Monday, January 20, 2014

racism, the evangelical church...and the idol that divides us

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, here’s something to consider: I believe the evangelical church in America has an idol to tear down that keeps us from being healed along racial lines…and it could be argued that our racial brokenness is one of the biggest barriers in Jesus’ prayer that we would be one. But first, let’s begin this story some twenty-six-hundred years ago…

“King Josiah removed all the detestable idols from all the territory belonging to the Israelites, and he had all who were present in Israel serve the Lord their God. As long as he lived, they did not fail to follow the Lord, the God of their fathers.” (2 Chronicles 34:33)

Some Hebrew scholars translate the Hebrew word for Josiah—Yoshiyahu—as Healed by Jehovah. Josiah is famous in Israel for tearing down the idols Israel had created, for bringing restoration and healing, even though his father and his grandfather were wickedly violent.

In the next verses it reads that, “Josiah celebrated the Passover to the Lord in Jerusalem, and the Passover lamb was slaughtered on the fourteenth day of the first month.” (2 Chronicles 35:1)

A few verses later: “The Passover (that’s the celebration of redemption, of freedom, from slavery) had not been observed like this in Israel since the days of the prophet Samuel (that’s nearly 400 years earlier!); and none of the kings of Israel had ever celebrated such a Passover as did Josiah…” (2 Chronicles 35:18a)

When idols are torn down, the healing can start…and the Real Party begins.

I believe there’s an unspoken idol in the American evangelical church that divides us along racial lines. This idol is so deeply imbedded in the white evangelical church culture that we aren’t even aware of it. It’s American Christian Nationalism.

Nationalism could be described as an excessive patriotism toward a person’s country. But the big problem is when it’s mixed up with Christianity and what that does to black-and-white relations.

I’ve been in churches where there are American flags on the podium and heard messages on how America was chosen by God, about Manifest Destiny, about our Christian-nation roots and heard choirs sing “God Bless America”. It was the American evangelist Billy Sunday who said, “Christianity and patriotism are synonymous terms…and hell and traitors are synonymous.”

I’ve also been in churches where there were rants against America along the “come-out-from-among-them” slant. That is, America was disqualified from God’s favor and His judgment was upon us. In right-leaning churches it was because of abortion, pornography, and threats against religious freedom; in left-leaning churches it was because of environmental exploitation, systemic injustice, and disregard for the poor.

In the book of Exodus, Joshua was chosen to lead the nation after Moses’ death into the land that had been promised to them by God. There was one major problem: the path was blocked by the heavily fortified city of Jericho…and Jericho wasn’t excited about Israel’s tour through their personal space.

Joshua wasn’t sure what to do and has a Twilight Zone encounter that leaves him shaken. He comes upon a soldier with his weapon drawn and asks him whose side he’s on. The man cryptically replies, “Neither. I’ve come as the commander of God’s armies.” Joshua hit the bricks face down and worshiped.

God cannot be invoked to join our side. Rather, He has a plan for His planet. The question is: will we join His purposes?

Here’s how it works. The Church has a primary purpose: to turn lost people into lovers of Jesus. Jesus’ last words were “Go! Go make disciples of all nations.” That phrase “of all nations” is important; it’s the primary thing the Church is called to do here on earth…and the Church will be held accountable for its faithfulness to that purpose. Jesus said, “You’re my associates if you do what I say.” You and I will be held accountable for our faithfulness to that purpose of bringing lost children to their heavenly Father, turning them into lovers of God.

Therefore, anything that compromises that mission is dangerous. It’s an idol. What could keep us from making followers of Jesus in every ethnicity, every nationality, every political persuasion? Are we exporting American Religion…or the Kingdom of God?

In less than fifty years, only about one-fifth of the world’s 3 billion Christians will be Caucasian. Philip Jenkins in his book The Next Christendom writes that soon “the phrase ‘a White Christian’ may sound like a curious oxymoron, as mildly surprising as ‘a Swedish Buddhist.’”

And so often when I see the American version of Christianity being beamed around the world via T.V., it breaks my heart. Here’s the New Reality: Followers of Jesus are citizens of a different kind of nation. Our citizenship is singular. Peter understood that when he wrote: …You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9) That’s a “called-out people with a mission”—to declare the awesome grace of God. When Paul wrote that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, he was crossing tough boundaries and scaring the daylights out of people.

I have a philosophical and scriptural problem with talking about America “returning to its Christian heritage.” For Caucasian baby-boomers it often implies the syndicated world of Leave It To Beaver (after all, it was in 1954 that the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance). For most white boomers, that sounds appealing. But let me make a crazy guess…if you’re an African-American, I’m pretty confident you don’t want to go back. Going back to that so-called “Christian heritage” is not appealing to African-Americans…and yet the evangelical church has idealized it and idolized it.

