The American Church Has Some Reckoning To Do (A Response to Charlottesville and More)By Timothy Gombis on August 21, 2017
Editor's Note: We invited Dr. Tim Gombis, professor of New Testament, to craft a response to the recent events at Charlottesville, Va., and its aftermath. These events and the discussions that ensued, both publicly and privately, should be of major concern for followers of Christ. How are we to respond? Tim's article provides much needed clarity on how we can take steps forward together. He also provides suggestions for further reading.
On Saturday, August 12, various groups marched in Charlottesville, Va., in support of white supremacy, to express their desire to establish a white nation and to intimidate and denounce Jewish and black people. It is important to recognize these ideas and behaviors as evil and to denounce them as an offense to God, who created every person in his image (Genesis 1:27; James 3:9) and who does not show favoritism (Romans 2:11; lit., "there is no beholding the face with God").
Beyond denunciation of obvious wickedness, however, the moment is ripe for the American church—especially evangelicals—to do some serious reckoning: with Scripture, with our history and with our present cultural situation.
We must reckon with Scripture and the gospel.
In Ephesians, Paul expresses the work of God in terms of healing ethnic and racial divisions in Christ. The powers of evil had divided humanity, turning people against each other. Paul had been raised to use ethnic slurs against others, calling them "the uncircumcised" (Ephesians 2:11) and "gentile sinners" (Galatians 2:15). In Christ, however, God has united those from all races and ethnicities, bringing them together to himself, having put to death their hostilities in his death (Ephesians 2:16).
In Galatians, Paul writes about his confrontation of Peter in Antioch. Peter knew that in Christ God was uniting people from every ethnicity and race, and that he should regard no person of another ethnicity as morally inferior (which was the typical Jewish assumption in the first century). When Jewish visitors from the Jerusalem church came, however, Peter was intimidated and separated himself from the non-Jewish Christians.
Paul confronted him to his face and told him he was not "acting in line with the truth of the gospel" (Galatians 2:14). Jesus had died in order to produce one unified people, made up of believers from any race and every ethnicity, and who display this unity by enjoying fellowship meals together. If any singular ethnicity is perceived as the one God especially approves, then Paul claims that Jesus died pointlessly (Galatians 2:21).
Paul begins this passionate letter in a shocking way. He pleads with God to damn anyone who preaches a gospel in which any ethnicity or race is seen to have priority in the church so that others need to be like them (Galatians 1:9). And, as if he knows that the jaws of his audiences will drop at his calling down curses, he says it again (Galatians 1:10)!
Evangelicals must reckon with Paul's teaching. Ethnic and racial unification is not the cause of this or that political movement or party. God's heartbeat is to restore humanity to himself and to unite us to one another. This is the cause for which God sent Jesus into the world to die.
It has long been time for the white evangelical church in America to grapple with this central thrust of Scripture, and to reckon with our nation's history. Not so that we could be "politically correct," or bow to some earthly agenda, but in order to cease being complacent about the work of God in Christ.
A still-segregated church must reckon with their siblings in Jesus' family.
Many white Christians will assess their motives and thoughts and protest that they are not racists. But our churches have not properly reckoned with our nation's history, the historical currents that have shaped our culture and the contemporary injustices that we fail to notice. Because of the violence and persistent mistreatment they have faced, our black sisters and brothers are not unaware.
The church in America is divided, and none more so than the evangelical church. This prevents white Christians from truly understanding the experiences of African-Americans in our country. Put another way, our segregated communities and churches keeps predominantly white churches from obeying the command to "put on a heart of compassion" (Colossians 3:12), "feeling along with" their siblings in Jesus' family, understanding that others have not experienced our nation's history as we have.
The gulf between our communities allows ignorance to flourish.
Evangelicals must reckon with their racist history.
As late as the 1970s, many churches in the South were officially segregated by church policy. White evangelical leaders in those years, and just prior, published critiques of the Civil Rights Movement and spoke against Martin Luther King, Jr. from their pulpits.
The roots of this division run deep. When the contemporary evangelical movement began in the early 20th century, with leaders forming networks across denominational lines, black church pastors requested to join, but were repeatedly denied. A few of those same white leaders explored cultivating relationships with the KKK. The fact that "evangelicalism" in our day is almost completely made up of white Christians is no accident. The segregation was intentional.
Between the end of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s, 8,000 black people were lynched—murdered by white people. These were not mobs that were overtaken with fury. Lynchings were announced in advance and often scheduled for Sunday afternoons when churches let out so that Christians could attend. Pictures were taken and turned into postcards to be distributed in order to reinforce the social status quo. The deliberate intention was to terrorize freed black people into quiet subjection and to give white people the feeling of presumed superiority—even if they did not have any personal racial animosity.
The pages of leading evangelical theological journals from the 19th century are filled with arguments in favor of slavery. And all of this against the backdrop of a nation that had enslaved people taken from Africa and treated as property since 1619.
These are just a few of the evangelical realities and historical forces that shape our contemporary social setting in America, and the injustices continue in the segregation of our cities and the mass incarceration of black men.
Christians must reckon, not merely with the events of last weekend, but with the course of our nation's history. Complacency is not an option. After all, Paul exhorts his readers to zealously pursue unity in light of what God has done in Christ (Ephesians 4:1-3), and to put off the old humanity with its destructive practices and put on the new humanity, made up of all races and ethnicities in Christ (Ephesians 4:22-24). This happens by having our mindsets and attitudes transformed, along with our practices, cultural habits, relational dynamics and community patterns of behavior.
So, how can these reckonings take place?
First, remember that facing up to sin, owning it, lamenting and repenting are life-giving. While this may be painful, God pours out his life-giving, sustaining and joy-generating Spirit on those who walk this path. We have the promise that we will be refreshed and renewed as we take this journey.
Second, simply feeling badly or feeling guilty is a dead end. Many fear that talking about race will lead us in these directions, but the point is moving as communities toward God's justice and his blessing on us.
Third, we can listen to one another without defensiveness. Many white Americans are simply unaware of the experiences of African-Americans and black churches. We can listen and learn their stories and hear about the experiences of their communities. Doing so will create hearts of compassion in us. And we don't need to be defensive, rationalize or explain. We can hold fast to our shared identities as those passionately loved by God in Christ, with a future that is secure. This identity as already-loved and already-justified sets us free from needing to justify or explain ourselves.
Fourth, we can educate ourselves. There is a growing body of literature to help us learn about the horrors of our national past and the injustices of the present. Here are some resources for reckoning with our past and contemporary context:
- "Facing our Legacy of Lynching" by D. L. Mayfield
- "Uncovering My Church's Ku Klux Klan Connections" by Eric Reed
- "The Cross and the Lynching Tree" by James Cone
- "Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America" by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith
- "Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption" by Bryan Stevenson
- "Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- "The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia" by Charles F. Irons
- "Notes of a Native Son" by James Baldwin
Finally, let's keep in mind that these are not things we "should" do. We don't need to reluctantly walk these paths out of a begrudging obedience. We "get" to do this! Walking these paths is a privilege since obedience to God in Christ is the pathway that God floods with his power by his Spirit. While the eyes of the flesh tell us this will be hard work, the eyes of faith perceive that listening to our siblings in Jesus, learning about them and discerning how to strategically love one another will be our highest joy. Living into the fullness of our new identity as God’s renewed and united humanity will magnify the victory of God in Christ over the powers of evil and fill our hearts with infinitely satisfying joy!