Race, Racism and Ferguson ~ A Little Bit More “Believing Thinking”
David K. Ryden – “Evangelicals and the Elusive Goal of Racial Reconciliation”
Is the Good Book Enough? – Lexington Books (2011)
When I was part of the training team for Hospice volunteers in Houston and then later in Amarillo, I always began by talking with them about how we were preparing them for engagement with death and dying by looking at it from every conceivable point of view. And so we brought in medical professionals to help them look at death physically. We brought in social workers to help them look at how death impacted social systems and relationships. We brought in accountants to help them look at death financially. We brought in attorneys to help them look at death legally. We brought in Funeral Directors to help them look at death culturally. We brought in counselors and therapists to help them look at death psychologically. And I was there as a minister, I told them, to help them look at death spiritually. I always appreciated this holistic, synthetic approach.
Just like the blind men and the elephant in the familiar parable, I always felt that while the part of death and dying that I touched as a minister was real and mattered, that it was nevertheless only just a part of the whole, and that it was only when all of us who had hold of some part of it shared with the others what they were touching that death and dying could truly be understood.
Since the decision of the Grand Jury in Ferguson, Missouri, not to indict the police officer who shot and killed Mike Brown late last summer became public, I have been watching, listening and reading the varied responses that people have made. Those responses have been personal, political, sociological, legal, moral and spiritual, and just like my experience with the volunteer training process at the Hospice, I have appreciated the different ways that people are thinking about and responding to this event.
I am a Christian of the Evangelical variety. This is certainly not the only way of being a Christian, nor even the dominant way in my denominational family, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but it is the way that I have chosen to be a Christian because it is the way that makes the best sense to me of what I read about in the Bible, know about the history of Christianity and experience in both my life and the world at large. And while there has been a rather vigorous debate about what actually makes someone an “Evangelical” Christian, a broad consensus has begun to emerge around the British historian David W. Bebbington’s definition. Known as the “Bebbington Quadrilateral,” it says that Evangelical Christianity has four defining convictions or attitudes:
- Biblicism: “Evangelicals have a special regard for the Bible as God’s written, inspired, authoritative Word whose authority stands above tradition and experience–the highest ‘court of appeal,’ so to speak, for faith and practice.”
- Crucicentrism: “Evangelicals have a special place in their hearts and minds and worship and devotion for the cross. The atonement of Jesus Christ is proclaimed and trusted as humanity’s only hope for peace with God and for a meaning filled life in relation with God. For evangelicals the cross, the atonement of Jesus Christ that happened there, is the centerpiece of devotion and proclamation.”
- Conversionism: “Evangelicals believe that authentic Christian existence necessarily includes being converted to Christ – an experience of transformation from a life of sin and self to a life of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ through which one is brought by the Holy Spirit into ‘new creation’.”
- Activism: “Evangelicals believe that God calls them to be active in the world for the cause of God, to approximate the Kingdom of God among people through missions, evangelism and social action.”
This is “my” spiritual perspective. It is the window through which I look out onto the world and through which I look into the recesses of my very own heart. It’s how I “think Christianly” about events and experiences like those that have unfolded since last August in Missouri, or to be more accurate, since the founding of this country with its national “besetting” sin of racism that has played out explicitly through the institution of race-based slavery, the legislation of discrimination and the institutionalization of segregation, and implicitly through the lingering grip of racial prejudice on our imaginations and interpersonal interactions.
Francis Schaeffer, an Evangelical Theologian of note from the second half of the 20th century, named racism as one of the “great weaknesses” that “Christians must reject and then work to redress” (The Great Evangelical Disaster). He said that the particular shame of this weakness for us as Evangelical Christians is that when we “had a stronger influence of the consensus” of culture than we do now, both slavery and racial prejudice were present and “the church did not speak out sufficiently against them.” He said that we “indulged in the lie that the black man was not a person and could therefore be treated as a thing” even though the Bible for which we say that we have “a special regard… as God’s written, inspired, authoritative Word whose authority stands above tradition and experience–the highest ‘court of appeal,’ so to speak, for faith and practice” says that the evil and injustice of racism is “absolutely wrong.”
John Piper, a high profile Evangelical preacher/teacher today, says that he is “tethered” to the Bible as an Evangelical. That’s a useful image for me. He explains –
By personal calling and Scripture, I am bound to the word of God and to the preaching of what the Bible says. There are few things that burden me more or refresh me more than saying what I see in the Bible. I love to see what God says in the Bible. I love to savor it. And I love to say it.
What Francis Schaeffer was so critical of in the legacy of his own Evangelical Christianity was its failure to do this, to be fully tethered to the Word, to be finally bound to what the Bible says about race and racism. And as a part of this same “tribe” today, in the national conversation that the events in Ferguson have triggered, I feel an urgency to avoid the mistake that my spiritual forebears made in not speaking out sufficiently against racial prejudice on the basis of what the Bible clearly teaches.
