The Church, Embracing Grace and Racism 1

If you embrace a kingdom vision of the gospel itself, racism is nothing short of disgusting. If you embrace a judicial perception of sin, the Cross, and the gospel, racism is more tolerable. I’m sorry to put in such bold terms, but it all comes down to how you understand the gospel.
I am not an expert on the topic of racism, nor am I a paragon of a colorless and a raceless (not the same thing) perception of our world. But, I want the Church to be better because I believe racism is a denial of the kingdom vision and gospel of Jesus.
As a professor at TEDS I one time stupidly stated that racism was a worse sin than abortion, and this was the time of Reagan when theology was morphing for some into Reaganology. It was stupid because saying something like that is not the way to get something positive accomplished. But, no one can deny this: the impact of racism in the USA is devastating to millions and embarrassing to the Church.
So, in this post today I want to chart out four images of how the Church has sometimes talked and sometimes operated (the latter is more important than the former) with respect to race.
First, some see a tapas approach to the Church and race. Tapas is as much a way of eating as it is a meal (at least for me), and it involves this: a person has a main plate and a series of small plates around the plate out of which she or he eats. One eats from one plate at a time. Analogy: the Church has a main culture (in the USA it is white) and a series of minority cultures around it, they are all eating (i.e., participating in Christ), but they are each kept in their separate and separable locations. Segregation is the operative word.
Second, others propose a crock pot approach. The idea of a crock pot is this (at least for me): put a bunch of different food items into the pot, turn it on, walk away for hours, and when you come back it will be one big soup of a single substance. (The melting pot.) Now anyone who knows anything about this kind of image knows that we are dealing with the blending of all cultures into one culture, which always means that the one with the biggest chunks in the pot will end up having the biggest influence. Domination is the operative word (if domination is not the intent).
Third, yet others propose a salad bowl. I make the salad every evening. I cut the spinach into slices because I don’t like those big leaves slapping me in the lips; then I cut up some carrots and some onion and some tomato and then some broccoli and then I dash it with pepper. When Kris gets home we put dressing on it (I put on olive oil), and we eat it. Analogy: each item is separable and distinguishable, for I don’t grind this stuff into a single substance; but each is within the bowl, unlike the tapas. Integrity within some kind of unity is the operative word.
Fourth, another model seems to be jambalaya. There is some debate among those who don’t know all that much about the Cajun cookroom on the difference between jambalaya and gumbo, and I’m not sure I know the difference, but this is what I am referring to: the putting into the pot of a bundle of food items but that they maintain their integrity but absorb the spice so that whether you are eating shrimp or some fish or some celery it all tastes hot. Assimilation is the operative word.
Here it is then: in the first, the Church encourages segregated congregations in the name of diversity or poverty or location; in the second the Church encourages us to all be the same, which inevitably means we become the dominant culture; in the third the Church encourages us to work to stay together (salads never quite do that) but are within the same bowl while retaining our separable integrities; and the in the latter the Church calls us to uniformity but the spice of the whole is the same because the dominant culture tends to make everything taste the same.
Anthony Smith has a fine post at his site, with the absolutely inimitable bog name of Postmodernnegro, that speaks of practicing Pentecost. Which, I say to myself, of the above models is most like Anthony’s exceptional proposal of practicing Pentecost?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • John Byron

    An excellent explanation of the current situation. Somehow those who supposedly represent the Church (I leave out names to protect myself) have turned Christianity into a two issue gospel, abortion and homosexuality. Rarely is racism addressed much less poverty and other areas of social justice. We all know that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. I am just not sure anyone really wants to do something about it. African Americans, for instance, have developed a “Christian culture” that was, in many ways, fostered by white supremacy. Often what white churches mean by “crossing the color line” is black churches need to look and act more white.

  • http://www.JesusCreed.org Scot McKnight

    John,
    You are so right in what you say. I’m glad that Bill Hybels at Willow is joining the many who are beginning to see a bigger gospel — he now has become a strong advocte for racial reconciliation, work toward helping the poor, and he is very big on the AIDS crisis in Africa. Willow announced that it has sent 660K of funds for the relief of the hurricane victims.
    Still, we need to continue to work, one by one and group by group, at racism.

