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?
Reading in Exodus today, I observe that two passages in the first two chapters have poignant application to the Body of Christ in the United States today. I see two predominant lines of injustice in the United States to which the Church collectively has given its attention that are identified in these first two chapters of Exodus.
At the same time, the Church is divided on justice issues. I don’t say this to condemn or to be judgmental. It’s simply a fact that I think we need to recognize soberly, honestly and humbly.
We might find many examples, but the one that comes to mind – the one that is, perhaps, most poignant in this given time – is the division between black and white and the division between supporters and and non-supporters of Donald Trump.
I know: I said one example, and it seems I given two here. These are two examples, but they coalesce into one. The proof for that is in the statistics that show that approximately 80% of white evangelicals support Trump, and approximately 80% of black “evangelicals”[i] do not support Trump.
Now, I recognize that these statistics are sweeping generalizations, but generalizations do tell a story. There is some reflection of truth in them. I also don’t mention Trump to be divisive here. The example simply is provided for illustration.
Churchgoing African Americans can be as theologically conservative on things like what it means to be born again as white evangelicals, but their individual and collective experiences give them a different perspective on life. Their view of the world and injustice is different than their white, evangelical counterparts, for the most part, and influences them to have different political affiliations.
My reading in Exodus (which I will get to) is timely because today is Sanctity of Life Sunday. I didn’t even realize it when I did my daily reading after I woke up this morning.
I didn’t realize it until I tuned into the Manchester (NH) Vineyard Community Church service this morning. I have never tuned into their services, until today, though I know people affiliated with them. When I set out to participate in a more local church service, I believe God drew my attention away to this one.
It was a great message, and I gained some perspective from it that, perhaps, God wanted me to have in writing this. With that introduction, let me explain the passages in Exodus that prompt my writing. Those texts include Exodus 1 (about the killing of babies) and Exodus 2 (about slavery).
I will take these things one at a time and draw some conclusions consistent with the burden God has placed on my heart over the years. In another article, perhaps, I will explain how my perspectives have changed and, hopefully, shed some light on how the church can come together in the full council of God to advance His justice and righteousness.
Before I get into my immediate thoughts, though, I need to say that I speak with no condemnation in my heart
Just as Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery that he did not condemn her, I am reminded that God sent his son into the world not to condemn the world; God sent His son into the world so that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)
I do not say these things to condemn anyone because Jesus has redeemed us!
In the story of the woman caught in adultery, the Pharisees and Sadducees brought her to Jesus to challenge him because the Law required her to be stoned. They wanted to see what Jesus would do, but Jesus seemed to ignore them and began writing in the sand.
Some people believe that Jesus may have written the Ten Commandments out in the sand. When he looked up from from writing, Jesus “invited” them, saying, “He who is without sin may cast the first stone.” Then, he continued writing in the sand.
Some people believe he was writing down the sins those men had committed. They would say the men walked away silently because they realized that no one is without sin.
The wages of sin for every person is death.
Whatever he wrote, we know how the dialogue went next. “Jesus stood up and said to [the woman], ‘[W]here are they? Has no one condemned you?,” John 8:9) When she replied, “No one”, Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.” (John 8:10)
Jesus didn’t condemn the men either, because he told us he came not to condemn, but to save. I imagine that, Jesus would have received, forgiven and invited the men to follow him, if they had stayed and repented.
God desires to save us, to have relationship with us, to renew our minds and to conform us to His image. Our sin is the reason God became flesh and died for us. He came not to condemn, but to demonstrate His great love for us and to save us from the sin that enslaves us.
One last thing before I get into what I believe God has put on my heart to share: salvation and sanctification is a process. It starts where we are. When we are born again, God begins to work in us to will and to act according to His purposes and to conform us to His image, but we start that process in different places.
One point made in the sermon today, is that “a person doesn’t have to be pro-life to be saved”. People are saved by grace; it’s a gift that we haven’t earned. There will be no exam in heaven we must answer satisfactorily for salvation. It’s already been accomplished for us by Christ’s death and resurrection.
At the same time, if we are born again, God has begun a work within us. He has begun to renew our minds, and change our hearts, and we have begun to learn to think God’s thoughts after Him and become like Him.
With that said, I will address the two texts I read today in Exodus 1 and 2 that speak to me about the Church, collectively, in the United States. In writing this article, my hope is to provide some biblical basis on which we might begin to bridge the divide along racial and political lines and come together as the body of Christ. I hope to provide some perspective and understanding that will bring us together in Christ.
Although the dust has settled (somewhat) on racial tensions since the maelstrom that was kicked up in the wake of the George Floyd killing in Minnesota, no one should think that the issue has been settled or will go away without some resolution. The country, including the church community, is divided on the facts, and issues, and measures that should be employed to resolve the racial tension. Even people of good will are uncertain on how to move forward.
A predominant worldview has emerged in academia that is filtering down into local communities that frames the issue and potential resolution in terms of oppression. This worldview divides the world into the oppressed and their oppressors. The people who hold to that narrative are aggressively pushing for change.
