By / Oct 19

As an evangelical scholar of color, I live in a divided world. At the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I teach in a evangelical context where most of my colleagues and students are white. As an evangelical preacher, I get many invitations to preach in predominately white evangelical contexts and some in predominately black and brown contexts.

As a member and contributor to the broader academic guild, I spend most of my time critically engaging black, brown, white and various international scholars in my academic sphere and outside of the evangelical world. Although vast, each context plays a role in shaping me as an evangelical scholar and churchman of color.

Taboo race discussions

What often strikes me is how much I disagree on matters of race with those in the evangelical world with whom I have much in common theologically. I’ve discovered it’s very difficult at times for white evangelicals to talk about race, or to admit these discussions are an important and necessary step toward gospel reconciliation. Some even wonder whether talking about it is helpful at all.

One might think only white evangelicals in the U.S., who either have never or have suffered very little racial marginalization because of their racial identity, are the only ones guilty of the above.

But I’ve discovered some black and brown evangelicals, whose lives are entirely assimilated within a predominately white evangelical context, also wonder whether constant race discussions are profitable or helpful efforts of gospel unity. They may even recoil at these discussions.

In what follows, I offer some personal reasons why race matters and why evangelical discussions about race are necessary.

My story

I grew up in a small and racist town in Eastern Kentucky. My father was African-American. My mother is a combination of African-American, Anglo and Cherokee Indian. I was called n****r by whites, and called half-breed, high yellow, n****r-white, red bone, and Uncle Tom by the few blacks in my community.

I was always the only black person on my athletic teams throughout my childhood and teenage years. With the exception of my uncle, all of my athletic coaches were white and most of my teammates were always white—many of whom had very little if any social interaction with black people apart from sports. I played sports for at least two racist coaches, one of which called me a racist slur to my face.

In high school, my uncle had to explain to me why I, a black kid, could not take a white girl to the local drive-in theatre—and this was in the 1990s! I also had at least a couple of racist high school teachers. One particular white teacher made it a practice to say n****r in a class full of white students and one black student.

During my freshman year, a gang of white students attacked one of our school’s few black students. And a white teacher slammed the black student against the lockers to break up the fight, in spite of the fact that he was the one being assaulted. And the white principle put both the black student and the white students, who started the fight, in detention together—even though the black student was the victim. When the word spread that some of these white students planned to attack me for no apparent reason other than they did not like blacks, the best that one of my white teachers could say was “watch your back.”

Racism in the body

At the age of 17 in 1996, the Lord Jesus saved me. In my little Eastern Kentucky town, there were no “black” churches. There were only predominately white churches. I joined the Southern Baptist church in my community the Lord used to bring me to faith. I was the first African-American to join the church in its history. A year later, my uncle was the second African-American. This congregation personified racial reconciliation, but a very small minority within the congregation was not happy about a black kid (who at the time had a white girlfriend) joining their church.

This reality came as a shock, because it reminded me racism was inside of the church. Since then, I’ve discovered the very denomination of which I’m a part of came into existence partly because of racism. The same is true about the evangelical movement in this country.

Intellectual racism

During my four years of college, I did not have any black or brown professors. My white professors never made us read any books written by black or brown authors. Unfortunately, graduate school was not much different. I completed two masters degrees and a Doctorate of Philosophy. During this time, I never had one black or brown professor. And I was never required to read any black or brown scholars.

The most austere example of racial disparity in the academy is intellectual racism. As an evangelical scholar of color, I constantly notice black and brown scholarship is either dismissed or ignored in many evangelical and non-evangelical circles. Most evangelical colleges and seminaries have an overwhelming amount of white leadership with very few, if any, minorities sharing in institutional power and privilege.

Most books published by mainline white evangelical presses are written by white men. And, in many cases, black and brown intellectuals are not taken seriously by evangelicals unless some prominent white evangelical voice grants his stamp of approval. Instead, many within the evangelical movement view black or brown people as intellectually or theologically suspect until they prove themselves otherwise.

Therefore, as an African-American evangelical scholar and churchman with a multi-racial background, race certainly matters to me and to many other black, brown, and white people.

Here are some practical steps forward to help some evangelicals see race and intelligent racial dialogue matters.

