I recently got into a twitter exchange over the issue of church’s hosting of a racial reconciliation conference, panel discussion, etc. The thrust of the argument was that it puts a focus on the reconciliation according to skin and we should do as Paul says ‘to know no one after the flesh.’ I pushed back on the notion that anytime a church calls for a racial reconciliation, it is a “false gospel.” As typical with Twitter exchanges, I start getting lost in the comments. So I thought I’d sketch out some thoughts I’ve had on this issue in a more cohesive fashion. This is not so much about that exchange but rather examining the broader scope of racial reconciliation efforts in the church, my observations of them, and also to identify some concerns. This is not meant to be anything exhaustive but more like me dumping some thoughts on this topic into a single space.
First let me note that I do heartily endorse the idea that believers should anchor their identities first and foremost in Christ. I believe that our first consideration for dealing with other believers is based on our union in Christ. When you see another person with whom you are united in Christ, the first thought should not be a [______] Christian but a fellow heir, regardless of their race, ethnicity, physical characteristics, or place of origin. We should take serious Gal. 3:28;
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
But of course there are distinctions and we can appreciate them according to how God made us. Are we not male and female and are we not different in that regard? We are not nondescript blobs. We can appreciate the ways in which we bring our ethnicity, heritages and experiences to the table. We also have to recognize when those distinctions have caused and do cause dissension in the body of Christ, especially when dealing with a long-standing one like racial disparities that were not only deeply ingrained in society for hundreds of years but also in our churches. Racial reconciliation is ultimately about reconciling hearts towards one another.
We can make the argument that race is a social construct and therefore, we shouldn’t focus on race because we are one human race. I think that’s an admirable goal. And I also know that how a race conscienceness can temper how we perceive treatment from our white brothers and sisters in Christ. In other words, when you expect racism to be there, you’ll pretty much find it. We really have to be judicious in this regard.
But we have to consider how this false construct was used to create a hierarchy of people based on their melanin and ethnic heritage and this ethos seeped into every institution of society. One only need look into the bowels of history to know persons of African descent were disregarded as equals, considered undeserving of equal citizenship, and heaped on with negative character issues solely based on the color of their skin.
This played out in our churches as well. I highly recommend The Problem of Slavery in Christian America by Joel McDurmon for an honest rendering of the American church’s complicity in upholding slavery. My own denomination had its hero in the form of Robert Lewis Dabney who actually believed that chattel slavery was a deserving lot for persons of African descent. Conservative churches in the south actively opposed integration when the Civil Rights Movement was gaining steam and wholehearted embraced Jim Crow.
Now I get that there has been improvement and there has. You’ll be hard pressed to find churches that actually bar black folks from coming in. (Though sadly, I have come to learn there are still pastoral searches that specially ask for a white pastor.) But we also have to recognize that the more overt attitudes that existed about the inferiority of black people can manifest in more subtle ways. Racial partiality doesn’t always come riding in with a white hood and slurs but can also take more quiet forms of subtle disregard and unequal assumptions. When this results in marginalization, you can bet it is felt though not always believed.
So when we talk about racial reconciliation efforts–whether it be a panel discussion, workshop, books, blog posts, the goal should be to create a more harmonious Christian fellowship that is centered in the work and person of Jesus Christ. I can honestly say that I’ve seen this at work in healthy and productive ways. When racial reconciliation efforts starting rising in the evangelical scene, this is what it was intended to be. As someone who has been invited to speak and write on these issues, have attended events where racial reconciliation something to be tackled, and engaged in numerous conversations, I am staunchly committed to keeping this goal so that Christ’s body is strengthened. Jesus broke down the walls of hostility but in our embodied experiences, we need to bring this truth to life for hostility that has been created.
In the vein of Phil. 2:3, it is a worthy goal to consider how the racial disparities have impacted society and specifically our church experiences. You can look at books like Heal Us Emmanuel where pastors in my denominations highlight honestly write about long standing issues of partiality with exhortations to consider who we are as the body of Christ. There is also a follow up volume, Hear Us Emmanuel in which I have contributed a chapter. Christian hip-hop artist, Shai Linn recently penned a poignant post over at The Gospel Coalition reflecting on his experiences here.
The bible does speak of partiality. If the scenario in James 2:1-7 were going on in any church, I’d say we would need the same kind of intervention in light of the remedy James offers–“love your neighbor as yourself.” (vs. 8). Can you imagine if poor people were treated disrespectfully that we’d blame them for causing division when the disparity is expressed?
However, I also have concerns about how racial reconciliation efforts have morphed into something other than what was intended, fueled by the ethos of an antiracism paradigm that is gaining steam in our culture. Antiracism does not merely mean “against racism” for that is surely something that should be supported. Rather, antiracism is built on the notion that white supremacists structures are at work in society and so ingrained that in order for black people to be truly liberated, it requires a dismantling of these structures and vestiges of white privilege. Antiracism is not concerned about whether hearts are changed but rather systems are. You can read more about that here. On the surface that sounds fine. But when you dig deeper you’ll find that it rides on the coattails of ideology that disables a full expression of Christianity from happening.
When this comes into the church, the white evangelical church as a whole is seen as the culprit for ongoing antagonism of black people, white people are required to repent and divest of their whiteness wholesale, and dissent against these efforts is construed as a tacit endorsement of white supremacy. For sure, any opposition to this paradigm continues the legacy of racial oppression. Even worse is when groups or organizations that base reconciliation on standards that subvert what brings true reconciliation–peace with Christ–are held as the standard rather than the oneness we are to have in Christ. In this case, it is no longer about biblically informed reconciliation whereby hearts are turned towards one another because of our shared fellowship in Christ. Rather, this kind of reconciliation, which is no reconciliation at all, dismantles real fellowship and creates hostilities that Christ’s redemption is meant to tear down.
In the past few years, I have seen this paradigm gain greater traction. At first, I began to witness an impatience with the slowness of reconciliation efforts and a weariness of dealing with ignorance on the part of white people. Then as this other paradigm gained steamed, that impatience translated into a different kind of thinking about how Christ’s body was supposed to work under the guise of prophetic truth telling and an accusatory lack of love for Jesus. I can firmly say, I believe it works against the ethos of Christ’s kingdom and the church that he is building in the vein of John 17. These kinds of efforts bind the conscience to a worldly paradigm that finds its solutions according to the flesh but not the unity of the Spirit according to who we are in Christ. At best, it’s legalism; at worst, a false gospel.
So that’s why I think we need to be careful on how we are evaluating racial reconciliation efforts. If they reinforce our love for each other based on the love God has shown to us through the Son, that’s good. If they turn our hearts away from each other until a man produced requirement is met, then not so much.