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Is Racial Harmony Disintegrating?

Toward Intersecting, Indigenous Expressions of Big-God Theology

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

I write not as an authority on race relations, nor as one with vast experience across cultures, nor as one who considers himself especially successful in realizing my own dreams. Instead I write as a watcher of our sad world, a pursuer of biblical reality, a lover of Jesus Christ, and a hoper for more harmony, more justice, and more beauty in my wider family — the body of Jesus Christ.

From a global perspective, my focus is narrow. But unless I’m mistaken, a few things I say will be relevant beyond my own context. Within the family of human beings, my focus has three narrowings. First, I am focusing on Christians. Then, narrowing further, I am focusing on evangelicals — that group of Christian who try to conform to the authority of Scripture, who gladly embrace the historic creeds of the Christian church, who cherish the fact that Christ died for sinners like us, and who seek to persuade other people about the preciousness of what we have found in Christ.

With the third narrowing, I focus on a group of evangelicals who are labeled in various ways — perhaps most notably by the title of Collin Hansen’s book Young, Restless, and Reformed. My short definition of this group is that (1) they stand in awe of the glory of God as the most important reality in the universe; (2) they gladly embrace the sovereign rule of God over all events — from galaxies to subatomic particles, including our own suffering, in the hope that God can turn the worst of circumstances for the best of outcomes; and (3) they believe that the only reason we have any love for Christ is that God raised us from spiritual death and gave us new believing hearts.

Marks of a Reformed Movement

As I said, my focus is narrow. This is a small group of people globally speaking. But it has some characteristics that are very striking, and that lead to the issue of racial harmony and racial justice that we are moving toward.

  1. Surprisingly this group cuts across many denominations, creating perplexity for the historical meaning of “Reformed.” Historically, “Reformed” referred to Presbyterian-type churches ascribing to the Westminster Confession. Who would have thought there would be Reformed charismatics or Reformed Baptists or Reformed Bible churches?

  2. It has been marked by a kind of cultural awareness and cultural engagement. Some of its younger representatives are actually cool.

  3. Generally speaking, it has given birth to, and is sustained by, passionate, emotionally expressive corporate worship.

  4. It has been from the outset very missional — evangelistic, engaged in world missions, and pursuing the salvation of the unreached peoples of the world.

  5. It has given rise to a dizzying array of conferences, websites, magazines, campus ministries, writers, publishing houses, seminaries and colleges, churches and denominations and associations, musicians and poets.

  6. It has proved to be a global phenomenon with outcroppings in China, Indonesia, South Africa, Latin America, Italy, France, Britain, and elsewhere.

  7. And here in America, it has become significantly ethnically diverse.

Thousands of people of color have found this vision of God to be biblical, true, compelling, and utterly relevant to their situation — the vision, namely, of (1) the supreme, all-satisfying greatness of the glory of God as the most important reality in the universe; (2) the sovereign power and wisdom and goodness of God over all our suffering so that he is able to work everything for good; and (3) the stunningly good news that God is able to save the worst of sinners not just by offering them a gift, but by actually taking out the heart of stone and putting in a new heart of faith and hope and love and justice.

In this milieu of ethnic diversity and theological unity, some of us have found very sweet friendships.

Roots of Strain

In the last three years — and especially the last year — an improbable constellation of sad events has brought us to this really painful moment in our racial relations. Before I mention six of them, we should realize that the strain of these days has roots that go back a long way.

Of course, I could be referring to hundreds of years of injustice toward African Americans in this country. But what I have in mind here is the kind of strain that is inevitable in the emergence of a movement like the young, restless, and Reformed, where one ethnic group of the awakening is dominant.

The inevitable (and not sinful) question arises in the mind of the minority lovers of the theological vision (and should arise in the minds of the majority, but often doesn’t): What does an authentic, minority ethnic-cultural expression of this big-God vision look like?

In other words, the minority lovers of this vision have gradually raised identity questions that come from participation in largely white-led, white-shaped, culturally-white ministries. Those kinds of questions and latent cultural-ethnic tensions have been felt for a long time in this movement.

Just at this point I would caution some readers who may wonder if “an authentic, minority ethnic-cultural expression of this big-God theology” is, in fact, a wise or legitimate goal. You may think that our new identity in Christ implies that such distinct ethnic expressions are divisive or segregationist or dangerously close to unbiblical homogeneity. I sympathize with the reaction.

But my caution is this: Step back and realize that your church and your ministry (and your whole life) are through-and-through culturally shaped. You may not feel it, since fish don’t feel wet. Wet is all they have ever known. Wet is just the way it is. But in our way of doing things, this cultural wetness is all around us. We have a hundred reflexes and preferences that we never think about. And we love being this way. It feels utterly natural. To us. But not to everyone else. If we say that others should not long for and pursue similar at-homeness in culturally different wetness, we are, I think, naïve at best, and hypocrites at worst.

So my point is that in the young, restless, Reformed movement, seeds of strain have existed for a long time, because until recently most of the energizing structures of the movement have been led and shaped mainly by the majority ethnicity.

Improbable Constellation of Sorrows

Now comes the incredible constellation of events over the last three years that have brought us to this painful moment in racial and ethnic relations. I’ll mention six of them. Each of these deserves an essay to itself. I am simply pointing to a reality, not describing the depths of its evil or its pain.

  1. Michael Brown and Ferguson. Even the names are now a symbol of the (most recent!) beginning of a long train of questions about justice toward black men in relation to law enforcement. Some of these events, as in the case closest to us here in Minneapolis, have simply left us baffled about how there cannot be more legal consequences for an officer who handles a situation this way.

