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Racial reconciliation and the Gospel

One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation by Jarvis J. Williams (B&H, 2010).

 

Evangelicals have worked hard over the last several decades to pursue a theological understanding of the human person, dealing with issues like fee will, gender, and mind/body, among others. But, on issues of race and ethnicity, we’ve been relatively quiet. I’m sure that’s partly because evangelicalism has a spotty track record on racial issues in general, making this a challenging topic for us to address. But, I think it may also stem from the fact that most of the books offering a theological perspective on race/ethnicity tend to be highly technical (i.e. nearly unintelligible to the uninitiated) and often do not spend much time on biblical/exegetical issues, which tend to be the primary interest of evangelical thinkers.

With One New Man, Jarvis Williams takes an important step forward in evangelical thinking about race/ethnicity. He offers a short, accessible work that deals extensively with the relevant biblical material. Its core argument is that humanity’s fall into sin involves both horizontal (God) and vertical (human) alienation, and, correspondingly, the Gospel promises both horizontal and vertical reconciliation. So, to understand racial reconciliation, we really need to understand the Gospel.

SUMMARY

With this emphasis on the Gospel as it relates to racial reconciliation, it should come as no surprise that the structure of the book follows the story of redemption. After a quick introduction, Williams explains that the reason for racial reconciliation lies in the tragedy of the Fall and its impact on humanity (chapter 2). So, the only possible solution to the problem lies in the reconciliation offered to all people through the atonement (chapter 3). This doesn’t just reconcile us to God, but creates the possibility, even the necessity, of racial reconciliation as we all become “one new man” in Christ (chapter 4). Finally, Williams offers a short chapter on the practical application of these insights in churches today (chapter 5).

STRENGTHS

The most obvious strength of the book lies in its commitment to exegesis. Almost unique among books dealing with race, Williams spends the bulk of his time doing biblical theology and exegesis. That’s a refreshing change of pace for the genre.

But, Williams’ most valuable contribution is in his clear connection between racial discord, racial reconciliation, and the Gospel. For Williams, racial reconciliation is not an optional feature of the Christian life that we can get around to whenever we have some time between evangelistic events and discipleship classes. Racial reconciliation is fundamental to the “good news” that God made available in Jesus Christ and something that all Christians should be working toward.

Another key contribution is the distinction between “racial diversity” and “racial reconciliation.” “Diversity” is the mere presence different races in a single group. “Reconciliation” involves healing the wounds of sin and alienation so that the various groups come together in the true unity made possible through the atonement. And, Williams argues throughout that mere diversity is inadequate given the grand scope of the Gospel.

Finally, Williams offers some very helpful comments at the end of the book for how this can (and should) play out with respect to specific ministry realities. Unsurprisingly, he criticizes efforts that focus on mere diversity (e.g. occasional “joint” worship services or just striving for “multiethnic” churches). And, although he doesn’t mention it by name, he has no use for the “homogenous unit principle” – i.e. the idea that churches are most effective when they target a single demographic. Even at its best, he sees this as yet another reflection of racial discord that belies the life-transforming power of the Gospel.

WEAKNESSES

Given the strengths of the book, I’d like to give it an unqualified endorsements. But, I can’t. Despite these strengths, the book does have some important drawbacks.

First, and most frustratingly, the book’s emphasis on the Gospel leads to a serious imbalance in the material. The two longest chapters of the book deal with sin and the atonement respectively. And, in those chapters, relatively little is said about race in particular. These chapters are just setting the stage by discussing the problem and the solution. But, that means Williams devotes over two-thirds of the book to setting up the discussion. By the time he finally reaches the material specific to racial reconciliation, the book is almost done. As important as I think the Gospel is in this discussion, I would have liked to see Williams spend less time on sin/atonement, work that has been done many times by others, so that he could devote more attention to making the connection with racial issues.

Second, the imbalance contributed to some important oversights. More interaction with other authors writing on race and theology would have alerted the reader to some of the complexities involved in the discussion. At the very least, it would have been good to see definitions of such key terms as “race,” “ethnicity,” and “racism.” Williams seems to view these as terms with relatively self-evident definitions. But that is far from the case, as a quick summary of the relevant literature would demonstrate. And, lacking clear definitions, it becomes difficult to assess Williams’ argument in places – especially in the final chapter where he writes on the practical application of his ideas. (For example, what exactly is a “racist” church? Is mere racial homogeneity sufficient to establish that a church is “racist”?)

Finally, a real problem arises when Williams tries to move from Pauline theology to racial reconciliation today. His discussion of “race” in the NT is really a discussion of Jew/Gentile relations. And, that makes sense given that Paul focuses primarily on these categories. But, he recognizes that “Jew” and “Gentile” in the NT are primarily religious rather than racial/ethnic terms: “The greatest difference was that the Jews’ and Gentiles’ hatred toward one another was not based on skin color, but on religion” (p. 122). But, if Jew/Gentile is fundamentally a religious rather than a racial distinction, how does one connect Paul’s theology of Jew/Gentile reconciliation to the problem of racial reconciliation today, which is a significantly different problem. I’m sure it’s possible to make important connections between the two, but unfortunately, Williams either doesn’t see the difficulty, or simply chooses not to engage it.

CONCLUSION

One New Man is a great book for seeing that racial reconciliation is a part of the Gospel story. It is neither optional nor secondary. Used in that sense, One New Man will be a helpful resources, particularly for those looking for more of an introductory survey of the relevant biblical material.

