There may not be any subject more difficult to talk about publicly in this country than racial reconciliation. And in writing that first sentence, I realize some people don’t even like the term racial reconciliation! So feel free to substitute “race,” “racism,” “ethnicity,” or another term that says we’re “talking about Black-White tensions in this country.”
Of course, those aren’t the only racial tensions worth exploring, but Black-White is the racial relationship most fraught with pain and difficulty in American history. While many things in this post are relevant to a variety of majority-minority relationships, what I have chiefly in view is the relationship between African Americans and white descendants of Western European nations (i.e., people like me).
One more definition before getting to the point. The “we” in my title refers to Bible-believing, Jesus-loving, gospel-celebrating, sanctification-seeking, church-going Christians. “Evangelical” is what I have in mind by “we,” but I understand that this term is problematic for many. Nevertheless, I want to make clear that I’m not writing about Americans in general. I’m writing about Christians. And not just any Christians, but serious and sincere Christians—the sort of people, I’d like to think, who read blogs like this one. I have in mind honest, humble Bible men and women who are willing to thoughtfully listen and candidly engage in this difficult conversation, without trying to score cheap points or demonize those who disagree.
With all that by way of preface, let me be so bold (or foolish) as to attempt a list of things we (mostly) agree on and things we (probably) still don’t agree on. I don’t offer this as a comprehensive summary of recent conversations, nor do I list these things because they are the only things that matter (let alone, to suggest that the disagreements don’t really matter). What’s more, I don’t presume that the disagreements necessarily break down along racial lines. We mustn’t think that any racial or ethnic group is monolithic. These are disagreements I see among American Christians (of all kinds) about racial reconciliation, not necessarily divisions between Blacks and Whites (though they often are that too). I admit that my criteria for determining “agree” and “disagree” is subjective (e.g., blogs I’ve read, tweets I’ve seen, messages I’ve heard, conversations I’ve had). But perhaps working through an imperfect list like this can help us see how much we do agree on already and help us clarify what our continuing arguments are really about.
We agree that all people are made in the image of God and deserving of honor, respect, and protection. Every notion of racial superiority is a blasphemous denial of the imago dei (Gen. 1:27). There is no place for racial prejudice and ethnic favoritism in the church (Gal. 3:28; James 2:1). Where bigotry based on skin color exists, it should be denounced and repented of (Eph. 2:14; 1 John 3:15).
We do not agree on what else counts as racism or the degree to which our cultural, civic, and ecclesiastical institutions are basically race-blind, racialized, or outright racist.
2. Racial Disparities
We agree that there are deep and disturbing differences between Blacks and Whites when it comes to a variety of statistical measurements, including: education, employment, income, incarceration, home ownership, standardized test scores, single-parent households, and participation at the highest levels of leadership in business, academics, athletics, and politics.
We do not all agree on the reasons for these disparities, whether they are owing to personal choices, cultural values, families of origin, educational opportunities, structural racism, legacy of oppression, or a combination of these and other factors. Likewise, we do not agree on the best approach to closing these gaps. Some favor political measures, others focus on educational reform, others emphasize church planting and discipleship, while others work for cultural renewal and community development. Many Christians see the need for all of the above, but even here there is disagreement about what the church’s focus should be.
3. Martin Luther King Jr.
We agree that MLK was a courageous civil-rights activist worth remembering and celebrating. MLK was used by God to help expose racial bigotry and overturn a corrupt system of Jim Crow segregation. King’s clearsighted moral convictions about racism, his brilliant rhetoric, and his example of non-violence in the face of intense hatred make him a heroic figure in American history.
We do not agree on how gospel Christians should celebrate this legacy. While most people acknowledge that King held unorthodox theological positions and was guilty of marital infidelity, we are not of one mind on how these matters should be discussed or how they relate to his overall contribution to American and ecclesiastical life. In a similar vein, we do not agree on how to evaluate the legacy of clay-footed theologians like Jonathan Edwards or Robert Lewis Dabney.
4. American History
We agree that our history has much to celebrate: far-sighted leaders, Judeo-Christian ideals, commendable heroes, technological innovation, and military sacrifices. There are many reasons we can be proud to be Americans.
We do not agree on whether our history should be remembered chiefly as one of liberty and virtue (spotted with tragic failures and blind spots), or whether our national story (despite many noble exceptions) is more fundamentally one of hypocrisy, prejudice, and oppression.
5. Current State of Affairs
We agree that race relations have come a long way in the past 50 years. Things are better than they used to be. We also agree that racism still exists and that even if we play by the rules and pursue the American Dream with the same effort, we do not all begin at the same starting line or experience the same success.
We do not agree on whether our cultural, political, and academic institutions are basically fair (with exceptions) or basically rigged and in need of structural change (with repentance for the majority’s part in perpetuating systemic bias). For example, in just the last year I read a thoughtful book by a white man arguing that the deck is stacked (by Whites), and has always been stacked (by Whites), against African Americans. I also read a thoughtful book by a black man arguing that racism is largely a thing of the past and that focusing on Black victimhood is self-defeating. (I realize, of course, that neither book is representative of the way most Whites and Blacks think, respectively, of the issue.)
6. Corporate Responsibility
We agree that it is appropriate, in some situations, for Christians, for Christian institutions, and for churches to be rebuked for corporate sins and to repent of corporate failures. The Old Testament prophets often denounced the nation of Israel, even though individuals within the nation were certainly living in holiness and integrity. Likewise, we see that Daniel offered a prayer of confession for his people, even though he likely was not personally guilty of all the sins he confessed (Dan. 9:1-19). In the New Testament, we see that the Jews were held responsible for Christ’s death, even though some Jews followed Jesus and lamented his death.
