All posts tagged “race

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The public consequences of haphazard theologies

Among the books I read late last year was The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll, a historian of American religion at Notre Dame. It’s a truly illuminating book about the ways different groups of Christians in the mid-nineteenth century interpreted the Bible’s teachings about slavery, along with a whole host of interpretational implications for a range of issues related to public theology.

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“From the historical record it is clear,” Noll writes, “that the American Civil War generated a first-order theological crisis over how to interpret the Bible, how to understand the work of God in the world, and how to exercise the authority of theology in a democratic society.”

What struck me while reading his account of that painful and pivotal time in our country’s history was the way that on the whole it was not the slaveholders but the abolitionists—among whose number I’d certainly like to think I would have belonged—who tended to be quick to dismiss or minimize the authority of the Bible, rather than doing the difficult work of interpreting its teaching for public life. Noll writes:

The primary reason that the biblical defense of slavery remained so strong was that many biblical attacks on slavery were so weak. To oversimplify a complicated picture, the most direct biblical attacks on slavery were ones that relied on common sense, the broadly accepted moral intuitions of American national ideology, and the weight of “self-evident truth.” They were also the easiest to refute. More complicated, nuanced, and involved biblical attacks against slavery offered more formidable opposition. But because those arguments did not feature intuition, republican instinct, and common sense readings of individual texts, they were much less effective in a public arena that had been so strongly shaped by intuitive, republican, and commonsensical intellectual principles.

Ending slavery seemed like a matter of common sense to the abolitionists, and it seems like common sense to most of us today. We could list a number of issues of which that could be said. But as Noll observes, “common sense” arguments that stand or fall on the basis of intuition or instincts are easily dismissed, rightly or wrongly, by those whose instincts differ.

NollNoll makes another astute observation about the rather glaring blind spots of Christians on both sides of the slavery debate. For all the theological disagreement over the extent to which scriptural support for slavery exists, few called the country’s underlying racism into question at that time: “So seriously fixed in the minds of white Americans, including most abolitionists, was the certainty of black racial inferiority that it overwhelmed biblical testimony about race, even though most Protestant Americans claimed that Scripture was in fact their supreme authority in adjudicating such matters.”

Eventually, of course, the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished. But two issues of immense importance to public theology remained largely unaddressed. Those issues were race and economy.

As Noll puts it, systemic racism of course remained “as the great moral anomaly in a supposedly Christian America” and “theological incoherence in the face of modern economic realities has remained a major problem for Christian thinking ever since the Civil War.”

Public theology has always been a tricky thing, and we need all the help we can get. Faced with this ongoing challenge, the theological crisis that was the Civil War remains an instructive cautionary tale against interpreting the Bible haphazardly. The way we engage with scripture, after all, has enduring public consequences.

[Header image: The Battle of Antietam, by Kurz & Allison, depicting the scene of action at Burnside’s Bridge via eccentricbliss.com]

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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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Repaso: Obama on Latino issues, Easterly on aid, Piper on racism, Gospel vs. justice, & more

1. Latino roundtable with President Obama
The president hosted a roundtable the other day where he fielded questions from Latino journalists and citizens about the issues that matter most to their communities. He tackles questions about illegal immigration on a national level, relations with Cuba, the 11% unemployment rate among Latinos, and the ongoing investigation into Arizona’s treatment of immigrants. The White House website has the full video, which is almost an hour.

2. Bill Easterly: Aid grump?
During grad school we read development economist Bill Easterly’s book White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good and had some lively discussions about it, to say the least. If you’re not familiar with Easterly, this recent interview by Tom Paulson at the Humanosphere blog is a great introduction.

3. John Piper on his own racism and the gospel
This is a two-minute trailer for a 20-minute documentary coming soon, supplementing Piper’s new book Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian. A bold book about the evils of racism isn’t necessarily the sort of book you might expect from Piper, but it looks really good.

4. A word to hymn writers from Fernando Ortega
Last Friday evening I went with Katie and my parents to a Keith & Kristyn Getty concert in Lancaster. The Gettys have been writing and composing songs for the Church for only a decade but they have already contributed so many songs that really transcend the so-called worship wars (and I suspect many of these songs will stand the test of time). Here, Fernando Ortega, a New Mexico-based singer/songwriter and worship leader, has a word to those who would write songs for worship in churches:

Be specific when you write songs about God. Avoid cliché. Avoid convenience. Avoid an obsession with the consumer. Avoid the temptation to make commercial success your central goal. Write with intelligence, employing all the craft, skill, and experience with which God has endowed you.

5. Gospel or justice, which?
Russell Moore from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary writes that despite assumptions to the contrary within evangelicalism, evangelism and public justice are not mutually exclusive:

The short answer to how churches should “balance” such things is simple: follow Jesus. We are Christians. This means that as we grow in Christlikeness, we are concerned about the things that concern him. Jesus is the king of his kingdom, and he loves whole persons, bodies as well as souls.

6. Know Shelter
The Two Futures Project is a movement to abolish nuclear weapons. I know some people love their nukes, but I’m generally agreeable to the abolition idea. Here’s a video on preparing for a nuclear attack, which will hopefully never happen, but unfortunately isn’t outside the realm of possibility.

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Repaso: The legacy of Newbigin, Gerson on prudential politics, gospel of immigration, and radical cartography

1. The lasting legacy of Lesslie Newbigin
Michael Goheen writes for Q Ideas about the contributions Lesslie Newbigin made to Western Christianity and our understanding of mission:

It is a peculiarity of Western culture to isolate the domain of religion from the rest of life. Religion, he said, is a “set of beliefs, experiences, and practices that seek to grasp and express the ultimate nature of things, that which gives shape and meaning to life, that which claims final loyalty.” Thus religion includes the comprehensive worldviews that shape Western culture, like the modern scientific worldview in both its Marxist and its liberal-democratic-capitalist expressions. If the Western church is to be faithful to the gospel and its mission, we will need to work hard to understand the religious beliefs of our culture in order to extricate ourselves from idolatry.

2. Gerson on prudential politics
Michael Gerson writes for Capital Commentary about competing political priorities and the choices facing GOP voters especially:

[N]early every political choice involves the weighing of competing priorities—freedom and the common good. This is the reason that prudence is the highest of political virtues. And prudence is exactly what some political ideologies lack. Socialism places an unbalanced emphasis on equality above all else—resulting in the routine violation of individual rights. Libertarianism places an unbalanced emphasis on autonomy above all else—resulting in a nation without airport security and food safety laws. Raising a single, pure, simple principle in politics can be powerful—but it is almost always dangerous. Complexity is the nature of politics. It is also the sign of a serious political thinker or candidate.

3. The gospel of immigration
Dr. Russell Moore, from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, urges us to remember the personhood of immigrants – documented or otherwise:

I’m amazed when I hear evangelical Christians speak of undocumented immigrants in this country with disdain as “those people” who are “draining our health care and welfare resources.” It’s horrifying to hear those identified with the Gospel speak, whatever their position on the issues, with mean-spirited disdain for the immigrants themselves. While evangelicals, like other Americans, might disagree on the political specifics of achieving a just and compassionate immigration policy, our rhetoric must be informed by more than politics, but instead by Gospel and mission.

4. Radical cartography
I find this kind of stuff fascinating: a Yale professor named Bill Rankin created a map of Chicago that shows racial and ethnic segregation in the city. It is here. Below is a spin-off map of Detroit from another guy named Eric Fisher. That one is here. If you click on the links you can see info on the various color designations.