Category Archives: African Americans
“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2)
That’s what the Apostle Paul wrote to a church riven with ethnic, cultural, economic, and, yes, political divisions. That’s what it meant for a church to practice the truth that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28).
The voting patterns of Christians in Tuesday’s elections reveal that this practice did not guide Christian political engagement in 2016. The best predictor of how a Christian voted was not his or her theological beliefs or denominational membership. It was his or her ethnicity. Black and Latino Christians voted for Clinton by massive margins, though not as much as they did for Obama in 2008 and 2012. And white Christians voted for Trump in even stronger numbers than they did for McCain or Romney in years past.
But the biggest indictment of the state of the church following election 2016 is not that the church voted differently based on ethnicity. Indeed, if you are a black Christian who voted for Trump (and I know some who did), or if you are a white Christian who voted for Clinton (and I know some who did), you have no basis for pride, as if by going against your ethnic group you somehow fulfilled your responsibility of bearing your neighbor’s burden.
No, the bigger indictment of the church is the way in which we have castigated and even demonized one another across the political aisle, the way in which we have turned away from one another in anger and in bitterness, the way in which we have refused to do the hard work of understanding one another’s political concerns and so seeking to bear one another’s burdens.
Are you an evangelical Republican who cannot fathom why African American and Latino Christians fear a Trump administration? Then you have a lot of work to do. Are you an evangelical Democrat who cannot understand why poor and middle class white voters feel alienated in twenty-first century America without attributing that alienation to racism or bigotry? Then you have a lot of work to do.
Let me put it this way. If you cannot understand why your fellow Christian voted for the opposite candidate, if you cannot sympathize with his or her vote – even if you strongly disagree with it – you have not loved him or her in the way that Christ has loved you. Jesus was able to pray from the cross for those who tortured and murdered him, “Father, forgive they, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). There was sympathy in that statement. Jesus had the capacity to sympathize with his enemies, even in their demonic act of crucifying the Son of God, because he grasped that given what they knew and believed, they thought they were doing the right thing. And he loved them enough to forgive them for that, and even to take the burden of their sin on himself as he died for them on the cross.
Many Christians are feeling bitterness and anger today. Some are relieved that a person they saw as a grave evil and a threat to American democracy was not elected to the White House. They cannot fathom how so many of their brothers and sisters could have voted for someone who wants to expand abortion rights and fund abortion with federal taxpayer dollars. How can one claim to be a Christian and support such a woman?
Others are fearful that a person they view as a grave evil and a threat to American democracy was elected to the White House. They cannot fathom how so many of their brothers and sisters could have voted for someone who is explicitly racist and misogynist and seems manifestly unfit to govern. How can one claim to be a Christian and support such a man?
These divisions run deep. We cannot move on in the church as if none of this ever happened. Many Christians are wondering how they can remain united in love and Christian friendship with those whose political choices seem so patently offensive.
Let’s be clear about one thing. Big issues were at stake in this election. The disagreements that divide Christians are serious. They are not trivialities that we can lightly set aside. We cannot simply dismiss political concerns as if they have nothing to do with the life of the church.
And yet, Christians who voted for Trump did not do so by and large because they are racists and misogynists. Likewise Christians who voted for Clinton did not do so by and large because they support abortion. Christians who voted either way did so because they felt that only that candidate understood their deepest fears and anxieties. They did so because they were fearful that the other candidate did not have their deepest concerns at heart. Most Christians voted the way they did because they trusted that one candidate had their backs and the other candidate didn’t.
Few Christians took the time to understand how their own brothers and sisters could see things so differently. Few of us practiced the gospel sufficiently to take the time to listen and learn. Few of us were willing to set aside our own fears and anxieties so as to genuinely carry each other’s burdens.
As Jon Foreman wrote in the Huffington Post before the election:
Fear gives birth to fear. Hatred gives birth to hatred. Violence gives birth to violence. “Love is the final fight.” I sing these words every night. They were inspired by a hero of mine named Dr. John M Perkins, a man who refuses to respond to hatred with hatred. A man who understands that the fight for freedom is larger than just one story. It’s a small, fearful mind that refuses to hear any narrative other than their own.
