In New York in November, I had the pleasure of having lunch with Steve Timmis, our CEO and Philip Moore, Acts 29 Europe Director. Steve and I had exchanged on race issues in the past, and I had expressed some frustration at what I perceived to be our inability as Acts 29 to make real progress. He offered to meet up for lunch and talk things through. I think we all learned something. I learned that Steve Timmis was, and had always been politically engaged and active, albeit in England. He talked fluently about his deep convictions in terms of race and diversity. He told me of the time he had ‘boycotted’ Barclays because of their support of the system of apartheid in South Africa. He spoke about the writings of Steve Biko, and how influential Roots had been for him as a teenager. I was surprised to hear how he had never been able to watch Mississippi Burning all the way through because it always made him cry. Man, he even listened to politically engaged music coming out of the States at the time – Curtis Mayfield, The Isley Brothers, Gil Scott-Heron and listened to poetry by Linton Kwesi Johnson. But then, his primary influence in terms of his discipleship as a young man was his Ghanaian room-mate! I had to adjust some of my ideas. It’s easy to think you know someone, or how someone thinks.
But I think Steve and Philip got a new perspective too. We listened to each other and we communicated. This is a skill that we need to develop more and more as people, as Christians, as pastors, as planters. In fact, it is hard to think of a more important skill to develop than that of listening to the other person. How will we share our faith, either as individuals or as communities, if we won’t listen? How will we pastor if we don’t listen? How will we plant churches if we can’t listen? And how will we resolve the issues surrounding race in our country if we do not learn to listen? At the end of lunch, Philip asked me if I would write a blog on this issue. I think he had been listening. And I hope others will listen too.
It happened again. Last summer I was preparing to run the Philadelphia Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon later in the fall. Just as I was getting my speed and distance up, I was derailed by a recurring IT band injury that I had initially incurred in December of the previous year. Instead of addressing the initial injury in December and adapting corrective and preventative remedies like weight training, stretches, and foam rollers, I rested and then continued the same pattern and practice of my running regimen.
This summer’s IT band injury caused more pain in my thigh, especially when I ran. This time, I was forced to address the issue. I visited a doctor and consulted more experienced runners in order to gain wisdom on how I can begin to correct the issue.
In the same way I lived with a recurring injury, so too has our country had a recurring issue. Our issue, however, is much deeper and devastating than mine — racial injustice. My call to Acts 29, whether we are reading this as a starting planter or as a pastor of a church that has been planting and is seeking to plant other churches – is to train well now in order to avoid that recurring injury. Or, if we are not training well, to take the preventative and corrective remedies seriously so that we do not cripple our churches with a recurring injury that will derail us just as we are getting our speed and distance up.
We all know that this is an issue. The murders of people like Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, the poverty experienced by many African American communities, the de facto segregation and disproportionate funding of schools in these communities, the inadequate housing and job opportunities, the issues of mass-incarceration…these are just some of the reminders that this prevailing issue has never been dealt with head-on.
Many people felt that the election of our first black US President solved our race problem, but this is not the case. This over simplification of institutional injustice minimizes the serious nature of the racism that sits at the very foundation of our country.
Acknowledge it or not, race is foundational to our country and it swims deep below its surface.
Lest we forget, it was our founding fathers that made the legal statement that Africans were inherently less than white people in 1787. This was known as the Three Fifths Compromise. While this was later changed, this law, along with its counterparts like slavery, reflects a prevailing belief system of the country at that time. Whether you acknowledge it or not, race is foundational to our country and it swims deep below its surface, like a sea monster.
One would hope that the church has been a prophetic voice to speak against such ills, but that is not the case. Historically speaking, American Christians have either been active participants, complicit benefactors, or silent spectators to the gladiator sport of racism and bigotry. It is public knowledge that in 1995 the Southern Baptist Convention made an admission in its Resolution On Racial Reconciliation On The 150th Anniversary Of The Southern Baptist Convention. Please click on that link and read the document. There the SBC confess that it was the issue of slavery and the right to own slaves that played a part in their formation. They confess that they, in many cases, “opposed legitimate initiatives to secure the civil rights of African-Americans.” We don’t ever want to have to write a similar document in our family of church-planting churches, in America or elsewhere. Who can forget the testimony of Frederick Douglass who, in his epilogue to Narratives of a Slave, wrote of how ministers, deacons, revivalists, and Sunday school teachers treated their slaves cruelly, and how slaves were sold for the church’s benefit? He argued that the Christianity of America is not Christianity at all. These are just a few examples of the church’s involvement in slavery and racism.
While propping up racism, slavery, and segregation was damnable then, the silence of the church is still deafening, and still damnable today. Evil prospers when good men do nothing, and also when they say nothing. Silence equals approbation. It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who, in his famous Letters From A Birmingham Jail defended his actions of challenging unjust laws to a group of clergy who suggested that he was wrong for doing so. In it, he sought to awaken them from their slumber and to invite them to stand with him. The American Church’s hands are either bloodied by the crime, apathetic to the suffering of African Americans, or silent to speak on behalf of the pain of the suffering.
