Race and the Gospel: Is Justice a Part of the Discussion? Originally appeared in Outreach Magazine
Good news, like light, touches everything in the room. Like light, it spreads, rolling forward, never-endingly chasing away the darkness.
“Only he who cries for the Jews is permitted to sing Gregorian chant.”
I recently saw an Instagram post of a woman holding a book in her hand while standing in front of the religion section at Barnes & Noble exclaiming, “I can’t wait to read this one!” The book is a recently published title by a friend of mine on the subject of race and how to unpack white privilege and white identity in a more equitable and Christian manner. Many people responded to the post, chiming in with encouraging comments like, “Ohhhh, that looks great!” and “I need to get my hands on that one!”
But one comment on this post stood out among the rest. A prominent evangelical thought-leader jumped into the thread with a warning and word of caution about this kind of book. Knowing only the cover and the concept, he presumed to know the content and, based only on his presumptions, he decried how unhelpful he feels these kinds of books are for the soul. It wasn’t until he was near the end of his comment that he admitted not knowing the content of the book. Nonetheless, he went back to issuing a spiritual warning before ending his thoughts.
The leader’s comments fit a pattern that has lasted, in some shape or form, through most of the history of evangelicalism. The pattern of thought is that the messier parts of reality can distract or interfere with the spiritual parts of our being and faith. Or, put more succinctly, as long as we keep our eyes on Jesus, then what happens here on Earth, however unfortunate, is secondary. We need to “keep the main thing the main thing,” as I’ve been told. And that main thing is a spiritual telling of the gospel in tight, highly parsed language that is distinct from issues like race, privilege or worldly injustice.
The Flaw in Our Gospel
Over the last half-dozen years, I have had hundreds of conversations with pastors—many of whom are passionate about extreme poverty, government corruption on other continents or the refugee crisis around the world—who say quite plainly, “Justice is a good thing, but we have to be careful that we keep it out of our gospel conversations.”
The thought-leader and his compartmentalization and spiritual warnings in the first instance, and pastor-theologians trying to cordon off and protect the gospel in the second, all demonstrate the flaw in our gospel that has lingered in varying ways throughout evangelical history: We think the cross of Jesus is the gospel.
But the cross of Jesus is not the gospel, but a part of the gospel—a part, but not the whole; a means, but not the end.
When Jesus died for the forgiveness of sins on the cross, he was operating as the perfect sacrificial lamb—the sacrifice—that had always been foreshadowed by the sacrificial system in the temple courts.
Now, when Jesus died on the cross, the Bible says the heavens shook, the sun stopped shining and there was a great commotion in the temple. It is important to note that it wasn’t the altar (what the cross symbolized) that split in half. Rather, the 60-foot-tall temple veil was torn from top to bottom, symbolizing how, through Jesus’ death, we have been reconciled to God.
The forgiveness of sins served the purpose of restoring our relationship with our Creator. But forgiveness is never the end; rather, it serves reconciliation. While the cross was always a means to an end, it was not the end itself. As Paul explains the gospel in Colossians 1:19–20, “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” The pleasure was in the reconciliation, which was accomplished by the cross.
The means cannot be taken in isolation from the purpose it served. So, I will say it again: The cross is not the gospel, but a part of the gospel.
Yet, for much of evangelicalism, our focus has been squarely on the cross alone—the substitutionary atonement of Christ’s death.
Transaction replaced reconciliation.
Personal salvation for the individual took the spotlight rather than Christ’s redeeming work for the many. There was an overemphasis on salvation for me, which lessens the experiential significance of our adoption back into the family of a relational God.
If all we have is Good Friday, then we are missing Easter. If our gospel is cross only, then we cut off resurrection, which is the very hope we have as Christians and the one thing Paul says we need in order for our faith to not be foolish or us to be pitied (1 Cor. 15). How can we say that justice has no part in our gospel when Jesus came so that unjust people could stand next to a just God, as if we are just, through a process of justification whereby we are justified? (Hopefully the linguistic irony is evident.)
Somewhere along the line, forgiveness of sin, alone, went into our gospel box rather than the setting right (justice) of all that was broken (injustice) through the life and ministry of Jesus—what I would call the in-breaking of the right arm of God to work restorative justice for his creation. Or as Isaiah put it:
“The LORD looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm achieved salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him” (Isaiah 59:15¬–16).
