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.

Honoring “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”


By Mark Liederbach with Tom Iversen

April 16th marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”

Many (including us) rank his letter as one of greatest pieces of American literature ever written.  It is at once a powerful and elegant exposition of, and argument for, natural law as well as a sturdy call to repentance and an outright challenge for those who claim to be aligned with the Gospel of Jesus Christ to stand up and be counted in the fight for truth and justice.  Fifty years later it is still poignantly relevant to a culture experiencing a full assault on notions of moral truth, ethical standards, religious conscience and rightly ordered freedom.

Sadly, too many evangelicals (both white and black) are unfamiliar with the masterpiece that is MLK Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” But consider some of the astounding statements found within:

Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But they went on with the conviction that they were a ‘colony of heaven’ and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest. Things are different now. The contemporary Church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the archsupporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the Church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.

The early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the Church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.

Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

In considering the philosophical and biblical sturdiness as well as the theological and moral challenge present in the Letter, we can’t help but be drawn to the words and thoughts of the Apostle Paul in Acts 17 that have a similar shaping influence on questions of justice, truth and morality.  There, in Athens, on Mars Hill, while engaging the Greek philosophers and bringing the truth of the Gospel into the marketplace of ideas, Paul made this remarkable statement:

and God made from one blood every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being… (Acts 17:26-28. Italics added for emphasis). 

One Blood

In Him we live and move and have our being.

Ideas to rock the status quo and change a world.

One blood means there is only one race: the human one.  Thus, racism is fundamentally stupid and unbiblical.

In Him we live and move and have our being means all humans will only find hope fulfilled and a satisfied soul as each person rightly aligns him or herself to the God who created all things for His own glory.  And that can only happen through faith in Jesus Christ.

One important difference between Dr. King’s Letter and the Apostle Paul’s speech on Mars Hill relates to the audience to whom each was directed.  It is interesting to note that Dr. King made his argument not so much to unbelievers or those who directly persecuted him, but to his brothers and sisters in Christ.  His target audience was those tepid, timid “white churchmen [who] stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities” and justify their inaction by saying “those are social issues with which the Gospel has no real concern.”

Perhaps the reason the words of MLK Jr. and Paul are so powerful and transcend notions of race or ethnicity is not because of the elegance of the writing or the catchiness of certain phrases, but rather (and far more importantly), because truth always transcends categories of race and ethnicity.  And speaking truth in the face of injustice or ideas that stand in opposition to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is one of the key ways true Christ followers must “take captive” and “destroy” ideas and speculations that stand against the things of God in their own heats and in the culture at large.

It is for this reason that at the 50 year anniversary of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”  we are especially grateful to God for Dr. King and his calling all of us to be stand and fight not just for ending the moral stupidity of racism, but even more so, to be the kind of people who do not acquiesce to the ideas of culture but rather shape it for the Glory of God.

Fifty years ago Martin Luther King Jr. stood like a man and called all of us to be better.  Fifty years later he is still calling us up to be men with him.

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is timeless work of ethics, philosophy, theology, amazing writing … AND a good reminder of two astounding truths: 1) The Gospel is thicker than blood (and therefore skin color) and; 2) our lives and our world can only be transformed into wholeness  through the person and work of Jesus Christ.

(Image credit)


Mark Liederbach is Professor of Theology, Ethics, and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as Vice President for Student Services and Dean of Students, and is a Research Fellow for the L.Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture. Tom Iversen serves as an elder at North Wake Church in Wake Forest, NC.

Who Is Not Here?

I was recently asked to becoming a contributing editor for Facts and Trends, LifeWay’s flagship publication. If you are a Southern Baptist, you probably receive it. If you love Jesus, you treasure its every page. ;-)

In the most recent issue we focused on ministry to first generation immigrant groups based on a study highlighted on my blog today.

In light of the ongoing membership decline of the SBC (the third year in a row) and the still low baptism numbers, I think we have to acknowledge that a big part of the issue is demographics. We are primarily white southerners. We need more white southerners, not less, but we need a lot more of other kinds of believers as well.

Here is what I wrote about it in Facts and Trends:

Assessing the Future

Organizations of every kind measure themselves according to what they have. Businesses assess their profit margin and inventory of merchandise. Charities count donations and the number of people helped over the last year. Families take stock of their household income and property. What about denominations? We count the number of members to our churches, new churches started, and new believers added. And we Southern Baptists are experts in counting. I should know because our research division at LifeWay does the official counting on the Annual Church Profile.

Lately, I have been thinking about how we assess how we are doing. I think we ought to keep counting how many people are saved and how many people are worshiping. When those two stats do not increase, we should be alarmed. But what if we also measured our work by this question, “Who are the people we don’t have?”

The first-generation immigrant study makes it clear that America is not getting more Anglo. We have counted ourselves as the “melting pot” of the world and it is truer today than ever before. America receives immigrants from 202 countries in the world. But does that show up in our churches?

I think the honest answer for most churches is sadly, No.

In June, thousands of Southern Baptists will descend upon central Florida for the annual meeting of our convention. I expect that while there, we will once again see a relatively monolithic group of people. Most of our convention leadership is Anglo. Most of our pastors are Anglo. Most of our messengers are Anglo.

Now, I do not want us to stop reaching and discipling Anglo people. After all, I am one. But I hope the current research will remind us of the vast work to be done in our own country to reach the panta ta ethne, all nations. Any lack on our part should give us pause. Reflecting upon the most-likely make-up of our convention attendees is a reflection of our member churches. Understanding that our churches (and thus our convention) do not reflect the culture should concern us.

Many churches seem to be at a loss regarding a change in the neighborhood resulting in a declining membership or plans to relocate to a new part of town. But encouraging news does pop up from time to time about a church that begins to reach beyond their ethnic group and evangelizes a people who are culturally different.

I was encouraged to hear of a church in Maryland that began as an Anglo congregation and when the community changed, so did the church. The neighborhood became predominantly African-American, the church stayed and now the majority of the members are from the neighborhood. In recent years, the neighborhood has morphed once again, becoming primarily Hispanic. Now, the church is strategizing how to best become a church that reaches the new community surrounding the campus.

Doubtless, asking the question “Who is not here?” is more difficult to assess. But it is one we must do if we are to take serious the command of Christ to “make disciples of all nations.”

Southern Baptists have made great strides in this area… but we have more to go. I hope you will join with me in praying for a darker convention with different languages… and will work to make that happen.