Race & Faith (4): The Life of Christ

As noted in the previous posts, secular models fail biblically and properly to point the way forward in creating an environment hospitable to racial unity-in-diversity. They fail for various reasons, but they especially fail to understand human depravity, which underlies racism. They also fail to account for the life of Christ, which overcomes racism. In the most recent installment of the series we addressed human depravity. In this post we address the life of Christ.

In chapter nine, Yancey looks to Jesus for elements of the mutual responsibility model. He claims that we can learn much from Jesus because Jesus was at once part of a majority group, the Jews, living under the foreign rule of the Romans. Yancey finds the heart of reconciliation in Jesus’ high priestly prayer (John 17; 114). From Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), Yancey observes that Jesus surpassed all the weaknesses, while keeping all the strengths, of the four secular models for dealing with racial issues (115–118). Jesus also dealt in grace and truth in his interactions with Romans, those “in power” over him and other Jews. At the same time, however, he did not try to overthrow Caesar (120; cf. Matt 22:15–22).

The life of Jesus, therefore, illustrates the motives Christians should seek in mutual responsibility for racial reconciliation: “In Jesus we see the balance that we rarely see in our society. We see a man who, whether he was part of the majority or minority, sought relationships but also addressed issues of power . . . in all of his encounters with people of different groups, Jesus never deviated from the truth” (122–123). Thus, Jesus provided different lessons for majority and minority groups. “To those in the majority Jesus showed that it is inappropriate to focus on the maintenance of their own social position. . . . To people of color Jesus showed that even though he had concerns about societal evil, political revolution was not the heart of his ministry” (124). The next chapter addresses why Christians often fall short of Jesus’ example.

Yancey, in chapter ten, points to a subtle but powerful aspect of our sin nature that hampers any hope of racial reconciliation: fear. Out of fear of others and not God we can do things either to please them and gain favor, or excoriate them and gain emotional safety. Fear thus creates a vicious circle of dysfunction in race relations: “Whites are afraid of being labeled racist. . . . As a result, whites avoid addressing racial issues . . . .” On the other hand, “People of color . . . fear they will be ridiculed when they bring up their racial concerns.” This causes minorities to look for someone to point out racism and seek justice. Often times, “as a result, people of color begin to support leaders who foolishly play the race card but who at least uphold the importance of racial justice” (127–128). What, then, can Christians do to counteract this nexus of fear?

Yancey states that Christians “should work harder to create safe places in our churches” where we can “rid ourselves of the fears that drive racial mistrust” (132). Yancey proposes that the mutual responsibility model can help create such an environment. By applying corporate repentance and forgiveness to private and public discussions on race, churches might eventually become such environments. What is more, Yancey remarks that this environment must begin in our own hearts. After describing his fairly natural but racially motivated response to a news report of a police shooting of a man (“I hope that man was not black,” Yancey thought), Yancey discovered a scary but vital point: “racism is in me” (135–137). For racial reconciliation to begin, we must search our hearts for the sin that may lie buried deep within.

Chapter 11 contains Yancey’s conclusion to his argument for mutual responsibility in race relations. In responding to the question, “what would a Christian solution look like?” Yancey replies honestly: “I cannot say” (138). He can only sketch out some implications of his mutual responsibility model. Yancey theoretically applies this model to a controversial topic, affirmative action. He recognizes that it is not a popular answer for most whites. Yet rather than ask if Christians should support affirmative action, Yancey claims “we should ask whether or not this program serves the interest of all races” (142). There is no uniform “Christian” answer. Rather it is about Christians repenting, forgiving, and sacrificing for one another. “The Christian solution is not a direct answer but an attitude which leads to the correct answer. It is not unlike the attitudes of both partners in a good marriage. Both partners take into account the interests and needs of the other so their relationship thrives. A marriage in which one partner must acquiesce all the time is not healthy” (143).

According to Yancey, there are, however, some practical steps that Christians can take to demonstrate a Christian attitude of the heart. First, we need more multi-racial churches (144–145). Second, we need to belong to and create social networks (not only online, in person) with people of other races (145–146). Third, “we must reconsider how we participate in the political process” (147). Elevating one’s political party and goals above Christian fellowship does not hold promise for racial reconciliation. Fourth, we need Christian academic institutions––colleges, universities, and seminaries––that engage in honest, charitable discourse on race issues and reconciliation (149). Yancey concludes with the acknowledgement that he has painted an incomplete picture; his mutual responsibility model requires us to fill in the painting (150).

Four Things I Love about Black Culture (Including: How African-American Worship Makes God Deeply Happy)

In light of the near approach of the Martin Luther King national holiday, I thought I’d spend some time reflecting upon some of the many things I like about African-American culture. I’ll limit myself to four comments, saving the best reflection for last.

