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Race and the church

How much do our enduring divisions grieve God?

Race and the church

(Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images; Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

My younger brother and I grew up very close playmates. He’s about two years younger than me—the perfect age gap for me to boss him around while still sharing similar maturity levels and interests. I remember him following me around everywhere, and together we played Power Rangers, jumped rope, performed mock criminal trials (my brother was always the criminal, I the prosecutor), and when we got into trouble, we hugged each other piteously and cried. 

That kind of camaraderie eroded over the years. We hung out less and less, and part of that was natural—he had his friends, I had mine, and we were two drastically different personalities. But then when we were both young adults, a conflict arose, and it lingered until soon we barely had any genuine relationship beyond sharing the same blood. It wasn’t that we were hostile to one another; we just grew apart, and made very little attempt to preserve our sibling bond.

At the time, I felt like I was fine with it—but it broke my parents’ hearts. When I admitted to them that my brother and I hadn’t called or texted each other in a while, my parents would look despondent and shake their heads. “Remember those days when you guys were joined at the hip?” my mother would sigh. And my father would say, “Nothing pains us more than to see our own kids not in harmony.”

I thought of my parents’ broken hearts when I read the controversial Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel and observed the responses among my evangelical brethren to it. The statement, released in early September, warns Christians about “an onslaught of dangerous and false teachings that threaten the gospel, misrepresent Scripture, and lead people away from the grace of God in Jesus Christ.” As I write this, more than 8,500 individuals have signed the statement, including individuals I respect. And it seems to have lit a fuse within our evangelical circles.

Keeping the church rooted and centered on the gospel is an imperative goal. Unfortunately, the statement seems to be criticizing an idea so broad and ambiguous, using terms so imprecise and contentious, that it probably has further blurred the evangelical stance rather than clarifying it. Though the statement also condemns cultural narratives about sexuality and gender roles, the conversation it has sparked among evangelicals predominantly centers on race.

That’s because when it comes to “social justice” issues, most conservative evangelicals agree on what the Bible says about abortion, sexuality, gender roles, and caring for the widows and orphans. But when it comes to the matter of race, it sometimes feels like we’re not reading the same Bible. The statement—and the reactions to it—exposes just how far away we in the church are from true racial reconciliation.

Though I am neither black nor white, nor even a natural-born American, seeing the pervasive racial division within my brothers and sisters in Christ grieves me. Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in America, and even in racially diverse churches such as mine, segregation persists in subtle yet powerful ways. I remember my parents’ own grief over the emotional distance between my brother and me, and I think, “How much more does God grieve to see His children harboring so much misunderstanding and apathy and bitterness against one another?” 

The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel comes in the wake of the deaths of Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, Black Lives Matter, the 2016 election, and Charlottesville. It also comes in the wake of various churches and leaders attempting to address racial reconciliation, such as publicly confessing sins of racism, preaching about racial reconciliation from the pulpit, and holding an MLK50 conference to discuss the state of racial unity in the church.

For some people, this statement is a rightful censure against the encroaching leftist identity politics that crowns victimhood and idolizes skin color. They see how quickly such a mentality has invaded college campuses and mainstream media, recoil at the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore and Charlotte, and worry when they hear fellow Christians mix similar political buzzwords with Scripture.

But to other communities, this statement reeks of past rhetoric that condoned racism—back to the 1800s when some churches claimed addressing slavery would distract people from the gospel, back to the civil rights era when certain groups labeled civil rights leaders as “Communists,” accusing them of trying to undermine American democracy and incite havoc through interracial marriages.

A day after I read the statement, I had lunch with a reporter from a major newspaper in his 50s and a comic book writer in his 30s. The reporter is black, the comic book writer is white, I’m Asian, and we’re all professing Christians. We got together over burgers and iced tea because we wanted to seek community as believers in a lonely writing field. And somehow, we got to the topic of race.

In addition to his journalistic career, the reporter runs a ministry with his wife that allows him to engage with hundreds of churches and church leaders, and he says those interactions have left him tired, frustrated, and discouraged as an African-American man. So he had a lot to say about this subject and I had a lot of questions, while the comic book writer mainly listened. For the next three hours, the reporter aired out his grievances about living in a society where the police pull him over and the store manager tails him simply for his skin color. But his greater grievance comes from the church’s response.

When he tried to talk about racial injustice—such as racial profiling—with the pastor’s wife at a predominantly white suburban church, she said, “Well, that’s not a racial issue, that’s a safety issue.” Another time, he had to listen to some folks talk tactlessly about how many of the social ills come from fatherless black families, when he was standing right there with his black wife and two black sons. 

It’s not that these people are overtly racist, but they seem tone-deaf and dismissive to the pressing concerns of other communities—concerns not just pertaining to extreme cases such as White Supremacist rallies and police shootings, but also to everyday injustices that others might not notice and to unequal socioeconomic status. Some laws have to change, he said, because “the law has everything to do with how I treat my fellow human beings—loving our neighbor as ourselves.” Then he said, “My question is: What are Christians who refuse to deal with social justice issues really afraid of?”