Only a few short centuries ago, in the formation of this nation, it’s estimated over ten million men, women and children were taken from the west coasts of Africa, chained, sometimes marched for miles, shoehorned into boats where several million died of starvation and disease in the four month journey across the ocean to a foreign country. Over ten million. Sold and traded like farm animals. For over two hundred years this was the systematic oppression of a single race for a new country’s economy. That’s why the Bible says that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.

In 1774, John Wesley described the slave trade like this: “When the vessels arrive at their destined port, the Negroes are again exposed naked to the eyes of all that flock together and the examination of their purchasers. Then they are separated to the plantations of their several masters, to see each other no more. Here you may see mothers hanging over their daughters . . . and daughters clinging to their parents, till the whipper soon obliges them to part. And what can be more wretched than the condition they then enter upon? Banished from their country, from their friends and relations for ever, from every comfort of life, they are reduced to a state scarce anyway preferable to that of beasts of burden.. . . . Did the Creator intend that the noblest creatures in the visible world should live such a life as this?”

In a letter to William Wilberforce (the driver behind outlawing slave trade in England), Wesley called American slavery, “the vilest that ever saw the sun”

Slave-owner William Byrd—a gentleman from high-society circles in London who settled in Virginia—wrote in his diary this chilling “Christian” account:

“February 8, 1709. I rose at 5 o’clock this morning and read a chapter in Hebrew and 200 verses in Homer’s Odyssey. I ate milk for breakfast. I said my prayers. Jenny and Eugene were whipped. I danced my dance…

“June 10, 1709.  …In the evening I took a walk about the plantation.  Eugene was whipped for running away and had the bit put on him.  I said my prayers and had good health, good thoughts, and good humor, thanks be to God Almighty.

“December 3, 1709. I rose at 5 o’clock and read two chapters in Hebrew and some Greek in Cassius. I said my prayers and ate milk for breakfast. I danced my dance. Eugene pissed in bed again for which I made him drink a pint of piss…”

In talking about his slaves, Thomas Jefferson said that “…blacks are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” That’s an embarrassment to America. Let’s call it what it is: sin.

One reason it’s important to give a historical context for race relations in America is because of a spiritual principle called the law of the harvest: whatever you plant, you’ll eventually harvest. In his book The Immigrant Heritage of America, Norman Coombs writes:

“One characteristic which set American slavery apart was its racial basis. In America, with only a few early and insignificant exceptions, all slaves were Africans, and almost all Africans were slaves. This placed the label of inferiority on black skin and on African culture. . . . In general, there were five steps in molding the character of a slave: strict discipline, a sense of his own inferiority, belief in the master’s superior power, acceptance of the master’s standards, and, finally, a deep sense of his own helplessness and dependence. At every point this education was built on the belief in white superiority and black inferiority.”

My mom’s alcoholic father told her throughout her childhood that she was stupid. Every week she was told she was stupid. She dropped out of high school. To this day, my 87 year-old mother—who is saved and Spirit-filled—will refer to herself as being stupid—which is far from the truth. As a matter of fact, scripture says she has the mind of Christ.

Now try to imagine centuries of behavioral and psychological training of an entire race and culture.

Here are a few of the statistics of the harvest:
  • 45% of black children live below the poverty line, compared with 16% of whites.
  • While black students represent 16% of all public school students, they make up nearly 40% of those classed as learning disabled.
  • Right now, there are more black men in jail than in college. Why isn’t the evangelical church brokenhearted by that—regardless of the reason?
  • The median net worth of blacks is 8% the median net worth of whites. It’s clear who has the money.
  • Unemployment is nearly twice as high in the black community
  • Infant mortality is twice the rate among blacks than white.
  • African-American mothers are four times more likely to die in childbirth than white mothers because of inadequate medical care in many black communities.
  • Nearly 60% of white people believe that race relations in their community are good; only 39% of blacks think so.
This is not America-bashing: I’m glad I live in America. It beats North Korea hands-down. I’m thrilled we have incredible freedom. I’m impressed that men and women died to advance an ideal of democracy.

But I’m not proud of parts of our history.

We can appreciate the sacrifices of the Founding Fathers without turning them into Christian icons. But let’s be honest: it wasn’t a Christian nation in the strictest sense. The Trail of Tears where four thousand Cherokees died in a thousand-mile forced march to Oklahoma is not a Christian nation. And it’s certainly not a theocracy. These are things that make me angry as a white American. It’s being honest with all our history.

Sometimes I wonder if the desire to “go back” to what was perceived as a Christian “Golden Age” has more to do with retaining a perception of power. The problem may be an issue of control, of power. One day a group of angry Pharisees got together and said about Jesus in John 11: “…If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” John 11:45-48 (New International Version)

Sometimes I wonder if this isn’t an issue of the evangelical Church wanting to retain power. The brilliant theologian Kierkegaard saw a huge danger in his own country with the idea that the purposes of God are met by some alliance of church and state. Historically, state-churches, or pseudo-Christian nations, quickly become watered down in their expression of Christianity…and the country’s purpose gets confused with the plan of God for this planet. The Church is not the moral policeman of the world; it’s the messenger of God’s grace.

