Book Review: Heal Us, Emmanuel: A Call for Racial Reconciliation, Representation, and Unity in the Church

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Book Review: Heal Us, Emmanuel: A Call for Racial Reconciliation, Representation, and Unity in the Church, edited by Doug Serven. Oklahoma City, OK: White Blackbird Books, 2016. 326 pp.

For various reasons, the topics of racial discrimination and racial injustice are predictably tense and sensitive areas of public discussion. During the past eight years particularly, attempting to frankly examine these subjects has become even more of a fragile and unproductive endeavor that has curtailed open and honest dialogue in favor of racial monologues that have increased racial resentment and hostility. The product of marginalizing a variety of serious and authentic voices on racial issues has suppressed what could be productive, diverse and candid discussions, which would lead to actual approaches to mitigate racial discrimination where it actually exists.

Though the multiplicity of responsible voices willing and able to faithfully analyze and address such tenuous topics are relegated to the margins in society at large, these voices are also seemingly silenced in the one place they shouldn’t be- the American church. Many Christians have increasingly and repeatedly acknowledged the church’s ostensible absence or silence on such important issues. These observers lament the church’s lack of leadership and action in being the model for racial reconciliation and unity the country desperately needs.

 Many of the Christians concerned by the church’s reluctance and inactivity to genuinely confront the race issue are found in the book, Heal Us, Emmanuel: A Call for Racial reconciliation, Representation and Unity in the Church.

Heal Us, Emmanuel is an assorted collection of 30 essays from 30 different authors, all of which are pastors or elders in the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA). The introduction informs the reader that the majority of the contributors are white and theologically conservative, though there are contributions from black, Latino and Asian Americans- also members of Presbyterian Church leadership- who share similar perspectives concerning racial problems in the PCA. The narratives, in their unique way, detail how blindness to racial issues for some and an increased racial consciousness for others have influenced their personal lives and the context of their respective ministries. The goal of Heal Us, Emmanuel, is to initiate the process of racial reconciliation and unity within the church, starting with biblical confession, repentance and Christ-like forgiveness.

The narratives in the book are methodically portioned into six sections, with each section bearing a corresponding theme that reflects the systematic emphasis of the book as a whole. The six- step procedural is as follows:

  1. An Invitation to Listen
  2. Awakening to Privilege
  3. Sins of Omission and Commission
  4. Historical and Theological Perspectives
  5. Confession and Reconciliation Are Necessary
  6. A Way Forward

This six-part narrative is a map that guides and informs the reader of the practical, religious and theological consequences of Christians genuinely confronting the implications of submitting to the gospel’s directive of eliminating barriers of racial resentment and ethnic hostility. Engaging in the difficult and uncomfortable task of interracial healing and racial reconciliation potentially achieves what one author called, redemptive unity.

Though the personal storylines about racialized experiences come from self-identified Presbyterians contextually anchored in the PCA, I think much of what was expressed is representative of the American church as a whole. Truthfully, my experience guides my belief that the American church hasn’t approached the issue of multiethnic unity and interracial reconciliation with the seriousness and urgency it deserves. Increasingly I’m of the opinion that many American churches have very little interest in challenging the discordant issues of race and reconciliation. True, as chapter three intends, the subject of race is sometimes omitted, in part, because being in the dominant class means not having to experience the prospective pain, hurt and frustration of racial discrimination. The omission is unintentional. Not having an expectation of encountering racism means not having to prepare or react in defensive or emotionally protective ways. In other words, out of sight, out of mind.

On the other hand, omission can be commission. As one author notes about Presbyterians (104-114) (which again can be applied to the American church overall), excluding blacks is deliberate. Historically, this exclusion can be traced to slavery when blacks were forced to create separate racial denominations that allowed them to fully participate in worship; through Jim Crow and the civil rights era when white churches compromised the integrity of the gospel, and their public Christian witness by consistently staying silent with respect to the evils of segregation and the suffering of their black brothers and sisters in Christ (120).

