There’s been a lot of talk about race in the church of late, the need to talk about it, the need for reconciliation, the need to get gatherings to talk about it so that we can be reconciled, the need to point out racial disparities, the need for white people to understand their privilege, the need to keep talking about it, and do something.
Now I’m not necessarily opposed to bringing attention to ways in which the majority culture has imposed a standard of acceptability and normativity into the evangelical culture and the broader fabric of society. After all, we cannot dismiss the premise that resulted in slavery, Jim Crow and more subtle unequal treatment of minorities – that black skin was considered inferior. Especially being in the PCA, a denomination that recently took decisive action in repenting of a past that thwarted equal acceptance of black people and other minorities into the fold, I appreciate when we can bring to light how the church has behaved inconsistent with it’s mandate to welcome all who seek Christ on equal terms, as equal heirs to the kingdom of God. See this wonderful reflection here from an African-American PCA pastor.
But I confess, often experience tension. Tension exists because I don’t want to be dismissive of ways in which marginalization occurs with even an unconscious bias regarding consideration of black and brown people. Don’t believe this happens? Just check out the make up of prominent conservative evangelical conference speakers. But on the other hand, I think we can raise the issue to a point of prominence that should not be and become so overbearing with the issue that it distracts from our ability to truly live as those whose chief affiliation is union in Christ.
One of the biggest challenges I’ve found to having conversations about race is the varying perspectives, sensitivities and experiences involved. Even for those with sensitivities, they still range on a spectrum. Specifically, for black people, the range goes from recognizing that injustices have incurred but also realizing that racism will continue until Jesus comes back and sets everything right. In other words, there is not a great expectation for every jot and tittle to be addressed since it is the product of a broken world. On the other end of the spectrum are those so sensitized to both historical injustices and present realities, that any slight can be perceived as a continued devaluation and proactive efforts are needed for correction for some kind of racial Utopia.
I confess, I have some concerns. My concerns center on how much we are making racial identity the driving force behind acceptance in the Christian community. And by acceptance, I mean something more than just saying one accepts people of all races or ethnicities on equal footing. Unfortunately, that does not seem to suffice these days.
This focus has become even more prominent with the advent of Black Lives Matter and the impetus to do all that can be done in the interest of black lives. This has become infused in the fabric of evangelical culture to make sure we are giving proper attention to all tragedies that inflict those who have been historically marginalized. And I think it is driving a wedge in the church.
A New Divide?
As issues of race have become increasingly prominent, I’m noticing two camps form. I’ll preface this by saying it’s merely observational and experiential so I’m willing to be challenged with actual empirical evidence. But suffice it to say, I observe these camps are not necessarily white vs. black, but how we assign the importance of race and how the issue of race needs to be addressed, if at all. I plan on expounding on this in the next post, but I am increasingly convinced that the camps are divided along the line of how our humanity is to be considered in light of the gospel. (Thus the title of the next post: The imago Dei as a gospel issue).
In the first camp are those for whom race is not or should not be an issue when it comes to Christian faith and practice. This is not necessarily people who refuse to see how race has played a factor and may, most likely, acknowledge atrocities of the past and the ongoing presence of racism in society. But in a quest for Christian unity and the relationship of race to Christian faith and practice, the matter is of secondary importance. The important thing is to live as brothers and sisters based on our union with Christ in the interest of the how the church represents God’s kingdom agenda. Again, it’s not a matter of black vs. white (or other ethnicities), but subjecting the issue of race relations to a secondary or even non-existent status (there is a spectrum). This group will put more focus on the spiritual aspect of Christian faith and less emphasis on how that relates to how people view each other according to their ethnic identity (anthropology) and how people organize and view each other as a group (sociology). In fact, some with go so far to say that these factors don’t really matter, only how we live as Christian brothers and sisters. On a side note, we must acknowledge these factors do play a role but the question of how they are considered in relation to the spiritual aspect is important.
The second camp sees the issue of race as a prominent concern in the body of Christ since infractions still exist, even in subversive form, especially given the long legacy of disparities that have existed for black and brown people. This will also comprise both blacks and whites (aka allies). This group considers our earthly identity as important as our spiritual identity and would say how we accept and reconcile the former is a fruit of the latter. In other words, living out the gospel should result in correcting any vestiges of the sins of the past that resulted in devaluing, dehumanizing black people as those made in the image of God. As I noted above, this can result in pursuing a kind of racial utopia where every evidence of racial sin is removed.
Especially, where this can exist in the church, it means acknowledging and proactively pursuing reconciliation with brothers and sisters in Christ based on our earthly/ethnic identity as a product of our spiritual identity. Hence, you have continual discussions on race and the persistent need to point out where white superiority and racism still has a stranglehold.
And I think we know what happens when these two groups collide. The efforts of the second group will seem like a nagging nuisance to the first group, at best, or a sinful, divisive preoccupation, at worst. For the second group, the silence or even spurning of the first group will come across as a lack of spiritual fruit of Christianity and a lack of concern of what happens with those who are created in the image of God.
This becomes even more prominent in consideration of the events transpiring in our world regarding race relations – disparities in the criminal justice system, police actions against black people, and other inequalities. The second group will be more compelled to address issues as a product of Christianity.
Is this not what we are seeing?
But the bigger question in relation to my concerns is this how it is supposed to be for the body of Christ? So this leads to what I hope to address in the next post: what is the relationship of the imago Dei to the gospel? I think how we answer that question has a lot to do with our expectations from brothers and sisters in Christ and how we relate to our world. It will also challenge how we consider our ethnic identity in relation to our spiritual identity. I’ve already tipped my hand regarding my concerns but more about that next time.
I’m really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the matter. I would probably identify myself with the first group that you mentioned. That being said, in these discussions, I wish people would not conflate my position of challenging systematic (or structural) racism within the Church with a lack of concern about these topics. There certainly must be a third option.
Timely article! I often observe those in both groups that need to bend closer to the other group and try to understand each other’s premises without jumping to assumptions about each other. I constantly find myself caught in the middle, defending the opposite group of whichever I am interacting with at the moment. I can’t wait for the next installment of the article!
I’m pretty sure I fit into the second category. I attend a predominantly white church and I find myself feeling frustrated at my Caucasian pastor’s silence regarding recent videos of police officers killing unarmed black males. I also have accused some Caucasian Christians of being unempathetic to injustices against blacks and other minority groups. I usually don’t get responses from them and the ones who reply frustrate me even further with responses that continue to sound coldhearted and racist. I feel so blessed to have come across your blog.