The “Big C” Church has never been about earthly power. Never has, never will. The true Church has never desired to have political power, to control, because their kingdom is not of this world. One day Jesus will return and establish His theocracy, a world government based on His Lordship, with willing subjects who lead with love. But for now, the power of the Church is found in healing and serving…in bringing God’s shalom. When Jesus left His Father’s side, and became human like us, He gave us the ultimate picture of how the Church is to behave: just like Him.

Here’s the theological principle: Reconciliation is the responsibility of the people in power. In the Kingdom of God, African-Americans must extend forgiveness to me, their white brother. But there’s something vitally missing in that for me: If I don’t ask for forgiveness and show fruits of repentance by seeking systemic and individual justice, then I’m going to miss the transformational power of love in my life. It is always the responsibility of the people of privilege and power to seek reconciliation, not the other way around. That’s what Jesus did: left the privileges of heaven to reconcile the world to Himself, became a servant.

Reconciliation—by slipping into the skin and understanding the world of those not in power—is the core of Christianity. That’s the incarnation. Paul sums it up like this in Philippians 2: Your attitude should be the kind that was shown us by Jesus Christ, who, though he was God, did not demand and cling to his rights as God, but laid aside his mighty power and glory, taking the disguise of a slave and becoming like men. And he humbled himself even further, going so far as actually to die a criminal’s death on a cross. (Philippians. 2:5-8 Living Bible)

Jesus had all the power and all the privilege and rights with His Father, they were one in the same. But something remarkable happened because of love: He slipped into the skin of a slave. He knows what it’s like because He did the unthinkable: He became one of us. That’s the responsibility of the one with the power.

That’s what each one of us is called to do—to slip into the skin of someone else, so we can feel what they feel and see what they see, and so love them to the fullest. That’s real love. As Paul writes: You know how full of love and kindness our Lord Jesus was: though he was so very rich, yet to help you he became so very poor…. (2 Corinthians 8:9a Living Bible)

It’s incarnational Christianity. And it’s all about love. And when I see the “Christian Nation” philosophy—one of the biggest idols in the evangelical church—through my black brother’s eyes, then I let go of all claims, defenses and earthly power, and become one with him.

And like Josiah, we have this major idol to pull down. When the idols were torn down, Israel partied at the Passover like they hadn’t in centuries.

When our idol comes down, then we can celebrate the True Passover—the broken Body of the Sacrifice Lamb—whom Paul says in Ephesians 2:14 & 16 is “our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall . . . and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross... (Ephesians 2:14, 16)

And then perhaps we—the Church—will be like Josiah, YoshiyahuHealed by Jehovah.

My friend Ray McMillan has a great resource: Race To Unity. You can support him here.


  1. Dave, thanks so much for speaking truth in such an honest, loving way!

  2. Yes, Dave, thank you for saying it out loud.

  3. I believe you are absolutely right about shallow, mindless patriotism getting entangled with shallow, mindless religion in "popular culture" and I do not believe most people really know much about either, nor care to. Lots of people cheer for the local sports team because... well, that's what you're supposed to do. As you might say "they don't have any skin in the game" and who can blame them? Many of the guys who wrote The Bible and signed The Declaration of Independence died poor and miserable.

    Institutions tend to become corrupted by individuals who seek power over others for their own convenience and manipulate the "herd" to follow along with propaganda which appeals to those sufficiently distracted by the everyday difficulties of trying to feed their kids and keep a roof over their heads. If one spends the majority of their time involved in ensuring the shelves are stocked at a retail establishment or the books are balanced at the bank or they meet their quota as a telemarketer, there is a tendency to hope that the God and government stuff would be handled by those whose job it is to handle such things. A Yeshua worshiping, Kingdom focused individual is as different from a casual church-goer as Ron Paul is from a bumper sticker "patriot".

    I believe the problem is actually much deeper than you say. It's not just that people tend to believe their God favors their country, it's that they don't really know much of anything about either, so they swallow a pack of lies about both from others who do not have their best interest in mind. If you read The Bible and The Constitution, you will find alignment. If you then read the news, you will not. That takes time and it certainly won't leave you feeling warm, fuzzy and happy so it's no wonder that people shuffle along with the crowd and don't think about it much.

    1. Dave,
      I had to read this twice, very thought provoking and powerful. Excellent article!
      I couldn't agree more, this is why I attend the Vineyard, because of your honesty, openness and Love. Thank you for saying it out loud.
      MinNefer Mernahkem

  4. WOW...I can't believe a white pastor actually had the nerve to say this kinda stuff out-loud.... (I'm so shocked...I can't even remember how I ended up on this page...)

  5. Brilliant and informative. Nice to see a pentecostal blogger, too.