We do not agree when and how—and in many situations whether—this corporate accountability and repentance should take place. We do not agree on how (or if) the passage of time, racial identity, and ecclesiastical affiliation should shape these matters. Similarly, we do not agree what should be done, if anything, beyond repenting for corporate sin.
7. Politics and the Church
We agree that the church of Jesus Christ must not be beholden to any political party. We agree that the church is neither competent nor called to offer opinion on the specifics of every political debate or policy discussion. Preachers should, as a general rule, preach verse by verse through the Bible, letting God’s word set the agenda, rather than riding hobby horses or trying to respond to the latest controversy. At the same time, we agree that Christians, churches, and pastors should not be silent on matters of justice about which the Bible clearly speaks.
We do not agree on how the “spirituality of the church” applies in every situation (or if it is a biblical idea in the first place). At its best, the “spirituality of the church” roots us in the explicit teaching of Scripture and helps us keep the main thing the main thing. At its worst, the “spirituality of the church” has been used to ignore evil in our midst and sidestep issues of biblical obedience. While we recognize that the gospel is of first importance and that the gospel has public ramifications, we do not always agree on how these two convictions play out side-by-side in real time. There is little agreement on which issues are “moral” and “biblical” and which are merely “political.”
8. Systemic Injustice
We agree that sin is not just a matter of individual responsibility. It is possible for systems and structures to be unjust even when the people inhabiting those systems and structures may not have personal animus in their hearts.
We do not agree on whether disparities themselves indicate systemic and structural injustice (see above). Likewise, we do not agree on the best remedies for institutional racism where it exists.
9. Police and Judicial System
We agree that our country imprisons far more of its citizens than any other nation does. We also recognize that minorities are imprisoned at rates disproportionate to their population as whole. The presence of mass incarceration has a deleterious effect on many minority communities and families, as well as in the lives of those who are imprisoned.
We do not agree on the reasons for mass incarceration or whether the disproportionate imprisonment of minorities is a sign of entrenched bias. We do not agree on the nature of policing nor on the state of our judicial system, whether both are (largely) fair and colorblind or whether both are prejudiced (intentionally or unintentionally) against persons of color. By the same token, we often respond differently to stories involving the police and African Americans, either siding instinctively with law enforcement officers or assuming that each questionable encounter is another example of pervasive police brutality.
10. Sunday Morning
We agree that the biblical vision of heaven is a glorious picture of a multi-ethnic throng gathered in worship of our Triune God. We would rejoice to see our churches reflect this biblical vision more and more. To that end, we lament our cultural blind spots (and don’t know we have!), which make it more difficult for people unlike us to feel at home and be in positions of leadership and influence in our churches.
We do not agree to what degree this “segregation” on Sunday morning is the result of present sin, historical sin, personal preference, unfortunate cultural ignorance, or understandable and acceptable differences in worship and tradition. We do not agree on whether all churches must be multi-ethnic, should at least strive to be multi-ethnic (as their location allows), or whether there are ever justifiable reasons (and if so, what those reasons are) for a church to be entirely (or nearly) mono-cultural. And if the pursuit of racial diversity is desirable, we do not agree on whether this multi-ethnic vision is just for predominately White congregations, conferences, and communities or if it also applies to historically Black churches, conferences, and communities.
11. The Church and the World
We agree that the Bible calls the church to be honest about its own sins (1 Peter 4:17) and to keep itself unstained from the world (James 1:27). As salt and light, we should be distinct from the world, while at the same time having a salutary effect on the world.
We do not agree on which is the more urgent need of the hour, to repent of our sin and renew our witness in the world, or to spotlight sin in the world and keep ourselves free from its corrupting influence. We know both are necessary, but our personal and corporate inclinations often lean in one direction more than the other. Likewise, we often disagree on what urgency looks like in racial reconciliation and whether this conversation should or shouldn’t take precedence over other moral issues like protecting the unborn and defending biblical marriage and sexuality.
Why This Matters
I’m sure I missed some important categories, and some of my own leanings probably show through in the way I’ve framed the issues. But as much as possible, I tried to state the agreements and disagreements fairly and matter-of-factly.
“To what end?!” You may ask. Toward several ends.
First, in laying out a list like this, perhaps we’ll be able to better isolate what we are arguing about at any given moment. With racial matters, we are often guilty of making every conversation about everything else. So even though the disagreement started off by talking about colonial American history, we ended up arguing about Donald Trump, mass incarceration, and corporate repentance. To be sure, sometimes everything is connected to everything, but I still maintain that our conversations will produce more light than heat if we can focus in on one argument at a time.
Second, my hope is that if we can focus on specific disagreements, rather than meta-complaints, we’ll have a better chance of putting forward constructive criticisms and thoughtful rejoinders. I don’t deny that “racism” is a thing, just like “cultural Marxism” is a thing, but let’s be careful not to smother our opponents in labels when we should be respectfully piling up facts and arguments instead. Being “slow to speak” doesn’t mean we can never say anything. It means we try to understand, try to sympathize, and try to explain instead of dismissing our (good faith) interlocutors out of hand or stigmatizing them with unwanted names and isms.
And finally, maybe a list like this can help us put our arguments in the appropriate categories. Let me be clear: all of the disagreements above are important, and Christians should be engaged in all of these debates. By laying out these disagreements, I’m not suggesting we now ignore them or act as if no answer is better than another. And yet, we ought to recognize that some of these disagreements are biblical and theological (e.g., the nature of corporate repentance, the entailments of the gospel, the dignity of all image bearers), while others are matters of history or policy, while still others require a good deal of expertise on sociology, law, economics, and criminology. By more carefully isolating our real disagreements we will be better equipped to talk responsibly, listen respectfully, find common ground, and move in the direction of possible solutions.