But love ends that cycle. Love chooses to allow someone else into your story. Love listens to a stranger’s story, and allows that story to mix and dance with your own. Dr. Perkins chose to show love knowing he might receive nothing in return. It’s a dangerous, costly response to hatred and violence. But love alone can end that cycle of hatred, violence, and retaliation. Our stories are different, you and I. And we will disagree. But love chooses to listen. Chooses to care. Chooses to acknowledge that your story has the same weight and value as my own.
Can we do this as Christians? We didn’t do it leading into the election. Can we do it under the presidency of Donald Trump? Will Republican evangelicals who see their sisters and brothers – their political opponents – wounded and beaten on the other side of the road and cross over to take up their need as their own, in the spirit of the good Samaritan? Will they stand with them in solidarity, pleading their cause as if it were their own? Will Democratic evangelicals who feel beaten and betrayed accept such an effort at reconciliation and love in a spirit of gospel hope? Will they stand in solidarity with their evangelical opponents, pleading their cause as if it were their own? Do we have the humility to recognize that our own political judgments might not reflect the whole picture, that they might even be wrong?
Many see in times such as this only cause for discouragement and despair. Those whose hope is rooted in the gospel rather than in princes (Psalm 146) must instead see opportunity. Never has it been so clear how much we, as Christians – not to mention our neighbors – need the gospel. Never has it been so painfully evident how little we are practicing the gospel across ethnic, economic, and cultural boundaries.
But therein lies the opportunity. The opportunity to repent and recover the gospel with a degree of faithfulness and clarity we have not known up to this point. The opportunity to exemplify before a deeply divided country a determination not only to be reconciled in the gospel but to practice the gospel in our political engagement. The opportunity to demonstrate in our politics that we will only support policies that genuinely serve the needs and concerns of all of God’s children, white or black, rich or poor, male or female, Democrat or Republican.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
Christians – like the rest of the country – are deeply divided heading into tomorrow’s election. While African American and Latino Protestants feel an existential threat from Donald Trump and his supporters, many white evangelicals fear that if Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party win tomorrow the pro-life cause – not to mention the cause of religious liberty – will suffer irreparable damage. And of course, religious voters are motivated to vote for or against these candidates for many other reasons as well.
If Christians are so divided, is there any sense in which Christian political engagement can be Christian in Election 2016?
Last week I had the privilege of speaking on Christian political engagement in a multicultural context with Ekemeni Uwan at Calvin College. Ekemeni is a graduate of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia who speaks and writes regularly on matters ranging from racial injustice and police brutality to Christian cultural-political engagement.
Together we wrestled with the choices facing Christians in 2016. We focused particularly on why different Christians are approaching this election differently, and on how the political barriers that divide Christians might be overcome through the gospel.
You can listen to the audio here. Ekemeni speaks first. I begin at about the 21 minute mark. Q&A begins after that.
The New York Times reports today that the Democratic Party across the country is erasing its ties with its founders. No longer will the annual party dinners commemorate Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson (as the Republican dinners commemorate Abraham Lincoln). The party wants to be more inclusive, and according to former Democratic Congressman Barney Frank, this is an honest nod to the fact that the politics of racial and sexual identity now trumps the classic Democratic emphases on democracy and economic equality.
Both Jefferson and Jackson were slave-owners, of course, and Jackson played a leading role in the forced removal of thousands of Native Americans from the southeast.
The commemoration of Jefferson and Jackson is as old as the Democratic Party, but it was Franklin D. Roosevelt who sought to mold the party’s image indelibly around them. Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence’s ringing celebration of human equality, and Jackson, the inspiration of modern democracy and the common man, were seen as powerful alternatives to the Republicans’ Lincoln in a time when FDR was trying to forge a coalition of farmers and working class Americans across the country.
