This past Tuesday at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Kainos in partnership with The Gospel Coalition and Lifeway Research hosted a panel of speakers addressing race and the church after recent events surrounding the deaths and grand jury decisions involving Eric Garner and Michael Brown. It seems as though everyone has either written a blog post or open letter about the issue and I am not sure if their are any new things to say, but I will try to offer up some thoughts that have come to my mind after reading blogs, listening to people and watching the panel, A Time to Speak.
I have been very disgusted by several Christians responses to the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner to put it lightly and was very encouraged to see and listen to several prominent Christian leaders address the issues publically and engage with those of differing views. The two hour discussion was separated into two panels. The first included Thabiti Anyabwile, Matt Chandler, Darrin Patrick, and Voddie Bauchum. The second panel included John Piper, Eric Mason, Trillia Newbell, Derwin Gray, and Albert Tate. Both panels were moderated by Brian Lorrits and Ed Stetzer.
The first panel I found more profitable than the second. Anyabwile and Bauchum dominated the talking as their positions on the issue differ greatly. Voddie Bauchum wrote a piece on The Gospel Coalition right after the grand jury returned with no indictment for Officer Wilson that included the idea that “white privilege” was a Gramscian neo-Marxist concept that is used to reduce everything to a race, class, or gender issue. He also wrote that African Americans should be focusing on abortion and fatherlessness as opposed to white privilege and systematic racism/injustice that he perceives are imaginary.This article actually crashed TGCs website and lead to many heated debates and responses. I found reading Alan Nobel’s response on Christ and Pop Culture where he went paragraph by paragraph analyzing the issues in Bauchum’s assessments very helpful and illuminating. I was very disappointed to see Bauchum write this, as I haves seen him speak live and believe he is very doctrinally sound, but not surprised, as he tends to stick with the dominant conservative narrative, regardless of where the evidence leads. After the massacre in Newtown, CT, Bauchum tweeted a link to an article that blamed the shooting on the overuse of ant-depressant drugs rather than the easy access to guns. This is very concerning to me, especially when one considers he is pastoring a congregation and the poor understanding of mental health by the church, but that is a completely different issue. During the panel Anyabwile pushed back hard against Bauchum’s assertions. He said
“I think it’s ahistorical and is very close to willfully ignorant to argue that there are no systemic injustices in this country.”
I found his arguments very valid and on point especially seeing his background in social sciences, prior to his position as a pastor. Looking at our history I too think this is impossible to make the assertion that there is no systematic injustice. Coming from Bauchum, who was born to a single, teen mother in inner city Los Angeles especially confusing. I applaud him for overcoming his environment but find his analysis of the situation disingenuous. Matt Chandler and Darrin Patrick were also very insistent that the church must be present in the healing of racial wounds. Patrick said “if we can’t have those conversations in the church how can we expect the world to have them?” With this Patrick made one of the best points of the night. The church should be the first place where issues of systematic injustice and racism are addressed. If the church cannot address real life issues such as these why would the world consider listening to her?
I found that I did not profit as near much from the second panel but did enjoy hearing Piper and Mason address the issue as I greatly respect them. Piper made the great point that the gospel is so wide in scope that it should have implications in how we police and lead us to look for ways for police to apprehend suspects without lethal force. He also made the point that we must ground all of our talk on race in scripture. While I agree with this I am tired of people just throwing around the terms “gospel issue” and “sin issue” like they allow one to get away with not addressing issues more specifically. While I do not believe Piper was making this point I think it almost sounded that way. Newbell made one of the most important points of the night when she said “He’s a person. Aren’t we supposed to mourn?” I feel like that is one of the most forgotten points of those who point out that Mike Brown committed a crime before being killed. Regardless of what he had done (and what he did, did not deserve death) does not allow us to ignore that he was a person made in the image of God. To forget this, no matter what “side” of the issue is to dehumanize Mike Brown and the issue as a whole. We are dealing with the lives and deaths of real people.
The three things I have learned most from the panel and seeing various people respond to the issue of systematic racism are our tendency to want to be right rather than understanding other people’s perspective, various false dichotomies that have surfaced and also the failure of the church to empathize, which somewhat goes along with the first issue.
First, I see so little listening (on both sides, but mainly by white, conservative, Christians, who insist that there are not any issues of systematic injustice or racism in America.) Like I mentioned earlier I think making this an “issue” where we have sides and debate has taken away from the human aspect of the issue. I have seen this in my own heart as I feel as though I have found myself becoming numb to the actual tragedy of the deaths and only want to prove that systematic racism and injustice exist so that I can prove that I am right. I have a feeling that this is part of the reason some will not admit that systematic injustice and racism exist. Besides the ignorance of not recognizing a bunch of trees as a forest (to use Anyabwile’s analogy), I sense a sort of pride that doesn’t want to admit that they have gotten it wrong.
The second issue I see arising is that there are many false dichotomies that prevent us from understanding each other. First I see a hesitancy from Christians to accept that anything is a social issue or systematic because they feel as this is accepting liberation theology. They are unable to understand that Anyabwile’s insistence that there are systematic issues does not mean that he is accepting James Cone’s version of the gospel. The system is broken. At the fall not only did individual human beings fall, but the system fell as well. Where James Cone and proponents of a liberation theology do not have enough awareness of individual sinfulness of man, evangelicals have a poor understanding of corporate sin. As Eric Mason pointed out, the gospel of Jesus is not a social gospel, but it does have social implications. Carl Henry writes,
“Fundamentalism in revolting against the Social Gospel [seems] also to revolt against the Christian social imperative.”
