The Potential for a Prophetic Voice in the American Evangelical Church on Issues of Race and Racialization

As you know, I’m in seminary at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. This summer, I took a single “modular” class called “Social and Cultural Exegesis”. The focus of this class as bible students is to learn from concepts in sociology to better interpret scripture and preach the gospel to people in different worlds and from different cultures. Naturally, racial tensions in our own North American / Western European society was a hot topic, among other fascinating conversations.

This blog entry is simply the reconstitution of a paper that I submitted as a requirement for the class. It’s intended to be a “dialogue” with three separate books we had to read for the class. I’ve made no edits to the original paper I wrote when I re-published it here, so please forgive the mismatched voice (so to speak). But as you also know, I’m committed to sharing a significant portion of the things I write for classes in this context as well.

Lastly, I want to explicitly state that I am not the wise old man here. I don’t have magical answers to issues as complex as racism and racial tension in America. Other than God Himself, who could? Only God is wise! My intention here isn’t to “be right” or to claim someone else is “wrong”, but rather to continue to learn myself and to hopefully make some tiny contribution to a large much-needed conversation. Certainly, the process of reading these books and writing these papers taught me a lot and was hugely thought-provoking. Maybe it will benefit you too.


AN INTERACTION WITH
DIVIDED BY FAITH, MORE THAN JUST RACE, AND A SPACIOUS HEART

Submitted to Dr. Peter Cha in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the course
PT 7860 Social and Cultural Exegesis at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School


Although most white evangelical Christians in North America believe those of diverse racial backgrounds to be equal to themselves and to have the same dignity and standing before God, they tend to think and act in ways that support and even perpetuate racial inequality. This paper explores the nature and extent of racism in American society, discusses how various racial attitudes and practices have affected and involved the church, and attempts a few modest recommendations regarding how the church might increasingly become a prophetic witness in our world.

Nature and Extent of Racism in American Society

Racial Tension

The question of “race” is very complex. Where many (including myself) have limited the discussion and evaluation of racial issues and inequality in America to individual personal interactions and racially prejudicial or bigoted thoughts and behavior, the issue is in fact far broader in scope. In Divided by Faith, Michael Emerson introduces an extremely helpful new term, “racialization”. He explains that “race” as we know it today is “socially constructed” (Emerson, kindle location 185), tied less to a precise analysis of ethnic heritage and more to a set of cultural realities agreed on by society at large to constitute “black” or “white” (or other). American society is “racialized” because in almost every place where society can be divided along racial lines, the sub-groups produced “differ profoundly … in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships” (Emerson, kl 183). With this definition, Emerson draws a clear and enlightening distinction between individual racially-biased choice-making – whether subtle or openly hostile – which constitutes “racism”, and the reality that American society at large is “profoundly” divided along racial lines. Examples include everything from household income to divorce rates to job security to levels of education, and many others.

Julius Wilson, in More Than Just Race, introduces two categories for racial issues and discussion which I also found extremely helpful in understanding how racism impacts American social life. He emphasizes that both “structural” and “cultural” contributions to racial tension and inequity must be considered in order to develop a complete picture of racialization in our society (Wilson, kl 128). First, over decades, even centuries, the dominant white culture has erected considerable structural barriers to impede the opportunities of minorities, particularly blacks. Some structural inequities have resulted from overt, intentional policies (e.g. Jim Crow laws, redlining, or manipulating zoning laws or planning highway routes to separate and “protect” more affluent neighborhoods). But they have also resulted from seemingly-innocuous policies and practices which on the surface seem disconnected from race, but nonetheless contribute to systemic racial injustice (e.g. the migration of jobs from the cities to the suburbs, or recent governmental fiscal and education policy). Thus, the consequences of systematic racial inequality have been both intentional and unintentional in nature during the course of American history. Wilson focuses particularly on three resulting outcomes:

  1. Concentrated poverty and ghettoization (Wilson, kl 425) – Huge numbers of poor are now concentrated in small geographic areas, with few available resources or opportunities, resulting in an amplification / downward spiraling effect leading to extreme poverty with seemingly no way out.
  2. The “economic plight of inner-city black males” (Wilson, kl 924) – The perfect storm of poor education, lack of jobs or even job prospects, intense bitterness, an informal (often illegal) street economy, and a “cool-pose culture” (Wilson, kl 1143) has resulted in high crime and a deepening set of cultural affectations which perpetuate the systematic challenges blacks face.
  3. The “fragmentation of the black family” (Wilson, kl 1359) – Black women view black men with distrust, doubting the men’s ability to provide for children. Simultaneously, black men view women as conquests and prefer commitment to “cool-pose culture” over the traditional family. As a result, the secure family unit has all but disappeared in poor black communities.

