In honor of Black History Month, organizations, churches, and even private businesses will set aside time to engage in conversations about ethnic division and racial injustice in our country. I’ve been a part of this conversation on a small scale for the last ten years, first as a college student entering a majority white culture. And I’ve been engaged in the conversation on a much larger scale through the Internet as a co-founder of the Reformed African American Network (RAAN).
I grew up in Pickens, a small town in Holmes County, Mississippi, which is by far majority black — and was recently ranked number three of the ten worst counties in America. I don’t disclose this with an ounce of shame. I love where I’m from, and my wife and I intend to move back one day. After high school, I moved 45 minutes south to Jackson to attend college. It was there that my context completely changed as I entered a majority white school, a majority white denomination (although my church was multi-ethnic), and eventually a majority white seminary. And my context or community hasn’t looked like Pickens since.
Over the years I’ve learned that the conversation is complicated and how we view the world and ourselves can radically shape how we engage one another. Therefore, humility and love that produces tough skin and tender hearts are essential as we have these conversations. Both require us to engage and examine diverse views, embracing what we believe is in harmony with biblical truth.
How We Interpret
Despite the immense complexity of ethnic relations in America, everyone has an opinion, but far too few seem to possess the humility these conversations demand. Christians are called to take up the yoke of Jesus and learn from him who is gentle and lowly in heart (Matthew 11:29). Likewise, Paul urges believers to do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others more important (Philippians 2:3). But as I observe conversations regarding racism and injustice, it’s rare to find a man or woman who speaks boldly with a posture of humility.
There are few (if any) authorities when it comes to this conversation. And contrary to popular opinion, experience might give one individual more insight than another, but it doesn’t make that individual an expert. Experience requires interpretation, and we interpret everything through our particular worldview.
Christians desperately need a worldview based on Scripture in order to effectively answer the tough questions these conversations raise. The problem is that the majority of Americans don’t possess a Christian worldview. A 2009 Barna study asked Americans basic questions about Christianity and their research confirmed my conclusion:
Overall, the current research revealed that only 9% of all American adults have a biblical worldview. Among the sixty subgroups of respondents that the survey explored was one defined by those who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is important in their life today and that they are certain that they will go to Heaven after they die only because they confessed their sins and accepted Christ as their savior. Labeled “born again Christians,” the study discovered that they were twice as likely as the average adult to possess a biblical worldview. However, that meant that even among born again Christians, less than one out of every five (19%) had such an outlook on life.
If this is still true, we should hold our views on racism and other issues all the more with openhandedness and make sure that we’re allowing Scripture to correct us as we seek to answer the challenges we face. As Scripture shapes our hearts and our views, we will notice our skin getting thicker and our hearts becoming tenderer.
How We Love
For years, black Christians have been frustrated with white Christians who hosted conversations to address the sin of racism in our churches but fail to invite wisdom and counsel from the very people they were attempting to love and build better relationships with. This frustration is completely justified and warranted.
In response to this, some (blacks and whites alike) are now calling for white Christians to not speak on racism. The spirit is captured in social media jabs like, “White people need to shut up and listen.” A gracious reading of this would assume that it is simply calling for whites to listen and then speak. James 1:19 encourages all to have this heart and mind. But unfortunately I’ve discovered that statements like this typically are meant for whites whose views don’t sit well with a more progressive or politically correct view.
Evangelicalism is fractured on the topic of ethnic harmony, and the only people we invite to speak on the subject are the people that already agree with us. Most conferences on racism today are stacked with panelists that lack diversity in a completely different way. Sure, everyone on stage may possess a different skin tone, but their views are undistinguishable. Why do we do this? Because many have been indoctrinated with what to think but we haven’t been taught how to think. Consequently, we’re afraid of ideas that don’t confirm what we think we already know. Also our pride makes us cling to the ideas we’ve publicly embraced because we can’t bear to admit that we made a mistake or that the other guy was right.
How can we have productive conversations about racism and ethnicity if different views aren’t welcome and engaged with dignity and respect? Our refusal to lovingly offer a seat at the table to any view that doesn’t contradict orthodox Christianity will hinder the church from being the prophetic voice on the issue that I know we can be.
Christian First, Ethnicity Second
I think the main reason we limit whom we invite to the table for conversations about racism is because of misplaced identities which have given many tender skin rather than tough skin. As a church, whether we as individuals are white, black, brown, red, or yellow, Christians have to constantly remind ourselves of our primary allegiance. If you are a child of the king, adopted into the household of faith, you are Christian first. I am one million times more Christian than I am black. My brown skin may be what you first notice about me, but by God’s grace, my Christian faith is what you will remember.
I’m not advocating a Christian version of the views of Stacy Dash or Morgan Freeman or others who think it’s divisive to have any month or organization specifically focused on or celebratory of a particular minority group. I’m honored to be the co-founder of RAAN, and I believe Black History Month is good and necessary in our day. I’m thankful for my skin and heritage. As a matter of fact, I count it a privilege to be physically dressed by my creator in such a beautiful skin tone because I don’t believe that ethnic diversity is a byproduct of the fall. But I will forever check others and myself when I notice our ethnicity is taking precedent over our heavenly citizenship.
Therefore, as we engage in complicated conversations about racism, be sober-minded rather than drunk with hatred, frustration, and annoyance. Embrace humility and love those you disagree with. But continue to pursue truth and justice as these two are defined in the Holy Scriptures. The Bible must remain the basis for why we believe what we believe and a careful study of it reveals that it has much to say about ethnicity and injustice.
These conversations are complex but necessary and we need men and women who can sit down and have hard conversations considering the other more significant.
By Phillip Holmes