  • http://vanguardchurch.blogspot.com/ Bob Robinson

    Thanks for this post. I had just commented at my blog about Anthony J. Carter and Vince Bacote–about their seeking to have Reformed understandings about racial issues.
    This February’s Jubilee (The CCO’s annual conference for college students) will feature Carl Ellis. I look forward to hearing his insights.
    The CCO is also hosting Leader to Leader with John Perkins, a dinner at the East Club Lounge of Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field on Friday, October 28, 2005 at 6:30pm.

  • http://disertpaths.blogspot.com D. P.

    Much food for thought here! (Pardon the pun :-) ) I’m not sure I agree with your jambalaya analogy, however. A good jambalaya isn’t just “hot,” even though the seasonings are obviously important. Maybe the question to ask here is what is it that gives “spice” to the pot? It isn’t the predominant ingredient (which is rice in any case) but something that is actually only a small component of the overall recipe. Might we interpret the jambalaya metaphor more positively by thinking of the presence of the Holy Spirit forging all of the disparate elements into something unique and flavorful?
    (Of course, the jambalaya also already has the “trinity” in it–onions, celery, and peppers!)
    Man, I’m getting hungry!

  • http://www.emergentvoyageurs.blog.com Jamie Arpin-Ricci

    Scot,
    When you consider the issues of racism, abortion, poverty, etc. people will place the emphasis on one or two or others. I think your emphasis on racism is, for this time, a fitting one, as it is so deeply connected to the issues of poverty, abortion, etc. In addition to racial segregation, we are often too prone to “issue segregation”, when they are in fact, inter-connected.
    In Canada, we articulate our diversity as a Mosaic, where each piece, sub-section, etc. reflect unique identity, but come together in a larger, singular expression- only made possible due to the diversity of “individuality”. It is an imperfect model, but has served us well (see my previous post on Canada/US).
    I think, however, I would stick with the Body as the ultimate image by which to explore race. The Body is an intricate, mysterious whole that is simultaneously an amalgomation (sp?) of cells, organs, systems, etc. that work together to create a functional whole. My heart is both a collection of cells and a whole organ- as well as simply Body.
    The question I would have, however, is this: do racial/cultural expressions of Christianity need to develop their identity seperate from the whole, THEN work towards a celebrated diversity? I have been wrestling with this one for some time.
    Peace,
    Jamie

  • http://rdwagner.typepad.com Rich

    Good post Scot and very timely for myself. Being white and married to a black woman, you can only imagine the discussions we have at home concerning race and the church. The local congregation we worship with is all caucasian, save my wife, my stepdaughter and our beautiful mixed children. We love the body we worship with but she still feels like she is in a ‘crock pot’ or even in a ‘jumbalaya’. Add to this I am the worship leader there and struggle mightily at adding things she has grown up with that allow her to connect to her identity. It’s not because it’s something I don’t want(I was once chaplain of an all black gospel choir in college and the only white member. Singing tenor as a white guy in that choir was tough!), we are just limited in experience and for the music, intrumentation. While segregation keeps all of these issues very tidy for us, it still isn’t the best exspression of the body. At least not in my estimation.
    I am glad to see you and Anthony and others talking about this particular issue. I look forward to your future posts on it.
    Hungry for salad…

  • http://www.theomoments.blogspot.com jazztheo

    Mr. McKnight,
    Thankyou so much for what you are doing here! I carry the burden in my soul everyday for unity in the church for the sake of the kingdom. Becoming Pentacostal sure seems like the way to go…unity without uniformity. Only the Spirit of Christ can bring this about.
    As an African-American who lives life on the hyphen it is refreshing to have someone like you engage the conversation.

