On last Thursday’s episode of The Briefing and in this article Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, made a much needed call for empathy regarding the Ferguson debacle. This call for empathy has been forefront in much of what I have read from bloggers, though it has been more implicit than explicit. In the wake of protests and riots following the tragic death of Michael Brown, African-Americans of all stripes have taken to their keypads. They have offered their unique perspectives on the issue and encourage empathy for a large group within the black community that sees Ferguson as indicative of a greater problem with law enforcement in many communities. Here and here are just a few from the Reformed blogosphere. I would recommend that our readers take the time to read them, as they are truly eye-opening.
Taking Dr. Mohler seriously that we ought to empathize with others and assuming that he’s talking to all Christians, not just majority-culture Christians, I am compelled to give my unique perspective for what it’s worth. It is my desire to be empathetic, as Dr. Mohler has urged. At the same time, I would like to aid my African-American friends in their efforts to be empathetic as well. I want this to be a dialogue, not just a monologue. I also recognize this is not a very popular subject for a Caucasian male to address. That is why this article was peer reviewed by friends of other races before I published it. Please, bear with me.
When I was in seventh grade, I remember having a life-changing conversation with a friend of mine. I had made a very insensitive comment, as I am wont to do from time to time. This time it had to do with race relations. My friend quickly pulled me to the side and with tears explained to me the negative effects that racism had had on his life.
James was the product of an interracial marriage. His dad was Irish / Native-America and his mother had immigrated from Mexico. Consequently, some people thought he was either Arabic or Indian. He told me how people had teased him, calling him a camel jockey and a towel head. From that night forward, I have fought sinful urges to tolerate racism in myself or others. A moment of honesty: I have not always been completely successful. I don’t deny that I have made some rather absent-minded, insensitive statements from time to time.
As I got older the light of nature began to reveal to me things that were only further confirmed when I came to Christ. When I would hear white people speak negatively of other races, I would become extremely uncomfortable. Over time, I also came to be increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that one ought to find a special identity with one’s own race. Notions such as “my people” and “our people” came to be just as repulsive as any other type of racism.
The Bible and Partiality
Perhaps the book in Scripture that had the most effect on me as a young man, and especially after I came to Christ, was the book of James. Some have referred to James as the Proverbs of the New Testament. It is full of pithy precepts and imperatives, one of which is the prohibition of partiality:
“My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. . . If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:1, 8-9; NASB).
In the immediate context James uses the example of partiality toward the rich as an example of how one might show favoritism within the body. The precepts he outlines are much farther reaching than just how we deal with the rich, though. Partiality of any kind ought to be condemned. When men and women leave all to follow Christ, we need to recognize the fact that we are their earthly inheritance (Mark 10:21, 28-31). Thus, to shun them for any reason, be it wealth, race, disability, etc., is to cease to function as the church ought to function.
As a Christian man seeking to apply these principles, I find it highly inappropriate to identify myself in church life as “a white man.” I am an image bearer, and I am to love all image bearers alike. To gravitate toward people who share with me in skin color to the exclusion of others would be contrary to everything I am as a new man in Christ (Ephesians 2:13-16). If the words “my people” were ever to flow from my lips, you could be quite positive that I would be referring to the whole body of Christ, not merely some people who share my skin pigmentation. Were I to use a term such as “white church,” you can bet that it would have an extremely negative connotation.
For all of the above reasons, I am at a loss for how godly pastors and bloggers who I respect would resort to using such terms so freely, African-American pastors and bloggers who claim they are for tearing down racial dividing walls. I don’t understand why, when I see many predominantly white churches bending over backwards to become more “multicultural,” it seems to be just a given that we accept the existence of “black” churches, Korean churches, Hispanic churches, etc. (the language consideration aside), without expecting them to strive for the same diversity. I hate the idea that there would be any church that would have any predominating identity other than Christ. To be honest it sickens me. At best it’s sub-Christian.
Then again, I have not been the most outspoken proponent of the modern multi-cultural movement in the American church. The call has gone out that predominantly white churches ought to be particularly intentional about seeking to look less “white” and more like the community. Here’s the problem: in order for churches to strive toward such ends, they must compete with churches in their communities that have a long history of gearing their ministry methods toward serving one race.
For instance, say you have a large Vietnamese culture in your community. You could take extra pains to teach your people conversational Vietnamese, hire Vietnamese staff members, seek to raise up or extend a call to potential Vietnamese elders, print out Sunday bulletins in Vietnamese, etc. At the end of the day, you are still at a disadvantage in competing with the Vietnamese church down the road and, in taking so many strides toward catering toward one people group, you have excluded all others. You have not become all things to all people; rather, you have become one thing to one group of people. Even worse, you have made your agenda the deciding factor, rather than the Holy Spirit, on who you hire, raise up in ministry, and even target with the gospel. Who are we to usurp the role of the Spirit in these matters?
See, the question for me is not whether you take added pains to accommodate for a select group of potential membership candidates in your area based on race and ethnicity. Rather, the question is, When you have new members who are not like you, how do you respond? How do you respond when the poor come into your meetings? How do you respond when the disabled come into your meetings? How do you respond when the white man, the black woman, the Vietnamese family, or the Hispanic couple walk through your doors? Do you give first place to any particular group, or do you wait and see who the Spirit will exalt?
Don’t get me wrong. I agree that the precepts of the gospel should result in a more pan-cultural face in local churches. I believe it has in the church where I serve. We are a very diverse group of people, and it can all be attributed to the primacy of the gospel in our body life. However, I worry that some who have made it their aim to see a more intentional approach to multi-culturalism in the church might be taking their own particular applications of these principles and equating them with the gospel itself. As such, they add to the gospel an added burden that simply is not there, making it no gospel at all. They have made multi-culturalism primary over the gospel while claiming it is subservient to the same gospel.
It seems clear to me both from the Bible and from experience that, if we simply conduct ourselves according to the principles outlined for us in Scripture, these things should iron themselves out in body life. R.C. Sproul put it best in a recent Twitter Q&A. When asked, “How important is racial diversity in the LOCAL church? What is the best approach to developing diversity?” Sproul responded, “Let the church be the church in all that she does.” Let’s be slow to judge the bride of Christ when the sin of partiality could very well exist primarily in the surrounding community and other more race-centric churches in the area.
The biggest hindrance to accomplishing the goals outlined by the multi-cultural church movement is multi-culturalism itself. As long as we have pastors who monolithically refer to their ethnic groups as “my people,” as long as it is socially acceptable to have such things as “black churches,” “Hispanic churches,” “Romanian churches,” etc., as long as we seek to be multi-cultural, letting racial dividing walls persist even within one local church, we will never see true peace among God’s people. Such rhetoric only serves to deepen the very real racial divide in the Western church. For those of you who have yet to hear this position on this issue in the church, I hope I have been of assistance. I hope this monologue can now become more of a dialogue, and I hope that we can all take strides toward the ends Dr. Mohler outlined and lead with empathy.