I know I’m late with this post, but with a new little human in our house demanding lots of love and attention the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death snuck up on me. I plan on using my son as an excuse to get out of lots of things for the next 18 years. As for the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, remembering him and more importantly, his work, has caused me to reflect on quite a bit. I have a son now and life in this crazy world is going to come at him fast; he’s an interracial baby entering a world in which race relations seem to have gotten crazier. Dr. King had a dream that there would be a day in which all people would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character – a goal that we have not yet reached.
We live in a day and age in which racial tension seems to have heightened rather than subsided. It seems as if every other day one of the top stories on the news involves race relations. There are about as many reasons for this as there are people in America. One of the biggest ones is that our media outlets are an unchecked power that tends to sensationalize everything without any thought of the consequences. We also live in a time in which our society is filled with social justice warriors who desire to fight for (or against) causes both real and imagined. We protest everything and define nothing. Sometimes I wonder what Dr. King would think if he lived today, hearing guys like the rapper Common who likened Dr. King’s “March on Washington” to the modern LGBTQ movement. Or if he would agree that former Seattle Seahawk Michael Bennett and former NFL QB Colin Kaepernick were modern versions of himself, as the New Yorker inferred by putting a sketch of the three men together on the cover of their January 8, 2018 magazine. I especially wonder what Dr. King’s opinion of the church would be and how much impact she is having on racial tension in America.
Unfortunately the words of hip-hop artist Lecrae still ring true, “The most segregated time of day is Sunday service; now what’s that say about the God you worship?” He was echoing the words of Dr. King from so many years before when he said on NBC’s Meet the Press, “eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours – if not the most segregated hour of Christian America.” And while social justice is definitely in vogue in 2018, I don’t think the vast majority of our nation thinks of churches as leading this charge. I strongly believe that for racial harmony to exist on a meaningful level, the church has to lead the way.
The idea of “justice” in any form is a biblical category. Dr. King clearly understood that; modern culture does not. Modern culture often calls for justice without really defining what they mean, and any concept of a sovereign God is far from the heart of our day’s fervor. It is right to treat all races equally because God has set that as a moral standard, not because CNN and ESPN say so. Being racist in any form is wrong because God says so. Whether it be as overt as hurling slurs or as subtle as assuming all black people think and act the same, racism is a failure to live according to God’s standard. It is the Bible that tells us that God made all men in his image.
All human beings regardless of any external factor whatsoever are equally dignified, valued, and held accountable before God. No one race has the inside track on godliness although our American churches can often be guilty of communicating this. I strongly believe that if the fact that justice is God’s idea isn’t at the heart of any discussion about racial justice than we are effectively talking about nothing and going nowhere. Why “shouldn’t” biased police officers shoot unarmed black men? Black men were made in God’s image like everyone else. Why shouldn’t black people retaliate with violence against police? Not all officers are the same (most are good), and all are made in God’s image. Why “should” churches and all aspects of society be racially integrated? All people are made in God’s image and heaven will be full of people from “every tribe, tongue, and nation.” Again, if we don’t approach the modern issues from this basis we are talking about nothing.
This is one of the faults I see with popular media, instead of the church, leading the charge for racial harmony. I have had mixed emotions about the NFL protests from last year for example. On one hand the issue of police brutality toward minorities is, and has been an issue for a long time. Our current president making pretty consistently poor moral decisions and zero effort to show racial sensitivity is also a problem. On the other hand why, specifically, are guys kneeling? What’s the goal? What’s the specific desired outcome? If we are being honest, I don’t think any of the loudest proponents for social justice have clear definitions for any of that, and that’s a huge problem. Guys weren’t kneeling for the same thing and there was never a voice of reason or leadership to say, “Here is our goal.” Without definition there is no direction, and without direction there is little hope of arriving where we desire to be.
In addition to the biblical origins of the idea of justice, the reality of sin and how deeply it plagues us has been under-emphasized, and only the church can put this reality in proper perspective. Jesus came to seek and save the lost, heal the sick, free the captives, and raise the dead. Each of those metaphors defines all of us. Not only is all of humanity bound together by its dignity as God’s image-bearers, but we are also bound together by the fact that every person on this planet needs to be found, healed, freed, and raised to new life regardless of ethnicity. That hasn’t happened in its totality yet and, unfortunately, that means that in this current world racism is here to stay. Sin is at the root of every racial issue that has ever occurred, and there is only one cure for sin: Jesus Christ.
Because the universality of sin is true, it is also true that each sinner possesses a set of biases. We are only aware of these biases when we look at the mirror of Jesus Christ. His perfection reveals our imperfection. The Good Samaritan (Luke 10), for example, is such a profound parable for the very fact that it really is a difficult concept to envision the people most unlike you as your neighbor. The sinfulness of everybody puts into perspective what some of the core issues are in our nation today. In first century Israel I am sure that many Israelites were unaware of their biases toward Samaritans, just like you may be unaware of yours. Maybe some of them had that one Samaritan friend from grade school (they didn’t have grade school), or that because they thought Samaritan music was dope they didn’t have any racial biases. But to parallel to today, mere appreciation of aspects of a minority culture and working toward racial harmony are not the same thing. Therefore, when you add together a majority culture who are filled with sinners with subtle racial biases and the misconception that appreciation is equivalent to action, you get what we have today: the Sunday morning segregation hour.