Presently, if and when the church apprehensively attempts to address the topic, the enterprise isn’t as effective as it can be, I believe, because the modus operandi of the American church is replicating the failed and inadequate “racial justice” agendas of our culture rather than employing a gospel-centered approach that integrates love, forgiveness, repentance and acceptance on the path toward (re)conciliation (theological unity, 183). One author referred to the socially acceptable pattern of considering black people, and confronting issues of racism while judging “progress” by socio-economic, quality-of-life factors, as an ineffective “political mindset” that underemphasizes the gospel and achieving redemptive ethnic unity (3-9). The “political mindset” that perceives social and economic parity or black advancement prefers a “better America” than God’s kingdom and gospel based on interracial Christian unity (3-7).

The relative lack of attentiveness, apprehension and reluctance of the church to faithfully address issues of race, repentance, and reconciliation serves to preserve the racial discontentment that includes both the church and culture. The church’s absence and perceived indifference to racial unity allows lesser quality movements, and agendas, that nurture racial grievance and discord, like Black Lives Matter, to fill the void. Heal Us, Emmanuel is a conversation starter in this regard because it encourages white Christians to own and confess the sin of racism. The book also encourages white Christians to commit to theologically influencing systems and structures in churches and denominations (and society) that lead to redemption, reconciliation and unity in the body of Christ.

And that’s the rub. This book can’t just encourage people to start a conversation or continue a dialogue. Talk doesn’t equal action; it should necessarily lead to it.

Heal Us Emmanuel is worth the time. It read as a sincere attempt of now self-aware white Christians to acknowledge the evils and consequences of racism in both American church and American culture. The book is admittedly unidirectional, primarily dealing with the obligations of white Christians to resolve the problem of race, and thus, limiting. That resolution shouldn’t include admitting that behaviors and thoughts- or lack of behaviors and thoughts- are “racist” when they aren’t. Nor should it include social or religious genuflecting when and where it isn’t needed, which I felt some of the essays rhetorically reflected. I think these actions, the result of white guilt, complicate the tasks of racial healing and unity.

Nevertheless, Heal Us, Emmanuel is an honest and needed contribution in pushing the American church toward its overlooked responsibility in shaping a gospel-based strategy of racial healing and unity.

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Book Review: The End of White Christian America

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The End of White Christian America, by Robert P. Jones. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016. 309 pages

According to Robert P. Jones, the founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), White Christian America- “the most prominent cultural force in the nation’s history”- is dead.

Jones’ new book, The End of White Christian America, which narrates the historical development and decline of this religious and national phenomenon, functions not only as a eulogy for the once prominent majority but also the obituary of what he refers to as White Christian America. Though the exact time and date of death is somewhat uncertain- Jones speculates roughly 2004- the cause of death, according to Jones, is obvious. The factors that inevitably led to the demise of White Christian America included the changing racial/ethnic demographics, increasing religious disaffiliation among Americans- particularly younger Americans, and the inability of White Christianity to maintain relevance in a shifting cultural environment that welcomed and approved the redefinition of marriage to include homosexuals.

Who, then, is White Christian America?

According to Jones, White Christian America overwhelmingly consists of white Mainline Protestants and white Evangelicals. Jones argues that the political activity of Evangelicals in the latter part of the 20th century forced white Christian America to expand and integrate Catholics and Mormons into their tribe in hopes of expanding its political influence resulting from a shared partisan expediency and potential socio-political objectives.

Historically, White Christian America traces its religious roots to northern Europe (30-31). In America, Jones chronicles three distinct waves of its cultural influence and growth: the Roaring 20s, World War II, and the political ascendancy of the Religious Right in the 70s and 80s (7). Though viewed as a whole, geography and theology distinguished one half of White Christian America from the other. The theologically liberal, mainline Protestants were headquartered in New England and upper Midwest while the more conservative evangelical Protestants were (and still are) entrenched in the South and lower Midwest (31).

The power and influence of White Christian America were seen not only among institutions that shaped and reflected its culture- The National Council of Churches, the National Association of Evangelicals, The Boy Scouts of America, the Girl Scouts, the Young Men’s Christian Association, denominational colleges and seminaries among others- it was demonstrated in the kind of architecture that defined both halves of this Protestant empire. Jones notes that the (mainline) United Methodist Building in Washington, D.C., the Interfaith Center in New York City, and the (evangelical) Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California- reflected the respective cultural prominence of white Protestantism in its heyday.

