Race in America and the American Church

Part 10: Overcoming Cultural Division through Christ’s Ministry of Reconciliation

Orthodox Christianity alone has brought reconciliation to this world by acknowledging the image of God in men and women of all races, ethnicities, and cultures. In fact, the history of Christianity is one of eliminating slavery and racism. As Christians continue in this work, we must move past the myopic vision of the world on race and take a holistic, orthodox biblical approach to loving our neighbors as ourselves in our efforts to live out and take, congregationally and individually, Christ’s ministry of reconciliation to the ends of the earth.

 

Read Part 9 here.

The people of God are tasked with making disciples of all nations and loving our neighbors as ourselves while the church feeds Jesus’ sheep. However, discipling, loving, and even feeding neighbors different from ourselves is always difficult. There are often significant cultural divides we must cross in this work—the truth that Christians are all one in Jesus Christ is not yet fully manifest even in the church.

One of those cultural divides in America today is race. At times the divide between blacks and whites appears to be almost as wide as the chasm between Abraham and the rich man. But that is because of the world’s perspective that focuses on the color of people’s skin instead of on the unity through diversity found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Many American churches have grappled with how to bridge this divide. Their work, though, is often marred by the worldly counsel of focusing on skin color and the need to impose diversity on the church now, driven in part by the need to assuage the white guilt of allegedly being responsible for the poor economic and social conditions of many blacks today.

As individual congregations and members consider their leadership’s exhortations on racism and diversity, it is important to think about whether there is specific evidence of racism within their congregation, i.e., that their members have sinful attitudes toward blacks or others because of the color of their skin. Because it could be that their members struggle with loving their neighbors—a struggle every church will experience—because they come from different cultures, economic backgrounds, or political parties, not because of racism.

In some instances, churches will have in the past exhibited clear signs of racism, like churches in the 1950s and 1960s where black worshippers were blocked from attending. Even in these cases, it is important to consider if there are specific internal or external remnants of that racism still being experienced today. Poor social and economic conditions for minorities or the lack of racial/ethnic diversity in a congregation today is not sufficient reason for a session to tell its congregation it is responsible for what some might call the “bitter fruit” of past racism or to hastily push them toward diversity based on the color of someone’s skin.

There are cultural differences in our society often associated with racial categories, and there is no doubt that some members will have challenges in this area. But it is not enough to ask white members to look at their own biases without educating them on how members of other cultural backgrounds—including minorities—might regard them.

For instance, is there specific evidence indicating that any members of minority groups have sinful attitudes toward their neighbors? And that their sinful attitudes are based on the whiteness of their neighbors’ skin? Of course, the answer to these questions will sometimes be in the affirmative, just as it will for some whites’ attitudes toward minorities—racism is a two-way street.

A thorough discussion of race and racism requires an understanding of the many facets of this conversation today: culture versus race; the social gospel; what biblically-guided public policies look like vs. the worldly policies of today; the primary and secondary causes of black poverty, crime, and poor educational outcomes—and why these are being perpetuated; a historical perspective on slavery and on racism in the culture and the church; etc. Understanding these issues is important in the context of race relations because while we are always going to be confronted with the question of how to help the poor, that question today is too often synonymous with the question of how to help blacks and other minorities.

When the slaves were on the verge of emancipation during the civil war, the question was frequently asked what to do with the soon-to-be large population of potentially unemployed, homeless blacks. Frederick Douglas answered it this way:

Our answer is, do nothing with them; mind your business, and let them mind theirs. Your doing with them is their greatest misfortune. They have been undone by your doings, and all they now ask, and really have need of at your hands, is just to let them alone. … As colored men, we only ask to be allowed to do with ourselves, subject only to the same great laws for the welfare of human society which apply to other men, Jews, Gentiles, Barbarian, Sythian. Let us stand upon our own legs, work with our own hands, and eat bread in the sweat of our own brows. When you, our white fellow countrymen, have attempted to do anything for us, it has generally been to deprive us of some right, power or privilege which you yourself would die before you would submit to have taken from you. … Don’t shut the door in his face, nor bolt your gates against him; he has a right to learn—let him alone. Don’t pass laws to degrade him. If he has a ballot in his hand, and is on his way to the ballotbox to deposit his vote for the man whom he thinks will most justly and wisely administer the Government which has the power of life and death over him, as well as others—let him alone; his right of choice as much deserves respect and protection as your own. If you see him on his way to the church, exercising religious liberty in accordance with this or that religious persuasion—let him alone. Don’t meddle with him, nor trouble yourselves with any questions as to what shall be done with him.

Our “doing with them” continues to be blacks’ greatest misfortune, but not because of white racism. Instead, liberalism, through the welfare state, affirmative action, legalized abortion, and excessive regulation, has oppressed many blacks and other minorities and helped place them into conditions of poverty from which they struggle to recover.

Secular liberalism stands behind the bitter fruit of racial tension and minority poverty that our society must deal with today, supported by theological liberalism and its replacement of the gospel of Jesus Christ with the social gospel. Little progress will be made in unifying Christianity across racial, ethnic, cultural, and economic lines by obsessing about how predominately white churches should relate with blacks and other minorities while ignoring the larger context of how political and theological liberalism have fostered and perpetuated division in society.

Orthodox Christianity alone has brought reconciliation to this world by acknowledging the image of God in men and women of all races, ethnicities, and cultures. In fact, the history of Christianity is one of eliminating slavery and racism. As Christians continue in this work, we must move past the myopic vision of the world on race and take a holistic, orthodox biblical approach to loving our neighbors as ourselves in our efforts to live out and take, congregationally and individually, Christ’s ministry of reconciliation to the ends of the earth.

Bill Peacock is a member of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Austin, Texas. His writings on religion, culture, and politics can be found at www.excellentthought.net.