If we can’t fully comprehend God without mention of his love or heart for things being as they ought to be, then how can we comprehend the gospel or his good news without reference to the same? How can we have a gospel that doesn’t speak to race or racism?
Much more could be said on this point, but saying that the gospel needs to be protected from justice language is to miss the point of the good news in the first place.
What Happens When We Compartmentalize Faith?
This flaw in our gospel, focusing on a single pixel of the screen—or grabbing the means as if it were the end—has, throughout our history, allowed us to set up a compartmentalized Christianity.
How could we get to the point where we so easily separate the gospel from justice?
Here, in one of the most Christian nations in history, we held and trafficked in slaves for hundreds of years and kept state-sponsored discrimination and terror alive well over 150 years beyond when the British passed the Slave Trade Act.
The Southern states in America, statistically the most evangelical of the states, saw what they counted as “good Christian men and women” take part in lynchings on Friday nights and then occupy their normal pews in church on Sundays without connecting the two—our salvation on one hand, but something separate or ignorable on the other.
This is the gospel, protected and compartmentalized, with the plight of our neighbor boxed out as a secondary concern.
Now, the objection usually comes, “What about all those amazing Christian men and women who fought for abolition and later civil rights?” The questions in response are simply: Who were they fighting when they were laboring for rights if not the white Christian men who were in positions of civic power? Whose message were they fighting if not the message of pastors in pulpits that perpetuated racism and made discrimination religiously permissible? Ultimately, what flaw in the thinking of their fellow Americans—that allowed self-righteousness to sit comfortably alongside exploitation and murder—were they trying to overcome?
The gospel we inherited has been too neatly packaged. Good news, however, is much different than that. Free an oppressed population, and then try to tell them that the good news of their liberation is neatly packaged and to be tightly defined, and you’ll really know how crazy that sounds. Good news of that kind is wild and boundless. Freedom speaks to all of life; it rolls into tiny corners and opens the door on a million rooms where bad news once lived.
Good news, like light, touches everything in the room. It speaks continuously into every crevice. And like light, it spreads, rolling forward, never-endingly chasing away darkness.
Jesus came to be the light of the world. He and the message he heralded about the kingdom of God was good news that he likened to light in our lives:
Don’t hide your light under a bushel (Matt. 5:15).
A city on a hill cannot be hidden (Matt. 5:14).
Our evangelical gospel has been too neatly dissected, defined and packaged. Its explosive and wild nature has been stripped of its original revolutionary power. It has become domesticated and fits all too comfortably in our lives when comfort, security and immunity from the messy solutions to injustice are desired and appreciated.
Light touches everything in the room. So, why, when I wrote a book on race and privilege, did the greatest pushback come from those who said race has no place in our gospel conversation? Surely the good news of Jesus has something to say to the greatest historic injustice of the last 500 years. Surely, when Jesus came to proclaim good news to the poor and the year of the Lord’s favor (Isa. 61) it had relevance to the very real instances of bad news and oppression people were suffering.
How much different might our presence in this world look if we could deconstruct the compartments and restore the gospel message to its holistic sense of restoration of relationship, reconciliation and redemption rather than transaction, personal salvation and a consumerist disconnect from the larger story?
Upsetting the Economics of the City
This is exactly why the Easter message is so revolutionary for the affairs of our lives and the communities in which we live.
We easily forget that at the beginning of his Passion Week, Jesus went into the temple and, in turning over tables and driving people and animals out in front of him, he upset the economics of the city. He did this in challenging the power structures of the temple system—those who were taking advantage of vulnerable people and preventing others from gaining access to the temple and the presence of God.
The very people who thought they were at the center of salvation and God’s will were the ones on whom Jesus vented his righteous anger. The religious affairs had been compartmentalized and systematized by the religious leaders while they simultaneously were guilty of perpetrating the injustices that most broke God’s heart. What kind of warning should I take from this today as a church leader who certainly, not unlike the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, can become ensnared in the systems, routines and economics that move things forward and maintain the status quo?