They push the people they are define as the oppressors in the racial tension. The people defined as the oppressors are white and predominantly “Christian” in name (at least). As with the laws of nature, so with the laws of natural human tendencies: when someone pushes, people being pushed naturally push back.
So it is today that the predominantly white, Evangelical Church in the United States is feeling the pressure of the desire and demand for change to address the racial disparities and tensions in our world, and we are tempted to reflexively push back against that pressure.
I submit, though, that CRT has come to prominence in the African American churches and among progressive white churches because the Church, generally, has left a vacuum, and “nature abhors a vacuum”. We have failed to recognize and address in a biblical way the deep and lasting pain of racism that continues to exist in a society that only recognized equal rights for African Americans in my lifetime.
The failure of the Church to address racial issues left room for a completely secular and unbiblical approach to sweep in. So, other than acknowledge our failure, what do we do now?
Critical race theory has become the loudest voice in that arena. Many Christians who are justice-minded have gravitated toward the voices that come from a critical race theory platform without realizing that critical race theory is another gospel that runs antithetical to the true Gospel.
Critical race theory defines the problem and the solution in terms that are sometimes contrary to the Gospel and to biblical truth. That is not to say there is no redeeming value to critical race theory, or that people who espouse CRT are wicked or evil. It’s just not the Gospel. Inevitably it’s a solution that doesn’t get to the heart of the problem and doesn’t bring about true justice.
The Gospel offers true justice.
The Gospel says that all humans are made in the image of a holy God. The problem with men is the orthodox idea of sin – the tendency to do wrong and the failure to do right, which we know we ought to do. Love God and love your neighbor is a simple formula, but we want to go our own ways and to please ourselves rather than love God and love our neighbors.
Jesus offers salvation by taking on the sin of all people (of all races) on himself and setting us free from the wages of sin. Jesus does that so we can have relationship with God who, then, begins to work within us to will and to act according to His good purpose. That reality is borne out in the process of personal sanctification (vertically) and in just relationships with our fellow man (horizontally).
We do not achieve salvation by anything that we do. It’s a free gift available to all by grace. We simply need to embrace it. Salvation takes away the shame and the ultimate consequence of sin, which is death (physically and spiritually). It frees us up to live as God intended by the help of the Holy Spirit who takes up residence within people who yield to Him. We demonstrate that by our love for God and our love for people.
Racism is the sin of partiality. In Christ, there is no Jew nor Gentile; no male nor female; and no black, nor white or brown. We are all one in Christ, and the ultimate goal of the Gospel is to unite all humanity in Christ with God the Father. The picture of that ultimate goal was given to the Apostle John in a vision:
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb….” (Rev. 7:9)
Everyone agrees there is a racial disparity problem. Only people on the fringes deny the problem of racial injustice.
The evangelical church, however, has had a very mixed track record on the issue of racism. Many Christians with a heart for justice are (rightfully) responding to the voices who are speaking to the issue of racial disparity, but some of those voices are preaching a false gospel that is, in many ways, antithetical to the true Gospel.
In Evangelicalism and Injustice Part I, I discussed how the evangelical world has been a champion of preaching the Gospel, but we have not been champions of doing justice. In fact, we have shied away from it.
Less Gospel-orientated people, religious and otherwise, have rushed in to fill the void we have left, including people with philosophies and worldviews that are hostile and antithetical to the Gospel. I will address those things in a follow up post.
Meanwhile, the burden that weighs on my heart in these days is that our God is a God of righteousness and justice at the very foundation of His throne. (Psalm 89:14) This should be our foundation too as children of God our Father.
Jesus carried that great pillar of God’s character forward in the parable of the sheep and the goats, instructing his followers that those who will be blessed by God and receive their inheritance at the throne of God (calling Psalm 89 to mind) are the people who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, invite the stranger in, clothe those in need, heal the sick and visit prisoners.
Jesus announced his ministry by reading from the Isaiah scroll. He said that God anointed him to preach the gospel to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, and to set free those who are oppressed. (Luke 4:18-19, quoting from Isaiah 61:1)
The good news (the Gospel), in this way, is holistic. Jesus demonstrated that holistic approach of preaching good news and doing justice in his ministry. If we are to be his followers, we should do what Jesus did as he did what he saw the Father doing. (John 5:19)
When Jesus quoted from Isaiah, the prophet, he was calling to mind the great theme of all the prophets, which is the call of God to His people to do justice. Zechariah, for instance, says,
“This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.'” (Zech 7:9)
And he adds what true justice looks like:
“‘Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.'” (Zech 7:10)
James picks up the same theme in the New Testament.
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27)
James emphasizes the need for doing, not simply giving mental ascent to what Jesus says. The example he provides falls into the Old Testament definition of “doing justice”:
“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:15-17)
Evangelicalism has been very good at preaching and proclaiming. Many evangelical organizations exist, like Administer Justice (which I mentioned in the first blog article), that both proclaim the good news and do justice (meet the needs of the poor, the oppressed, the prisoners, widows, orphans and strangers), but evangelicalism, as a whole, falls a bit short on the justice side of the equation. Let’s be honest.