Recounting the decline of White Christian America, Jones provides very good data from sound sources including the General Social Survey, American Values Atlas, the Pew Foundation, and data derived from Jones’ organization, PRRI. The gathered data suggest that religious plurality; ethnic plurality, the increasing decline in self-identified religiosity, and the graying of White Christian America all contributed to its decline. For instance, Jones highlights that 2008 was the last year on record in which Protestants, regardless of color, represented a majority of the country(50). The estimated white Christian share of the 2016 electorate is only 55 percent and Jones predicts it will make up 52 percent of the electorate come 2020 (47).

Considering the decline of white Christian presence in the country and electorate, Jones contends the election of the country’s first black president was both a symbolic repudiation and conquest over the long dominance of this cultural force. The reaction to the first black president, argues Jones, resulted in the “politics of nostalgia” for White Christian America- specifically by evangelicals- anxiously or angrily pining for a time of recognizable religious and ethnic homogeneity (85). Though he doesn’t mention the current election cycle, one is immediately drawn to the “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan of Republican presidential hopeful, Donald Trump.

Has White Christian America lost its cultural and political influence? Unequivocally, Jones says absolutely. He notes the political strategy of marshaling and depending on white Christian voters- a successful plan of action for re-electing George W. Bush in 2004- is a losing political strategy going forward, resulting from the declining citizenry of White Christian America. Appealing to a wide berth of data, including the 2013 Growth and Opportunity Project commonly referred to as the “GOP Autopsy” report, Jones is certain that if the GOP wishes to remain politically competitive in the future, it needs to abandon the once-dependable strategy of appealing only to white Christians (110).

I couldn’t agree more.

Sociologically, the end of white Christian dominance precipitates a broader demographic change with social, cultural, political, and economic consequences. Even still, the book focuses on this phenomenological passing through a political and cultural lens and that shouldn’t be avoided or minimized. For example, a portion of Jones’ autopsy, as mentioned earlier, is focused on “gay marriage” and what “acceptance” means for White Christian America and its decline. Though he conflates “gay rights” (doesn’t define in detail) with “gay marriage,” Jones acknowledges that the agenda of homosexual activists was to directly challenge the religious sensibilities and theological principles of White Christian America in pursuit of social acceptance and legalization of “marriage equality.” Further, Jones says that widespread acceptance and legalization of same sex marriage is additional evidence of the end of White Christian America’s cultural dominance. This is a bit concerning, as widespread acceptance of same sex marriage (more specifically, redefining marriage to include anyone) is a rejection of the orthodox Christian teaching and practice concerning marriage, regardless of color or ethnicity.

Jones’ claims that the refusal to bend to cultural trends and accept gay marriage (which he labels antigay) puts the evangelical portion of White Christian America at odds with younger Americans (132-137). There’s a subtle suggestion that evangelicals should follow their mainline brethren and bend or reject traditional Christian biblical and theological teaching on marriage as a strategy to broaden its appeal to younger Americans.

Lastly, Jones maintains that White Christian America has a race problem, evidenced both in the opposition to Barack Obama, and the reaction to cops killing “unarmed black males” (147-148), which he claims establishes a lack of sympathy for blacks and their feelings about blacks who’ve died in police interactions (155). As it pertains to the election of Barack Obama, there might have been some who held anti-black feelings that motivated and animated opposition to him. But, and what Jones doesn’t consider, is that considerable opposition to Obama had less to do with his skin color and more to do with his progressive ideological convictions that contradicted his professed Christian religious beliefs, and the traditional Christian viewpoints of his detractors. To say that all or most white Christians who opposed Barack Obama did so because of racial animus, without evidence, disingenuously disparages a large group of people with a very little consideration.