In 2016, 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for a shoot-from-the-mouth, sexually immoral president to right the social wrong of abortion. So why are many in this same group so unwilling to right the other social wrongs that daily affect people of color? The reporter has his answer: “It’s all about power and money.” Church leaders are unwilling to take on controversial stances and lose tithe-giving members, he said.

Hearing the finality in his voice disheartened me. I told the reporter that I couldn’t share his cynicism. It was hard for me to conclude so quickly that the main intention behind many so-called “white” churches is to hold onto their cultural dominance. “I’ve still got to have hope,” I said. The reporter chuckled and sighed: “Well, this is me speaking at 55 years old. When you get to my age….”

That conversation and the statement have left me semi-obsessed about the race issue. I don’t want to be 55 years old and jaded. I have little faith in the state of mankind without Christ. They fight for principles that they don’t even realize derive from the gospel, and they usually find ways to pervert them. We legally ended slavery, which gave way to sharecropping, then to Jim Crow laws and lynching, then to racial zoning and mass incarceration. Somehow, racism and oppression stayed, shedding one skin for another. Today, I see fresh wounds continue bleeding as each group tries to silence and guilt and delegitimize the other.

But regarding the future of the church, I’m confused: Isn’t the gospel enough? Shouldn’t the natural process of salvation and sanctification uproot the sins of racism and arrogance and unforgiveness, and heal all wounds and animosity, which would lead towards racial harmony? Why then, with all our Bible studies and theological podcasts and revival conferences, do we seem to be more divided than ever? Why is it that historically, many of the so-called theologically sound churches chose to stay silent while the progressive mainline Protestant churches chose to stand up for justice? Is that what we’re doing now? What are we missing?

Last year, I made a resolution to be consistent about reaching out to my brother. We live in opposite coasts, so it’s easy to be out of sight, out of mind. I decided to text him at least once a week. It felt unnatural and awkward at first, and sometimes I wasn’t sure what to say to him, given that our lives are so different now—he a married man driving a Porsche SUV in suburban Virginia, I a single woman pumping a second-hand bike (now stolen) in Los Angeles. But I realized we weren’t going to magically reconcile without at least one side intentionally doing something about it.

Then this July, my niece was born. Her name is Praise. She entered life as a pink alien-looking thing, and now her delicate features are molding every day into a cute smiling, squealing, snuggling human bean. I save all her photos on my iPhone and smile whenever I see that little face—which is a miracle, since I am not a lover of babies. But what can I say? She’s family. My blood pumps in her veins, my DNA frames the eyebrows on her forehead, and I pray to God she doesn’t inherit my temper. I didn’t choose to love her, but I do, and I will make efforts to love her, because we’re family.

Comments

  • MamaC
    Posted: Sat, 10/06/2018 09:12 pm

    Sophia, you have touched my heart! You always do, but this is golden! Perhaps it is because you are "neither black nor white, nor even a natural-born American" that you can see so clearly what many of us are too close to see. I know and love many who are not "overtly racist, but they seem tone-deaf and dismissive." I recognize that I have also been afflicted with this syndrome. Perhaps we should learn from and emulate "the comic book writer [who] mainly listened." We have much to learn.

  • Xion's picture
    Xion
    Posted: Tue, 10/09/2018 12:17 am

    Sophia, what is the biblical perspective on race and why shouldn't Christians promote it?  There is only one race, the human race.  Even modern anthropology agrees.  Race is one of the world's great lies.  Racism is the result of believing this lie.  Shouldn't the church stand for the truth?

    Every time Jesus called himself the Son of Man, he was saying Ben haAdam, i.e. son of Adam, which in Hebrew is how one says 'human'.  Jesus taught that we are all part of Adam's race, being children of the first marriage.  Shouldn't the church teach what Jesus taught?

    You say that white Christians aren't overtly racist by pointing out where crime is often found or the root causes.  Well, that is not even slightly racist.  Churches are not segregated by race as much as by style.  When I travel I attend churches of all styles, but if I want solid theology, then my choices are narrowed.  Seeking sound theology is not racist.  

    The quicker Christians drop the diversity nonsense and begin standing firm on the truth, the sooner we may be able to help free others from the bondage of racist identity politics, which is choking the unity and love of Christ.  Christians should be color blind.  To be otherwise is in itself racist.  Let us define people by the content of their character already!

  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Tue, 10/09/2018 01:58 pm

    I agree that the statement is too broad.  I disagree that it "reeks" of rhetoric used by the old racists.  It certainly may spark some useful conversation, if people will listen to each other.

  • JENNIFER HUTCHISON
    Posted: Tue, 10/09/2018 03:04 pm

    I think one thing we are afraid of is admitting there is a problem we don't know how to solve. If we admit the pervasive existence of ethnically based discrimination, we feel like we have to fix it, and many of the proposed fixes are where a lot of disagreement centers. That makes sense, because an entrenched issue is entrenched with politics, theology, and personalities, etc. So it's easier to cut the discussion off at the roots.  I think it might help the discussion if we were willing to start with just saying "I hear what you are describing, and I grieve with you that you experience that."  We can agree on problems without having to agree on specific solutions, but at least then we would have a relationship to support working together to find the solutions. Or even agreeing to take different tactics toward the same goal, but with a familial spirit.