Race and the Church

A topic that all too often gets tragically ignored or dismissed within Reformed (predominantly white) circles is the issue of racism and race relations. It’s a topic that merits more serious conversation and application, and one I don’t want to be ignored or dismissed by Redeemer Church of Lake Nona. Lately, the issue of race has been front and center in our culture because of the tragic incidents taking place in Ferguson, MO, where an unarmed African-American teenager was shot and killed by a white police officer. I have waited for time to post so that what is said is not directly linked to Ferguson. This is not because I have nothing to say, but because Thabiti Anyabwile has already written on the topic so effectively and powerfully.

One of the problems with the issue of race (and one of the points Mr. Anyabwile makes, somewhat peripherally) is that it takes issues like Ferguson for white evangelicalism to talk about race. This is unfortunate, no matter your perspective. It’s easy (for some) to express sympathy and bemoan the cultural consequences of white privilege when an unarmed teenager has been killed and (predominantly) peaceful protests are being overly scrutinized. It’s difficult to be consistently committed to being humble and open-minded about issues that we personally don’t know very much about. On the other hand, if the only time we are talking about race is after it becomes a national discourse, then it’s also predictable that some with politically and socially conservative leanings are going to make insensitive and historically ignorant comments. This is often the result of what they see as media bias, playing the race card, or liberal opportunism. When an unarmed African-American teenager gets shot 6 times and then left in the street for hours, should our main concern be whether black leaders are talking enough about black-on-black crime? Has Matt Walsh yet blogged about white-on-white crime? When George Zimmerman is acquitted of killing an unarmed African-American teenager, is it really an example of our great judicial system preventing a zealous prosecutor from getting away with over-charging someone who may have done something wrong, but couldn’t be proved to have committed murder? And then what of the Casey Anthony verdict? Was that different from the George Zimmerman verdict for any reason other than the fact that the victim was an innocent white child? Is it not worth talking about discriminatory application of the death penalty? Does the fact that some white people who deserve the death penalty but don’t get it have any bearing on the fact that black people who deserve the death penalty do get it? What about stop-and-frisk? Does the fact that crime rates are higher in poor, minority neighborhoods mean an individual should be stopped simply because he has dark skin?

Jesse and I bring up this topic of race regularly in our messages. But there are, of course, a myriad of reasons why racism is a peripheral topic among Reformed churches and congregations, and our response is consequently often uninformed and lacks nuance. Some of the reasons are sinister in nature and reflect our sinful, racist hearts. Others have more ostensibly sociopolitical justifications: reformed churches are often predominantly white and conservative, and conservatives hold a general belief that racism equates to past realties (i.e. slavery, slave codes, Jim Crow laws) that were essentially eliminated by the 60’s and thoroughly stamped out during the early 90’s. The argument, in fact, is that in present times the bigger issue is affirmative action and the “unfortunate” reality of reverse racism and political correctness. My goodness, let my beloved Washington Redskins keep their name…and can you believe how those poor Duke boys were falsely accused? If these issues and causes related to racism and race relations grab our attention - and Kendrick Johnson, Trayvon Martin, Ferguson and Hurricane Katrina cause a completely different reaction (if any at all) – then in my opinion this not a good thing!

Putting aside sinister examples of outright racism, theoretically we generally understand that the Bible is clear: red, yellow, black or white, God loves all His children and heaven will be gloriously populated by those from every tribe, tongue and nation. It is undeniably necessary to understand this theological position, but it is not sufficient. It understandably rings hollow in the ears of some when we proclaim our theological understanding of the expansive and color-blind nature of the Gospel if 95% of our friends and fellow church-members look suspiciously similar to ourselves. What good is it that we believe that God is indiscriminate if we are indifferent to the fact that our justice system is not?

I believe our actions regarding racism and race relations must be as robust as our theology. What do I mean by that? I’ll give you a couple of examples.  First, while pastoring in Fairfax, Virginia I developed a relationship with an African-American pastor at an ethnically diverse church in the area. We saw an opportunity to “use” our friendship to communicate a wonderful application of the gospel that was unusual in reformed circles. We spent several years doing meetings and sharing family times together, and then seized opportunities to publically demonstrate our desire for racial reconciliation. Some found it difficult to understand why I would stand on the stage in 1996 with a black friend and ask his forgiveness for sins of a past generation. A legitimate question, but one that demonstrates our need for dialogue.

Second, my involvement in the pro-life movement led to God moving Sheree’s and my hearts to adopt our youngest child, a beautiful bi-racial daughter. This was an opportunity for two gospel convictions to converge and led to numerous other white families in our church to pursue transracial adoptions. Of course, there are some concerns and criticisms with varying degrees of legitimacy tied to the issue of a white family adopting a black baby. That conversation is worth discussing, but time restraints restrict a full discussion in this post. For the purposes of this post, the more salient point is that over 80% of potential adopting families have stated that they would not adopt a black baby (even less would adopt a male black baby) and my experience is the reasons are not as sacrificial and cognizant of racial considerations as we would like to pretend. My real life experiences of undeniable racist attitudes toward our family could be a lengthy and heartbreaking blog post in itself.

The point isn’t that I’m the good guy and other people are racist. Like anyone else, I struggle with biases and perceptions and preconceptions that I’ve tried my best to rid myself of with God and other’s help. The point is that it’s not enough to theoretically agree that racism is bad and Jesus loves everybody if everywhere in society are examples of racism, injustice, and poor race relations. My desire is that God’s church – and specifically the reformed Christians we’re the most connected to here at Redeemer - be a light in the darkness on this issue (and yes, I’m aware that even that language can be construed as racially-tinged. Unfortunately, it’s the expression we have). We should be at the forefront of this issue rather than absent or even completely missing the mark. We certainly shouldn’t be absent in conversations about Rodney King, OJ Simpson, Hurricane Katrina, Trayvon Martin, Ferguson or whatever other unavoidable social event takes place; but if that is the only time we are discussing the issue, we will probably miss the mark. Instead, we should be learning from others, asking questions, and praying for compassion and humility. As Emily VanderSchel Rice said on Christ and Pop Culture, “how can [we] say [we] understand race-relations with the police in poor, urban settings [or any other race-related issues] if the only voices [we] hear on the issues are wealthy [and/or] white?” Otherwise, our response to newsworthy events will probably be more political than compassionate. This is why my pastor friend and I did the kind of things we did.

My encouragement is that racism and race relations continue to be an issue that we discuss. That we combat. And that we seek to be at the forefront of finding better solutions as a church – individually, collectively and as a society. I want Redeemer Church to have a consistent, robust and practically applicable theology on this issue. I don’t want it to merely be a topic that we discuss as members only when there is some huge social event. Jesus loves all the little children, yes; but He also wants us to care that over 50% of people think it’s ethically permissible to wear a Confederate flag to school; twice the number of African-Americans as Caucasians are unemployed; and if you’re convicted of murder you are 40% more likely to be sentenced to death if you are black. And that’s just a few of the many indications that race is still an issue in society today. That’s not to say that progress isn’t being made; I thank God that in my lifetime I have seen incredible progress being made in this country that I love. I watched the news both after Dr. King got shot and after Barack Obama got elected. I thank God for the examples of love and outreach by members of my church of all ethnicities and racial groups. Bob Dylan was right: times they are a’changin’. But we are lying to ourselves and to each other if we pretend that considerably more change isn’t necessary. Our biblical mandate to incarnate Christ requires a diligent effort to work for change in this area. The gospel is more than social justice, but surely it is not less.

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