From the 2015 ERLC Leadership Summit on "The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation"
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.
“I couldn’t face my God much longer knowing that His black creatures are held separate and distinct from His white creatures in the game that has given me all I own.”
Those were the words of Branch Rickey reflecting on his decision to sign Jackie Robinson to play baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers. All of Rickey's advisers, close associates, family and friends advised him against the move. When Rickey petitioned Major League Baseball to allow him to integrate the league, the owners voted unanimously against his request. He did it anyway. On April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson, a 28-year-old African-American rookie, courageously ran onto Ebbets Field he trampled the baseball color line under his spikes. Rickey’s commitment to do something about racial segregation began in 1903 when he was the 21-year-old head baseball coach at Ohio Wesleyan University. His Christian conviction collided head on with his love for the great game.
Charles Thomas was recruited by Rickey to play catcher and was the only black player on the team. OWU traveled to South Bend, Ind., for a game against Notre Dame and was checking into a hotel but the hotel clerk said Thomas could not stay due to a whites-only policy. Rickey protested and eventually persuaded the hotel to allow Thomas to stay in his room. That evening he found Thomas sobbing and rubbing his hands and arms convulsively while muttering, “It's my skin. If only I could wipe off the color they could see I am man like everybody else!” A sentiment that would be expressed six decades later by African-American civil rights marchers wearing sandwich board signs that simply read, “I am a man.” Rickey later noted that he never felt so helpless. He vowed at that moment that he would do whatever he could to end such humiliation.
This vow to end the “odious injustice” of racism in America came 60 years before Martin Luther King's “I Have a Dream” speech, 61 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 62 years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1945, Rickey told beloved Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber that he had to act because he had heard Charles Thomas crying for the past 41 years. He asserted, “I may not be able to do something about racism in every field, but I can sure do something about it in baseball.”
In the 4th century, Athanasius, a Bishop and theologian, fought a battle against the heresy of Arianism. It appeared as if the entire Roman Empire was moving in the direction of the heresy. A concerned colleague exclaimed, “The whole world is against you!” Unfazed, Athanasius is said to have responded, “Then it is Athanasius against the world.”
In early 1900s America, white supremacy and the need for racial segregation were perverse cultural truisms enforced de facto (in effect) in the North and de jure (legally) in the South. In a similar spirit, one young, middle-class, Protestant baseball coach had his Athanasian moment against structural authority of an entire nation. Rickey biographer Jimmy Breslin argues that Rickey committed his life to breaking the color line in baseball simply because “he thought it was God's work.”
I fear the Christian conviction and moral courage of a young baseball coach to audaciously act upon biblical truth, despite the odds, because he thought it was God’s work, serves as an indictment on many pastors in our generation. Pastor, do you consistently and relentlessly apply the gospel of Jesus Christ to issues of race and ethnicity in the church he has called you to shepherd? You may not be able to do something about racial and ethnic prejudice in every church, but you can sure do something in your own church. Can you face your God knowing that his black image bearers are held separate and distinct from his white image bearers in the church, the body of Christ, the Christ who has given you all you have for time and eternity? Is your church as ethnically and racially diverse as your community? If not, are you taking gospel-magnifying risks to bring change?
I teach my pastoral ministry seminary students to ask themselves the question, “What is it, in the church I shepherd, that is most out of line with the truth of the gospel (Gal. 2:14)?” The answer to that question will provide them the information needed to strategically prioritize a Christ-centered, gospel-exulting ministry focus. For many pastors, if not most, the answer to that question will be how the congregation views issues of race and ethnic diversity. The pastor who finds himself in an increasingly rare American location with little or no racial and ethnic diversity has no less responsibility to call his congregation to walk in line with the gospel on matters of race and ethnicity. He should consistently note that the biblical storyline asserts that the glory of Christ is demonstrated in the multi-racial and multi-ethnic composition of the body of Christ. He should also go out of his way to celebrate and learn from the contributions to Christianity of those racially and ethnically distinct from the congregation he shepherds.
All leadership is an essentially moral act that demands courage. Managers take a group of people and attempt to instruct and organize them in a way that maximizes productivity based on an agreed upon goal. Management is an essentially protective act. Leaders step away from the crowd, assert a vision and call people to follow a path that they would not ordinarily take. Leadership is risky and the immediate outcome is never sure. Pastoral ministry is a call to lead, not manage, a flock of God. The pastor of a local church is to be a persistent gospel agitator calling the congregation to take every thought captive to obey Christ (1 Cor. 2:2, 2 Cor. 10:5).
Paul indicates that the triumph of the gospel on display in the church necessarily involves not only the reconciliation of people to God but also to one another (Eph. 2:11-22). The diversity of the church is manifested in the church universally, but that must not be a pastoral excuse for failure to work toward racial and ethnic diversity in the local church. Paul is arguing, not simply for a vertical display of gospel reconciliation (God to man) but also a display of horizontal gospel reconciliation in local churches (man to man). Those normally divided by racial and ethnic differences are now counted as “one new man,” a new race of blood bought brothers of the household of God (Eph. 2:15-17). The church is a subversive cruciform community delivered from the self-destructive satanic idolatry that animates racial and ethnic hostility.
Racial bigotry in the church is the fruit of a spirit—the spirit of antichrist. It is an inadequate justification for inaction to assert that intentionally pursuing a multi-ethnic congregation might disturb the peace of a body that is presently accomplishing many good things. Jesus is at war with that kind of serpentine pseudo-peace and calls pastors to lead congregations to accomplish not simply good things but gospel things. Church managers build consensus and mitigate risk. Faithful pastors lead by constantly beckoning the congregation toward cruciform risk. Is there a color line in your church? If so, what are you doing about it? You already have a pulpit. All you need is to add some gospel audacity.
Recommended reading about Branch Rickey:
David E. Prince, Baptist Press, The 'ferocious Christian gentleman' behind Jackie Robinson's famous moment, Posted on Apr 8, 2013
Jimmy Breslin, Branch Rickey Books, Penguin Books (2012)
Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman, University of Nebraska Press (2007).
Murray Polner, Branch Rickey: A Biography, McFarland (2007).