But the opportunities facing the Democrats have changed. Now, while the Republican Party becomes increasingly white, the Democratic Party grows in diversity. Given the way in which identity shapes voting patterns, this is not good news for the Republicans. It may seem odd that a major American party would cut its ties with the founding fathers (If the Democrats have their way does America eventually erase Jefferson, Jackson – and Washington too – off its currency? Do the memorials go?), but partisan politics is about the present, not the past. In short, this is predictable.
But what is especially important about this shift is its symbolic meaning. You might think the erasing of ties to Jefferson and Jackson is fundamentally about their role as slave-holders, but the real meaning has just as much to do with the Democratic Party’s rejection of natural law. Remember, again, the words of Jefferson, once thought to be immortal, enshrined in America’s founding document:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
From whence do these rights – this equality – derive? From “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” as the previous paragraph declares.
It is no accident that the rejection of Jefferson follows only a few years after the Democratic Party committed itself to gay marriage. The establishment of gay marriage represents the culmination of a fifty-year long shift on the part of the Supreme Court – one enthusiastically supported by the Democratic Party – away from any sort of grounding of human rights and civil law in the laws of nature and nature’s God. Natural rights are out; civil rights are the rage. Natural law is dead; civil law is supreme. Given that morality has no objective reality to it – it is a human invention, not a reflection of a Creator’s purpose for creation – it can only be grounded in subjective reality: individual autonomy.
As Justice Kennedy wrote in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, “liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct.” Based upon this “autonomy of self” citizens have no right to use the democratic process to discourage, let alone criminalize, acts they deem fundamentally immoral. But as Robert R. Reilly points out, this formulation is unusual.
Why did Justice Kennedy not simply say that liberty includes these freedoms, or, … that liberty itself is rooted in unalienable God-given rights? Why the presumption of ‘an autonomy of self’ as the supposed foundation for it? What does this mean?
What it means is that the whole trajectory of the Supreme Court’s reasoning about matters of morality during the past 50 years – a span that encompasses the Court’s determination that an adult’s right to privacy (i.e., autonomy) trumps an unborn child’s right to life – constitutes a rejection of the very doctrine of natural rights and natural law that the founding fathers viewed as the foundation for human happiness. The Democratic Party may as well announce that it is erasing its ties with the Declaration of Independence in favor of a new commitment to the autonomy of self.
We have been here before, of course. When it embraced the infamous Dred Scott decision (which ran roughshod over natural rights in declaring that black people are not, in fact, persons at all) on the eve of the Civil War, the Democratic Party engaged in a short-lived experiment to see if a racist will to power could become the foundation for American government. Abraham Lincoln responded by appealing to Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration that all men are created equal, words that he said were prior in authority to the Constitution itself.
Lincoln recognized that while the founding fathers had their flaws (slavery!), it was in the doctrine of the founders that the purpose of America could be realized. The founders got a lot wrong, but they got the most important things right: natural law, equality, human rights as derived from the Creator, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Democrats’ determination to be a party of diversity and inclusion is laudable (and one that the Republicans desperately need to emulate!), but this is not the way to do it.
The Democrats’ desire to erase their party’s ties with Jefferson and Jackson is significant because it constitutes a symbolic rejection of the men who articulated and sought to embrace the self-evident principles of the laws of nature and nature’s God. This is not liberalism. It is the abandonment of liberalism. That’s tragic for the Democratic Party and it is very bad news for America.
Reformation 21 has published the third part of my series on Presbyterians and the Political Theology of Race. It is entitled “Gospel Politics” and seeks to contrast King’s tendency to approach politics from the perspective of the gospel to the segregationists’ tendency to approach politics from the perspective of the Old Testament. At the heart of it lies King’s critique of the southern Presbyterian doctrine of the spirituality of the church, a doctrine that had a lot in common with a certain contemporary version of the two kingdoms doctrine. As King put it,
I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say, ‘Follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother.’ … In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern,’ and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.