My first three reflections were stimulated by reading Angela Nelson’s essay “The Repertoire of Black Popular Culture” in Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture.[1] Nelson, a professor at Bowling Green State University, defines black popular culture as, “an arena of daily life in any culture that actualizes, engenders, operationalizes, or signifies pleasure, enjoyment, and amusement according to the beliefs, values, experiences, and social institutions of people of African descent in particular but also other racial groups in general” and then goes on to comment upon seven aspects of black culture: the city, food/cuisine, rhythm, percussiveness, call-response, worship service / party, and middle-class ideology. As I read Nelson’s article, and reflected upon those seven aspects, I found myself profoundly grateful for all that African-Americans “bring to the table” in the United States of America. I’ll make three comments reflecting upon Nelson’s essay and then make one final and significant comment reflecting upon Christian Scripture.

Food & Cuisine

As Nelson notes, one noteworthy characteristic of black culture is “soul food,” a cuisine typically associated with African-Americans in the Deep South. Soul food is often referenced in literature and music. For my part, I cannot imagine life without soul food. I grew up in farm country, in Sampson County, NC, where soul food was a part of life. Some of my best memories involve the meats (ham, bacon, BBQ, fried chicken), vegetables (fried or stewed okra, bacon-flavored greens), starches (candied yams, hush puppies, cornbread), and desserts (pies, cobblers) of southern African-American-inspired soul food. While many suburbanites find themselves profoundly grateful for whichever are the trendy urban foods for this particular week (e.g. cucumber sandwiches, fava beans, arugula, or pesto), I’ll reserve my deepest gratitude for the memory of fried chicken, collards, yams, and cornbread. (I’m pretty sure this disqualifies me from being a “foodie”).

Rhythm & Percussion

Rhythm is central and essential to black music. “African Americans,” writes Nelson, “use rhythm to articulate their moral, theological, and philosophical beliefs. Rhythm, the essential element in black music, philosophically communicates ‘religious’ experience in African and African-American culture and helps its ritual participants reach ‘communitas.’” Rhythm is particularly significant for rap because it gives rap its unique movement and momentum. Nelson cites Tricia Rose, who demonstrates that the lowest or fattest beats in a rap song are likely the ones that the most philosophically significant or emotionally charged. Whereas Western music finds its uniqueness in melodic and harmonic structures, African American music finds its uniqueness in rhythmic and percussive structure.

Likewise, percussion is central and essential to black music. Percussive instruments are those that can be struck, slapped, or shaken and include activities that range from playing the drums to the “human beat box.” Nelson notes that black music is not only an activity but a technique that involves the percussive use of the voice. We see it when black gospel singers sing with mouths wide open, making their consonants short and their vowels long and intense. We see it when rappers speak/sing their words by hitching their heavily descriptive and metaphorical lyrics to a distinctive rhythm.

For my part, I love the sounds inspired by the black community, whether those sounds come from gospel choirs, rap, or hip-hop. Allow me to list three ways in which I am grateful. First, gospel choirs. If it weren’t for the black community and their gospel choirs, we Americans would be left with little else but white guys in flannel shirts strumming guitars. And who wouldn’t agree with me that we are far better off having learned from African-American singers how to really “throw down” on a hymn or song?

Second, Christian rap and hip hop. One of the most creative and faithful forms of worship to have arisen in recent years is Christian rap, with rappers like Shai Linne, Trip Lee, and Lecrae unleashing some of the most powerful and profound lyrics available in CCM today. May their tribe increase (I wish I were part of the tribe. But, as a general rule, professors who have no rhythm, possess no percussive skills, and who wear sport coats with elbow patches, aren’t included as part of the tribe. So, unlike Tony Merida or Owen Strachan, you’ll find me watching from the sidelines.)

Third, mainstream rap and hip-hop. While there is much with which to disagree in mainstream rap and hip hop, those art forms have served as powerful venues to entire communities to express their beliefs, feelings, and values. Even when these artists’ music are consciously and profoundly non-Christian, the Christian community is well served to pay attention to these art forms as a way of loving and understanding their neighbors.

Call-Response & Celebration

Nelson builds on the work of linguist Geneva Smitherman to elucidate two aspects of black culture that we see come to fruition in African-American worship services. The first aspect is the communication pattern of “call-and-response,” which involves “the spontaneous verbal and nonverbal interactions between speakers and audiences.” Nelson notes that this aspect helps the community to “establish and maintain spiritual harmony, to maintain a sense of group solidarity, and to validate aesthetic and cultural values.” In worship services, African-Americans one up their white counterparts (“amen, brother”) by actually preaching back to the preacher (“Ha! Help ‘em Lord. That’s the point. Come on!”). The preacher purposely evokes feedback from the congregation, hoping to “wreck” them by making them feel the sermon rather than just hearing it. The call-response aspect meshes well with the celebratory aspect of black worship, which Nelson notes can be compared to a party.