Secondly, Wilson contrasts social structures imposed on black society from the outside with the negative impact of cultural distinctives originating from inside the black community. Often in reaction to hard-felt systemic encroachment, black culture has developed crippling perspectives and practices, such as rampant distrust in male-female relations, high birth rates out of wedlock, the devaluing of education and work in favor of street culture and an informal street economy, self-defeating language patterns, etc. Wilson insists that contributing factors in both the structural and cultural “camps” must be addressed to effectively bring healing and forward progress in resolving racial problems. However, he is also clear in elevating systematic challenges to be first and primary in requiring change.

As I engage both these works, it seems to me that both blacks and whites in America have come to suffer from what I have been calling a “jaded weariness”. Both sides are deeply bitter over the past. They are tired and frustrated (to the point of intense anger) over what each side seems to feel is predominantly “the other’s fault”. Based on research by fellow sociologist Ann Swidler, Emerson introduces the concept of a “cultural tool kit”, which helps us make sense of the natural tendency to insist that the other party take the lead in overcoming the racial divide. Cultural tools are “ideas, habits, skills, and styles [which enable] individuals and groups to organize experiences and evaluate reality” (Emerson, kl 1589-90). This formally explains how the vastly disparate experiences of blacks and whites in turn result in vastly disparate perspectives on racial issues – both in defining the problem as well as potential solutions. Remembering literally centuries of prejudice and abuse, and daily feeling inhibited by social systems (as well as undermined by the worst aspects of their own culture), blacks view white majority culture as oppressive, and tend to assume injustice even when possibly not warranted. They might say, “I’m continually suppressed by an unfair system!” On the other hand, whites, from a position of comfort and favor within the existing systems, view blacks and other minorities through cultural lenses (tools) like accountable freewill individualism, relationalism and anti-structuralism (Emerson, kl 1603-4). They can harshly judge blacks as unwilling or unable to establish themselves in the dominant culture – even to the point of believing that the problem of race is being artificially manufactured by chronic victims or a sensationalist media (Wilson, kl 1470). This view might be represented by the question, “Why can’t they get it together like my grandparents did?” Until we recognize our own cultural starting points and move toward a greater empathy for those of other experiences, we have little chance of building a bridge across the racial divide.

Influence of Racial Issues on Christians & Christian Community

Segregated Churches

Unfortunately, neither evangelicals individually nor the Church collectively in America are immune to these cultural effects. If anything, the church is even more segregated than other parts of society (Emerson, kl 2771). Whereas many white evangelicals desire and can even be vocal advocates of racial reconciliation on an individual level, few are willing to threaten the system-wide status quo or buck existing societal structures to achieve it, and almost all are subject (perhaps unwittingly) to various social effects which act as a negative inertia against real change. Specifically, “the need for symbolic boundaries and social solidarity, the similarity and homophily principles, the status quo bias, and the niche edge and niche overlap effects all push congregations, and volunteer organizations in general, continually toward internal similarity” (Emerson, kl 3135-7). Each of these principles and effects represents a “technical” sociological aspect of the old adage that “birds of a feather flock together”. This “internal similarity” naturally and necessarily excludes those who are “different from me”. One point I found incredibly instructive is that this exclusion doesn’t have to be malicious or fearful or even selfish. This status quo of segregation can in fact be the unintended consequence of the perfectly healthy tendency to band together around core shared beliefs or to stand together in opposition to moral degeneration in the broader culture. In fact, one might feel she has been fairly selfless and sacrificial in putting the needs of the group before her own, not realizing that in so doing, she further excludes those outside the group. Thus, an individual member of the congregation unwittingly and unintentionally extends and reinforces racial divisions while simultaneously feeling good about having sacrificed for and benefited the group. This is what Emerson calls the “ethical paradox of group loyalty” (Emerson, kl 3244).