  • http://theologica.blogspot.com Justin Taylor

    Scot,
    I think that in order to make progress on this issue, it’d be helpful to have a working definition of “racism.” Is segregation (of any kind) de facto racism? Are generalizations de facto racism? Is racism inevitably tied to power, or can the marginalized by racists, too?
    In my experience–which includes countless discussions and readings on these issues–clarity is seldom achieved until there is some working definition in place.
    What do you think?
    Justin

  • http://www.JesusCreed.org Scot McKnight

    Justin,
    Indeed, and I agree. I was using the sense of Stephen Long in the paper of Anthony Smith (which I have linked to). It has to do with biology and en-structured powers. It is more than “we don’t have any Afr-American and Latinos in our church, therefore, we are racist.” This could or could not be a symptom — Gilead Iowa could not then be racist. But the issue is deeper than that, and has to do with empowerment and disenfranchisement that are related both directly and indirectly to one’s biological status (color, etc).
    I’m at school in my office, and don’t have my notes on this topic, but as you may know the definition of “racism” is up for grabs and hugely debated today. I want to deal with the ground-floor issue: gospel disenfranchisement that is shaped as much by culture as anything else. The sort of racism that is embodied in the way we present the gospel with the result that mostly white Americans find it appealing.

  • http://www.JesusCreed.org Scot McKnight

    Jamie,
    Whether we like it or not, our identity is formed in context — parents, socio-economics, etc.. So, the issue is more that we do form identity in diversity and learn to assimilate into the Kingdom of Christ — and that’s the issue. Is the assimilation shaped already?

  • http://postmodernegro.blogspot.com/ Anthony

    Scot,
    Thanks for posting this. The conviction that drives me on this issue is the idea that racial divisions in the North American church are grounded in a particular form of secularism that privileged one culture over others with an initial ‘scientific’ justification borne from the Age of Reason. I think Christians would be helped more on this issue if they began to see how the racial divisions in the church are really about our capitulation to secularism.
    Racism in the Church, as I understand it historically, is its failure to discern the body rightly. Racism is the violation of the Eucharist along racial lines.
    Anthony

  • http://www.JesusCreed.org Scot McKnight

    Anthony,
    Tell me more about the Age of Reason carrying with it a racial component.

  • http://anduril.ca/ Ken

    Jamie, I think your enthusiasm for the Canadian mosaic is misplaced. As a fellow Canadian, I can report that there is a rampant institutionalized racism towards Native Indians and Inuit; we have had persistent and growing problems with racial violence, especially among Asian and Indo-Pakistani immigrants, and we have seen a stark rise in anti-semitism in Quebec. McGill erupted violently when Benjamin Netanyahu was invited to speak there and various anti-semitic speaks have been given a lot of latitude. Jacques Parizeau, a premier of Quebec, is well-remembered for a concession speech he once gave blaming Jews for losing a referendum on sovereignty. Indeed, the separatist movement in Quebec has showed tendencies in some quarters of radicalism and racism. I could go on but this should suffice. Canadians, thinking that we don’t experience the same black-white racial divide as exists in the States, turn a blind eye to rampant and systemic racism towards other people groups.

  • http://anduril.ca/ Ken

    “among” should be “towards”

  • http://anduril.ca/ Ken

    “among” should be “towards”

  • http://www.msquaredt.com/blog/ Matt

    Scot -
    I really like the first sentence. I’ve linked it with brief comments here.
    Thanks!
    ::Matt

  • http://postmodernegro.blogspot.com/ Anthony

    Scot,
    I was speaking directly to the individualism and construction of ‘normative gaze’ that came out of the Enlightenment.
    The individualism of the Enlightenment with its attempt to have the individual person transcend history, released from authorities beyond the individual. Such as religious authorities and traditions, etc. Or as Robert Bellah describes it:
    “it is the belief that the truth of our condition is not in our society or in our relation to others, but in our isolated and inviolable selves.”
    Individualism coupled with the philosophical and scientific work done by Europeans in their ‘justifications’ for enslaving Africans during the translatlantic slave trade. Such as equating of blackness or Africaness with heathenism and barbarity, lack of intelligence, irrational, etc.. If you read some of the work of the prominent voices of the Enlightenment such as Hume and Kant you see an assumed normativity of ‘whiteness’. White culture becomes viewed as the ‘civilization’ or the ‘universal’ standard of culture. This in turn gave justifications for creating practices, habits, and beliefs that ironically enough went beyond the individual.
    This is evidenced today by many Evangelicals who see racism as a matter of personal prejudice. Because of the individualism of the Enlightenment it is hard to see the social nature of our knowledge and practices. It is difficult to see the social and systemic nature of racism. We have much to learn from the communitarians. Because of this individualism (which is tied to the American political philosophy of liberal democracy). For instance, we don’t see such practices as the homogenuous unit principle as a form of structural sin that perpetuates racial divisions in Christ’s body.