One of the things I love about African-American culture is this celebratory aspect, which can be seen not only in worship services but also in every day laugh. My black friends know how to laugh. They can laugh at themselves and at each other, and can do so without being offensive or being offended. And they sing. They sing alone or in groups, in private or sometimes even in public. I’m not a historian, and I can’t trace this theme of black culture comprehensively or with great precision, but I know this penchant for  “laughter and song” stems at least in part from the days in which black Americans were slaves. In the midst of chains, beatings, and poverty, the African-American community was able to experience a sort of redemption and freedom through laughter and song.

God Sacrificed His Son to Display His Glory in Racial Unity

One of my favorite passages in all of Scripture is Revelation 5. In this chapter, God gives the apostle John a breathtaking and beautiful vision of the end times, in which there are Christ-worshipers from among all tribes, tongues, peoples, and nations (5:9). I want to make two points from this chapter, both of which speak to the existence of the African –American community in the United States.

First, God killed his Son in order to achieve racial unity and undercut racial arrogance. At one point in the chapter, as all of heaven’s inhabitants are gathered around the throne, we are told that “they sang a new song, saying: You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (5:9). This verse is the culmination of a major theme in Scripture: the God we worship is so profoundly true, so comprehensively good, and so strikingly beautiful that he will find for himself worshipers among every type of person who has ever lived on the face of the earth. If God were worshiped merely by one race of person in the United States, his glory would be diminished. But as it is, he is worshiped both by white Americans and black Americans (and Asian, Hispanic, and Native Americans) and this togetherness is an object of God’s delight. Christ shed his blood to win white and black worshipers, so that he could delight in their unified worship. As John Piper puts it, racial unity is first and foremost a “blood of Christ” issue and only secondarily a social or political issue.

Second, we will not know Christ in his full glory until we know him as the King of the Nations. Revelation 5 describes a scene in which Christ is worshiped by every type of person who has ever lived on the face of the earth. He will receive worship not just from every continent, and not just from every country, but from every type of person he has created. And at that moment, in this midst of this unified and universal worship, it will be crystal clear that our God is not some tribal deity who is worshipped in a far corner by a paltry and limited group of people (e.g. white Americans or black Americans). Instead, he is the King of the Nations, whose truth, goodness, and beauty is made known by the combined worship of all his people (both black and white, and other). We will not know him fully until we see him riding in as the King of the Nations. God takes joy in the existence and worship of the African-American community. It makes him deeply happy.

When our churches are racially divided, and when they are monolithically uniracial, we send a message that is diametrically opposed to the gospel. In effect, we say, “Christ is a tribal deity whose gospel is not powerful enough to transcend racial barriers, and whose beauty is not great enough to woo admirers from all races and cultures and teach them to worship together.” For this reason, we need to pray hard and work hard for a powerful display of Christian unity between believers of all races—Caucasian, African-American, Asian-American, Latino, and Native-American. On this year’s Martin Luther King national holiday, may we drop to our knees and pray that God will glorify himself among our churches, and will do so first of all by teaching us to worship him alongside of one another.

[1] Angela Nelson, “The Repertoire of Black Popular Culture,” in Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture 8:1 (Spring 2009).


Guest Post (Charles L. Quarles): God’s Amazing Grace (Part 1): “Was Blind, but Now I See”

[Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series by Dr. Charles Quarles, Vice President of Faith and Learning, Dean of the Caskey School of Divinity, and Research Professor of New Testament and Greek at Louisiana College. Dr. Quarles served as a pastor for ten years and then as a missionary in Romania for three years before coming to Louisiana College. He is a noted New Testament scholar and co-author (with Southeastern’s Scott Kellum and Andreas Köstenberger) of The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown (B&H). We at BtT believe his experience and skill in academic and pastoral ministry makes him a fine person to write on God’s amazing grace. Check-in tomorrow for part 2.]

Even though it was written in 1779, John Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace” remains a favorite of Christians everywhere. It has aptly been called the “Anthem of Southern Baptists” because of its powerful and poetic expression of the truths of the gospel that Baptists hold dear. Unfortunately, when we sing the old familiar hymns, we may mouth the words without reflecting on the great truths that they express. Let’s think for a moment about one of the great doctrines that the hymn articulates. The hymn opens with the exclamation:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.

The verse offers a vivid description of the helpless state of the lost sinner. He is a “wretch,” an utterly despicable person. The words “I once was lost, but now am found” evoke memories of the parable of the loving father and lost son in Luke 15 and remind us that we were all prodigals who were completely unworthy of the Father’s love. But Newton did not stop there. He reminded us that we wretches, we prodigals, were blind to the truths of the gospel until God’s amazing grace gave us sight. The same great grace that saves wretches, that seeks and finds the lost, opens the blind eyes of the sinner to the glories of Christ. The statement brims with biblical insight.