Jones asserts that the reality of systemic racism and homogenized social segregation validates his claim that there’s no social institution positioned to resolve problems stemming from racial discrimination (156). For Jones, this is simply a continuation of the historical patterns of racial discrimination by white Christians- particularly by evangelical Protestants (Southern Baptists). Mainline Protestants are almost given a pass- congratulated for their contribution to social justice work both historically and presently (177-78).

Coming to terms with the end of White Christian America has come in phases. Jones acknowledges that the weakening influence of mainline Protestants has been occurring since the 60s and 70s, so mainline Christians have had more time to experience the stages of grief, denial, anger and acceptance (200), though there continue to be some holdouts. Jones ostensibly scolds the Institute of Religion and Democracy (IRD) in its mission to hold the mainline denominations religiously and theologically accountable to orthodox teaching, practically condemning its persistence in its refusal to accept the consequences of demise of White Christian America (200-201).

Evangelicals are on a different timeline and are presently, though reluctantly, coming to terms with their diminishing authority and influence, which Jones claims is the source of the angered outbursts (the Tea Party, and one assumes, support for Donald Trump) in refusing to accept the inevitable.

One cause for celebration about White Christian America’s declining political clout is that evangelicals can return to the biblical obligation of making Christian disciples, rather than trying to make political ones.

Yet there is some very noticeable but subdued cheerfulness by Jones for the end of White Christian America and one gets the sense that he’s not alone in his excitement. The celebration and joyfulness, though, should be measured.

As White Christian America has lost its strength both in real numbers and in cultural, moral, and political influence, something predictably rises to fill the vacancy. What that “something” is, isn’t always predictable. In this case it very much is. The social values and “virtues” of Leftism, has replaced the space and institutions once dominated by White Christian America. As we’ve seen in the academy, where religion- particularly Christianity- has been shamed into public silence and private expression, the receding influence and presence of “white” Christian America has allowed the academy to degenerate into a moral gutter. The same is true regarding the debased nature of the arts and entertainment, which have occupied spaces where Christianity served as a bulwark against its culturally corruptive influence. Is that a good thing, and if so, how and why?

No one, or at the very least, very few people maintain the idea that White Christian America was perfect. They missed the mark on some pretty important social issues because of their culturally homogenized, whitewashed, biblical hermeneutic. Despite Jones’ underlying tone, the values of White Christian America- specifically Judeo Christian values- provided a semblance of unity against the proven destructive nature of pluralism that lead to the many damaging effects of relativism.

Despite the not-so-subtle excitement for the culmination of Christian influence on American culture, the analyses provided by Jones makes The End of White Christian America worth reading.

 

Book Review: America’s Original Sin

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America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, by Jim Wallis. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016. 272 pages

During the past several years, Evangelical Christians have been criticized for their lack of involvement in the fight against racial injustice. It’s said that Christians willingly and consistently engage in Pro-Life issues (and issues concerning the proper role of marriage and sexuality), but are glaringly absent when it comes to the issue and consequences of racial injustice.

In reacting to these criticisms, Evangelicals have attempted to increase their visibility and participation in the ongoing, national conversation on the topic of racial injustice. Recently, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship — an Evangelical campus ministry — held its Urbana 15 Student Missions Conference that had as a keynote speaker a social justice advocate and self-identified supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. Last week, Wheaton College’s Center for Applied Christian Ethics hosted three members of the Ferguson Commission on a panel entitled Change, Healing and Reconciliation: A Conversation with The Ferguson Commission to discuss the findings of the Department of Justice’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, in addition to the Church’s response to what many perceive to be blatant and persistent forms of racial inequality.

This week Jim Wallis — author, political activist, and founder of Sojourners magazine offers his contribution to the Evangelical discussion of this culturally sensitive issue in America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.

According to Wallis, this book serves as a “primer on the underlying racism that still exists in America,” and seeks to “talk honestly” about America’s original sin of racial discrimination and how it continues to impact various areas of American life. Wallis argues that white America is obligated to begin the act of contrition — repentance for participating in, and contributing to, racial discrimination against blacks and other minorities. In addition to repentance, Wallis argues that white Americans (which he conflates with white Christians throughout the book) should listen to their “black and brown brothers and sisters” when they tell their stories of racial injustice rather than disregarding these pain-filled experiences as unimportant. For Wallis, these are the necessary first steps toward racial justice and reconciliation.