In Scripture, the linking of the good news of reconciliation is tied more often to the ethics of love than most realize. The parable of the Good Samaritan followed a question posed to Jesus on how to be saved. Likewise, the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 represents Jesus’ last words to his closest friends before they would all go through the trial of that awful week. At such an important moment, his message was that those who honored him by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting the prisoners would gain entrance to paradise, and those who neglected Jesus by not feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting the prisoners would be sent to torment. Heaven and hell show up in the balance as Jesus pointedly discusses the inability to separate our love of neighbor from our love of him.
It is no wonder that immediately following Paul’s beautiful exclamation that we are new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17—“If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”) he relays how this is situated within the reconciliation of all things: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” The gospel isn’t simply good news we hear—it’s good news we become. We aren’t simply recipients of grace, but agents of grace as well.
Jesus represents truth and justice, Savior and King. Good news and love are part of the same fabric. The compartmentalization we do on paper with our religious parsing and formulas about Jesus evaporates in the face of the Man himself. Humans have a natural tendency to want to make the purpose of God’s good news the promotion and protection of our own individual comfort, but Scripture knows none of this.
The gospel is never a formula that lives in a vacuum, but a declaration of God’s restorative justice that explodes into our messy lives. It speaks to the brokenness we experience as part of the fall of creation—brokenness that is always an amalgam affecting both body and soul.
When the other apostles gave their blessing to Paul’s good news of salvation to the Gentiles—that they, too, could be saved by grace, through faith—I find it telling that their blessing came with only one injunction, that Paul and others “remember the poor” (Gal. 2:10).
The Gospel and Remembering the Poor
Remembering the poor brings up an interesting aspect of salvation as well as a theme throughout Scripture—that we are our brother’s keeper.
Becoming one in Christ means we become brothers and sisters in the family of God. And the intimacy of brotherhood and sisterhood certainly can’t come without the familiarity of story and context. If we don’t know the story of others, how can we be united in our love for them?
This has been one of the lasting legacies of race in America, and we have not told the truth about the story or been willing to listen to its nuance.
Our response has typically been that of Cain when asked by God about his brother Abel. Cain’s claim that he is not his brother’s keeper, in many respects, sets up the balance of the rest of Scripture where God seems to declare again and again that “Yes! You are your brother’s keeper.”
There are many aspects of our history of race in America that I have found helpful in exposing the lack of knowledge or empathy in white evangelicalism toward its pernicious and lasting effects. Some of these include:
* The church’s role in giving legal legitimacy to taking lands, as well as a moral imperative and motivation for the program of trying to “civilize” first nations people in the history of colonialism.
* The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the racist policies that were created that helped millions of Americans get loans and purchase homes before and after World War II while denying the same opportunities to minorities and certain immigrants—all the way into the 1960s. What built wealth for most of America robbed it from some of its most vulnerable, all the while shaping America’s big cities into the segregated cities they are today.
* That 90 percent of African-Americans fled the South in what is known as the Great Migration that flowed strongly up through World War II. The Great Migration, as I’ve heard Bryan Stevenson rightly criticize, was not a migration like that of birds who fly north when the weather turns, but rather a refugee exodus from a hostile state with state-sponsored terrorism and segregation. And these refugees from the South were not readily welcomed in the North where Jim Crow laws didn’t hold sway; in fact, there were many race riots, murders and widespread destruction of property as violent expressions aimed to keep these new populations from moving in or assimilating with existing groups.
But one of the most extreme forms of race history that is neglected in the telling of America’s racial story is the subject of convict leasing.
Convict leasing was a way to take primarily African-American labor into a legal form of custody through frivolous laws such as loitering or vagrancy. The constitutional amendment that outlawed slavery had, of course, left a loophole in the form of being able to control and bind the freedom of incarcerated men or women.
After the brief period following the Civil War known as Reconstruction, the South quickly concentrated power in the white establishment, which led to the widespread taking in and leasing out of convicts. This forced labor was, in historian David Oshinsky’s words, “worse than slavery.” With a renewable workforce, many were worked to death in this system, including children documented as young as 6. At one point during the period of convict leasing, the mortality rate was more than 40 percent in the state of Alabama. Can you imagine such a thing?