[Many thanks to Broadman & Holman for sending me a review copy of One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation.]

Diversity on Sunday Morning – or lack thereof

Monday through Saturday, we live in a pretty diverse world. Sunday, though, that’s a different story. Here’s a good video for illustrating that reality. It would make a great discussion starter on issues of race and diversity in church.

Flotsam and jetsam (7/29)

Racism in the church

Anthony Bradley has recently posted a couple of interesting articles about race in the church. Over at the Institute, he offered some thoughts on Peter Slade’s book Open Friendship in a Closed Society: Mission Mississippi and A Theology of Friendship (Oxford University Press, 2009). He specifically comments on some data that Slade provides regarding “difficult information about the racist and pro-segregationist formation of the Reformed Theological Seminary, the Presbyterian Church in America, and the role of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, MS.” He goes on to list what he sees as some of the more troubling facts and decries the fact that he and others weren’t made more aware of what to expect when they joined the PCA. Slade’s book sounds like it would be a fascinating, though uncomfortable, read.

The comments in this post are particularly worth following. Stephen Taylor, Peter Enns, Ligon Duncan, and R. Scott Clark all chime in, along with further comments from Bradley.  (HT Mike Bird)

And then, over at Worldmag.com, Bradley argues that we need to be careful about accusing schools of racism based on the lack of faculty diversity. He points out the difficulties that some schools can encounter when trying to find qualified minority candidates for open positions. Although he doesn’t discuss some of the systematic problems that contribute to the lack of qualified candidates, he correctly points out that a mere “head count” doesn’t tell the whole story. (HT Justin Taylor)

Do we need more monocultural churches?

According to Tom Steers in a CT opinion piece, yes. Despite the fact that we live in an increasingly multicultural world, and despite his recognition that multiculturalism  might fit better with the vision of unity Jesus presented in John 17, he still thinks that monocultural churches have an important role to play in the world today.

I have been ministering with people of Asian descent for over three decades, and the variety of people groups coming to the U.S. is expanding exponentially. Today we see thousands of newly-arrived people groups that we never dreamed would be in the U.S.—Mongolians, Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Bangladeshis. From Laos, we have Hmong, Mien, Tai Dam, and Khmu groups. From persecution in Myanmar have come Karen, Mon, and Chin groups. Refugees from Bhutan, mostly Hindu, are presently being accepted into the U.S. at 15,000 per year for four years.

To ask that each of these groups assimilate to one another or to multiethnic congregations—at the same time they are trying to assimilate into U.S. culture—is unrealistic. And it’s not just new immigrants who have unique and particular needs that the gospel can address in culturally specific ways. Most often the 1.5, second, or third generation offspring desire high ethnic identity ministries.

All such outreach needs to be done with wisdom and particular cultural sensitivity. Pioneer workers setting up new works with these people groups must ask, How is the Good News to be communicated for each cultural group? How can the Good News flow to these families and their friends, and even back to families and friends in the country of birth?

He is fully aware of the potential for abuse that exists in a monocultural church (pride, alienation, segregation, etc.), but he argues that we can find a healthy balance that allows us to minister the Gospel to these cultural groups without falling prey to the dark side of racial and ethnic division.

So, he concludes.

Neither multicultural nor monocultural ministry is the answer to our salad bowl society. Let us not idealize either, but only the kingdom of God. In Scripture we have examples of both monocultural ministry (Jesus) and multicultural ministry (some churches founded by Paul). Every person and every group has dignity and validity no matter their ethnic, social, political, or economic roots—and whether they gather mono or multi. And, in the end, every people group will be represented in heaven (Rev. 5:9–10).

To the extent that Steers is pressing us to recognize the central importance of the Gospel in Christian ministry, I can appreciate what he’s saying. Our priority here has to be the ministry of the Gospel. If some groups can be reached more effectively through a monocultural ministry, then that is something that we need to consider.

nonetheless, I think his argument goes astray in (at least) three places. First, he doesn’t want to see this as a purely pragmatic argument (probably because he doesn’t want to be labeled as just another church growth theorist). Instead, he finds biblical support in Jesus’ monocultural ministry. If Jesus can do it that way, so can we. But he does not address the important redemptive-historical differences between Jesus’ ministry to Israel and the church’s ministry to the world. Simply to draw parallels from one to the other is unfortunate at best. At bottom, then, this is a purely pragmatic argument; monocultural churches will reach some cultural groups more effectively. And, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this argument. Let’s just recognize it for what it is.

Second, I’d have been more comfortable with this argument if he had located individual communities within the larger body of Christ. If a particular worshiping community chooses to express its Christian identity in culturally focused ways, then it’s all the more important that it be vitally engaged with other worshiping communities. Unfortunately, like many evangelicals today, his focus remains largely on the isolated community.

Third, I would have also liked to see more of an emphasis on growing these communities toward being more diverse expressions of Christ’s body. Starting a monocultural church for the purpose of reaching a particular community is one thing. Remaining intentionally monocultural indefinitely seems necessarily to run afoul of the racial and ethnic divisiveness that Steers thinks we can avoid.

But, I also want to suggest that people who attend largely monocultural evangelical churches (like mine) should be careful about criticizing an argument like this too strongly. You wouldn’t want to rock the boat that you’re sitting in.