Practical suggestions

  1. White evangelicals should not only surround themselves with white evangelicals. If they walk in all white circles with people who do not think race is important or who never think about race, then they will have a limited view of race.
  2. White evangelicals must recognize minorities can minister to them and teach them about many things. Race is only one of them.
  3. White evangelicals must understand there are many black and brown intellectuals. There are many great black and brown preachers. Most white evangelicals I have interacted with never even read one book written by a person of color. Or they’ve never even heard of some of the great black and brown expositors. Ignorance will only reinforce one’s racial biases.
  4. White evangelicals must understand black and brown people do not want or need a white savior. Instead, we want white allies in the work of gospel ministry.
  5. White evangelicals should understand the kingdom of God does not revolve around them. Jesus died for many black and brown people with strange names and strange accents. And God is using many black and brown people to advance the gospel in some of the most difficult places in the world.
  6. White evangelicals must recognize anything other than white is not abnormal.
  7. White and black evangelicals must stop insisting the color-blind theory is true. When white evangelicals deny they see my brown skin, they deny part of my identity that was created into the image of God. Racial progress will not happen by denying the obvious. We must acknowledge our differences and pursue love in the gospel in spite of them.
  8. White evangelicals need to look for ways to show they value the many contributions black and brown people have made, are making, and will make to the evangelical movement by including black and brown people in every part of the evangelical movement, and NOT only when they want to discuss race.
  9. White evangelicals should not play the race card when it serves their political agenda. It’s easy to be pro-black and brown at big conferences, or when a clear example of injustice exists. But it’s difficult when your white daughter says she wants to marry a black or brown man.
  10. If white evangelicals want credibility in black and brown contexts, they must befriend black and brown evangelicals that are without celebrity status. I’ve observed white evangelicals love to affirm black and brown celebrity evangelicals because it comes with privileges.
  11. White evangelicals need to recognize the evangelical movement lacks credibility on matters pertaining to race and justice with many black and brown communities, partly because of a failure to do the things mentioned in points one through 10.

May God deliver evangelicals from thinking race does not matter, and that race discussions are unimportant.

By / Jul 21

Unlike Las Vegas, what happens in San Francisco doesn’t stay in San Francisco.

Gap.
Apple.
Yelp.
Twitter.
Pinterest.

These and other cultural fixtures started in the San Francisco Bay Area. Living in this part of the country for the past five years has afforded me a unique perspective from which I’ve observed several cultural trends that are likely to spread across America. Ready or not, here they come. In what follows, I briefly outline six cultural trends and explain how churches need to prepare, adjust or otherwise evolve.

First, postmodernity is a red herring too many Christians are still pursuing. Reports of the death of metanarrative, absolute truth, or certainty are greatly exaggerated.  The reign of technology, absolute acceptance of scientific naturalism and the universal demand for the acceptance of homosexuality in San Francisco reflects a thoroughly modern zeitgeist.  

Local churches should brace for a battle of ideas where pastors need to be adept at philosophy, theology and rhetoric. Shallow exposition, trendy topical sermons or mere dialogue will not suffice. Never before has there been a greater need in America for the unapologetic practice of preaching the Word (2 Timothy 4:2) and for pastors who are trained to teach sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it (Titus 1:9).

Second, race lines are blurring. Often, a person’s race is a complicated story with no easy (or desired) categorization. Increasingly, people are more likely to self-identify as mixed race or biracial. While much of the country still thinks in terms of “red and yellow, black and white,” the future of race is blurry and complicated.  This case is made convincingly by authors Jennifer Hochschild and Vesla Weaver in their book Creating a New Racial Order: How Immigration, Multiracialism, Genomics, and the Young Can Remake Race in America (Princeton University Press, 2012)

It is clear to me that churches need to stop thinking in bifurcated racial categories that do not reflect the reality of multiracialism. Moreover, churches need to think more about the difference between race and culture. Too often, when talking about wanting to be multicultural, churches are really talking about race; as in, “Our church wants more people whose skin color is not like our own.” But it’s relatively easy to worship with people who have a different skin color but who like the same music, eat the same food and are otherwise culturally homogeneous. It is far more challenging to embrace a person of a different culture, even if you share their pigmentation.  

Third, it is increasingly obvious that secular progressivism is a rigid ideology and it will not stop until it achieves total conformity. I realize this seems like an audacious claim, but from my vantage point it is totally defensible. Secular progressivism is a system of belief that seeks to advance culture through the elimination of the influence of religion or religious dogma, and perhaps specifically, the influence of historic Christianity. Bay Area culture welcomes vague and secular spirituality.  Based on my observations, it seems that secular and naturalistic spirituality will always be welcome because it welcomes sin and exalts self, whereas historic Christianity does just the opposite by calling sinners to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ of Nazareth.  

Secular progressivism is a fascist ideology because it seeks to use the government to punish those who dissent. In this way, leftist ideologues are increasingly intolerant and authoritarian -both hallmarks of fascism. The church should prepare itself for an assault of personal freedom and for Draconian retaliation from governing authorities against religious conviction, such as the currently proposed bill (H.R. 2450) which would “prohibit, as an unfair and deceptive act or practice, commercial sexual orientation conversion therapy, and for other purposes”; a similar law already “protects” minors in the state of California.

