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”

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)

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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.

Aspect 4(a): A Mission Focused on This Nation (Confront the Brutal Facts)

(By: Danny Akin & Bruce Ashford)

Our convention must confront the brutal facts:

In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus commands us to make disciples of all nations. This includes our own nation-the United States of America-and yet the truth is that we are failing to meet the challenge. While the population of our nation increases, the population of our churches has not kept pace. While the United States becomes increasingly diverse, the Southern Baptist Convention remains a mostly middle-class, mostly white, network of mostly-declining churches.[1] This is a painful truth, and to ignore this fact is the worst form of denial.

It is not as if the churches of the SBC have not tried to reach their own towns and cities. Many of them have worked hard to reach their cities and many of them have more or less succeeded. But the truth of the matter is that we are losing the battle. Our nation is becoming increasingly post-Christian and we are not stemming the tide. Perhaps one of the reasons that we are losing the battle is that we are “aiming at” a culture that no longer exists. The SBC built its programs and its personality, if you will, in the 1950s. But we find ourselves in a socio-cultural context that varies significantly from that of 50 years ago. Many of our churches no longer have the luxury of communicating the gospel within a city that has basically one culture. Instead, they find themselves communicating across numerous cultural and sub-cultural divides. [2]

In years past, many of us found ourselves ministering in regions heavily influenced by Christianity, but now often we do not. Many, if not most, of our neighbors had sufficient knowledge of the biblical narrative to understand “sermonese,” but now they do not. In a previous era there were common categories for moral discourse, but now these categories are less and less common. There was a day when we were able to build our churches by inviting people to church events but now we find it hard to do so. So, how do we conceive of the task of communicating the gospel effectively to the various cultures and sub-cultures of our own country? How can we create and implement a missiology that will enable us to win the lost, make disciples, and plant churches in an increasingly larger array of American socio-cultural contexts? In a nutshell, how can we build missional churches and a missional convention?

Our mission must be cross-cultural:

The United States is increasingly multicultural, multiethnic, and multilinguistic, as immigrants from around the world now live in our own cities and suburbs. Many of the tribes, tongues, and peoples of Revelation 5 are right here on our doorstep. Further, there is a dizzying variety of sub-cultures within the broader American culture, each with their own distinctive beliefs and ways of life. Many of them do not have even a basic understanding of Christian worldview or vocabulary. Southern Baptists missionaries and pastors in North America must take their own cultural contexts as seriously as Southern Baptist missionaries take their international contexts.

We must seek to understand the cultures and sub-cultures around us so that we can preach the gospel faithfully and meaningfully within the framework of our neighbors’ cultural and social contexts, and plant churches that are at home in the culture. We must preach the gospel faithfully, allowing it to be defined and delimited by the Scriptures. We must also preach the gospel meaningfully, so that the hearer understands the gospel in the same way that the preacher intends it. The concept of the gospel might be foreign to them, but we may communicate it in language and constructs that are not. By doing so, we are able to preach the gospel clearly within the framework of the audience’s cultural, sub-cultural, and situational contexts.

The way we preach the gospel affects the way the audience receives it. Many church planters, pastors, teachers, and authors have pointed out that if evangelical churches are to be missional, they must make changes in their preaching. Southern Baptists are no exception. When Southern Baptist churches were ministering in the Bible Belt in the mid-to-late twentieth century, they ministered to a population who had some (or much) knowledge of the biblical narrative, and there was a common language for moral discourse. But in the 21st century, we find ourselves in a context where many people have little or no knowledge of the Scriptures or Christian language. How do we communicate the gospel effectively in this situation? Tim Keller is one church planter who has written extensively on this challenge.[3] He argues that:

The missional church avoids ‘tribal’ language, stylized prayer language, unnecessary evangelical pious ‘jargon’, and archaic language that seeks to set a ‘spiritual tone.’

  • The missional church avoids ‘we-them’ language, disdainful jokes that mock people of different politics and beliefs, and dismissive, disrespectful comments about those who differ with us.
  • The missional church avoids sentimental, pompous, ‘inspirational’ talk. Instead, we engage the culture with the gentle, self-deprecating, but joyful irony the gospel creates. Humility + joy = gospel irony and realism.
  • The missional church avoids ever talking as if non-believing people are not present. If you speak and discourse as if your whole neighborhood is present (not just scattered Christians), eventually more and more of your neighborhood will find their way in or be invited.
  • Unless all of the above is the outflow of a truly humble-bold gospel-changed heart, it is all just ‘marketing’ and ‘spin.’[4]

To Keller’s admonition, I would add this clarification. We are not proposing to give up biblical-theological language, the very grammar and vocabulary of our faith. Instead, we are proposing to speak to those who are gathered in such a way that they can understand the gospel. And we do so precisely so that we can draw them into the biblical world, where they will find a better set of categories for understanding God and his world as well as a deeper and more profound vocabulary for speaking of those things.


[1] For statistics on the SBC’s decline, see the recent statistics released by Lifeway Resources in June 2009: http://www.lifeway.com/lwc/article_main_page/0%2C1703%2CA%25253D169332%252526M%25253D201340%2C00.html.

[2] One particularly helpful treatment of ideological diversity in the United States is Gertrude Himmelfarb, One Nation, Two Cultures (New York: Vintage, 2001). Himmelfarb argues that the United States is a divided nation. On the one hand, there is a religious culture that has common categories for discourse and common convictions on ethical issuess. On the other hand, there is an elite culture that is very permissive on moral issues and does not share the religious culture’s moral language and categories.

[3] Tim Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, New York. Keller founded the church in the late 1980s, and since then has seen the church grow to more than 5,000 in attendance (in addition to 5,000 sermon downloads per week), most of whom were unchurched before finding Redeemer. More significantly, perhaps, is the fact that Redeemer’s church planting center has facilitated over 100 church plants. In January 2007, Outreach Magazine named Redeemer the top “Multiplying Church” in America. http://outreachmagazine.com/docs/25innov_JA07.pdf.

[4] Tim Keller, “The Missional Church,” (June 2001) http://www.redeemer2.com/resources/papers/missional.pdf. Also, this material is explained in Tim Keller and J. Allen Thompson, Church Planter Manual (New York: Redeemer Church Planting Center, 2002), 224-5.