A Changing Landscape
The commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination has sparked a lot of discussion regarding the state of race relations in the United States. But this is particularly true among Christians.
A few days ago, popular black pastor Thabiti Anyabwile posted a controversial article on the Christian website The Gospel Coalition about King’s murder at the hand’s of white supremacists. Anyabwile had meant to elicit outrage at the apparent injustice of the act, echoing the sentiment of Abel’s murder in Genesis 4 (“…your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!”). But his tone didn’t seem to sit well with some people, and it quickly elicited responses from others such as James White, Phil Johnson and Douglas Wilson, who believed it regressed into white-shaming. The blogosphere was flooded with people’s opinions on the matter (and here’s another drop to add to the torrential downpour).
But then, Anyabwile’s post was followed by the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) own commemoration of King’s assassination*. “MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop” was a whole conference devoted to the subject of racial unity. Luminaries included Russel Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, an easy target and pariah for many SBC discontents who scoff at the mention of “racial reconciliation”. And yet, he was followed on the keynote platform by evangelical heavyweights such as John Piper, whose speaking and writings have inspired thousands (perhaps millions) to passionately pursue the glory of God. (This perhaps shouldn’t be too surprising; Piper and his wife have a black daughter, whom they adopted years ago.)
Another very prominent evangelical presence was Matt Chandler–pastor of the popular Village Church and current president of the Acts 29 church planting network. His own words were particularly poignant:
“If I preach the sermon out of the book of Isaiah on justice, my inbox would fill with their glee that I would broach the subject. But if I applied it to the subject of race, then all of a sudden I was a Marxist or I’ve been watching too much of the liberal media. If I spoke on abortion, I was applauded as courageous, as a ferocious man of God, and yet when I would tackle race I was being too political … If I quoted the great reformer Martin Luther … never did I get an email about his blatant anti-Semitism. But let me quote the great reformer Martin Luther King Jr., and watch my inbox fill with people asking me if I’m aware of his moral brokenness.”
It doesn’t stop there. Recently, Presbyterian theologian/scholar Michael Horton and his ministry highlighted an article by Pastor Mika Edmonson on the need for constructive racial dialogue. (He likewise faced some backlash on the dreaded and unforgiving “comments” section on Facebook.)** Then Erwin Lutzer, pastor emeritus of the famous Moody Church in Chicago, shared a Facebook post that encouraged followers to get their hands on MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, which he described as a “masterpiece”, saying also: “It gives the rationale for racial equality…and helps us understand the urgency of his ministry.” He followed it up with a trendy “#MLK50”.
Shortly afterward, popular pastor and author Paul David Tripp published an article recounting his experience getting to know black brothers/sisters in Christ at the church that he has been attending, and coming to finally understand their struggles, their pain, and their hurt. The article was similarly met with some dismissal.
And finally, the most recent evangelical to take to the stage this week voicing support of racial reconciliation was none other than famous pastor David Platt (also current president of SBC’s International Missions Board), who did so during this year’s “Together For the Gospel” conference. Like the others, he too has received his fair share of criticism.
Is there a trend? What’s going on? These certainly aren’t your bleeding-heart liberal types. Rather, it appears that an increasing amount of white, confessional, theologically conservative, and orthodox Christian leaders are realizing an apparent disparity between the economic and judicial realities of black and white Americans. And they want to do something about it.
“As old as Cain and Abel”
A popular film on the topic of race is the 2000 film “Remember the Titans“. The film is based on the true story of a Virginia high school football team in the wake of racial integration in public schools schools in 1971. It has long been a favorite to quote among my group of friends, and yet there is one obscure quote that still rings in my ear–one that is typically passed over. In the background, some higher ups had tried to bribe the assistant coach of the recently integrated T.C. Williams High School football team to throw a game, and in return he would receive entry into the Hall of Fame. The coach refuses, his team wins the game, and he loses the Hall of Fame. In an uncharacteristically profound and poetic moment for a “nine-and-a-half” year old, the coach’s daughter (played by a young Hayden Panetierre) says amidst bittersweet tears: “…I wanted the Hall of Fame real bad. It’s just plain old jealousy, as old as Cain and Abel.”
“Jealousy as old as Cain and Abel.”
She was likely referring to her own desire to receive the Hall of Fame. But she could have just as well been referring to the corruption of the men (and the system) that had made that impossible for her father. Their jealousy and prejudice against blacks was just the continuation of a human condition that stretches all the way back to the book of Genesis.
The Bible begins with a tragic backstory: after a wonderful creation account, human beings from the very beginning have severed our relationship with God and introduced Sin into the world, creating a gap between us and our Creator. But Sin also has had consequences in human relationships, creating a breakdown in the way we view and treat each other. Immediately the progenitors of the human race started pointing fingers and blaming each other. This breakdown in relationships continued in their offspring–the brothers Cain and Abel. Jealous that Abel seemed to have a better relationship with God, Cain killed his brother in a field. When God asked Cain about his brother’s whereabouts, Cain responded coldly: “Am I my brothers keeper??” What, am I his babysitter or something?? He’s not my responsibility! Biblical scholars will tell you that afterwards, the rest of Genesis 1-11 is a downward spiral of human society into utter chaos, simply because of humanity’s failure to take care of one another. To put others before ourselves. To be one another’s “keeper”.