Also, I see a tendency for Christians to label anything that is sociological in nature as Marxist or neo Marxist (because somehow using a Latin prefix makes them sound more sophisticated.) Yes Marx is the father of sociology, but that doesn’t mean we get to discount anything sociological, just like we don’t get to discount calculus because Newton wasn’t a Trinitarian. (Okay that is a little bit of a stretch but hopefully it makes the point.) This idea that we can just call a concept Darwinian or Marxist and then just ignore it has got to stop. Not everything we don’t like can be blamed on Marx or Darwin. (And for the record, not everything they said was wrong.) There is also this idea swirling around that the #BlackLivesMatter equates to white lives or police lives not mattering. This is completely ignorant to assume. Just like supporting breast cancer awareness during breast cancer awareness month doesn’t mean we all of a sudden say that testicular cancer doesn’t matter. Another false dichotomy I see is that somehow saying that police brutality towards African American’s issue means that we somehow think abortion and black on black crime (I hate to mention that) don’t matter. As Bizzle put it in his song “Hood Cries”, those who are addressing the issues of police brutality and systematic racism are the same people addressing the problems of drugs and violence in African American communities. The fact that he feels that he can talk about these issues and not lose black fans, but that when he mentions police killings of black men he will lose white fans is so hypocritical of us. The idea that abortions kill more African Americans that police gives us no excuse to ignore that the police do kill African Americans. As Brian Lorrits put it ,
“It’s disingenuous to attack abortion systemically and stay silent about systemic racial reconciliation.”
They are both issues. If anything the fact that there is more crime among African American communities and a higher abortion rate points to white privilege. The reason that there is higher teen pregnancy and fatherlessness in African American communities points to this idea as well. These issues are lingering effects of slavery and Jim Crow, not independent issues.
Finally I notice that many white Christians have little to no empathy towards the African American community. We are called to weep with those who weep no matter what they look like, where they are from, whether they agree with us, whether they like us, or whatever excuse you want to use. We need to listen before we talk. Bonhoeffer puts it well in his classic book Life Together,
“many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking when they should be listening.”
If we will not listen to the pressing issues of the world, how do we expect the world to listen to us on issues of salvation? We must listen to the cries of the oppressed. We don’t get an option. Tim Keller said ” If the church does not identify with the marginalized, it will itself be marginalized. That is God’s poetic justice.” Christians have often been on the wrong side of racial issues (though not always ie. William Wilberforce, John Newton, and Charles Spurgeon) and we should bend over backwards to listen to African Americans when they say they are feeling mistreated.
Having said all of this, it is not all bad. I am thankful for those like Russell Moore (who is very conservative, and very evangelical, and very white) speaking out so strongly on these issues of racial reconciliation. I suggest reading this article by Moore following the Eric garner grand jury decision . His rage was palpable. There are others speaking out (Matt Chandler, Jared C. Wilson, and Barnabas Piper to name a few), but Moore happens to be the most with his position as the President of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
I do feel hypocritical writing about all of this as I thought the cries of systematic racism and injustice were invalid when Trayvon Martin was killed. Being introduced to Christian Hip Hop has changed that. I felt that I had to side with the dominant conservative narrative that Martin was a “thug” and that Zimmerman was acting in self-defense. Being introduced to Lecrae, Sho Baraka, Trip Lee, Derek Minor, Swoope, Propaganda, This’l and other African American rappers, who are Christians and are reformed and orthodox changed my mind. Hearing the song Jim Crow and album Talented 10th by Sho Baraka really opened my eyes to the reality of the existence of systematic injustice and that racism is still a problem. I began to realize that the cries of African Americans were not fake and admitted I was wrong.
I will end with a few tweets I read that feel explain the situation best.
“An African American can’t get a GED w/o knowing white culture. But a white person can get a PhD without ever knowing Black culture.” Thabiti Anyabwile
“Them: “When will you stop talking about race?” Me: “When I stop talking about the gospel.” It just has too much to say & do on the topic” Cole Brown
“Of course you don’t think about race or racism. The system works for you. You ain’t got no worries.” Mandice McAllister
“Reading Calvinists reflect on
#Ferguson this week is a reminder that having “right doctrine” doesn’t make one good at cultural analysis.” Anthony Bradley
“Now take that bible, grab a sharpie, block out Amos, Isaiah, 1st Peter and Revelation. Now you got a gospel that don’t compel us to care” Propaganda
“Christian, if you don’t believe these are gospel issues we face today, we don’t believe the same gospel.” Alex Medina
“‘Who is my neighbor?” asked the man. “Eric Garner,” said Jesus.” Jared C. Wilson
“I worship a darker skinned homeless poor man who was unjustly put to death by an unjust system without a fair trial.
#JesusCantBreathe” Sam Heaton
“It’s difficult to read comments like “If only he had obeyed the law he would still be alive” and then read “Saved by grace” on their bio.” Alex Medina