White evangelicals can also be individually very gracious and loving toward people who are very different from them, but do so in the same way a family would extend hospitality (even extravagantly) to a guest in their home. Regardless of how caring and courteous the host is, the guest remains a guest, and is not invited into the family to share in its benefits. Even the most gracious host thus maintains a separation between “my people” and “my guest”. With regard to racial issues, there is no question that millions of Christians have individually extended courtesy, decency, charity, and even friendship to those of other races, but many have done so from within the “host-guest” paradigm, not as a “brother of the same kind”. This too inadvertently exacerbates racial division.

Emerson gives an interesting example of the correlation between education and segregation. He makes the case that educated whites claim to be less concerned about blacks living in their neighborhoods or attending their schools, but in practice, those same middle-to-upper class white evangelical Americans statistically live in neighborhoods and send their children to schools that are almost entirely white. So, in the end, “college-educated whites [end up] more segregated from black Americans than are whites with less education” (Emerson, kl 258). He also applies a similar principle to the church. His studies show that as the commitment level of a religious group increases, so does its segregation. “The ‘stronger’ the religion, the more it segregates networks by increasing the density of one’s in-group ties” (Emerson, kl 3311), which naturally results in stronger inclusion of those in the group (those like me) and stronger exclusion of those outside of it (those different from me). Thus congregations, even among highly committed evangelicals who would express a strong desire for racial reconciliation and dismay at racial injustice, remain extremely segregated.

Recommendations Toward a Prophetic Witness

Reconciliation

For me, Wilson’s work was extremely helpful in exposing the nature and extent of racism in our society, while Emerson provided the most significant new insights into how various racial attitudes and practices have affected and been exemplified by the church. Having drawn principles from both of these, we turn our attention to a few concrete recommendations for action, framed primarily by Volf’s work in A Spacious Heart. I would begin with the “culture of lament” concept we discussed in class. To me, this means that we take the time to understand the history and context of racialization in our society, to lament our role in supporting and reinforcing it, to dialogue openly, somberly, and humbly with those on the other side of the racial divide, and to engage those different from us by actively loving and serving them. This creates four key activities in which the church must engage: to understand, to lament, to dialogue, and to engage.

To foster greater understanding, I would invite both churches and parachurch organizations to make classes like PT 7860 available to their constituents – to bring the material and format (around informed discussion) of the class more deeply into the Christian community. This will increase our knowledge of key historical and sociological realities, as well as to force us to face the issues we read and discussed. The result, in my mind, could only serve to mature perspectives and open dialogue around important racial issues.

To facilitate a culture of lament and a deeper, richer dialogue between people of diverse backgrounds, I would support programs like Mosaic at Trinity, or any other setting which brings people together to learn from each other and creates an environment for intentional, honest, transparent, and (again) humble discussion of racial issues. We simply cannot make progress in healing a wound we are unwilling to admit exists. It would be my hope that this confession would involve a godly sorrow, which would in turn lead to repentance (2 Cor 7:10) – turning from one path to proceed down another (better) one.

To stimulate direct action in loving and serving others, I would proffer a few ideas. It is imperative that we leave the cocoons of our own in-groups and at least occasionally go to where people are different from us. I would suggest that racially segregated churches form partnerships, and that churches, small groups, families, or even individuals periodically visit other, racially diverse congregations. I would also encourage white suburban churches to partner with (or start) parachurch organizations in urban centers to serve the under-resourced in those areas. To rub shoulders with (actively love and serve) those who are foreign to me, to walk a few miles with someone of a thoroughly different background, and to experience conditions which are hard for me to accurately imagine from my isolation in the suburbs can only serve to open my eyes to the social realities of and perhaps even friendships with those on the other side of racial and social lines.