What was King’s alternative? Whereas conservative southern Presbyterians tended to interpret the relevance of God’s natural moral law for society and politics through the prism of the Old Testament, King interpreted that same law in light of what he understood to be the meaning of the Gospel for the dignity of the individual human being.
In Part 1 of this series I observed that southern Presbyterian defenders of segregation emphasized the Old Testament as the authority for biblical norms regarding race over against the more New Testament oriented arguments of their opponents in the civil rights movement. The most prominent version of the southern Presbyterian argument was not the caricatured appeal to the mark of Cain, let alone to the curse of Ham, as we might like to imagine. It was much more sophisticated than that. It usually ran something like this:
In constructing the Tower of Babel human beings attempted to establish a socio-political unity in defiance of the natural law of God. God defeated this attempt by dividing human beings on linguistic and national lines. He then called Abraham out from the nations, and in his law he demanded that Israel likewise be separate. When the people of Israel intermarried with other nations, God punished them severely. The segregationists maintained that nothing in the New Testament suggests that God’s views have changed. To be sure, the Gospel is now universal; Pentecost is proof of that. But the unity of the church is purely spiritual and does not extend to temporal, social institutions. Thus the Old Testament remains a valid testimony to the natural law of God with respect to social institutions such as segregation.
To read the rest of this article please go to Reformation 21.
The primary problem with southern Presbyterian defenses of segregation was not that they assumed an individualistic view of sin but that they embraced a spiritualized, even neo-platonized, understanding of the Gospel. Like their Presbyterian forebear Thornwell, men like Gillespie, Richards and Smith insisted that the spiritual kingdom of God does not take concrete social expression. In other words, their political theology suffered from an under-realized eschatology even more than it did from some sort of American individualism. While this under-realized eschatology led them to conceive of the expression of the kingdom in this life in individualistic terms, it also led them to a greater reliance on the Old Testament as the best source of biblical insight regarding social and political life.
Lucas points out that the spirituality of the church doctrine did not lead southern churches to avoid speaking toward political matters; it simply made them selective in the issues that they addressed. I would make the point more specific by suggesting that the doctrine led them to prioritize the Old Testament over the New Testament as the source for political insight. The Old Testament rendered plausible the theological defense of a thoroughly communitarian and segregated vision of political life, while the rejection of the social and political relevance of the New Testament rendered its more radical and inclusive social ethics moot. Thus southern Presbyterians read Pentecost through Babel, and the unity of the nations in Christ through the division of the nations from Israel, rather than the other way around. Only by interpreting the Gospel through the law could they imagine that church membership, let alone justice within political society, could legitimately be constituted on the basis of race.
To read the rest of this article, please go to Reformation 21.
In his classic short story “Jesus Christ in Texas” (1920) W.E.B. DuBois explored what it might have looked like if Jesus had reappeared incarnate in the early twentieth century South. In the story a stranger, who a white pastor senses he has known long ago but can’t determine just where or when, secretly exchanges places and clothing with a black convict on the run from police. Falsely charged with attacking a white woman, the stranger is viciously lynched by a white mob.
DuBois describes the closing scene from the perspective of the white woman:
She shuddered as she heard the creaking of the limb where the body hung… she saw the dead man writhe. He stretched his arms out like a cross, looking upward. She gasped and clung to the window sill. Behind the swaying body, and down where the little, half-ruined cabin lay, a single flame flashed up amid the far-off shout and cry of the mob. A fierce joy sobbed up through the terror in her soul and then sank abashed as she watched the flame rise. Suddenly whirling into one great crimson column it shot to the top of the sky and threw great arms athwart the gloom until above the world and behind the roped and swaying form below hung quivering and burning a great crimson cross.
She hid her dizzy, aching head in an agony of tears, and dared not look, for she knew. Her dry lips moved: “Despised and rejected of men.”
She knew, and the very horror of it lifted her dull and shrinking eyelids. There, heaven-tall, earth-wide, hung the stranger on the crimson cross, riven and blood-stained, with thorn-crowned head and pierced hands. She stretched her arms and shrieked.