Alabama had the largest system of convict leasing, and Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company was the greatest user of forced labor. This period lasted up to the Great Depression, and, in many ways, was the precursor to the modern problem of mass incarceration. Not only was the human toll overwhelming, but also the correlation between convict leasing and the economic rebirth of the South is so strong that Oshinsky says, “The South’s economic development can be traced by the blood of its prisoners.”</>
I once taught a student at Kilns College who found out that one of the primary beneficiaries of convict leasing in South Carolina was the benefactor whose name was on his high school, the street on which his Baptist church was built, and, correspondingly, the name by which his church is identified.
Again, this was done in the Bible Belt of America with some of the “best” citizens profiting the most.
And it wasn’t just back then. The fact that the United States has 4.4 percent of the world’s population but 22.2 percent of the world’s incarcerated men and women should make us wonder why our Christianity has been so punitive in nature, or why those in power can so easily dismiss black and brown bodies. Is it any wonder that we fight so hard to say that the gospel of Jesus Christ only has something to say to the salvation of these people rather than something also to say to the systems and structures that have ensnared, enslaved, often wrongfully convicted or inequitably sentenced them? Might Jesus care about our complicity in failing to care about restoration for those in our penal system?
What needs to happen to jar us into realizing that the picture we have is actually incorrect or woefully deficient? When we think we know the story, we freely render confident decisions based on our presumptions. Our way of interacting with race and the people we encounter daily will not—cannot—change unless our mental picture of reality is challenged, rebuilt and expanded.
The pursuit of equality with our brother is a necessity. The rich or self-righteous can attack their brother as Cain attacked Abel, or, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, ignore him; but the truth remains that we are our brother’s keeper.
Beyond a Broken Witness
In a recent Barna study, tellingly, only 56 percent of evangelicals agree that people of color are often placed at a social disadvantage—which is lower than the national average of 67 percent. At the same time, 95 percent of evangelicals think the church plays a critical role in racial reconciliation—higher than the national average of 73 percent. Taken together, these findings reveal that those who believe they are most equipped to help with reconciliation actually don’t think it is as needed as do other Americans.
What does this say to our understanding of equality and justice as a component of our witness?
InterVarsity Press approached me with the idea that became my book, The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege. They wanted to publish a book on race and privilege, written by a white evangelical, that could serve as a bridge between those at the forefront of race relations in America and the many Americans and evangelicals beginning to awaken to our racist history—a book that asks deeper questions about race, identity and responsibility.
Is there a myth of equality? There seems to be when our supposedly unbiased judicial system is 11 times more likely to give the death penalty when the victim is white than when the victim is black, or when our refugee policy still seeks to exclude men, women and families from certain countries of the world—regardless of the merits of their cases.
A compartmentalized gospel leads to a life disconnected from our fellow man and from the vulnerabilities—which God made clear throughout Scripture that he wanted us to collectively carry on our backs so his justice would reign and men and women would be treated equally.
A flawed gospel that doesn’t see the whole picture of God’s reconciling work would rather punish than restore. It would rather move the problem out of the way than immerse itself in the messy realities of reconciliation.
Ultimately, a flawed gospel takes away our credibility as witnesses of Jesus.
Again, does race belong in our gospel conversations?
How can the American dream be our North Star when God’s purpose is reconciling the world to himself and when he has now given us this same ministry of reconciliation? (2 Cor. 5:18–20). And how can we have a gospel where we think we are forgiven and connected to Jesus when we are also disengaged from the poor and vulnerable whom Jesus says is his very self? (Matt. 25:34–40).
The apostle John makes the same arguments more succinctly: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20).
A gospel that can be compartmentalized is a false gospel. It permits us to live in darkness. It is a lie that baits us into self-deception.
Martin Luther King Jr. chastised, “Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.”
It is time that thought-leaders in white evangelicalism should no longer presume or feel the liberty to comment on an Instagram post about a book simply because it is all too easy to put it into the same boxes and compartments we have historically used to exclude sticky or messy conversations. The spiritual warnings should not come against the justice worker, but those with a pharisaical approach to spirituality. The test for the gospel should be less about the academic formula one is able to articulate, but whether it actually sounds like Jesus, sounds like salvation, sounds like grace, sounds like good news. It shouldn’t be in the definition of a pixel, but the clarity of the picture.
