One message rang clear from a two-hour dialogue of Christian leaders gathered Tuesday night in Memphis at the historic Lorraine Motel and National Civil Rights Museum: American evangelicals have far to go in race relations, but the gospel is enough to bring about genuine reconciliation.  

Two different panels devoted one hour each to discussing issues of church and race. The first included Thabiti Anyabwile, Voddie Baucham, Matt Chandler, and Darrin Patrick, and the second featured Derwin Gray, Eric Mason, Trillia Newbell, John Piper, and Albert Tate. Bryan Loritts, lead pastor of Fellowship Memphis, a multi-ethnic megachurch launched in 2003, and leader of Kainos, organized the event and served on both panels. Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, moderated the dicussion, which can be viewed here.

Called “A Time to Speak” and sponsored by The Gospel Coalition, the event was held at the hotel where Martin Luther King Jr. was slain on April 4, 1968. Loritts said he hopes the panel will provoke discussion among evangelicals and help them to see that they should be leading gospel-driven transformation in how ethnic groups relate to each other. 

“I am deeply indebted to the civil rights movement—Dr. Ralph David Abernathy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young—because of them I can sit in any seat on any bus I like, drink out of any water fountain,” Loritts said. “While the civil rights movement changed laws, it couldn’t change hearts. That’s where God working through his people and already/not-yet kingdom of God called the church, that’s where we can offer some help. So my hope is that we would be able to point the way forward and not so much dwell on the forensics of the case, but speak to the injustice and offer the world the true hope that comes through the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  

TGC Council members Thabiti Anyabwile and Voddie Baucham debated the key points of Baucham’s recent article, viewed more than 1 million times in the wake of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, that followed a grand jury's decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson after he shot and killed Michael Brown in August. Baucham spotlighted absentee fathers and the proliferation of intraracial violence among African Americans in his analysis. Anyabwile disagreed with Baucham’s characterization of Brown as reaping what he sowed in his confrontation with Wilson. 

Baucham said he was attempting to say something important that other writers were not. 

“For me, when I look at this, regardless of all the other issues surrounding it and the facts that are being debated and disputed, one of the things that we have to keep in mind is the fact that Eric Garner and Mike Brown were not Martin Luther King Jr,” Baucham said. “There is a difference. There is a distinction between individuals who are living lives that represent what we are fighting for and individuals who are living lives that represent what we are trying to rise above. For me, that was the note that was important to hit that wasn’t being hit.”

While Baucham says America’s justice system is not perfect, he rejects the category of systemic injustice in America against any particular race. An increase in minorities holding high offices such as the presidency offers evidence against it, he said. Anyabwile countered that it is naive to argue against the presence of systemic injustice.

“I think it’s ahistorical and is very close to willfully ignorant to argue that there are no systemic injustices in this country, either in its history or in its present,” Anyabwile said. “To argue that because we have some high-profile exemplars like the president, the attorney general, and so on, I think we rob ourselves of the sanctifying power of the gospel when the Spirit confronts us about this sin. Racism is just a species of alienation from the fall. It is a particular kind of alienation that operates systematically along the lines of ethnicity, skin color, and so on.”  

TGC Council member Darrin Patrick, lead pastor of The Journey in St. Louis, said he has addressed race issues from the pulpit because Jesus addresses them in the Gospels. Given the tumult in America over race relations due to the Ferguson, Missouri, case and the July death of Eric Garner while being arrested in New York City, Patrick said the time has never been better for local churches to bring biblical light to the issue.

“It’s going to be polarizing, it’s going to be difficult, people are going to disagree,” Patrick said, “but if we can’t have those conversations in the church, how can we possibly expect the world to have them? It’s our chance to have that conversation.”

Albert Tate, lead pastor of Fellowship Monrovia, pointed out that every person, regardless of ethnic background, struggles with racism, because every person is a sinner.

“We are here at the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated not because we got it right, but because we got it wrong,” Tate said. “We have to build churches where we push disciples toward one another. There is a vertical push, but there has to be a horizontal push. . . . We’ve got to push to make an intentional step to understand one another, a step in one another’s story. . . . I’m a racist—I’m a recovering racist because of God’s grace—all of us, we’re all recovering racists.”

John Piper urged pastors not to be cowards in the pulpit on social issues such as abortion and race, exhorting them to “pre-empt issues biblically” by teaching on them from Scripture long before they hit the news cycle. Pastors should not think of racism as a temporary crisis that will eventually fade away, but as a sinful reality that will remain until Jesus returns. As to the state of racial reconciliation and the church, Piper sees the present situation as a mixture of positive and negative. 

“There’s discouraging things to see and there’s encouraging things to see (on racial issues and the church),” Piper said. “This is encouraging: the number of young, black, theologically rich, socially aware men feels fresh to me. You didn’t see that a generation ago. That feels really hopeful.”