Yesterday, I reviewed Alan Cross’ new book, When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus. Today, Alan joins me on the blog to discuss the subversion of Southern churches during the slavery and Jim Crow era and how the church can model sacrificial love.
Trevin: You’ve written about how Southern churches were subverted by the racial idolatry of their day. What do you think kept so many Southern evangelicals from engaging in the civil rights movement?
Alan: I was born and raised in the South, and my family is all from the South. My ancestors fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, so this is a personal issue for me. I am not carpetbagging here. Like many Southerners, I always had an interest in history, and as a Christian who grew up in the church, I had trouble reconciling our history on race with what I saw in Scripture.
As a boy, I remember asking older family members why racism existed and why whites and blacks were separated. The most common answer was that that’s just how things were. People didn’t think much about it.
The more that I explored the issue as an adult, the more that I became aware of the reality that Southern culture and Southern religion became good at compartmentalizing and using the Christian faith in ways that ended up enhancing our “way of life.” We focused on personal morality and private religion and success. And in our evangelistic zeal, we cared about the individual soul being saved.
But our spiritual concern did not touch on systemic injustice in society, or on how whole races and classes of people were treated. We had a truncated gospel that was concerned with getting to heaven when we died, but was not as concerned with confronting a racist and fundamentally unjust society, even though the Southern evangelical church had great power in that society. We could have changed things if we had wanted to, but we didn’t because it didn’t benefit us to address the status quo.
Trevin: As you were researching the history of these times, what was the biggest surprise you encountered?
Alan: Probably my biggest surprise involved discovering the role that Greek philosophy played in developing the attitudes of Southerner’s in relation to slavery and racism. The novelist and philosopher Walker Percy said that the South was more Greek than Christian in its disposition and passion in many ways.
This perspective really opened up my understanding as to why Southerners, with the Bible in hand, were able to justify race-based slavery. It is because they were reading Paul through the lens of Aristotle instead of the other way around. In doing so, their Christianity, in many regards, was subverted to the spirit of the age. They used the Bible to support and justify the cultural status quo.
I write a whole section on how I came to discover that Paul was actually dismantling Aristotle’s categories of natural slavery in his New Testament letters instead of supporting the practice. This understanding has a lot of implications for current debates on how the Bible is used. It also serves as a warning to all of us that we can easily subvert Scripture to the common cultural expectations so we can be accepted by others. It is a strong temptation for every generation.
Trevin: You believe our racial problems go back to disobedience of Philippians 2, and our unwillingness to engage in sacrificial love for others when it comes at great expense to ourselves. Racism is, then, a symptom of a more fundamental problem that can be expressed in other ways. What are some other ways that fundamental lack of love is expressed today?
Alan: Right. The book looks at racism as an obvious problem, but really, it is about much more than the church’s history of racial division. We should not point a finger at those in the past in a judgmental or self-righteous way without first considering the logs in our own eye. While, hopefully, we are not turning a blind eye to horrors like human slavery, we still have our own sins and blind spots that we will give an account for. That is the ultimate point of the book.
Sacrificial love is the key to the Christian life. Loving God and loving people is what Jesus calls us to. So, whenever we are not considering others better than ourselves and looking after not just our own interests, but also the interests of others, we are betraying the Lord’s commands and are living a way of life that actually leads to death.
Some of the ways that we act to promote our own “way of life” over and above others and live for our own interests can be found in how we spend our money and our time. We have been blessed with enormous economic resources here in America. What do we do with it? What do we do with our freedom and our time? How do we coalesce our political power and interest? Do we think first about what benefits us or do we think about the needs of others?
I hear people justify almost any action that they take by saying, “I have to think first about what is best for me and my family.” That is often a discussion stopper. But, what if we are called to think first about what God wants and how He might use us for His glory instead of simply trying to preserve our own life and prosperity?
These are difficult things for Americans, but when we are thinking first about ourself and our own “way of life,” our motivation might not be that far different from the slave owners of the past, even if the consequences of our self-centeredness might be less acute, at least directly. The error is compounded when we adapt our religion to meet our own desires instead of letting our hearts and lives be thoroughly changed by the person and work of Christ.
Trevin: What are some practical steps pastors and church leaders can take to ensure that our churches aren’t succumbing to a consumerism that enshrines certain racial attitudes and practices?
Alan: I spend a good bit of time working through practical things in the last third of the book. I am a big believer that when we first lay our lives down for God and then for others, then we will be guided by the Spirit and Scripture into ways that we can live creatively as people who are blessed by God to be a blessing for others.
I do not necessarily advocate that everyone move to Africa as a missionary or that everyone sell all that they have and give it away just to show how sacrificial they are or to prove a point. Rather, we need to think better and more “Christianly” about the decisions that we make, especially in relation to how we see others that we perceive to be different from us.
Much of the solution can be found in the doctrine of vocation: God places us in many different spheres to live our lives as servants cooperating with God who represent His ways and Kingdom through sacrificial love. Instead of thinking first about how an action benefits us, we must first think about how we can love and serve others. This means that we really need to stop seeing the world through the lens of our personal preference and start thinking first about how we can be a blessing.
To live missionally, we have to understand the sins embedded in our history and we have to think about how loving sacrificially across racial and socioeconomic lines speaks loudly that Jesus is our motivation rather than just seeking after our own gain. That is an apologetic that cannot be argued with. When we lay down our lives for others, whether that manifests in how we spend our money or our time or how and who we worship with, we find that God brings forth a better life than we ever could have grasped for ourselves if we were getting our way.
I try to not to tell people exactly what they are to do, because I want to position the reader to be able to see the dangers of pursuing their own interests above others while also learning how to listen to God’s voice in relation to loving others sacrificially in their own context. I do give specific ideas, but they are more about how we can think about things so that we will be positioned to make godly and loving choices each day.
Trevin: What role does the local church have in correcting the errors of the past in regard to race and the use of religion for self-promotion?
Alan: The local church is uniquely positioned to be, as Eugene Peterson calls it, “a colony of heaven in the country of death.” We get to tell a better story of God’s redemption, salvation, grace, and sacrificial love found only in Jesus through how we live, worship, and serve together. We get to both proclaim and demonstrate the gospel to a world that doesn’t understand grace or transformation and that is stuck in deadly categories that divide and hinder human flourishing.
In the church, we can give a picture of heaven and truly demonstrate who Jesus is. So, I talk a lot about the church being the place where people from all different walks of life can come together and be one in Christ. I think that living out our theology this way is necessary if we are going to have any real credibility, especially when we consider our own culpability in the injustices of the past.
In a world that continues to struggle with racism and economic and social divisions, what kind of story does it tell when Christians are divided along the same lines? When we only gather with people like us? So, putting aside our own preferences for our earthly cultures and prosperity and embracing a Kingdom Culture that makes room at the table for people from different races and socio-economic backgrounds should be considered a primary way that we both become disciples of Christ and also live missional lives.
The church does not exist to promote our own preferences. Rather, it exists as a place where we are conformed to the image of Christ and where we tell a Kingdom story as we hold out the word of life together.
When we engage in relationships of sacrificial love with people who are different from us, we end up giving and receiving grace and forgiveness and we tear down strongholds in our lives and in our culture. The world might be perpetually divided, but the church tells a better story.
Galatians 3:26-29, Colossians 3:11, and 2 Corinthians 5:16-17 speak to this. We are one in Christ and we are not to regard anyone from a worldly point of view, but only according to the new creation. The local church is the place where all of this happens and it is the place where we must come together in Christ if we are to truly know Him or if we have anything worth saying to the world.