Race in America and the American Church

We should all repent of our past and present sins relating to race and everything else. Churches are right to help their members learn how to seek reconciliation in a world that is splintering around cultural, ethnic, racial, and economic lines.  However, by assuming that white racism is a significant force behind our splintering world, the church is doing a poor job of equipping its members to do the work of Christ’s ministry of reconciliation. To remedy this, it is imperative that all Christians understand our blindness to how the world’s thinking on race is influencing our deliberations and even our understanding of Scripture on this issue.

Read Part 1 here.

America’s history of slavery and racism is well known. For many years now, many largely white American denominations have sought to atone for their involvement in this history by confessing it and encouraging members to examine what lingering effects of racism may still have a hold on them.

One example of this in the evangelical church is the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), whose General Assembly has since 2002 taken numerous actions to “confess our involvement in … the heinous sins attendant with unbiblical forms of servitude-including oppression, racism, exploitation, manstealing, and chattel slavery” (2002); and to “recognize, confess, condemn and repent of corporate and historical sins, including those committed during the Civil Rights era, and continuing racial sins of ourselves and our fathers…” (2016).

The confessions by the PCA—much like other churches—have been rather generic, lacking details such as when and where and by whom specific sins were committed. A major reason for this generic approach is the belief among many in the church that whites are generically, and intrinsically, racist.

Perhaps the highest profile PCA proponent of the intrinsic racism of whites—and their blindness to it—is Alexander Jun, a professor who teaches courses on diversity and social justice in higher education at Azusa Pacific and was elected in 2017 as the PCA General Assembly’s first ethnic minority (Asian) moderator. When speaking at Biola University’s 2016 Student Congress on Racial Reconciliation, he explained the concept to students with a tale about a giraffe and an elephant.

Looking out of his window one day, the giraffe saw his colleague the elephant walking down the street and enthusiastically invited him to come into his home for a visit. Immediately they encountered a challenge: the elephant could not fit through the door. The giraffe made accommodations to overcome this, but they soon ran into other challenges. When the giraffe went upstairs for a few minutes to take a phone call

the elephant tries to make himself at home. Kinda walking around, walking through the halls. And he realizes another problem. The halls are really narrow, right, because it is built for giraffes. Can’t look out the windows because it is for long-necked giraffes. Tries to walk up the stairs but he is too heavy—the stairs start to break. He backs down and knocks over furniture cause it’s so narrow and small.

The giraffe comes back downstairs, finds the mess, and after pondering the situation exclaims:

“Ah! I know the problem. You’re too fat. If you lost some weight, you’d fit in here just fine. Or maybe if you took ballet lessons you’d get light on your feet. I love having you here and I’d love for you to keep coming back but you kinda have to change if you are going to stay here.”

Yun notes you almost feel sorry for the giraffe who had been so hospitable to his friend. And then adds that “it’s not the individual necessarily who is at fault. It is not that you are a bad person. You’re not a bad giraffe. But your worldview is that of a giraffe.” He continues:

That’s the window that we are looking at. But let’s flip it around. Let’s ask it another way. What is it about the institution that makes it so difficult for African Americans? … What is it about the culture that makes it so difficult for women to succeed?

You shift the blame and you shift the gaze away from the individual and onto a system.

Of course, in majority white America, the system onto which the blame is laid by many in the church today—following the lead of the culture around it—is whiteness, and white culture is what must be deconstructed to foster racial reconciliation in our church and culture.

Yet the tale of another PCA elder provides a different perspective that moves beyond the color of one’s skin to Christ’s larger ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5) for all.

Al Arnold, a physical therapist who lives in Mississippi is also an elder in the PCA. In his 2015 book, Robert E. Lee’s Orderly: A Modern Black Man’s Confederate Journey, Arnold’s tale describes the transformation of his thinking about race through his discoveries of his great-great-grandfather, Turner Hall, Jr. Hall, a slave owned by the family business of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and who served as an orderly to Robert E. Lee.

Arnold did not know his great-great-grandfather, so what he knows came from books, newspaper articles, and letters. Through these Arnold concluded that Hall “was a servant in the Confederate army, and a proud one indeed. He cherished his memories of his time in the war and held dear his association with General Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest. As his great-great-grandson, that’s enough for me.”

It was also enough for Arnold to see that not everything involving blacks and whites and about the challenges blacks face is about racism: “Cultural differences are not always indicative of racism. Cultural differences are an expression of who a people are and have become because of experiences and geographical locations endowed upon them by Almighty God.”

Of course, racism did and does exist in America. But that does not mean it is an exclusively American or white institution. Or, writes Arnold, that everything once associated with racism in America is about racism today:

To suggest that having a white prom and a black prom at one high school is racist doesn’t fully comprehend the important role of culture and the importance of race. That doesn’t mean that we don’t acknowledge that these practices may have derived from impure motives. … But to suggest that because these events were separate was inherently racist is wrong. As much as we loved our white classmates and were loved by them, we also loved our culture so much that we enjoyed our differences without allowing them to destroy our love for each other.

A critical point that Arnold makes is one ignored by many in the debate on race outside and inside the church, that we do not always need to repudiate our past and culture—or attack another’s past or culture—to find reconciliation with each other:

I don’t think I have any right to frown upon [the Confederate] heritage or culture any more than Confederates have a right to frown upon mine. I don’t have to understand a person’s culture or even agree with it in order to love them. Thus, because I am reconciled in Christ, I can allow a Confederate to be a Confederate without attacking him or her for their flag or their history. I can accept him as a Christian as much as any Christian in this land. After all, I am a part of that history. If the Jew could accept the Samaritan as a brother, who am I to not accept my Confederate brother? Moreover, my ancestor served under this banner with the pride of one doing his duty. I honestly believe he faithfully discharged those duties without prejudice and willingly. With honor, he and many other slaves stayed loyal to the Confederate nation.

We should all repent of our past and present sins relating to race and everything else. Churches are right to help their members learn how to seek reconciliation in a world that is splintering around cultural, ethnic, racial, and economic lines.

However, by assuming that white racism is a significant force behind our splintering world, the church is doing a poor job of equipping its members to do the work of Christ’s ministry of reconciliation. To remedy this, it is imperative that all Christians understand our blindness to how the world’s thinking on race is influencing our deliberations and even our understanding of Scripture on this issue.

Bill Peacock is a member of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Austin, Texas. His writings on religion, culture, and politics can be found at www.excellentthought.net.

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