Volf’s work, A Spacious Heart, gives us a fantastic conceptual framework for all four of these recommendations in his theology of “exclusion and embrace”. The most powerful word picture I encountered in any of the three books we read was Volf’s concept of “Catholic personality” (Volf, 43). This concept demands that – as we better understand, lament with, dialogue with, and engage others regarding racial issues – we do so as Kingdom citizens. We must view all earthly cultures as equally inadequate when compared to our expectation of God’s heavenly culture. We must then center ourselves increasingly in that culture, not the “majority white Western European” or the “minority African-American” cultures, etc. No culture is perfect. Each contains many ideas, concepts and traditions that are strong and positive and which should be embraced, but also many (ideas, concepts and traditions) from which we must, as Christ-followers, distance ourselves. In every culture, some things are to be leaned into, and some are to be rejected. So, the unspoken tendency to believe that my culture is all good and yours is all bad is a horrible fallacy, with no place in the heart of a member of God’s “Kingdom culture” (my term for Volf’s “Catholic personality”).  As Kingdom citizens, we are uniquely positioned to “embrace” every other Kingdom citizen as “of the same kind” as me – not the same, but equal before God. The differences between our earthly cultures are not erased or invalidated, but they are greatly eclipsed by our oneness in Christ. No one is “excluded”. But also as Kingdom citizens, we stand apart from the world system and all its various cultures. We are in the world, but not of it (John 17:16; Rom 12:2). Volf called this concept “Catholic foreignness” (Volf, 45). And because we take only the “side” of heaven (not of one earthly culture against another), we move beyond (“transcend”) cold, indifferent relativism and tolerance, and seek to be enriched by each others’ differences. “Christians are not simply aliens to their own culture; they are aliens [citizens of heaven] that are at home in every culture because they are open to every culture” (Volf, 44). This “Catholic” view of culture and the openness to embrace rather than to exclude “otherness” must pervade and govern all activities we might undertake to better understand, lament, dialogue and engage others.

Finally, as the Church, we must continue to evaluate ourselves, both corporately and individually. None of the activities I’ve prescribed here are static. A one-time inward assessment of our hearts (and the collective “hearts” of our congregations) is better than nothing, but grossly inadequate to engender lasting change. Instead, we must continually and critically assess what we consider to be the status quo. Are we pushing ourselves to be less comfortable? Do we reserve our strongest expectations for ourselves, or do we expect grace from others while we demand they freely receive judgment from us? Am I somehow always right while anyone different from me is typically wrong? Are we stretching ourselves to spend more energy defending the weak and embracing otherness, or are we defending our own comfort and embracing only those who enhance and support it? What am I doing (or tacitly agreeing with) which perpetuates racialization and inequality, even if I strongly oppose them in my words and personal relationships and interactions? The Christian desiring oneness in the Church should consider questions like these when evaluating the health of their attitudes toward others as individuals and toward our social practices and systems at large.

Conclusion

I want to conclude on a note of gratitude for the experience of PT 7860. It was truly an eye-opening adventure. I was strongly challenged by and had to wrestle through concepts such as the difference between racism and racialization, the impact of both societal structure and culture on racial issues, and the influence of cultural tools in evaluating racial problems and their solutions. It was eye-opening to begin to see some of the differences between individual choice-making and the willingness to question the structural status quo, or acknowledge how strongly that status quo protects my own personal comfort and security, or admit how significantly that likely influences my attitudes and actions.

In the way of solutions, the simple act of engaging this conversation in the way I have over the summer feels like a solid first step in making a tangible difference. Having been so impacted, it is my goal to continue to better understand and lament, and to take new concrete steps to dialogue with and engage others. In so doing, I hope increasingly to be able to claim the kind of prophetic witness in our world which honors God and shows His love to all people, not just people like me.


REFERENCE LIST

Emerson, Michael O. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford, 2000). Kindle.

Wilson, William Julius. More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City (New York: Horton, 2009). Kindle.

Volf, Miroslav and Judith Gundry-Volf. A Spacious Heart: Essays on Identity and Belonging (Harrisburg: Trinity, 1997).

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About Jeff Block

Lover and follower of Christ. Husband and father. Writer and seminary student. On a long journey, learning to swim with the current of God's love and walk with Him in the garden in the cool of the day.
This entry was posted in Book Review, News, Politics and Culture, Real Life, Theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Potential for a Prophetic Voice in the American Evangelical Church on Issues of Race and Racialization

  1. Maria says:

    I really believe this is essay great first step for many Christian churches. Too many churches try to ignore issues of racial and social inequality.

    The only point I question a bit is the use of the term “lament” instead of something like acknowledge or evaluate. Lament to me implies getting bogged down in regret without making progress or change. I think many white Christians are very quick to say, “that’s a shame but I can’t do anything about because XYZ…”. We do not need lamentations we need the acknowledgement of privilidge that leads to dialogue that leads to change.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Thankful for Family | Breaking Away: Jeff Block's Blog

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