Edward Gilbreath is the author of Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity. He’s the founding editor of UrbanFaith.com, an online magazine of commentary and culture. Formerly an editor with Christianity Today International, he continues to serve as an editor at large for Christianity Today magazine. He is also coauthor of Gospel Trailblazer, the story of the first black evangelist on Billy Graham’s crusade team. I am grateful that he has taken the time to share with us on the topics of racism and racial reconciliation:
One of the things I appreciate about reading your book, Reconciliation Blues, was your effort to capture the various voices of African American Christians by asking the right questions. In response to your question, “Do you think racism is still a problem in the American Church,” one person responded “If today’s brand of racism is financial oppression and blocking access to positions of power and authority, then the American church is guilty.” How do you respond to that statement?
One of my goals with Reconciliation Blues was to tell a larger story through the individual experiences of others, including myself. Therefore, I wanted to allow people to share from their hearts and not necessarily impose my own commentary onto their stories. When it comes to the term “racism,” there are so many different ways to interpret that word and idea, so I wanted to let readers “hear” and “see” it from the experiences of some of my subjects. But in terms of using that word myself to label some of the racially questionable practices that I see going on in the church and in evangelical institutions, I would be hesitant to go there.
Dropping the “racism” bomb, to me, can be a lazy and reckless way of addressing issues that require more careful and intelligent engagement. That’s not to say that racism isn’t alive and well, but what most of the folks that I interviewed for Reconciliation Blues would tell you today that their experience of racism is much more subtle, nebulous, and harder to label. Because of that, I would prefer not to speculate or offer personal opinions about what constitutes racism in the American church today.
Much of the racial struggle today is perceived in the context of systemic discrimination and social and economic structures that determine who’s ultimately in charge. In the evangelical world, power structures are usually tilted in favor of whites, not necessarily because whites are “racist” but because that’s how it’s always been. We’re talking generations of tradition and denominational affiliation and family inheritance that endow many white Christians with privilege and power that they might not even realize they have—unless someone threatens to take it away.
In the book, you share a personal college story from 1991 of how Rev. Russell Knight’s chapel sermon changed the trajectory of your faith. His thesis was, “America is a racist nation by nature, and the American church is complicit in this sin if it continues to remain silent.” In what ways is the American church still silent on the topic of racism and in what ways have we spoken up?
Good question. I believe we’re still silent when we allow ourselves to be seduced into viewing issues of race and social justice like the world. We need to acknowledge that we each bring a particular cultural worldview to the table and we have a call and obligation to untangle ourselves from those cultural things that would hold us back from living out the gospel message in its fullest. I think we’re silent when we say things like “I’m color blind” or “I don’t even see race.” I can understand the sincerity of the sentiment, but that kind of mentality also releases one from having to do the work of addressing our differences and the implications for the Christian life. At the same time, it causes us to miss the blessings and gifts of our differences. Most Christians would agree with Psalm 139 when it says we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God. Well, our skin color is a part of the way God made us, and it should be seen, celebrated and understood.
Throughout history, we observe where the church has been silent, but you also see instances of the church standing up for truth—take the Christians of the abolitionist or Civil Rights Movements. Today, we’ve also got a movement of Christians who are committed to racial reconciliation, social justice, diversity, etc. Additionally, there are many shining examples of cross-cultural and interracial churches in almost every major city around the nation. Many denominations are even taking steps to correct errors of the past. Progress is happening. The real question is, “Will these churches and institutions stay committed for the long haul?”
Perhaps the most convicting statement in your book is, “It’s easier to point to racial breakthroughs in secular culture than in the evangelical world (76).” This is a shameful reflection of the American church. More importantly, from my seminary experience, I believe the deck is still stacked for things to remain this way for the next 50 or more years. How can we turn the tide in this area?
That’s an observation of the problem. We need to acknowledge the dysfunction of our structures and be intentional. How committed are we to issues of diversity, racial reconciliation, and biblical justice ideals in the church? If we are serious, will we make decisions to help broaden the perspectives of the next generation of Christian leaders?
As mentioned previously, the reality is that economics and power are entangled in all these conversations, along with the perceived survival of these institutions. We can talk about the values parents set in the home, what a pastor chooses to share from the pulpit, and intentional programming in the church. We can even talk about the need for seminaries to broaden the views of their students. These are all key points, but these decisions all come down to the bottom line of money in publication, seminaries, and even local churches. It’s hard to get at the heart of the racial dimension of these issues when so much of it is tied to an economic and often political component.
You write a lot about bridge building. During this series, I’ve written about my concern with the white evangelical camp determining whose voice is relevant in today’s Church. The flip side of this is that the Black church has a culture all its own. The Black church has its own tribal leaders, so to some extent African American laypeople may not be paying attention to what’s going on in the white evangelical world either. This disconnect is why (and you mention this in your writing) it is not good enough for white evangelical organizations (a denomination, local church, publication, or otherwise) simply to hire a minority leader thinking that alone is going to solve all of their diversity problems. What do white evangelical leaders and African American leaders need to do to be bridge builders and establish loving partnerships with each other?
I tried to tap into this reality a little bit with Reconciliation Blues. There is a real struggle for anyone intentionally trying to pursue racial reconciliation. You never quite feel like you arrive. It’s almost as if you are starting over all the time because the excitement and enthusiasm of the work eventually fades. People grow very weary of having to carry this burden all of the time. When this happens, we all need to seek times and spaces for renewal and refreshment.
Additionally, we need to see each other as real people, in which our race or ethnicity is only a part of our identity. We need to allow people to be human. We need to humble ourselves. We need to be willing to share power and learn from people of different backgrounds. We need to consider: How do we live together in a way that takes the best of all of who we are and celebrate, recognize, understand, and not dictate to other people about who they should be? Living with this tension makes us uncomfortable, but it shows us things about ourselves and other people that we would not have seen otherwise. It gives us a deeper understanding of culture, God, and his kingdom.
© Edward Gilbreath and Natasha Sistrunk Robinson 2012