The head coach in Remember the Titans, played by Denzel Washington, touches on this theme when he takes his team to the historic site of the battle of Gettysburg. He says,
Listen to their souls, man. “I killed my brother with malice in my heart. Hatred destroyed my family.” You listen. Take a lesson from the dead.
This cycle has been going on since time immemorial.
The Restoration of All Things
But this is not the end of the story, according to the Bible. The book of Revelation gives us a sneak peak into a time when all of creation will be renewed and restored to the way that it was supposed to be. And what is included in this new creation? Revelation 7 talks about “a great multitude…from every nation, tribe, people, and language” praising God together, side by side, in unison. It’s a beautiful picture of both unity and racial diversity. Not only will our relationship with God be perfectly restored, but our relationships with one another will be as well. Genesis 1 will be revisited, and Genesis 3 will be undone. This was the project that Jesus launched in His death and resurrection, “to reconcile all things to Himself” (Colossians 1:20).
Reconciliation is embedded in the heart of who God is. 2 Corinthians 5:19 states that “…God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ.” In Jesus Christ and His sacrificial life and death, He modeled to us His heart for reconciliation, to God and to one another. In Jesus Christ, the greatest relational gap that ever existed (that is, between us and God) has been closed. And if such a feat can be accomplished through Jesus Christ, so can reconciliation between races.
And one of the most encouraging things is that He has called us, the Church, to partner with Him in His project by reflecting His heart for reconciliation, and to be a glimpse of the Kingdom that He has in store for us. Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:19 says that God entrusted us with “the message of reconciliation”. This is to be reflected first in our preaching of the Gospel to all people and also in the way we approach our relationships with one another. Orthopraxy cannot be divorced from orthodoxy.
Unfortunately the Church hasn’t always succeeded in living up to its calling. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to Sunday morning as “the most segregated hour in the week” in the United States, a statement that still bears some truth today. Instead of being agents of change and “ministers of reconciliation” to both God and man, we have sometimes been complicit in perpetuating the vicious cycle that started with Cain of not being our “brother’s keeper” and not looking out for one another. But if reconciliation is in the heart of who God is, and if we are supposed to mirror God as His image-bearers, then how can our voices stay silent at the sight of injustice and inequality?
This is the message that people like Platt, Piper, Chandler, and Tripp are trying to get across. These people are defenders of orthodoxy. And yet, they argue that if they take the Gospel and its implications seriously, then like the God that they profess they must also be defenders of the marginalized, especially when it’s the result of race. In other words, they would argue that though the Gospel is not the same as the “social gospel”, it DOES have social implications. The same Jesus who had two thumbs that continually pointed to Himself also uncurled His fingers to offer an outstretched hand to the marginalized, the oppressed, and the downtrodden. Jesus broke racial barriers when He reached out to Samaritans and Phoenicians. And these people argue that we should do likewise.
Will people listen to them? Will their voice be heard? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know. Recent articles (here and here) by evangelical thinkers have highlighted an apparent disconnect between the “evangelical elites/leaders” and those that fill the pews on any given Sunday. Only time will tell. But one thing I do know: if we are called to be ambassadors for Christ, then we are also called to be our brother’s keeper.
See also: Theological Orthodoxy and Social Justice
*The importance of this event can’t be overlooked. The SBC had split from the Northern Baptists long ago over the issue of slave ownership, and throughout its history had often played an implicit role in the perpetuation of segregation and white superiority. It wasn’t until 1995 that the largest American Protestant denomination decided to repent of its past compliance toward slavery, segregation, and white supremacy, and formally renounced its racist roots. Though change had been a long time coming, after 1995 things continued to accelerate. The SBC leadership encouraged their churches to discontinue flying the Confederate flag for the sake of racial unity, they formally denounced the alt-right movement, and the number of multi-ethnic congregations started to grow exponentially, seeing an influx of Asian, African American, and Latino congregants. The “MLK50” conference has simply been the latest in a string of movements towards what they have perceived as racial harmony.
**I’ve had a similar experience when I shared this article. One commenter posted something along the lines of “I thought Paul told us to preach the Gospel, not to be social justice warriors”, as if the two were mutually exclusive. I’ve also had experiences like Matt Chandler. Coming from a Baptist denomination (the American Baptist Churches) that has perennially struggled with maintaining orthodoxy in recent decades, I was excited to join a private Facebook group of fellow Baptists that would enthusiastically discuss sound theology. Yet the moment that I brought up what it’s like being a minority, I was automatically shot down and dismissed.