Influence

 the shape of leadership

In Search of the Beloved Community

Three new books explore the shape of racial reconciliation in contemporary America.

George P Wood on January 21, 2019

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Reflecting on race relations in the early days of the Azusa Street Revival (1906–09), Frank Bartleman famously wrote, “The ‘color line’ was washed away in the blood.” That unity was short-lived, however. Deep-seated feelings of white supremacy and Jim Crow segregation quickly redrew the line, resulting in decades of division and disparity between black and white Pentecostals that persist to this day, though to a lesser degree.

The same thing might be said about American Christians and American citizens more broadly. Though progress undeniably has been made, racial divisions and disparities stubbornly persist. This fact should be an affront to Bible-believing Christians, for the blood of Jesus Christ did indeed wash away the color line.

What the apostle Paul said about the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles applies to all racial and ethnic divisions: “[Christ’s] purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Ephesians 2:15-16).

The question is, therefore, why racial divisions and disparities persist among American Christians. And what should we do about them? Three new books from evangelical publishing houses point to answers to both questions.

In The Color of Compromise (Zondervan), Jemar Tisby recounts the tragic history of American Christianity’s complicity in racism, from the colonial period to the present day. Racism, in this account, is not merely personal animus. Tisby defines it as “prejudice plus power,” the combination of personal animus with impersonal systemic inequities.

“Historically speaking, when faced with the choice between racism and equality, the American church has tended to practice a complicit Christianity rather than a courageous Christianity,” Tisby writes about white Christians. “They chose comfort over constructive conflict and in so doing created and maintained a status quo of injustice.” To take just one of many examples, white evangelicals and Pentecostals were silent about the civil rights movement at best. At worst, they opposed it.

Charles Marsh and John M. Perkins take up “the unfinished business of the Civil Rights movement” in Welcoming Justice (IVP Books). In a 1956 speech, Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed, “the end [of the movement] is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.” Beginning in the mid-1960s, the influence of black churches in the movement began to wane. “Removed from its home in the church, the work of building beloved community withered and died,” Marsh writes.

What the apostle Paul said about the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles applies to all racial and ethnic divisions.

For nearly 60 years, however, and starting in rural Mississippi, Perkins has continued to seek the beloved community through faith-based community development. His model of development is based on “the three Rs” of relocation (“incarnational evangelism”), reparation (“sharing talents and resources with the poor”), and reconciliation (“embodying the message that ‘ye are all one in Christ Jesus’”). Through his life and ministry, Perkins thus continues the work of Dr. King.

Finally, in Woke Church (Moody), Eric Mason encourages the church to “utilize the mind of Christ and to be fully awake to the issues of race and injustice in this country.” (The word woke is slang for being conscientious about issues of racial and social justice.)

According to Mason, a woke church is characterized by four things: awareness of the “overarching truths” that unite the body of Christ; acknowledgement of our nation’s history of racism; accountability for Christians to “reclaim our roles as light and salt in the world”; and action to “bring healing and justice into our spheres [of influence].”

Each of these books is challenging in its own way. The Color of Compromise shines a light on American church history that whites often overlook or downplay. Welcoming Justice is a hopeful book, but it challenges “the cultural captivity of the church,” a captivity that promotes individualism and consumerism over solidarity and generosity. And Woke Church refuses to let readers separate the gospel from justice. All three books are well worth reading.

As I closed each book in turn, I found myself asking three questions: First, have I listened to the experiences of black brothers and sisters, which are often different from my own because our social locations are different? Second, have I taken what I’ve heard and used it for self-examination to identify wrong attitudes, beliefs and behaviors? And third, what actions am I going to take to pursue the beloved community in my church and neighborhood?

This year, the Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches of North America celebrates the 25th anniversary of the “Memphis Miracle,” a landmark in racial reconciliation between black and white Pentecostals. Knowing that Christ has washed away the color line with His blood, let us lean into the reality of the “one new humanity” He has made!

BOOKS MENTIONED

Charles Marsh and John M. Perkins, Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community, expanded ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2018).
Eric Mason, Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice (Chicago: Moody, 2018).
Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2019 edition of Influence magazine.

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