Our nation is littered with evangelical congregations in the suburbs that black people won’t set foot in. They haven’t been intentional about racial harmony and have grown blind to how cultural biases have alienated people of color – overt political affiliation with one side being one of the gravest oversights. So, in order to remedy that, churches send members into poorer communities to do city projects or send a short-term missions team to Haiti to paint a fence and hold up a little black baby to show how much they care. Or the new normal is to make a couple of token hires in hopes that one day a black family will come in and say, “Hey, there’s one of us!” and they will keep coming and tell all of their black friends. Unfortunately it usually doesn’t work that way.
At this point, I can already hear the objection, “But why are there black churches; aren’t they just as guilty of segregation?” I’m sure many are. However, we need to remember that America is a predominantly white nation with the specific enslavement of black people from Africa firmly embedded in its history. Slavery simply morphed into Jim Crow laws and segregation, which led to a white government and even more troubling, white pastors, deciding that white and black churches needed to be separate. While I can’t speak for all black people, which is often assumed, I can assure you, the vast majority of black people don’t want to be separate. We just want legitimately equal opportunities for seats at the main table. We want our voices to be considered genuinely important. We would like to feel more like we belong and are valued, not just feeling like the neighbor with the cool music who’s really athletic but you don’t necessarily want to have over for dinner.
Those facts of our nation’s history nuance the discussion of depravity and the image of God when we talk about racial justice in America, specifically. No other race of people has been enslaved on American soil, just blacks. So what does an injustice from the 18th and 19th centuries have to do with America in 2018? Separation, fear, and prejudice is embedded in our culture, and slavery and Jim Crow are at the root of it.
These roots are why the poorest neighborhoods in your city are still filled with black people. These roots are why the kids in those inner cities continue to be stuck in the cycle of poorly funded schools with second-rate education – born with the deck stacked against them. These roots are why the majority culture continues to preach every man for himself when every man doesn’t have an equal opportunity to do so! These roots are why in 2018 we can still have a Forbes 400 list of Americans that includes a grand total of two black people. Is it crazy to think that if opportunities in this country were equal the list might have a darker hue? Instead, the lists that black people dominate are prison, abortion, and murder. These roots of our country are why the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the denomination of which I am a part, has only 1% black representation in its elders and senior pastors when roughly 18% of our country is black. While a theologically rich denomination with top-notch education, the PCA remains ethnically uniform. Many other denominations share the same problem.
These are facts of which the leaders of our churches must be keenly aware and actively trying to change. The issue here is cultural blinders and oversight. Black people aren’t the first people our nation thinks about when it is considering positions of prominence. We are the first people the nation thinks about when it comes to hip-hop and athletics. But politics, business, science, theology… we are not anywhere near the top, and it shouldn’t be that way. We are content with having white leaders who merely appreciate black culture, and that just isn’t good enough.
So how do churches lead the charge in fixing this? Unlike Common, Kaepernick, and Bennett, the church has legitimate, particular, and definable reasons for pursuing racial harmony that will have lasting effect if we do it the right way. Some of the more popular protests lack definition and end up sounding more like noise rather than the legitimate societal revolution Dr. King was so vital in spearheading. The church can do better than the culture. The church should do better than the culture.
Churches that want to be faithful to the Christian mission through racial diversity must demonstrate that seriously. The token minority on stage fools no one; a serious church will put minorities in legitimate leadership positions and allow them to make decisions. I once had a church ask me if I would be willing to lead their basketball ministry and draw inner-city youth to it. I had visited the church exactly one time… If that church genuinely desires diversity, at the very least they need to go out and get a black associate pastor who has actual authority. They need to seek minority leaders whom God is raising up around them and send those guys out with people and resources to plant churches in communities where they feel they don’t have influence. Asking the one black guy who visited to do basketball for kids isn’t a good move as conscious-freeing as it may feel.
Pastors should quote minorities as intellectual authorities in their sermons. I have heard Tupac quotes and LeBron quotes, most of which are done tongue-in-cheek, or more for the purpose earning cheap street cred. MLK gets quoted quite liberally around February as well. It’s pretty rare to walk into an evangelical church on an average Sunday and hear a minority quoted as an authority on something other than race, specifically. What does Anthony Carter think about Romans 9? What insight can Carl Ellis give to your sermon series? We know about John Knox in most PCA churches, but do we know about John Gloucester? Find black leaders we genuinely admire and make a point of referencing them. It goes a long way.
Churches should fund young minorities to go to seminary who desire to do so. Grant them internships and demonstrate that they are valued. Be intentional about finding minorities in your pastoral search committee. Partner with black pastors in your city… Partner! Not come in with your clearly superior ideas and offer, “help.” When predominantly white churches do that they sound like the Parks and Rec lady from Eagleton who thought Leslie Knope’s efforts in government were “cute.”
All in all, sin is embedded deeply within us which causes us to have cultural blinders and racial biases of which we are not always aware. For that reason, racial harmony will never just happen without some intentionality. The leaders of the majority culture in American Christianity have to lead the way, and I must say that I am encouraged that most Christian leaders I meet desire to do just that. Honoring MLK’s legacy is all about figuring out how to actively pursue racial harmony in our modern era and not just passively let things happen while pretending to care.
I am personally thankful for so many guys in my life who have done just that. There were many evangelical churches along my journey in which white guys with authority recognized God doing something in my life and gave me the platform to really harvest those gifts. My current status at Spanish River Church and the leaders there such as Tommy Kiedis and Ron Tobias have been particularly impactful. These men continue see the clear problem of diversity in American Christianity and seek to do something about it by partnering with minority church planters like me all over our nation and all over the world. More churches need to get on that train if we want to see the changes we talk about so much – the changes that men like MLK and other activists died for.