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.

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.

 

Black Racial Solidarity On Display At Michael Brown’s Funeral

If there was any doubt that blacks have chosen their racial and cultural expressions of black identity and racial solidarity over- and at the expense of- their religious identity, one needs to look no further than the televised funeral of Michael Brown.

The attendees of this funeral- some of which include Snoop Dog, P Diddy, Al Sharpton, TD Jakes, Spike Lee, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and several representatives from the White House- are speaking and acting in ways that are counter to the gospel of Christ. Not only were they performing (black expressions of religiosity like ‘catching the Holy Ghost’) and exaggerating for the cameras, but those chosen to speak at the funeral are continuing to repeat the lies and distortions about Brown the media helped perpetuated like Brown being a “gentle giant”; that he was simply, “walking down the street”; that he was shot while his “hands were up”- even though mounting evidence contradicts these disputed claims.  This canard was preached and cheered because for the funeral attendees, racial solidarity with one another for the cause of Michael Brown means more than, truth.

Speaking of lies, a friend of the Brown family stood in the pulpit and said with a straight face, that Michael Brown was a gentle guy, and on the day he died, Brown was out ‘spreading the word of Christ’. This was an absurd and embarrassing lie if there ever was one. Unfortunately for the speaker- and the speaker no doubt knows this- there’s video surveillance showing Brown using his height, weight and strength to bully a convenience store owner while he stole a box of cigarillos. Not sure if this qualifies as the peaceful evangelism, or ‘spreading the word of Christ’ normally associated with Christian missionaries.

The speakers are also continuing to talk about “justice” for Brown, even though some evidence suggests that Brown may have been culpable in his own death. I’m not suggesting that Brown deserved to die, but I am suggesting that if some of the hearsay turns out to be true- specifically that Brown did assault the police officer prior to his shooting, then it’s no surprise that he ended up shot, which resulted in his death. But this is of no matter for black supporters of Brown because black racial solidarity takes precedence.

But more to the point, what exactly does ‘justice’ mean when used in reference to- and demanded– for Brown? And what about ‘justice’ for officer Darren Wilson, the man who shot Brown? Again, if the evidence confirms the justifiable use of force of Wilson, against Brown, what about ‘justice’ then? That this is never asked by people purporting to be Christian, is very problematic.

Justice, particularly biblical justice that’s connected to righteousness– the justice that is required of- and characterized- by God, is not and cannot be compartmentalized. Justice is a disposition that permeates the entire being and an entire way of life. It’s not characterized by deceit, slander or falsified information. Thus, by definition, there cannot be “justice for Brown” in the way it’s demanded from his supporters, while at the same time ensuring justice for officer Darren Wilson who may have been… justified… for using force. Or in other words, there can’t be ‘justice’ for Michael Brown apart from or at the expense of justice being meted out for the situation in its entirety. If these people, these so-called Christians, truly sought justice, they wouldn’t attempt to partition it, or pervert it, in the manner in which they have done and continue to do.

For example, one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:16) clearly says that one should not give false testimony against one’s neighbor, which is juxtaposed with Jesus’ warning in Matthew 12: 36 that everyone will have to account for what they’ve said come the day of reckoning. It seems that many of Brown’s supporters- because they repeat what increasingly appears to be untrue- are in direct and continued violation of this directive.

Further, Exodus 23: 1-3 and 7-8, shows that God clearly warns against spreading false reports in addition to resisting the pressure of following the crowd in doing wrong in perverting justice. This verse directly and immediately applies to all the rabble-rousers, “community activists/organizers,” “preachers,” celebrities and other Brown supporters in Ferguson and across the country. Every time the claim is repeated that Brown was “walking with his hands up,” when he was shot, which contradicts the autopsy report- until we have more detailed evidence, is false. Again, blacks standing pretentiously and sanctimoniously in racial solidarity is more important than truth. More specifically, for many blacks, racial solidarity is truth.

Lastly, Deuteronomy 16:19-20 teaches that people should not pervert justice by showing partiality; we are to follow justice and justice alone. In my opinion, based on the rhetoric heard during Brown’s funeral and the events that have taken place since Brown was shot, we’ve seen and heard nothing but partiality. This partiality is in favor of Brown, regardless of- and prior to- evidence released in relation to the investigation of Brown being killed. To be fair, many supporters of officer Wilson also show partiality in his favor, but it does not appear to be as transparent and egregious as what’s been witnessed from the sympathizers of Brown’s family.

To be blunt, it should be clear that the rhetoric from the Brown family supporters is proof that what they want isn’t justice; they want vengeance. Now one can argue that in some situations, vengeance is justice- or at the very least, justice and vengeance are two sides of the same coin. And one might have a point; but not here. These people want vengeance and from what has been said and demanded in the name of ‘justice’ (calling for Wilson’s firing and being indicted by a federal grand jury and charged with murder- regardless of evidence), is really not justice at all. It’s vengeance saturated with black racial solidarity.

The funeral attendees also heard Sharpton preach about ‘blackness’- what it is and what it’s not. His sermon aside- this is the schizophrenia which afflicts black Christians. This schizophrenia is characterized by attempting to personify dual identities held in tension with one another, that inevitably brings both identities into competition with one another. Once those identities come into conflict, the holder of these competing identities must chose which identity takes preference and which identity must be subjugated. Jesus taught that one cannot serve two masters. For the black Christian, his Christian identity is generally subjugated to his black identity, which goes against the admonition of Paul’s teaching- aside from not regarding anyone from a worldly point of view- that those who’re in Christ are new creations, with new perspectives.

Blacks continued cultic practice of racial empathy and solidarity, worshiping at the altar of race, has had devastating consequences, many of which have been on display during the last two weeks in Ferguson Missouri. Any hope of spiritual redemption of black Americans must be predicated on their black identity being subjected to their Christian identity. They must eschew racial solidarity in favor of familial solidarity in Christ. Then and only then can blacks have a chance to overcome self-inflicted pathologies, which have negatively characterized their communities across the country for far too long.