It’s been quite a week on social media in the aftermath of the MLK50 Conference sponsored by The Gospel Coalition. As the conference title suggests, the main thrust of the conference was to sponsor, if you will, Dr. King’s clarion call for racial equality. Admittedly, I’ve not heard all the speakers but I do know that there were repeated calls for to treat black people as equal. The premise being that the equality that Dr. King fought for is still not achieved and therefore we must keep fighting the good fight.
Sadly, I witnessed so much dissension and discord, with camps clearly formed. On one hand, you had those who felt the whole conference was misguided and divisive. Why is there so much emphasis on race? Why do we keep conjuring up white guilt as if every single white person is guilty of racial oppression? This was an unnecessary imposition in the minds of many. On the other hand, were those who savored every word and joined in call for the church to own up to its sins and begin to value This, of course, was in line with Dr. King’s legacy.
But this emphasis is not new, at least not recently. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that in the past few years, there has been a resurgence of racial animus from within the church. There have been calls for racial reconciliation with the presumption being that minorities, especially African-Americans are not being regarded as equal heirs in the kingdom of God. There has been formal codification of intentional action, such as in my denomination (the PCA) passing Overture 43, a resolution confessing of the denomination’s past racial sins and intentionality to move forward.
I have no doubt that racial discrimination and sins of partiality still exist within the church. Occasionally, I come across a story that reminds me that not all have gotten on board. I was painfully reminded of this last year when after the passing of Overture 43, flyers were distributed on the cars at a few PCA churches that advocated for the most blatant form of kinism. Believe it or not, there are churches who still approach seminaries looking for recruits and ask for whites only as was told to me from a seminary staff person recently.
However, I consider the progress that’s been made and the intentional call to live out the gospel in a way that doesn’t show partiality towards others. Surely, we see the call for unity in the pages of Scripture. I’ve been going through the book of Ephesians with my small group and reading afresh reminds me that our union in Christ transcends all other identities. Surely, we have seen this progress in the American church for the most part. Given the call to embrace others as equals in the body, many are asking questions related to the persistent emphasis on race. Why can’t we just live as brothers and sisters in Christ? Why can’t we just move on past race and consider ways to love another? Why is there this insistence that our white brothers and sisters aren’t living up to their call to equally value? We are one human race after all!
Why? I think simply it is this: we have an historical record that shows a deeply entrenched attitude that has existed for far too long.
Just considering the institution of chattel slavery. What made one group of people deem another group of people unworthy to share human dignity? What was it about black skin that relegated it to an inferior status? How was it that self-professing Christians who claimed the authority of Scripture and love of Jesus twisted his word to create distorted theories like the curse of Ham? Just look at these words from Robert Lewis Dabney, a southern Presbyterian minister who is upheld for his orthodox Christian theology (and still is)
It is well known, that, as a general rule, [Negroes] are a graceless, vagabondish set and contribute very little to the support of the State by which they are protected. They are not citizens, never can become citizens, and wherever found in large numbers they are an expense and a source of trouble.
Let’s not forget that in the throws of the Reconstruction period when black citizens were finally free from the shackles of slavery to enjoy the fruits of equal citizenry also saw the rise of the KKK with all kinds of attempts to thwart progress. These same folks were in church every Sunday as noted in the above picture.
We can’t ignore the conditions in place that provoked Dr. King’s campaign in the interest of Civil Rights. These were conditions that were maintained by none other than Bible believing, Christ professing people who saw nothing wrong with denying their follow citizens and fellow believers in Christ the same dignity and opportunities of communion and citizenry. Nor can we ignore how much the Jim Crow era was marked by the myriad of lynchings for no other reason than being black. We must honestly acknowledge this horrendous record, that there was deeply entrenched racism that existed in this country for far too long. We must take ownership of the fact that even our beloved Christian institutions proactively engaged in subjugation of black citizens as non-equal. And yes, this includes the church.
However, I often wonder how much of the very lengthy historical realities temper our discussions today and provide the filter through which all must be viewed. When I hear many reverberate the sins of the past, it’s as if the same level of widespread discrimination exists today. You would think that Jim Crow still existed and black folks have made absolutely no progress at all, were barred from participation in equal citizenship and turned away from fellowship with white believers. While I do know there are unfortunately still pockets in our society and churches that carry this unfortunate attitude, by and large our present day society tells a different story.
This is where I think it behooves us to acknowledge when this historical record has wrapped a noose around our necks and circumvents seeing present day realities with sober judgment. This is where past transgressions dictate our interactions such that all we can see is the oppression of the past and want to impose that on the present. Sadly, I can’t help but think this is in play when every infraction is chalked up to be the sins of white people even when its not the case, where blanket accusations against white Christians and the calls for repentance for acts they themselves did not do, and hostility ensues with every act of questioning.
Beloved, we have a call first and foremost to be the body of Christ, his jewel comprised of a disparate group of individuals that are joined through the Spirit to place affection on God and each other. We have a call to display the unity in the bonds of peace that reveals Christ to a lost and dying world. When we drudge up past sins and impose them on the present, especially when those particular displays of sins don’t exist, we do harm to this image and fracture our call to reveal Christ. Moreover, it damages the relationship that we should have towards one another where love and kindness is replaced with suspicion and hostility. We end up doing the opposite of what Paul instructs in Phil. 2:3 and look out for our own interest at the expense of others. Especially, where that contention is displayed publicly, we lose our witness of the greatness of Jesus Christ who broke down the walls of hostility.
That’s not to say that issues of racial partiality and discrimination don’t need to be confronted. They absolutely do where it exists and it does behoove an examination of the heart to see where such attitudes might still linger. There also is a place for education regarding historical infractions. But we cannot lynch the body of Christ with the noose of history for some sense of personal satisfaction. We have a call to seek peace and pursue it. We can share in Paul’s divinely inspired goal of “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14). Let us press on towards this prize.