Racial Reconciliation Tag Archive

In a recent conversation, I was asked for my views regarding racial reconciliation and justice, especially as it pertained to local churches in my denomination (the Presbyterian Church in America, or PCA). I explained in response how the Lord has put this work on my heart over the last 4-5 years. As I have tried to lead in this area, both in concrete action and dialogue, I have often been met with accusation, defensiveness, resistance, and slander. Such reactions have only convinced me even more that the subjects of race and racism, both in and outside of the church, cannot be avoided but must instead be addressed by local churches head on.

I further explained how I believe our presbyterian and reformed tradition has a rich theology of lament, restitution, and corporate sin which seems to be conveniently ignored and forgotten in recent conversations on these subjects. In light of ongoing racial disparity in our communities and churches, I concluded by saying that the White Evangelical Church at large (which includes the PCA) must accept responsibility for advancing racism and segregation in our country for centuries; actions which continue to have lasting impact in our communities and our churches today.

My response was met with thankfulness and gratitude, and a warm conversation followed where it was safe to talk through challenges and obstacles in pursuing racial reconciliation and justice. However, there was one question that followed which required further explanation:

“What exactly do you mean by responsibility?” Continue Reading

Christians are called by Christ to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13-15), and to go out into the whole world making disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). This is a task which requires that Christians maintain their distinctive flavor (salt) while at the same time remaining in the world as ambassadors for Christ (light).

The Apostles take up this same command with different emphases. Paul told us to go out into the world, destroying strongholds, arguments, and other lofty opinions that are against the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:1-5). He reminded us to always let our speech toward those who do not believe be gracious and seasoned with the salt of Christ (Colossians 4:6). He told his young disciple Timothy to preach the word and be prepared in every season (2 Timothy 4:2). Peter likewise takes up similar commands, reminding us to be prepared to give a defense for what we believe with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).

Other places in Scripture round out the means through which this Christian work is to be carried out. The prophets call us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). The law commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18).

This work is what Christians today commonly call apologetics: making a winsome, gracious case for Christ in every age, every occasion, every culture, every place; both through our words and our deeds.

While the commands remain the same, our work must adapt as the issues and needs of every place change. In many times and places, objections to Christianity have been intellectual: What proof do we have for the existence of God? For the truthfulness of Scripture? For the resurrection of Christ?

But at other times, the objections are ethical: How could a good God allow suffering? Why should I believe Christianity when Christians have contributed to so much evil in the world?

Christians must be up to the task of winsomely interacting with the world around them in order to be Christ in the world and draw others to him.

Dr. Tisby makes a great case not just for why Christians must be salt and light in the world on these issues, but he makes a winsome case for Christianity itself.

For this reason (and many others) I was thrilled when I began reading Dr. Jemar Tisby’s latest book How to Fight Racism. While Dr. Tisby could have written a book that launched directly into a list of pragmatic solutions for fighting racism, he instead begins with a winsome apologetic for why the issues of racism and racial injustice ought to be engaged from a uniquely Christian perspective. In so doing, Dr. Tisby makes a great case not just for why Christians must be salt and light in the world on these issues, but he makes a winsome case for Christianity itself.

In what follows, bold words are the first sentence of each new point, italicized words, are direct quotes from Dr. Tisby’s book, and plain text is my own added commentary. All italicized paragraphs are from How to Fight Racism, pages 8-10.

While this book is intended for anyone who wants to work toward racial justice, I have decided to approach this subject from a Christian perspective. I am convinced that Christianity must be included in the fight against racism for several reasons. First, Christians must fight racism as a matter of responding to the past. Throughout the history of the United States and colonialism worldwide, people who claimed Christianity as their religion have been the progenitors and perpetuators of racism…Christians wrote extensive and complicated works of theology to justify both race-based chattel slavery and racial segregation. When activists fought against slavery and racial apartheid, Christians were often the most vociferous and violent in defending the racial hierarchy they created and from which they benefited. So Christianity must be part of the conversation about racial justice because, in the context of the United States, white Christians have often been the ones responsible for racial injustice.

I like to think of this first argument Dr. Tisby sets forth as the argument of “historical humility.” Christians, more so than anyone else, ought to have the courage to look back at our legacy with humility and honesty. Yes, there are many things we have gotten right. But there are also many things we have gotten wrong. We have been unfaithful to our Lord, and this has damaged our witness to him in the world. We have no moral high ground to ignore our failures or act as if we have all the right answers, and everyone else is wrong. Our humility is an argument in itself for the truthfulness of our beliefs. It shows we take seriously the words of Christ, and that they have transformative effect on our lives.