  • http://postmodernegro.blogspot.com/ Anthony

    Scot,
    I was speaking directly to the individualism and construction of ‘normative gaze’ that came out of the Enlightenment.
    The individualism of the Enlightenment with its attempt to have the individual person transcend history, released from authorities beyond the individual. Such as religious authorities and traditions, etc. Or as Robert Bellah describes it:
    “it is the belief that the truth of our condition is not in our society or in our relation to others, but in our isolated and inviolable selves.”
    Individualism coupled with the philosophical and scientific work done by Europeans in their ‘justifications’ for enslaving Africans during the translatlantic slave trade. Such as equating of blackness or Africaness with heathenism and barbarity, lack of intelligence, irrational, etc.. If you read some of the work of the prominent voices of the Enlightenment such as Hume and Kant you see an assumed normativity of ‘whiteness’. White culture becomes viewed as the ‘civilization’ or the ‘universal’ standard of culture. This in turn gave justifications for creating practices, habits, and beliefs that ironically enough went beyond the individual.
    This is evidenced today by many Evangelicals who see racism as a matter of personal prejudice. Because of the individualism of the Enlightenment it is hard to see the social nature of our knowledge and practices. It is difficult to see the social and systemic nature of racism. We have much to learn from the communitarians. Because of this individualism (which is tied to the American political philosophy of liberal democracy). For instance, we don’t see such practices as the homogenuous unit principle as a form of structural sin that perpetuates racial divisions in Christ’s body.

  • http://www.emergentvoyageurs.blog.com Jamie Arpin-Ricci

    Ken,
    I wasn’t representing Canadian Mosiac as a perfect model, nor as Canada being superior to the US. Having French Canadian heritage and having lived in the west of Canada, I am well aware of the prejiduces within Canada. Additionally, I live and minister in an inner city community where I am the minority white person. I have seen racism among and between every imaginable combination.
    However, I do believe that this model does positively impact social development and relationships. I do believe that Canada, to a degree, is better poised to explore this issue than many other nations. I say this NOT as a statement of patriotism, nationalism or superiority, but as a deep belief that every nation brings strengths to the table- and this, IMHO, is one of Canada’s.
    Peace,
    Jamie

  • http://www.emergentvoyageurs.blog.com Jamie Arpin-Ricci

    Ken,
    I wasn’t representing Canadian Mosiac as a perfect model, nor as Canada being superior to the US. Having French Canadian heritage and having lived in the west of Canada, I am well aware of the prejiduces within Canada. Additionally, I live and minister in an inner city community where I am the minority white person. I have seen racism among and between every imaginable combination.
    However, I do believe that this model does positively impact social development and relationships. I do believe that Canada, to a degree, is better poised to explore this issue than many other nations. I say this NOT as a statement of patriotism, nationalism or superiority, but as a deep belief that every nation brings strengths to the table- and this, IMHO, is one of Canada’s.
    Peace,
    Jamie

  • http://www.JesusCreed.org Scot McKnight

    Anthony,
    Very nice summation of the issues of history and racism. Helpful to me. Thanks.

  • http://www.JesusCreed.org Scot McKnight

    Anthony,
    Very nice summation of the issues of history and racism. Helpful to me. Thanks.

  • Larkin

    These are some really encouraging posts. That others are becoming aware of racism in the church.

  • Larkin

    These are some really encouraging posts. That others are becoming aware of racism in the church.


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