  2. The emergence of Donald Trump on the political scene and his utterly stunning election to the presidency, bringing to the fore his divisive rhetorical style, and his adolescent pattern of blaming, and his reckless Twitter-form leadership.

  3. The fact that a huge percentage of white evangelicals voted for Trump, in spite of glaring character flaws that were screaming to be taken more seriously.

  4. The Charlottesville debacle, which felt to many of us like the official “coming out of the closet” of white supremacy.

  5. The foregrounding for a season (which remains an unresolved issue) of thousands of Confederate memorials, that seem to many of us as though they belong in a museum for education rather than on a pedestal for celebration.

  6. Finally, the intensely controversial NFL-game-day kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, accompanied by President Trump’s vulgar name-calling.

These recent sorrows, on top of the growing strain over identity questions of Reformed minorities, against the backdrop of centuries of blatant and subtle, individual and structural injustices in our history have left many of our minority brothers and sisters feeling perplexed or disillusioned.

Loosening Ties with “White Evangelicalism”

As one African-American brother put it, “We thought we knew you. But now we are unsure.” Such unsureness marks a lot of fellowships just now.

I talked to a pastor of a remarkably ethnically diverse church of several thousand and asked him if the present situation had made things harder, and he said, “Oh, yes. We’ve not had so much uncertainty and perplexity and suspicion ever before.”

I talked to a 71-year-old African-American brother who said he was watching the Charlottesville events unfold with his daughter and grandchildren, and he began to weep. He couldn’t help but wonder whether what he thought were wonderful gains in his lifetime were going to collapse.

And as many of you have heard, numerous young minority leaders are saying they really do need to loosen their identity with “white evangelicalism” — and that includes the white expressions of the young, restless, and Reformed movement.

It appears to many minorities, and it appears to me, that large numbers of Christians and churches and ministries are much more influenced by culture and political ideology and American nationalism than by the radical demands of what it means to be Christian sojourners and exiles on the earth, with our citizenship in heaven.

A Word to My White Friends

So let me say three things to my white friends, who are perhaps also watchers and pursuers and lovers and hopers for more justice and harmony and beauty in the body of Christ.

Indigenous Pilgrims

First, Andrew Walls, former professor of missions at the University of Edinburgh, has helped me think about the implications of missiology for the cultural realities of life in every church. He points out that wherever the gospel of Jesus spreads into new cultures and ethnicities — peoples, tribes, and nations (Revelation 5:9) — two principles are always at work: the indigenous principle and the pilgrim principle. (See his Missionary Movement in Christian History, pages 7–8, and my sermonic summary in “Do Not Be Conformed to This World.”)

The indigenous principle says there are aspects of every culture that are not necessarily in conflict with the message and the life of Jesus. These aspects of a culture can remain and become beautiful expressions through which the life of Jesus can be known.

Then there is the pilgrim principle, which means that the budding church in every culture will discover aspects of its new life in Christ that go against cultural tradition. And the Christian, to some degree, will have to be a pilgrim, or a sojourner, or an exile, or a refugee to the degree that such cultural aspects do not change.

The beauty and miracle of the Christian faith is that it has found authentic incarnation in thousands of different cultural forms, without being lost in syncretism.

But it is a constant tension. And my exhortation, especially to dominant-culture churches in America, is that we recognize that all of us have a culture interwoven with our ethnicity, and the more dominant the culture is, the more invisible it seems to us.

And it would be helpful if brothers and sisters of color could see that we are owning the tension that exists between our majority-white culture and the radical call of Jesus. Because I think it’s true that there is more cultural captivity in our churches and our lives than we realize. And it goes almost without saying that American culture is shot through with countless aspects that are incompatible with obedience to Jesus.

Give Benefit of Doubt

The second thing I would say to white brothers and sisters is: let’s not jump to any pejorative, derogatory, hopeless conclusions about the meaning of this loosening of minority ties with a group of evangelicals who seem to be culturally naïve — or worse, compromised. Let’s pray. Let’s keep the channels of communication open. And let’s do what we can to see this present, painful situation in a larger, hopeful, and ultimately unifying light.

Justice for All

Third, let’s own the blood-bought, biblical commitment not just to diversity and harmony, but also to justice for all. That is, let’s join God in Psalm 103:6:

The Lord works righteousness
   and justice for all who are oppressed.

The Hoper Speaks

Finally, I offer some hopes, especially for our little tribe of Christians who love the supreme majesty of God’s glory, and the sovereign wisdom of God in suffering, and the sovereign grace of God in saving sinners.

  • Could it be that this loosening of ties with white evangelicalism might, through a season of painful growth, bring us all into a new day, chastened, humbled, and awake?

  • And could it be that this new day of loosening would include the decreasing politicization and cultural captivity of majority ethnic-cultural ministries, as well as the increasing indigenization of big-God theology in minority ethnic-cultural ministries?

  • And might it not turn out that these more fully indigenous minority ethnic-cultural ministries would be led mainly by minority-culture leaders, and these depoliticized, liberated majority ethnic-cultural ministries would be led mainly by majority-culture leaders?

  • And might not these particular proportions of diverse leadership result not only in different cultural expressions of the big-God vision, but also in a remarkable diversity of people in all these ministries, because ethnically diverse people often love similar forms of faith?

  • And could it be that these ministries — internally diverse, and yet predominantly one culture or another — would then relate to each other from equal biblical faithfulness, equal integrity, equal strength, and equal cultural authenticity?

  • And so might we all be spared the feeling of cultural compromise and paternalism, as we share in each other’s lives and ministries?

Perhaps this painful moment in our history is leading there. If that’s not your dream, I pray that God would give you a more beautiful one, not just for the age to come, but for the here and now. I am speaking to you as “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ,” with all the hope and joy that this implies.

We did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but we have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15–17)