While I appreciate the political, sociological, historical, legal and personal commentaries about race and racism that have occupied the varied venues of public expression in recent days and made me think, my conscience as an Evangelical Christian is bound to Scripture and the convictions out of which I will respond to what is going on in the world around me and to what those events are stirring up inside me will be shaped most decisively by what I find in the Bible, carefully read and rightly interpreted. And what I see in the Bible names racism as a sin of which I myself and the church of which I am a part must repent, reject and then work to redress.
The Biblical case against racism stands on three legs: Creation, Redemption and the Renewal of the Holy Spirit. By Creation all human beings bear the very same Image of God. Our intrinsic worth and dignity as human beings is forever established by this fact, as well as our fundamental equality. God “made from one blood every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26), “every family in heaven and on earth derives it’s name” from the same Father (Ephesians 3:14-15) who is “over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6).
In Redemption, Christ died for all (John 3:16; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15; I Peter 3:18; I Timothy 2:4-6; Hebrews. 2:9; I John 2:2). This spiritual truth translates into a very immediate and practical ethical consideration. As Paul explained it to both the Roman Christians (Romans 14:15) and the Corinthians Christians (I Corinthians 8:11), every person with whom I come into contact is someone “for whom Christ died.” This imbues every person I meet with an incalculable value (I Peter 1:19). A hefty price has already been paid for them (I Corinthians 6:20), and that gives them a value that I dare not disregard.
Finally, the Renewal of the Holy Spirit is the third leg in the Bible’s argument against racism. The racism that plagued the early church was the Jew/Gentile divide. It tore at the very fabric of the church’s unity almost from the beginning of the church on the day of Pentecost, and one of the defining moments in the struggle was when Peter was pushed by God out of his precisely ordered and carefully bounded Jewish world and into the front room of the home of a Roman Centurion named Cornelius (Acts 10). In the middle of his sermon, God interrupted Peter by pouring out the Holy Spirit on the roomful of Gentiles who were listening to the message in exactly the same way, with exactly the same results, (Acts 10:44-48) as Peter had experienced himself as a Jewish believer in Jesus as the Christ earlier on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13). The same experience of the empowering and indwelling presence of God in the Holy Spirit persuaded Peter, a Jew, that Cornelius, a Gentile, was “no longer a stranger or alien, but a fellow citizen of God’s household” (Ephesians 2:19), a “joint heir of grace” (I Peter 3:7).
In a 1988 interview with Christianity Today (March 4, 1988), the Rev. Flynn Johnson, then the African American pastor of a growing bi-racial congregation in Atlanta, observed –
When people try to relate on the basis of doctrine or culture they are usually in deep trouble, because they can always find differences. The “charismatic experience” [of the empowering and indwelling presence of God in the Holy Spirit] gives people a shared history, a point of reference that enables them to recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. I don’t mean that this experience brings some mystical cloud on people that solves all the problems of cross-cultural relationships. We have to work out our relationship with God, and we surely have to work it out with each other. But at the same time, the [shared] charismatic experience [of the fullness of the Holy Spirit] does open the door for dialogue. People begin thinking about new truths to which they were previously closed, and they may become more willing to go through the process of reconciliation. (20)
In the early days of the Charismatic Movement it was often said that what God was doing through the fullness of the Spirit that He was pouring out on the church was flooding the field in which we all sat as separate flocks in our own little ponds so that in the new lake of the Spirit we would start to mingle and become one flock. This was certainly true denominationally, but it was just as true racially, culturally, socially and economically. The fullness of the Spirit has always been the great leveler. When and where we erect barriers between ourselves as Christians, God through the Holy Spirit builds bridges and crosses boundaries. As Harvey Cox made powerfully clear in Fire from Heaven, his exploration of modern Pentecostalism, the “miracle” of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit was not the rediscovery of the ecstatic spiritual gifts of tongues, healing or prophecy, but the renewed experience of the kind of reconciliation that was the hallmark of New Testament Christianity when there was “neither Jew nor Greek (racial division), slave nor free (socio-political and economic division), neither male nor female (gender division) for they were all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). And as an Evangelical Christian who is consciously “tethered to the Word,” this is my prayerful hope and the shape of my active response in these days when the events in Ferguson have brought the painful realities of racism back into focus for us as a people.
Clearly racism has political, legal, social, economic and psychological dimensions and ramifications, but fundamentally racism is a sin; a spiritual crisis that demands a spiritual solution, and as an Evangelical Christian I believe that solution is Jesus Christ the Savior who was crucified to make forgiveness possible, and who was raised from the dead and who now reigns as the Lord to make personal and social transformation a reality. To change the world we’ve got to be changed ourselves, and that change is what I believe as an Evangelical Christian the Gospel of Jesus Christ has to offer. DBS+