The prophet Isaiah foretold that when the reign of the Messiah dawned, “Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped” (Isa. 35:5). The Gospels show that Jesus confirmed his identity as the Messiah by fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy, by opening blind eyes and unstopping deaf ears.

In Mark 7:31-37, concerned friends brought a deaf man to Jesus. Jesus thrust his fingers in the deaf man’s ears, sighed deeply, and issued the command, “Ephphatha,” an Aramaic expression meaning, “Be opened.” Immediately the man’s ears were opened and he was given the ability to hear. The bystanders were astonished and exclaimed, “He has done everything well! He even makes deaf people hear!” Only a few verses later in Mark 8:22-26, others brought a blind man to Jesus and begged Jesus to touch him and heal him. Jesus placed spit on the man’s eyes, laid hands on him, and cured him of his blindness.

Jesus clearly intended to teach more through these miracles than the mere fact that he is the Messiah. These miracles possess what some New Testament scholars have called “parabolic significance,” that is, they are miracles that also function like parables. Make no mistake. These were true miracles that Jesus actually performed in real history. On the other hand, Jesus intended to teach spiritual truths through these miracles as well. These miracles serve as object lessons that teach those with eyes to see and ears to hear about Jesus’ work in saving sinners.

Jesus hinted at the spiritual lesson taught by the two miracles in a brief rebuke given to his disciples in a dialogue sandwiched between the two miracle accounts. “Don’t you understand or comprehend? Is your heart hardened?” he asked. Then borrowing words from Jer. 5:21 and Ezek. 12:2, he charged, “Do you have eyes, and not see, and do you have ears, and not hear?” The occurrence of this discussion in between the healing of the blind man and the healing of the deaf man is no coincidence. The discussion shows that Jesus saw the blind and deaf as pictures of the spiritual condition of lost humanity. The miracles show that just as Jesus has the power to give sight to those who are physically blind and hearing to those who are physically deaf, he has the power to impart spiritual sight to the spiritually blind and spiritual hearing to the spiritually deaf.

This intention of Jesus is confirmed in John 9. Immediately after Jesus healed the man born blind (John 9:1-34), Jesus once again engaged in a discussion of spiritual blindness: “I came into this world for judgment, in order that those who do not see will see and those who do see will become blind” (John 9:39). The Pharisees understood Jesus’ meaning and retorted, “We aren’t blind too, are we?”

The Apostle Paul was deeply influenced by Jesus’ teaching regarding the lost person’s spiritual blindness and Jesus’ ability to grant spiritual sight. He described unbelievers as spiritually blind: “The god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers so they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). Notice that Paul did not say that unbelievers are merely visually impaired and will have difficulty seeking the light of the gospel as if it will eventually become clear to them if they only squint hard enough. No, unbelievers are “blinded” and they “cannot see.” Only God could heal sinners of their spiritual blindness. Doing so required the unleashing of God’s miraculous power, the very power displayed in the creation of the universe: “For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).

Not only is Christ’s gracious and glorious work of granting sight to the spiritually blind attested by Scripture and premiered in our great hymns, it is celebrated in our current Baptist confession. Article II, Section C of the Baptist Faith and Message explains the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation with these words: “Through illumination He [the Holy Spirit] enables men to understand truth.” The word “enables” implies that men are unable to understand the truth on their own. God must grant the ability to understand truth. He does so by removing the scales from blind eyes, opening deaf ears, enlightening a darkened mind, and softening a hard heart.

Newton was thoroughly convinced of this. In his autobiography, Newton wrote, “I was so strangely blind and stupid” (Letter II).  But he exclaimed, “The Lord at length opened my eyes” (Letter II). He confessed, “Till then I was like the man possessed by the legion [of demons]. No arguments, no persuasion, no views of interest, no remembrance of the past, or regard to the future, could have constrained me within the bounds of common prudence” (Letter IX).

Some theological views essentially rewrite the theology of Newton’s hymn in a manner that glorifies human ability more than divine grace. Lost sinners are not really blind, just slightly near-sighted. God did not give us sight, just cleared a few things up.

This view of grace might be amusing, but it is hardly amazing. I think that Newton got it right. A biblical view of “amazing grace” insists that when we were blind to the light of the gospel, God called light from darkness and gave us sight. Both Scripture and our Baptist confession insist that we did not understand and embrace the gospel because we were more intelligent or insightful than someone else, but because God mercifully performed a miracle that opened our blind eyes to His truth. Now that is truly amazing!