The stress on the sacrificial death of Jesus as what makes redemption possible.”
On this point, Joel Edmund Anderson, the author of the article says:
“… I couldn’t help thinking as I read the book that the book’s title is actually misleading, for I didn’t see McCaulley’s black ecclesial interpretation of the Bible to really be a black interpretation at all. It was a faithful Christian interpretation.” (Emphasis in the original)
This observation underscores the main point of my article today: white Christians and black Christians agree many things at the heart of faith. We agree on the necessity of being born again, the missionary nature of the Gospel, the authority of Scripture, and the redemption from sin through the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross.
We don’t agree, though, on politics, and we vote very differently. Polls clearly show that white evangelicals voted about 80% in favor of Donald Trump, while black “evangelicals” voted just the opposite – about 80% against Donald Trump.
It’s tempting to try to explain that difference away on the basis of conservative and progressive/liberal ideologies and miss the clear common ground in our biblical beliefs. It’s also tempting to blame this difference on race alone. Race surely is a key distinctive. But why?
I have my own theories, but I want to let Esau McCaulley speak from his experience, first.
From McCaulley’s perspective, he is neither inside the circle of white progressive Protestants nor inside the circle of white conservative evangelicals. White conservative evangelicals at seminary seemed to him to be “stuck” in the first century, unable or unwilling to address modern injustice from a biblical perspective. While white progressive Protestants have rejected the core tenets of biblical faith (though they are more apt to acknowledge modern injustice).
The elephant in the room is that McCaulley was struggling with narratives that come from a predominantly white perspective on both sides. Let’s face it: black people in America have a much different collective and individual experience than white people.
I have glossed over many of the nuances that the author noted in his article on Reading While Black, and (no doubt) there are many more nuances in the actual book. I am isolating one aspect of the discussion here.
I want to focus on my sense that the divide between black Christians and white Christians is not all about race. Race is certainly a predominate factor, but it’s more than that. It’s a difference in collective and individual experience.
To say this difference isn’t all about race is not meant to ignore that the difference is predominantly about race. Rather I go a step further and observe that individual and collective experiences caused by race racial tensions, discrimination, injustice and disparity are different. Black Christians have felt the sting of these things that white Christians can only imagine.
At the very foundation of faith is the idea that there is no Jew nor Gentile, no male nor female and no slave nor free. We are all one in Christ. White Christians tend to reference this truth to advocate that we need to get past racial differences. While I think that is a laudable goal, we can’t confuse the goal for having accomplished it.
The truth is that racial injustice and disparity has existed for hundreds of years. Discrimination has only been outlawed in my lifetime, but the ripple effect of generations of discrimination do not cease merely because the law no longer sanctions it.
It’s convenient for white Christians to think that we are over “that race thing” now and don’t need to address it. We never experienced the injustice of it! We don’t have to struggle with the burdens of that injustice that continue even after the official sanction was lifted.
For black Christians, “that race thing” continues to weigh heavily on them. The generations and centuries of racial injustice continue to play out in the circumstances of most black people in America today – not just in their collective memory and common experience, but in the individual experiences of people like Esau McCaulley.
McCaulley grew up in Huntsville, AL where his world was established and defined by years racial injustice. He was directly affected by the ongoing consequences of those injustices, even though the law had changed before he was born. He was born into a world that was not optimized for his success. That is an understatement, of course.
That he “rose” up out of his circumstances to a more “privileged” station in life doesn’t erase the experience of living with and bearing up under the consequences of years of racial injustice that continue to reverberate in the modern experience of black Americans.
This is not to ignore that communities of white people and individuals in America are also born into disadvantaged circumstances. Their experience, though, is not the result of racial injustice.
We should not turn our backs on poor white people; but the fact that there are white populations who are burdened by poverty is no excuse for turning a blind eye to racial injustice or the effect of it on the black community and individuals.
Poor white populations and poor black populations share much in common. Overcoming the disadvantage weighs heavily against a person who grows up in those circumstances. While many factors may contribute to those circumstances, and many of those factors may be similar, black Americans can universally trace one factor to those circumstances: racial injustice.
That being said, I need to get to my real point in writing this: the difference in the political leanings between black Americans and white Americans who have the same foundations of faith boils down to differences in experience. It isn’t race (though race factors predominantly in our different experiences).
Black Christians are much more focused on racial injustice because they have personally experienced the burden of racial injustice. White Christians don’t know what it’s like to experience the burden of racial injustice. We have to work at understanding it because it isn’t part of our collective or individual experience.
This recognition has nothing to do with Critical Race Theory, which comes at the issue of racial injustice from a secular, nonbiblical, Marxist framework. We can’t conflate recognition of racial injustice with CRT. God’s heart beats against racial injustice because God is just. Jesus came to preach good news and to set the captives and oppressed people free.
All people share in the experience of captivity to the slavery and oppression of sin. We all share in the experience of physical infirmities. We may share in socio-political oppression. Jesus came to liberate us from captivity and oppression of all kinds and to invite us into His kingdom as children of God.
In keeping with God’s heart, the Prophet, Micah, said these words:
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
This one question, though, I think needs to be asked: why do black and white “evangelicals” divide over politics when we believe the same fundamental principals of faith?
In a time of hyper-political activity and polarization, we tend to focus on our political differences. I submit, we should be focusing more on our common faith and belief. From that common ground of faith in Christ, which is the most important foundation, we should come together. Only then can we put our political differences into proper perspective.
We do this with music born out of the black experience from a much more racially charged time that all people now appreciate in gospel and blues music. We come to together in our appreciation of the genius, talent, inspiration and common humanity of the music, though the experience out of which that music was wrung was unique to the plight of oppressed black men and woman in the Jim Crow south.
We listen to that music and identify with it even if we haven’t shared that common experience. We have more that unites us than divides us. If that is true of music, it is even more true in Christ. Maybe in 2021, we can find ways to come together in the American church to heal the wounds left by the past and forge a new, united future.
[i] See New Book Analysis Series: “Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope” by Esau McCaulley (Part 1) by Joel Edmund Anderson at Resurrecting Orthodoxy February 12, 2021