Fifth, either what the Bible says about gender matters, or it doesn’t. It seems to me that local churches in the Bay Area that compromise on gender in regard to women in ministry eventually compromise on gender in regard to sexuality. It stands to reason that if Paul was wrong in 1 Timothy 2 about women not teaching men, then he could be wrong about homosexuality in Romans 1.

If churches are going to insist upon the trustworthiness of Scripture when it speaks to gender as it pertains to sexuality, then these same churches must be ready to insist upon the trustworthiness of Scripture when it speaks to gender as it pertains to the role of men and women in the home and in the local church. Compromise on one issue seems to inevitably correlate with compromise on the other. Practically speaking, churches have a compromised mantle from which to decry homosexuality while they have women teaching or exercising spiritual authority over men.  

Sixth, and finally, agnosticism is much more common than atheism. It is rare to encounter an atheist in the Bay Area. In my weekly evangelistic outings with students of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, and in numerous conversations at coffee shops or other social settings, it has been exceptionally rare to encounter a person who thinks “There is no god.” More frequently, I encounter people who aren’t sure whether or not god(s) exist.

While much apologetic literature is aimed at the new atheism (Dawkins, Hitchens, et al), churches need to spend time preparing to minister to agnostics. Churches should provide training for Christians to engage in evangelistic conversations with people either dismissive as to the question of God’s existence (an agnosticism grounded in apathy) or convinced that there is insufficient evidence one way or the other (an agnosticism grounded in conviction). Either way, agnostics tend to reason neither in terms of “Aye” or “Nay”, but rather, “Meh.”

A friend of mine saw the 2015 blockbuster San Andreas (Warner Bros.) while in Columbus, Ohio for the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. At some point during the mindless onslaught of CGI destruction, in which much of the state of California is destroyed, he reported that people in the theater began to applaud. It’s far more likely that, in the future, Californian cultural trends will move across the U.S. than it is likely that California will sink into the ocean.  

From where I sit, the future is now.  

By / Apr 10

Most Christians know that family is important. Along with the natural attachment and obligation that we each feel toward family members, the Bible clearly instructs us to place high value on our blood relationships: “Honor your mother and father” (Exodus 20:12), “Children, obey your parents” (Colossians 3:20), “He who brings trouble on his family will inherit only wind” (Proverbs 11:29), etc.

However, it is less clear that government should care about the family—particularly for those of us with libertarian political leanings. This trepidation is fair. Family life is very intimate after all; the government should not have its hands in such personal affairs…or should it?

By no means am I contending that there should be mandates on familial choices, like the horrific “one child policy” in China. Such decisions are critical aspects of basic civil and religious liberty.

Yet, families are also the fundamental building blocks of society. A recent study (entitled The Equality of Opportunity Project) by Raj Chetty and others found that:

[F]amily structure correlates with upward mobility not just at the individual level but also at the community level, perhaps because the stability of the social environment affects children’s outcomes more broadly.

When families break down, societies begin to crumble. Sadly, we are watching it happen. Scores of children in America are growing up in environments that set them permanently behind; they aren’t given the chance to acquire the social, technical, and mental skills that they need to be productive members of society.

If government is charged with pursuing the common good—as centuries of Christian thinkers, on the basis of Romans 13, have rightly believed, it seems obvious that it should be concerned about what is happening to the family.

But what can be done?

This is a difficult question to answer. At its core, family formation is a cultural problem, so above all, we need to foster a culture—across socio-economic class lines—that places high value on the family. Though difficult, these sorts of changes are not impossible.

Take smoking for example. Decades ago, cigarette smoking was widely accepted and even glorified in American society. Today, it is seen as a foolish habit that is on a steady decline. Inspired by conclusive research about its harmful effects, cultural attitudes toward smoking have shifted remarkably in a matter of decades. Along the way, policies were implemented to help shape these attitudes: taxes on cigarettes and bans on smoking in public locations, to name a few.

At its best, public policy incentivizes people to behave in healthy, beneficial, and productive ways. As with smoking, we ought to craft policies that recognize the damage broken families have on our society.

As Senator Mike Lee said in a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute, “The primacy of family should inform conservative policies about everything from welfare to education to transportation to criminal justice.”

Though many are experimental, there are countless policy ideas that could help strengthen families in America: tax credits to offset the cost of raising children, education and training programs (like the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative), reformed divorce laws, career academies and many others.

Eventually, America must wake up to the undeniable reality that family breakdown is a crisis with wide-ranging societal ramifications. When that happens, we should be willing to implement policies that respect personal liberty, but also wisely incentivize healthy familial behavior. Our common good depends on it.