Something is stirring in the Body of Christ.
In the wake of yet another media frenzy over race following the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast, the Church seemed to veer yet again toward polarization over resolving the issues related to Christian involvement in race-based slavery, the Jim Crow era, and the institutions and systemic racism they’ve spawned that still impact the Church today.
Hostage to the past
As I’ve written elsewhere, I draw parallels between today’s human rights abuses against the persecuted Church and America’s un-reconciled history. I’ve pointed out that human rights violations often follow similar and predictable contours, regardless of the cultures and nations in which they express themselves. America, while exceptional in many ways, is no different from other nations in that she owns human rights atrocities that simply refuse to stay quiet in the annals of history.
This month, a few Christians from America’s dominant culture have spoken boldly and honestly about America’s past. Others are listening courageously, and reconsidering what is at stake for the Kingdom in the polarization between the races. It seems that the issue of our national sin is being approached with fresh eyes and tender hearts (a partial list of recent offerings from historians, theologians, and denominational leaders appears below).
Each has their own biblical rationale underlying such soul-searching, yet history indicates that there may even be benefits beyond.
Our achilles heel
The old folks in the Black community used to say, “Things that die bad don’t stay in the ground.” The National Prayer Breakfast was not the first time that Christian involvement in America’s dark historical underbelly has been defined according to a non-redemptive and perhaps even political agenda.
In the 1930’s, the Stalinist Soviet regime denounced our Black Codes (laws that created a racial caste system and segregation through political disenfranchisement), declaring America one of the most racist countries on earth. As the regime launched its “antiracist agenda,” America provided fodder for their propaganda machine displayed in films like Black and White (1933), and Circus (1936). The Scottsboro trial of 1931 in particular was heavily propagandized by the Stalinists to promote their claimed superiority on racial matters.
Likewise, Germany’s National Socialists propagandized our national shame. Ironically, America fought to eradicate both of these totalitarian ideologies in the modern era, even as her hypocrisy roiled at home. It is a fearsome thing to be legitimately rebuked by the godless, especially when the godless stand in hypocrisy themselves. Military historian Stephen Ambrose has observed that during World War II, “the world’s greatest democracy fought the world’s greatest racist with a segregated Army.”
Today, Islamic extremism is a similar, yet even more insidious form of totalitarian ideology. It is already nipping at our nation’s Achilles heel, attracting those disenfranchised from American culture in general and “American Christianity” in particular. The territory we cede to these ideologies through our indifference is fertile ground. Extremist ideologies prey upon the disenfranchised who have heard no adequate explanation of our hypocrisy, then fill that vacuum with explanations that satisfy their radical agenda.
FBI Director James Comey points out that in particular, ISIL/ISIS’ propaganda and online recruitment tactics are of great concern to federal law enforcement. Technology provides immediate and global access to the organization’s radical ideology that prior regimes would have coveted; this access makes it easier than ever to weaponize our historical shame. We are still vulnerable to outside interpretation of historical events, leaving others to judge Christianity based on America’s moral failures rather than on the Word of God.
Oh, freedom over me
When we attempt to discuss Christianity and America’s racial sins, we often witness Christ’s Body become two distinct and polarized entities. The conversation turns easily to those Christians who rightly risked their lives to stand by the biblical principles embedded in our national documents (i.e., that “all men are created equal”). Yet we blanch at fully exploring the deplorable acts committed by Christian men and women who held the same Word of God in their hands.
Though work has been done on the issue, a precise and robust response has yet to permeate the American Church exploring how men and women who claimed fidelity to the Word could exclude African Americans and others from Christian institutions and organizations, violate basic human rights, and stand by as others committed lawless murder couched in “religious ritual.”
Can it be that the theological foundation of those who shaped our current understanding of God lay fundamental flaws? Can it be that inadequate understandings of imago Dei, anthropology and Christology produced their flawed ethics? If this is the case, then it must be that any sound theology produced in light of these ethical failures was purely a function of God’s grace and sovereignty – not a product of the spiritual or ethical prowess of the people themselves. It was a further function of God’s grace and sovereignty that the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were able to appeal to those documented core principles, and hold America accountable to her founding words.
To call Christian involvement in egregious human rights violations a mere “blind spot” seems both theologically and intellectually inadequate; it does little to salve the wound. The time seems ripe to retire the true yet trite defense, “God can make a straight lick with a crooked stick” in favor a more redemptive and nuanced understanding of what we would classify today as “moral failure.”
We need not fear such honesty. It is right for the church to lead the national discussion toward a more robust and honest understanding of our leaders’ failings, taking into account both the depth of human depravity, and the grace of God that is deeper still.
Power made perfect in weakness
Are we beating this dead horse called Race again, you ask? Most certainly. When it gallops away with disenfranchised members of Christ’s Body in tow, tramples the Gospel underfoot, and challenges national and global security, the horse is clearly alive and well.
Ending slavery and Jim Crow was certainly a positive step forward for America’s human rights record. Also encouraging, we see that today, a growing number of men of faith in leadership positions are attempting to understand how revered leaders could have erred so gravely on such basic issues. Race-based slavery was not a foregone conclusion in nascent America; the door is now open to understand how our sin became culturally normalized, then legislated, and finally systematized – on the church’s watch.
Such ownership by dominant cultural thinkers who have inherited positions and legacies built on those systems is a necessary step on the long journey toward binding up our Achilles heel. The movement may be small in numbers, but it is significant.
The dominant culture must continue the honest examination of history, and we must encourage them in the effort so that our ethics and our epistemology may match today. To not do so will leave us isolated from the larger Body of Christ; it will hamper our witness and, as history has shown, leave us vulnerable to the further reshaping of our own narrative.
We have no more time for indifference. The American church has the tools to cauterize the wound she allowed herself to create – we will need this healing for the days to come.
“A Milestone for Redeemer Church, Jackson, MS and an Important Day for the PCA.” 2015. LigonDuncan.com.
Ambrose, Stephen E. 1998. Citizen Soldiers: The U. S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
“Jim Crow, Civil Rights, and Southern White Evangelicals: A Historians Forum (Sean Michael Lucas).” 2015. Justin Taylor.
“Race and the Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America, No. 1.” 2015. Reformation21 Blog.
Race in America: Why the Past Matters. 2014. Russell Moore.
Roman, Meredith L. 2012. Opposing Jim Crow: African Americans and the Soviet Indictment of U.S. Racism, 1928-1937. Reprint edition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Sookhdeo, Patrick, and Westminster Institute. 2012. Fighting the Ideological War: Winning Strategies from Communism to Islamism. Mclean, VA: Isaac Publishing.
“The KKK, Selma, and Southern Christianity | Acton PowerBlog.” 2015. Acton Institute PowerBlog.
K.A.Ellis holds an MFA from Yale University in New Haven, a Master of Art in Religion (Theological) from Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, and is a doctoral candidate at Oxford Center for Mission Studies in Oxford, England. She speaks nationally on Human Rights, the Islamic Challenge, African American Culture, and the Persecuted Church. Follow her on twitter @KarAngEllis.