This is a posture of corporate repentance. Whether or not you want to argue if we are responsible for the historical sins of other Christians (a point I am not arguing for here), we cannot dismiss the biblical precedent for coming together and confessing our sins as one corporate body. Daniel confessed the past and present sins of Israel in an act of corporate repentance (Daniel 9:1-19), and Jesus commands us to pray, “forgive us our debts” (Matthew 6:12).

Our humility is an argument in itself for the truthfulness of our beliefs. It shows we take seriously the words of Christ, and that they have transformative effect on our lives.

If Christians in the United States are going to have any ground to stand on to make a case for Christ, we must begin with historical humility before our neighbors, confessing where we have sinned and contributed to the racialized, oppressive society in which we now live.

I must briefly point out something that many of my White brothers and sisters are likely to miss on this first argument. Dr. Tisby is taking ownership for the sins of the White evangelical church as if they were the sins of his own family. I can only trust that this is how Dr. Tisby sees the issue. The truth is the Black church has long accepted the burdens of the sins of the White church and has shouldered responsibility for sins which they did not commit. We see such responsibility in the words of Dr. King, who said:

“The Negro must convince the white man that he seeks justice for both himself and the white man. A mass movement exercising love and nonviolence and demonstrating power under discipline should convince the white community that were such a movement to attain strength its power would be used creatively and not vengefully.” (Strength to Love, 126)

We should all be grateful that Dr. Tisby has taken on this responsibility to help those of us in the majority White church see the errors of our ways so that we can have the opportunity to make a repentant turn toward genuinely fighting for racial justice.

Second, Christianity provides a transcendent narrative for why racial justice is important. On one level, most people would agree in principle that treating other people fairly and not using race as an excuse for inequality are good practices. But why are these things good? What is it about human beings that means we should treat one another as equals? From whence do such ideas derive? …Christianity teaches that all people are made in the very image of God. We are God’s crowning creation, and each person is precious simply because they are human. Their physical appearance – including skin color – are part of bearing God’s image and should be respected as such.

This is a massive theological argument condensed into one point. Dr. Tisby combines biblical theology, Christian ethics, and a moral argument for God all into one, tightly worded paragraph. I will focus briefly on the last of these aspects: the moral argument for God.

What is this moral argument? The 20th Century Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck explains:

“Man is not merely a rational but also a moral being. He feels in his conscience that he is bound to a law which stands high above him and which requires unconditional obedience from him. Such a law presupposes a holy and righteous law-giver who can preserve and destroy.” (The Wonderful Works of God, 24-25)

In other words, it is not the existence of our moral ethics per se that points to God, but it is our sense of duty and obligation to those morals which suggests a moral lawgiver. Otherwise, from where does our sense of obligation arise? To whom do we owe this duty?

One might be inclined to say, “Well, behaving morally is simply the right thing to do!” or, “We owe our moral obligation to one another!” This is a nice thought. However, it is one which cannot be backed up by our own human history. As atheist historian Yuval Noah Harari says,

“Don’t believe tree-huggers who claim that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology.” (Sapiens, 74)

He continues later,

“Most human cooperation networks have been geared towards oppression and exploitation.” (Ibid., 104)

Human history is replete with the carnage humans have wrought on this planet – and on one another. We are the bloodiest, most ruthless species on the planet. What is Harari’s solution to our moral conundrum? Our sense of ethical obligation must be imaginary:

“None of these things (laws, justice, human rights) exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” (Ibid., 28)

And again,

“This is exactly what I mean by ‘imagined order’. We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively.” (Ibid., 110)

So, let me ask you: is your commitment to racial justice imagined? Do you think your commitment to equity, fairness, and civil rights is something we collectively made up in order to get along?

So, let me ask you: is your commitment to racial justice imagined? Do you think your commitment to equity, fairness, and civil rights is something we collectively made up in order to get along? Or would you agree that such ethical commitments come from something much deeper than that – something objective, something true, something firm? Christianity would say yes – of course it does. It comes from God himself.

Third, Christianity has within it the moral and spiritual resources to rebel against racism and white supremacy. Time and again, Christianity has provided courage for activists fighting for racial justice. One of the starkest examples occurred during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States. Theologian Soong-Chan Rah explains, “Civil Rights is often seen in social and political terms. We often fail to recognize this movement as one of the most significant faith-based campaigns in American history.” Ida B. Wells, Prathia Hall, Rosa Parks, and many other foot soldiers of racial justice movements have counted on their Christian faith to give them courage to fight against racism.

This final argument gets to the heart of Christianity. Christianity is centered around a God who is incarnational; a God who did not merely dictate his law from afar but who came to live among us from within. Christianity is no “pie in the sky” religion without the resources to deal with the real problems of the world. Christ himself is incarnational. Even now, through his Spirit, he moves among and through his people to carry on his presence and work in this world (1 John 3:16-18).