The book explains that racism is a manifestation of sin — clearly using biblical and theological language to convey the moral evil of racial discrimination. Wallis rightly notes that sin is a theological problem that goes deeper than politics. The book also effectively explains the linguistic and theological contours of repentance. It stresses that repentance is much more than merely adopting an apologetic tone for wrongs committed. Repentance, which follows forgiveness, entails the sincere and complete change of direction of one’s mind (renewal), evidenced by one’s actions (restitution, loving one’s neighbor, etc.). Discussing racism in biblical (moral) terms rather than political terms is a refreshing necessity that should be adopted by Christians and non-Christians alike.

In addition, Wallis laments churches that have “baptized us into our racial divisions” rather than teaching and modeling that our baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, unites us in a way that transcends all earthly limitations. Wallis is spot-on here, and he would have done a great service by expanding the implications of this idea a bit more than the passing glance he gave it.

The book describes the underlying tensions contributing to the current state of race relations in the United States using Ferguson and Baltimore as parabolic examples of the consequences of racial tension. It also discusses in some detail the socio-economic disparities that exist between blacks and whites — including the lower quality of black life in the ghettos, “mass incarceration” and the disproportionate numbers of blacks represented in the penal system, the substandard public school system among other issues, arguing these realities are the result of white privilege and white supremacy. Wallis argues that the root of these disparities is unquestionably found in racial injustice that, because of the shifting racial demographic of the country, not only affect blacks but also other minorities.

That said, having read Wallis’ other work and knowing his political sensibilities direct his religious beliefs, the overall framework and content of America’s Original Sin was rather predictable.

For starters, Wallis says that white racism is an extension of white privilege, but he never explicitly defines “white privilege.” He repeatedly condemns white privilege as if what constitutes white privilege is self-evident. It isn’t. The term “white privilege” is just as intentionally ambiguous as the phrase “Hope and Change.” That is to say it can mean whatever the person invoking it wants it to mean, at any given time, risking contradiction from invocation to invocation. The closest Wallis comes to defining white privilege was to link it to white supremacy. But he didn’t explain how white supremacy — a thoroughly dated but deliberately provocative term — is defined in our contemporary setting.

Likewise, aside from not defining it — but confidently stating that blacks continue to suffer because of it — Wallis never explains how Asian, African, Indian and other immigrants to America without white skin, seem to avoid falling prey to the intentions and negative effects of white privilege. It’s as if they don’t exist so as to preserve the myth.

Throughout the book, Wallis repeatedly suggests that Christians should “talk honestly” about racial injustice, and should engage in “telling the truth about race.” But sadly Wallis doesn’t come close to living up to his own suggestion. As I read the book, I wondered if this truth was objective, or if it was in fact based on how he and others, who share his position on racial matters, (re)define it.

For example Wallis unquestionably claims that all of the socio-economic ills experienced by blacks and other minorities are sourced in the preservation of white supremacy and white privilege. He says this as if the fact that these discrepancies exist are in-and-of themselves, hard evidences of racism. How can Wallis be assured of this? Based on what proof? He gives a number of dizzying statistics that demonstrate the quality-of-life discrepancies between blacks and whites, but he doesn’t give any evidence that validates his claim that these statistics are singularly the result of racism. He does say that “black[s] and [other minorities] are disproportionately consigned to the lowest economic tier is a continuing proof of racism.” He also says that the “systemic and perverse character of racism” in addition to the “cold hard savagery of racism,” is responsible for the declining quality of life among many blacks. The academic and economic experiences of many blacks might contribute a lesser quality of life than their white counterparts — and I believe that in many cases to be true. But, if we’re being honest as Wallis suggests we should be, there are very clear reasons why blacks are academically and economically disadvantaged, and one can argue that racism is but one result. However racism as an explanation in totality, without clear evidence to support such a claim is irresponsible, especially by someone of Wallis’ stature.