He did not hear. He did not see. His calm dark eyes, all sorrowful, were fastened on the writhing, twisting body of the thief, and a voice came out of the winds of the night, saying: “This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise!”
DuBois’s story is fiction, of course, albeit fiction that speaks a powerful truth. But in the events of this past week, beginning with the horrifying tragedy at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, this story was played out in the truest way possible.
A deeply disturbed young man, filled with self-righteousness and hate, was determined to do what he could to spawn violence in return for perceived injustice. He was welcomed with open arms by Christians meeting for prayer. He was given the special seat just next to the pastor.
Near the end of the time of prayer he opened fire, murdering nine of the black worshipers in cold blood, and then turning his gun on himself. Only because his suicide attempt failed did he flee, to be captured later by police.
Those nine Christian women and men had taken up Christ’s story as their own, paying the ultimate price because they were willing to welcome a stranger. Like Jesus, they were betrayed by an enemy they had treated as a friend.
Immediately the national media and the politicians took up the appropriate battle cries, exploring the significance of the shooting for matters of race, gun control, or South Carolina’s Confederate flag. The public, liberals and conservatives alike, joined in the free for all on Facebook, Twitter, and other public fora. Evangelical leaders called for justice.
Some conservatives went so far as to bemoan the fact that the worshipers at Emanuel were not permitted to have and use guns to defend themselves. This is a completely understandable reaction. Jesus’ disciples also wanted to use the sword to defend their Lord when he was confronted by his enemies during that prayer meeting in Gethsemane. It is sobering that Jesus’ final act of healing before his death was in just this instance, on behalf of one of his enemies, a member of the armed mob who had been wounded due to Peter’s act of self-defense.
The family members of the victims at Emanuel also spurned the call to respond to hatred and violence with hatred and violence. They took up Jesus’ narrative further, speaking to the murderer himself in court:
Ethel Lance’s daughter:
I just want everyone to know, to you, I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul. You’ve hurt me. You’ve hurt a lot of people But God forgive you, and I forgive you.
Myra Thompson’s husband:
You know I forgive you and my family forgive you. But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent, confess, give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so that he can change it, can change your ways no matter what happened to you. And You’ll be OK.
Tywanza Sanders’s mother:
We welcomed you Wednesday night at our Bible Study with open arms. You have killed some of the most prettyfullest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same… But as we say in Bible study, we enjoyed you. But may God have mercy on you.
How many of us would be capable of taking up Christ’s story in these ways? How many of us could offer such testimony and forgiveness?
Many of us are prepared to purchase a gun, to respond to hatred and violence with more violence, defending ourselves and the ones we love. And from an earthly standpoint the refusal to do defend oneself seems downright foolish. Jesus’ murderers laughed at him publicly because he claimed the power to defend himself but refused to do so. His response was simple: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
These brave Christian men and women of Charleston are enacting Jesus’ life and death in the most breathtaking way. Pray for them. Learn from them. This is the Gospel in action. This is Christian ethics in its purest form.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25)
David L. Chappell’s A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow challenges standard accounts of the civil rights movement and the reasons for its success, identifying religion as the key factor that enabled change. It was the prophetic vitality of the religion of black churches, leaders, and civil rights activists, he argues, that enabled them to overcome the much more economically and politically powerful forces of segregation. On the other hand, it was the lack of religious support that undermined the cause of the segregationists. While “black southern activists got strength from old-time religion, … white supremacists failed, at the same moment, to muster the cultural strength that conservatives traditionally get from religion” (p. 8).
Chappell begins by diagnosing the inadequacy of post-World War II liberalism. Liberals believed in human nature, convinced that reason could and would overcome prejudice and superstition. But this very optimism rendered them passive in response to stubborn southern opposition. If human progress was inevitable, better to allow time to do its work than to provoke a southern backlash that might only delay such progress. Some liberals realized that the problem was liberalism’s lack of spiritual energy and authority. Post-war liberals supported civil rights, but “They were not the ones who made it move” (p.43).