A broken church: quick to condemn, fear, and divide, and slow to love, seek justice, and unify.
This past weekend we remembered Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man whose courageous efforts amounted to revolutionary civil rights victories for our country. We also remember him as Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., a man who deeply loved Jesus and His church, and whose entire ministry for racial reconciliation and desegregation emerged from Christ-centered love to lead a movement of Biblical justice. He fought against disunity of America, the disunity of the church, and urged everyone to overcome comfort and fear to join in seeking justice for the oppressed.
However to King's disappointment, he found that he could not rely on the white church as an ally. In his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he wrote:
I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.
He had hoped that the white church "would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure."
In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. I have heard many ministers say: 'Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.'
It is now 2016 and we are undoubtedly still "in the midst of blatant injustices." And the American church is still disappointing.
Racial disunity within the church was recently highlighted by clashing Christian responses to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Jim Wallis, founder of the Christian publication Sojourners, wrote an article in The Washington Post titled “White Christians need to act more Christian than white,” reporting that “the Public Religion Research Institute American Values Survey released in November produced a devastating finding: 72 percent of white evangelical Protestants, 71 percent of white Catholics and 73 percent of white mainline Protestants — together, effectively, white Christians — said they ‘believe that killings of African American men by police are isolated incidents.’” On the other hand, “82 percent of black Protestants and 80 percent of black Americans, generally, who believe these incidents are ‘part of a broader pattern of how police treat minorities.’”
These numbers in 2015 reveal the exact same issue King wrote about in his letter. The white church is still unwilling to "see the justice" of black Americans' cause "with deep moral concern."
But recently, the younger generation of Christians displayed a glimmer of hope. A few weeks ago, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a prominent evangelical college ministry, publicly supported the Black Lives Matter movement at their national conference of 16000 attendees. RELEVANT Magazine noted it as “a major move for such an influential Christian organization.”
However, disunity reared its ugly head when the move was met with immediate outrage and vicious backlash at the organization for becoming "too liberal," and for inviting Black Lives Matter activist and speaker Michelle Higgins to give a speech that many claimed to have implied dismissiveness towards the pro-life movement. Both InterVarsity USA and Higgins have since clarified that they are firmly pro-life, and the organization leaders released a statement to affirm InterVarsity’s stance and clarify their decision to address Black Lives Matter at their global missions conference. They wrote, “We see racial reconciliation as an expression of the gospel (e.g., Ephesians 2:14-18), and as an important practice in preparation for global missions.”
Besides the very obvious moral and Biblical reasons for Christians to rise up against systemic racial injustice, it is especially imperative for an evangelistic Christian at a global missions conference to see racial reconciliation as preparation for global missions. This is how I see it: Christians in America have privilege and power. We are free to worship without persecution, we have five churches within a five-mile radius, and many claim that this is a Christian nation. However, it’s likely that white or not, our worldview is tainted by the ideological foundation of rich, male, white supremacy upon which this nation was built. We were taught implicitly from a very young age that white is beautiful, successful, smartest, and safest. Racial reconciliation helps us rid ourselves of this skewed worldview, which is necessary before we confuse white-man’s-burden-evangelism with making disciples of all nations.
What InterVarsity intended to be a step forward in unifying the ethnically-divided American church as one body of Christ to pursue a common, Biblical cause has sadly been hijacked by belligerent voices calling for more disunity. I’ve seen way too many Christians debate about supporting the Black Lives Matter movement as Republican vs. Democrat. I’ve seen “conservative” vs. “liberal” Christians turn it into a “who’s saved and who’s not” debate. I still see Christians insisting that recognizing Black Lives Matter and being pro-life are mutually exclusive.
This proliferation of schisms is heartbreaking, and absolutely counterproductive to a justice that can only be achieved through unity, humility, and repentance of an unloving, un-Biblical cultural and mental framework that exalts whiteness. Christians should understand this more than anyone: just as the salvation of the Gospel of Christ can only be received through humility and genuine repentance, justice and unification in Christ can only be achieved through humility and genuine repentance of the deep-rooted sin that the American Evangelical church has committed, which Higgins named “adultery with white supremacy.”
You may be questioning now how significant the church actually is to advance racial justice. Social psychologist and Urbana speaker Dr. Christena Cleveland wrote in her book Disunity in Christ that Western culture and American Christianity have undoubtedly “crisscrossed to the point of being indistinguishable.”
Western culture is white-dominated and white-exalting and is as impacted by the church (doctrines) as it has tainted American Christianity.
“Culture is our modus operandi," Cleveland wrote in the chapter "Blinded by Culture. "Anyone tracking us can see the cultural fingerprints that mark our religious beliefs and practices, but we lack the awareness to see it ourselves."
Right now, legalistic American Christianity is intertwined with white-exalting Western culture. In other words, many Americans can’t distinguish Christian values from government policies, and the white church is still too blinded by white privilege to take up the cross of non-white Americans.
In 1963, Dr. King warned in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail that "if today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century." Once again, he was right.
Luckily, the Gospel is a story of second chances and redemption. The time has come for the American church to reestablish authentic Christianity, cut Western culture out of its theology, and use its influence on Western culture to create one of radical, Christ-like love. The unadulterated, ever-powerful, and universal message of Jesus brings good news and perfect love that transcends all cultural, lingual, racial, and generational boundaries. The exaltation of this message is what would recreate the early church that Dr. King reminisced about in his letter when it was "not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society."
This is the message that should transform the modus operandi, should it touch any culture.