When will Christians learn from the unending engagement cycle of evangelicalism and race?
As the executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, one of my joys is leading people through our museum. Filled with historical artifacts and pictures, it’s a testimony to God’s faithfulness. One of my favorite pictures is of Billy Graham standing next to Martin Luther King Jr. I start by telling people how Graham took down segregation ropes for his meetings in the South.
But the story doesn’t stop there. Historian Grant Wacker notes that as the civil rights movement intensified, Graham distanced himself from King by attempting to chart a moderate path. Decades later, Graham himself would speak of his lack of engagement in the civil rights movement as one of his great regrets.
This same story of engagement, retreat and regret has come to define an evangelical culture that is bigger than Billy Graham. For more than a century, the broader evangelical movement has been in a cycle of engagement when opportunities arise, retreat when pressures and obstacles intensify, and regret at the failure to achieve any lasting change. Worse, the burden of this regret too frequently falls on evangelicals of color, as they are left abandoned only to be greeted with new promises next cycle.
In this context, the evangelical movement embarked on its newest episode recently when evangelist and writer Josh McDowell stepped away from his ministry after making comments about race on Sept. 18 at a meeting of the American Association of Christian Counselors.
McDowell released a statement seeking to be honest about his comments and apologize for his error: “I want to begin by apologizing for my words and the implications they had. My statement started by saying ‘I do not believe blacks, African Americans, and many other minorities have equal opportunity.’ I do believe this. Racism has kept equality from being achieved within our nation. When I said that ‘most (minorities) grew up in families where there is not a big emphasis on education and security,’ I made a generalized statement that does not reflect reality. I apologize and reiterate my Christian love for all races, nationalities and people groups. My desire is that we as Christians would deal with both racism and inequality as the sins that they are in order to restore the unity and equality that God desires for all.”
In an age of denial, McDowell’s apology is an instructive model on owning the causality of our words and actions in other people’s harm. Yet the episode may be an instructive example of the broader – and often cyclical – challenge the evangelical movement faces in making lasting progress around issues of race.
As this discussion intensifies, let me offer three reflections on what we can learn as we try to break out from this pattern:
Altering power dynamics to learn
►Learning involves altering the dynamics of power. The murder of George Floyd last year by a Minneapolis police officer did more to ignite the conversation around systemic racism in America and in the evangelical movement than anything else in my lifetime. Suddenly, many evangelicals who had avoided issues of race were asking questions and looking for leaders to speak out. While many voices rose to the occasion, too often white evangelicals were often more eager to speak about race issues than to listen to those on the receiving end of racism.
The ways this temptation reinforces and exacerbates the cycle within evangelical circles crystalized for me when several leading African American pastors in Chicago invited me to join them for a faith leaders march in the Bronzeville neighborhood. Following Floyd’s death, we marched and prayed for racial justice and for an end to the riots impacting that very neighborhood. Walking alongside these friends and partners in ministry, my aim was to simply be present in the midst of what was their event as they spoke up against racial injustice and the riots that had impacted their communities. I needed to learn from them about how Floyd’s murder was simultaneously climactic and emblematic of a lived reality that was far different than my own.
Listening without empowering others to speak authoritatively will never produce real change. To truly learn requires that white evangelical leaders shift the dynamics of power existing within our networks, institutions and relationships so as to ensure brothers and sisters of color can speak into our lives. It’s not enough to simply be quiet; we need to listen and learn.
Internal obstacles to evangelicalism
►The greatest obstacles to evangelicalism are internal to the movement. In writing on the evangelical movement for nearly 20 years, a recurring truth is that its biggest problem is not from external subversion. To be sure, there are many non-Christian leaders or ideologies that threaten to co-opt the mission of the church. However, the greatest obstacles to the flourishing of the evangelical movement – particularly in regards to substantively engaging our failings on race – have arisen from within.
Few events capture this truth as much as the debate around critical race theory. As with broader American society, recent evangelical discussions of race have been dominated by the specter of CRT. Efforts by some evangelicals to weaponize words like CRT and social justice as buzz words for dangerous ideology only fortify the barricades and cripple fruitful discussion among orthodox believers about the existence of systemic sin and injustice. Indeed, McDowell’s comments stem from his participation in this criticism.
When church leaders reduce complex ideas to simplistic buzzwords, the end result is always irrational fear and suspicion rather than honest dialogue. There are legitimate concerns about CRT, and I – and many others – have been discussing CRT’s challenges and shortcomings. Christians would be wise to reflect carefully on it – as well as any academic tool – and how it intersects or conflicts with their faith. But leaders need to recognize how this simplistic and excessive repeated attack has yet again thwarted any efforts to engage issues of race. And before you attack what I just said, make sure you read the next point.
Biblical understandings of race
►A biblical understanding of race is not silent or neutral but celebratory. Where McDowell is correct, and where evangelicals can find unity, is in looking to Scripture as the lens for understanding race. As Christians, we believe God’s word is sufficient to teach us how to relate to one another, and our reconciliation with Christ is what opens the door for reconciliation with each other.
However, it is important to recognize that Scripture does not flatten race into a homogenized culture. It is an enduring exegetical mistake of many evangelicals to depict Scripture as reinforcing a “color-blind” approach to race.
Throughout Scripture, God consistently upends prejudice, particularly when it arises because of racial or ethnic biases. Yet beyond simply rejecting prejudice, Scripture presents a positive interpretation of race as holding a distinctive place within the kingdom of God. At Pentecost in Acts 2, the miraculous arrival of the Holy Spirit leads to understanding of diverse languages. This gathering then foreshadows Scriptures depiction of heaven where every tongue, tribe and nation make up the choir of eternal praise (Revelation 7:9). In both instances, God’s presence works through rather than collapses cultural diversity. Both our worship and our witness are made more perfect when we model Gospel-centered diversity.
McDowell’s comments and apology have again ignited a debate that will not go away. Indeed, for many there is a perpetual feeling of déjà vu in litigating every action and reaction. But we can’t miss the moment. Breaking the cycle will require the humility to learn and repent as well as the courage to push past the obstacles and pressures that try to dissuade us.
Let us, again, learn from the example of Mr. Graham. Past behavior predicts future behavior, but predictions don’t have to come true. We can choose the road not taken, and that’s the one that could make the difference.
Ed Stetzer is a dean and professor at Wheaton College and the editor-in-chief of Outreach Magazine.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bible says it all: Evangelicals have a special duty to fight racism