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Book Review: Aliens in the Promised Land

As the demographics of the United States continue to evolve, and as our communities – city, suburb, and country alike – diversify before our very eyes, many North American evangelical churches nonetheless remain strangely vanilla.

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What’s more, the global church is becoming increasingly non-white and non-western. If people like us (WASPs, roughly) ever were the “center” of global Christianity, that’s certainly no longer the case. The face of Christianity isn’t a recognizable mega-church CEO with cool hair, an outsized ego, and a book deal. Rather, as Philip Jenkins has said, “A ‘typical’ contemporary Christian may be a woman living in a village in Nigeria or in a Brazilian favela.”

It’s a great big world, and we have a great deal of learning to do. And a first step in that process may be to acknowledge our own blindness to the attitudes about race and ethnicity that many of us hold, even subconsciously. Here’s an example that illustrated this for me. In early 2012, Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York hosted an event called Race and the Christian. Well-known evangelical leaders Tim Keller and John Piper (both of whom happen to be white) each gave talks about how Christians ought to think about the issue of race. Piper focused on the individual side of racism, and Keller talked about the systemic nature of this evil.

anthony-bradleyThe event was moderated by Dr. Anthony Bradley, an African American author, professor, and public intellectual who lectures widely and has been called upon by TV networks to provide social commentary on a variety of issues. Following Keller’s and Piper’s talks, Bradley offered a lengthy response of his own, speaking as a conservative evangelical who is also the descendant of slaves in America’s south. The Christian Post published a news story about the event, summarizing the remarks from both Keller and Piper. It made no mention of Bradley. Later, to its credit, CP admitted its mistake and published a revised version, adding a summary of Bradley’s remarks as well.

Now, this episode is admittedly anecdotal, and it’s fair to assume the reporter had only the best of intentions. After all, journalism is by definition a selective craft; including every detail doesn’t make for good journalism, despite all the dangers of being selective. And in this case, Keller and Piper certainly are the headline names in Christian circles. But at the same time, it proves the point: Bradley – the one non-white participant in an event focused on helping Christians understand the issue of race – got snubbed.

17688936Meanwhile, Bradley has convened a group of minority leaders from a variety of evangelical backgrounds to contribute chapters to an important new book, Aliens in the Promised Land: Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (P&R).

Each of the authors writes from a drastically different perspective, with African American, Asian American, and Latino contributors affiliated with several denominations, some representing churches and others approaching the topic from the world of academia. That is what makes this book – published by what is a usually quite vanilla publisher! – such a great delight. Each chapter is a treasure trove.

For the sake of brevity here, I’ll simply highlight one of the poignant arguments Bradley makes in the Afterword. He writes that while racial reconciliation in churches and Christian institutions is indeed a step in the right direction, in the end it isn’t enough:

I am convinced that the church will be able to lead society on race only if it moves beyond reconciliation and pursues racial solidarity, which means embracing our common human dignity (Gen. 1:26-28) as a human family in ways that celebrate and respect differences between ethnic communities for the common good. This goes beyond the failed concept of “color blindness” and recognizes the importance of racial, ethnic, and ideological differences as a catalyst for loving our neighbors well (Matt. 22:36-40; John 17).

Bradley outlines four things a gospel-driven racial solidarity movement would need to do in order to make a difference in society:

  1. Situate discussions of race within an understanding of white privilege
  2. Advance racial solidarity in ways that do not require minorities to conform to white evangelical cultural norms
  3. Understand that multiethnicity is not necessarily progress
  4. Develop leaders who are not white males, and
  5. Recognize the necessity and importance of homogeneous ethnic churches in some cases

For white evangelicals accustomed to white leaders and white cultural norms in our churches and institutions, what Bradley is advocating here will certainly cost us something. But it’s my hunch that the status quo ultimately costs us all a whole lot more.

[Photo: Ebenezer Baptist Church via cnn.com]

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