We have to honor our brothers and sisters and learn to make the common good a part of our aspirations. This goes against the grain of American individualism. It cuts against our deep inclinations of self-realization and advancement. Ultimately, it cuts against empire and the way we are shaped as consumers. It might disrupt our evangelical systems or patterns of thought. The kingdom is a wholly different reality. None of us will be perfect at living justly, but we must be committed to that narrow road where we are found in our love of enemy, love of neighbor and life in the communion of saints.
This isn’t an easy vision. It is a prophetic vision that takes, as Walter Brueggemann wrote, a prophetic imagination. We should all have a dream—not an American dream for our individual selves, but a dream for an America that reflects kingdom values and relationships as closely as possible.
No matter where you are—Oregon, Massachusetts or Louisiana—what does it look like for you, your church or your business to make space for the fullness of life in learning about, standing in solidarity with and sacrificing for our brothers and sisters whose experience has been one of racism and injustice?
What matters is not how good or perfect we are at it—it’s not a competition; it is how we are progressing or becoming. Are you—am I—willing to make sacrifices and elevate concern for the other?
Hospitality is defined as welcoming the other.
When we’re in a posture of hospitality, we can’t objectify those with whom we disagree. We can’t throw stones while serving bread.
Does race belong in our gospel conversations? Of course. How can we call it good news if it doesn’t speak to all the broken parts of the human condition?
STEPS TOWARD UNDERSTANDING AND RECONCILIATION
One of the questions I get asked most regularly is how to lead a predominantly white congregation into and through issues of biblical reconciliation with regard to race and privilege. I don’t think I have all the answers, but I have my own experience and that of others. Here is a short list of steps that may be helpful for pastors or church leaders embarking on such a journey.
1. Bring in minority leaders as guest speakers.
Our voice cannot capture the personal and relational quality of someone who is not just teaching a subject but sharing from their own experience and story of race in America. (If you need suggestions on speakers, feel free to contact me and I’ll be happy to provide a suggested list.)
2. Teach the congregation about lament and corporate confession.
Too many people jump straight into the Type-A, fix-it mode when confronted by the many problems and challenges of race and equality. This project mentality coupled with heroic or adventurous thoughts can be dangerous and also deeply undignifies people who have experienced deep trauma that doesn’t lend itself to ready or easy solutions. How can we “fix” the experience of a family with a deported loved one or of a family whose lineage traces back to the loss of a loved one to lynching or terror in the South, the refugee journey to a Northern city that didn’t welcome them, and the resulting loss of stability in the family as well as economic gain? Can such a family story and its deep complexity be “fixed” or even addressed without coming to it with the necessary listening ears and tears? Congregations need to learn to sit with the story of others and, in so doing, avoid the mistake of ill-timed responses or over simplifications. Soong-Chan Rah’s book Prophetic Lament might prove very helpful here.
3. Have your congregation read a book together in a focused season of learning.
The topic of race elicits quick political responses, opinions and evasive techniques—the kinds that show up at the larger family dinner table at Thanksgiving—when we jump straight into it. I don’t want to get bogged down in conversations that don’t go anywhere; rather, I want people to learn and get beyond the pat answers they have been taught so that I can have a meaningful dialog with them. Books do this. Books force people to sit, listen, learn and even have biases challenged in a manner that lends itself better to learning. Our team all agreed we wouldn’t answer questions on this during the launch of The Myth of Equality unless someone had read the book first. That commitment saved us countless headaches and also put gentle pressure on people to fully engage the learning process before jumping into heated discussions based on pre-existing feelings about topics like white privilege or programs surrounding racial equality.
4. Set a trajectory for your own journey of learning and understanding.
Issues surrounding race and religion, injustice and privilege, are such a deep, neglected and nuanced part of American history that they defy quick answers and fast learning. Additionally, they have been so intertwined with faith in America that it challenges much of our own learning and religious experience. If we commit to equality—by growing in wisdom, knowledge and experience—it ensures that our teams and congregations will benefit and be brought along at a steady sustainable pace. One way I have seen leaders do this is through the one-year master’s degree programs available through Kilns College in a distance virtual campus format. We can only take our churches where we are willing to go.
For further reading, see Defining Social Justice