Dr. Diane Langberg says it best:

“Wherever creation groans, the method of healing its deep wounds and assuaging its convulsive grief is by planting the children of God in its midst. Wherever men and women of God live, there is some measure of healing the world’s wounds and soothing its sorrow. The weeping of girls and women, boys and men in the dark and cruel places of this earth is heard and healed by the living presence of the Word of God in the lives of those who incarnate what they say they believe.” (The Spiritual Impact of Sexual Abuse, 19).

When the Church acts as if we believe what we say we believe, we are God’s chosen method of healing this world of its deepest pains and injustices. When we move out into the world to engage in the difficult work of racial justice, we bring the incarnate Christ with us and through us, ministering to and healing those who have long been oppressed by our history of cooperative networks that are bent on oppression and exploitation.

Christians have every reason – more than anyone else – to be the hardest workers for racial justice in this world. We bear the greatest responsibility, we know to Whom our duty is owed, and we have the moral and spiritual resources to accomplish the work. The only real question is – are we willing?

If you are, maybe a great place to start would be by picking up Dr. Tisby’s newest book, How to Fight Racism for yourself.

Header Image from the Witness BCC.

One of my favorite parts of the weekly worship service is what is commonly known as the passing of the peace. This is the part of the service where many of us regress inwardly to the spiritual state of a 3-year-old, groaning inside with an attitude of, “Awww, do I have to?” But second to the coming to the Lord’s Table together, this portion of the worship service serves as a deep comfort to my soul. Why? Because it is a physical act which is based on a deeply spiritual reality: Christians have been definitively reconciled to each other through Christ.

Whenever I have the privilege of leading this portion of the worship service, I will often say something along the lines of, “God has reconciled us to himself through Christ, and he has also reconciled us to one another. So, let’s take a moment to greet one another with the peace of Christ…” Some weeks those words feel hollow, and I’m sure they can feel fake to those who hear them. After all, while we might know intellectually that we are supposed to be reconciled to one another, our lived experience is often entirely different. Marriages and friendships within the church are strained; the challenges of the week cause us to distance ourselves from other church members; despite attending a church with others for years, we’ve hardly put forth the effort to get to know them.

Reconciled? Yeah right. How is this bitter, distant, conflicted group of people reconciled? Continue Reading

In the late 19th and early 20th century, local governments across the country made explicit attempts to isolate white and black residents in their communities.[1] One of the first cities to do so was Baltimore, MD. In 1910 the city adopted an ordinance which prohibited African Americans from buying homes in neighborhoods with a majority of white residents (and vice versa). The lawyer who drafted this ordinance was named Milton Dashiel, and he explained the intention behind this ordinance:

Ordinarily, the negro loves to gather to himself, for he is very gregarious and sociable in his nature. But those who have risen somewhat above their fellows appear to have an intense desire to leave them behind, to disown them, as it were, and get as close to the company of white people as circumstances will permit them.

The purpose of this segregation ordinance, he said, was to prevent this from happening (Rothstein, 44).

Many cities and local governments across the country adopted similar zoning practices. However, in 1917 the Supreme Court overturned a racial zoning ordinance in Louisville, Kentucky. The case was Buchanan v. Warley, and it was the result of one African American’s attempt to purchase a home that was in a majority white neighborhood. The Court ruled that the racialized zoning practices which prevented this purchase from taking place was unconstitutional. Their decision was based on the Fourteenth Amendment, the purpose of which was to include equal rights for all citizens under the law. Yet the Court was explicit that they did not believe racialized zoning practices violated the rights of African Americans, so much as these practices violated the rights of property owners to sell to whomever they pleased (Rothstein, 45).

Following this ruling, communities and government authorities had to become more creative in enforcing their racialized practices. In other words, racist practices did not go away following the Buchanan ruling, they simply evolved. For example, the government of Richmond, Virginia forbid anyone from moving to a neighborhood where they were ineligible to marry a majority of the citizens in that neighborhood. Since the state of Virginia forbid interracial marriage, Richmond’s new zoning law effectively kept neighborhoods segregated even though this purpose was not explicitly written in the zoning ordinance.

Another city which found clever ways around the Buchanan decision was St. Louis and its suburb of Ferguson in Missouri. Many will remember Ferguson as the place of the tragic death[2] of Michael Brown in 2014 and the many protests which followed. This tragedy brought to national attention the realities of racial tension and divides which are present in communities across the country. But how did Ferguson become so segregated, and how did the tension along racial divides elevate to the heights that it did? Continue Reading