The American Church’s issue with racism and discrimination has left the Body of Christ divided for centuries. It is the reason we have a “black church” and a “white church.” It was in 1787 that Richard Allen and Absalom Jones walked out of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church when they, and other Africans, were discriminated against and forced to sit in a separate section of the church. This began the first black denomination, The African Methodist Episcopal Church.
We need to discuss and advocate for racial justice with as much vigor as we advocate against abortion.
With the weight of these problems before us, might I suggest that the answer is not merely “racial reconciliation,” which often looks like finding one black friend or family to join your church, or bringing that one black pastor to preach only on race issues. Rather, we need to discuss and advocate for racial justice with as much vigor as we advocate against abortion, because both are related to the dignity of human life — the imago dei.
In the pulpits of many churches we have evaded talks about racial justice because we fear being viewed as too political, too controversial, too disruptive of the status quo, or divergent from the “simple message of the gospel.” But this course of action is not consistent with Christ Jesus and is not in step with the gospel. Isaiah 58 shows that the Lord is not impressed by our pietistic pontifications or by our religious ritual if we are not seeking justice for those who are oppressed by unjust laws and practice. Justice is not something that is on the “liberal agenda.” Rather, it is part of who God is and is something in which he delights. Psalm 33:5 says, “He loves righteousness and justice.”
So, as church-planters, churches, and as Acts 29, where do we go from here? Here are a few practical thoughts to encourage us on our journey on the path toward fighting for racial justice.
First, let us take responsibility for our education. Sometimes the knee-jerk reaction is to bring in the “specialist” to talk about race. This is usually a black preacher. But instead of having a preacher coming to preach on race issues in our congregations, he should function more as an adviser as we are guided through resources to challenge our beliefs, presuppositions, stereotypes, prejudices, arrogance, and even our own deep-seated racism. Educating ourselves is not a guise to begin conversations that force black people to prove racism to us, or to make them support the truth that black lives matter. If we start there, we’ve lost already. To educate ourselves, we must first come to grips with our ignorance or sin, repent of it before Jesus, and be open to grow beyond what we’ve been taught.
We as preachers have the opportunity to see the gospel exposing sin & shaping people’s hearts towards racial justice
Secondly, preach on racial justice and show how the gospel speaks to it. It was Dr. Maurice Watson of Metropolitan Baptist Church who says that, as preachers, we ought not underestimate the optics of the pulpit. The fact that a preacher dawns the steps of a pulpit, often separated from and sometimes elevated above the people, communicates an air of authority. The authority rightfully comes from the Lord of the gospel we preach and his Bible that we expound upon. Because of this privileged call, week in and week out, we have the opportunity to see the gospel exposing sin and shaping people’s hearts and understanding towards racial justice. While our role as preachers may not be to be the activists (yet), we are shaping people who might begin to advocate for racial justice.
Thirdly, strive toward gospel unity. Before I describe this, let me say what it is not. It is not merely the recruitment of black people or other minorities to have no real voice of authority in your organization or are not free to be themselves, but rather are forced to be subjugated to the majority culture norms. Gospel unity is not merely “reconciliation” where people come together in a room but there is no real mutual concern for the practicalities of each other’s lives.
In Philippians 2, we enjoy Paul’s high Christology in his famous hymn but we often fail to see that it functions as an illustration to point us to humility for the sake of unification of the body. As Paul writes to the church of Philippi he is admonishing them to strive toward unity. In verse 4 he says “let each of you not only look to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Paul is making a strong point here and it is this: to create gospel saturated unity, there must be humility that leads to a deep commitment to the concerns of others in the body of Christ. Implicit in Paul’s point is this: if we are not concerned about the concerns of our brothers and sisters in the body, then we are not practically unified through humility.
This is a call to Acts 29 churches, pastors & planters to be part of the solution, not part of the recurring problem
If my brothers and sisters in Christ are not concerned that my son is three times more likely to be killed in an encounter with the police than someone who is white, or that many of the schools I have to send my kids to are disproportionately underfunded, or that the prison industrial complex builds prisons based on the third grade test scores of my sons and daughter, or that I am likely to have a harsher penalty for the same crime a white person commits, or that crime pervades my community because it has been systematically starved of economic resources for decades, or that I have to defend my right to personhood, or what Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to as “my body”…if my brothers and sisters in Christ who are a lighter hue have no concern for these very real worries that I face and are not willing to advocate, then we have not achieved real practical gospel unity. We merely have lip service unity.
Racism will continue to rear its ugly face in our country until the body of Christ regains its prophetic voice in challenging unjust laws and practices that allow racism to fester. This is a call to all Acts 29 churches, pastors and planters to be part of the solution and not part of the recurring problem.