(As a side note, the strongest area in which racism can be argued to be actively influential is in the area of education. The substandard education delivered to poor minority children in places like Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia and other ghettos across the country is the result of teachers’ unions placing the priority of employing teachers over educating students. That doesn’t absolve black parents from their responsibility of emphasizing academic success by any means. But what’s allowed to happen to poor ghetto children when it comes to education is a national sin.)

Additionally, Wallis argues that blacks suffer these socio-economic maladies because they’re black (because that’s how racism works). No other contributing factors like values, attitudes, behavior and morality are given as reasons or predictors of black suffering. At the same time, whites are successful because they benefit from white privilege. Again, just like the lack of other variables that might explain black suffering, no other reasons are given as reasons or predictors of “white” success. For Wallis, minorities, especially blacks, are never-ending victims of external circumstances, not autonomous beings that are capable of forming ideas, attitudes and behaviors to reduce socio-economic disparities. Thus when Wallis blames all social and economic ills on white racism and ignores black involvement, he engages in the sort of condescending, racial paternalism that re-victimizes blacks, making them powerless when it comes to relying on self-determination to influence and change their own fate. Aside from handicapping blacks, having to constantly beg and depend on external help to solve their problems, he indicts all whites as racists, obligating them (through guilt) to engage in redemptive acts of black charity. That directly contradicts his earlier appeal to the biblical and theological understanding of forgiveness and repentance, which does more to nourish white resentment than it does to cultivate racial reconciliation. And it’s not very Christian.

By reducing the black role in racial reconciliation to the role of a disabled and victimized bystander, the book minimizes the black obligation of forgiveness and repentance. Blacks are not simply in a position to forgive white people for participating and sustaining white racism (where it exists); they’re also in a position to ask whites for forgiveness. Despite the book’s false claim that blacks can’t be racist because they lack the power to implement their discrimination (50), which minimizes black moral responsibility — if racial reconciliation is to become a reality in the church — blacks must be required to ask forgiveness from whites for assuming and projecting racism onto whites where it doesn’t exist. All church-based strategies that seek racial reconciliation and restoration will crash and burn if they don’t include blacks as equals in moral agency, as a result of being created in God’s image in addition to being children of God, and as brothers and sisters in Christ (Romans 8:15-15, Galatians. 4:5–6.)

Repeating the overused cliche’ and untrue narrative that blacks are permanent victims of white racism doesn’t make it any more true simply because it’s accompanied with Christian veneer.

America’s Original Sin argues that racism is a sin that’s deeper than politics, yet the remedy offered appears to be almost entirely political. Though effective change can happen through social and economic policy, the reality is our morality dictates our politics. The more Christian morality influences politics, the more impartial legislation can become. Regardless, Christians shouldn’t wait until politicians pass policies they approve of. Christians have to be epistles that emanate the gospel of Christ in our own communities, living as as ambassadors of redemption and in this case, racial reconciliation. In other words, Christians (regardless of color) should be disciples of cruciformity — conforming to the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Christ in pursuit of redeeming and restoring relationships that have been strained and broken along racial lines.

Ultimately, America’s Original Sin, in effect, attempts to Christianize recycled racial narratives without critically or courageously examining why racial, moral and cultural disparities exist between black and white Americans. Simply laying fault to a white racial boogeyman isn’t productive, nor is it particularly Christian. I can’t imagine too many Christians arguing that racism doesn’t exist. I also can’t imagine too many Christians who don’t want to reduce racial inequality or who’re against racial reconciliation. But attempting to provoke them into action through blame, guilt, bad politics and a watered down gospel isn’t a plan for lasting success because it trivializes both the problem and the solution.

In the age of Black Lives Matter and the social expectation to support its agenda or be slandered as racist, Christian contributions to racial reconciliation should approach this issue carefully. Racial inequality deserves the attention and engagement of Evangelicals but not through a superficial and self-righteous agenda that does more damage than good. It’s simply not enough for Christians to look busy while doing nothing in a self-congratulatory manner like Black lives Matter.

America’s Original Sin left a lot on the table, but should be read more for what it isn’t than for what it is.