Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Church and SCOTUS

Well, the beltway prognosticators and the heartland heavies are all reflecting on the recent SCOTUS decision striking down plans of two school districts to consider race in their enrollment plans. The reactions are completely predictable: those who like affirmative action (their term of choice) decried the decision as a roll-back of Brown and American racial progress since the 1950s, while those who dislike racial preferences (their term of choice) celebrated the decision as a decisive blow against the use of race in such decisions. Both desire (and I take them both to be sincere) a country where justice is in the best sense of the word "color blind" and where race, skin color, culture and ethnicity are not determinative of opportunity, well-being, and the like. One goal, two widely different paths, and a decision that angers some and gladdens others.

Where I Sit
Now, it doesn't really matter much what I think of the decision. My opinion is one man's. It doesn't carry any weight and it shouldn't. But, I have one, and like so much of the rest of the country, I'm inclined to share it. Here it is, simply: The decision makes me very nervous.

When I say "very nervous," I mean very nervous. It strikes at the "in-betweenness" of being African-American and "evangelical," "Christian," "conservative" and a host of other labels one might apply. It strikes at a certain inescapable identification with a real history with real triumphs and valleys. Both the triumphs and the valleys are real, and so those who've climbed the peaks and tumbled through the lows are reacquainted with both exhilaration and "the agony of defeat."

And let's face it, "the agony of defeat" is real agony. I've not fought against sin until the point of blood, but I tell ya, when I look at those who have gone before me in the fight (physical, psychological, economic and not just academic) I tend to think they've come closer than anyone else to such striving. So, perhaps I'm nervous because this decision not only conjures that history and striving but it may signal a new era... one in which I'll have to ante up and kick in like a man... and strive. Or more frightening still, an era where mine will be "the little brown girl" whose application reads in red letters "DENIED" because of the color of her skin.

None of us have come so far as to safely conclude that racial or ethnic discrimination lies well behind us... or rather, doesn't lurk in us. That makes me very nervous. Simply put, man is too depraved for anyone to rejoice over this decision as though we may safely assume its application and the reality that follows will without striving be an unparalleled success. Some of us may get what we want and find that leanness has entered our own soul and the soul of the country. So, again, I'm made nervous.

The Church
And I think in this decision a tremendous challenge is laid before the Church. As has frequently been said, the church is too often a thermometer rather than a thermostat, measuring and reflecting the temperature of society rather than regulating and setting it. I wonder how the church is reacting to this news? Are my Christian brethren who favor the decision rejoicing inside the halls of the church? Are my Christian brethren who oppose this decision planning their counter-insurgence inside the Sunday school rooms of the church? Are the indifferent aware that this has anything to do with the church?

If it's true that the church often mirrors the wider culture, what can the church expect to see in itself following this decision and the attitudes, actions, policies and implications that result from it?

Might there be more segregation? Will "whites only" and now "blacks only" and "Asians only" signs be posted over the doors of churches?

Might there be more room for "preferring our own" that makes tolerable and even desirable the continued, further, or more entrenched ethnic separation in Christianity?

What of a church's desire to pursue ethnic diversity in its membership and staffing? Will that come to be seen by well-meaning but perhaps more cultural than biblical members as a "bad" thing, impermissible by the rules of society?

How will this affect cooperation between churches? Is there more balkanization to come, as certain ethnic churches construe their missions in more ethnically singular ways?

On June 5, 1910, Dr. Francis J. Grimke delivered a sermon called "Christianity and Race Prejudice." It's a clear, categorical denouncement of the coexistence of race prejudice and Christianity. In it, he makes this observation:
Race prejudice is not the monopoly of the infidel, of the atheist, of the man of the world. It is shared equally by so-called professing Christians. The men who have been most active in promoting Jim-crow car legislation, in bringing about all forms of discrimination, in holding the race up to contempt, in saying the bitterest things against it, have not all been outside of the church: no, many of them have not only been in the church, but have held high places in it. The simple fact is, there is no appreciable difference, in the great majority of cases, in the exhibition of race prejudice, in the treatment that is accorded to people of color, between those who profess to be Christians, and those who make no profession. The fact that they are members of Christian churches, that they are professing Christians, exerts no appreciable influence over them. It is a thing entirely apart from their religion, a thing which does not involve, in the least, to them any religious principle. They do not seem to see any inconsistency between the two things. All the high, and holy principles of the Christian religion, they seem to think, have reference only to, or are in force only when they have dealings with members of their own race. It is surprising how little influence the religion of Jesus Christ has had in controlling the prejudice of men, in lifting them above the low plane upon which race prejudice places them.
I don't know how accurate Grimke's words are for churches today. I suspect that it applies in still too many cases, though much (oh, praise God, so much!) has changed. And yet, I'm nervous because there is something too "the more things change, the more they stay the same" about the recent decision and the state of the church.

I love the church. I love the royal priesthood that Christ bought with His own blood. I love that new humanity comprised of every nation, language, etc. I love that she displays to the heavens the manifold wisdom of God. I love that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, etc.

And, so, I'm made nervous for the Bride of Christ who appears to me too easily satisfied with the world's notion of ethnic progress and and the world's ethnic social rules. I'm nervous for her because already among many of my dearest brethren in Christ there is a palpable fatigue when it comes to these issues. I am nervous we'll take the easy road, the wide path, rather than the narrow and high road leading to the heavenly city and the increasing experience of it in this life. I'm nervous that too many of us will continue to mistake the easy familiarity of shared cultural background with the "natural" way things are meant to be rather than long for the supernatural way things are in Christ.

I'm not afraid... for Christ is victorious in all things, and His church will meet Him spotless with all the righteousness of His perfect sacrifice and life. Yet, this may signal (or be a reminder) to the body of Christ that our witness in this area is needed more than ever. We need to live out the accomplishment and victory of Christ in this area so that the power and hope and righteousness of the Gospel would be seen more clearly by all.

What we need now are not public celebrations or demonstrations originating with the church and Christians, but a public living out of the Gospel across the boundaries of ethnicity, gender and class in such a way as to make our unity in Christ undeniable and attractive. It's a good time to inspect our hearts and our churches.

Will the rule of the U.S. Supreme Court be overturned by the rule of Christ in His Church?

How, now, will we really live?


LouLove said...

Brother Thabiti:

As always your thoughts (and opinions) are worth reading and musing upon.

I would like to ask you a couple of questions regarding one of the last comments you made.

You said:
"It's a good time to inspect our hearts and our churches."

What would be the signs that would indicate after such an inspection that "our" Church or "our" hearts need some work?

What needs to be done by the rule of Christ in His Church that will begin to overturn the rule of the U.S. Supreme Court?

In other words, how now should we live?

This is aching in my soul, so help a brother out!

GUNNY said...

I was privileged to meet you at Bethlehem Baptist's pastors conference and appreciate(d) your heart on these issues.

You wrote: "Will "whites only" and now "blacks only" and "Asians only" signs be posted over the doors of churches?"

Sadly, those signs are not even needed as the body of Christ is so segregated. Sadly, we do it to ourselves AND further encourage it with church growth/planting strategies, whereby the homogeneous principle prevails.

I have been told more than once that our church plant is going to have a harder time growing with our commitment to ethnic diversity and church desegregation.

Good post, brother.

Anonymous said...

"None of us have come so far as to safely conclude that racial or ethnic discrimination lies well behind us... or rather, doesn't lurk in us."

Perhaps the single best sentence I've read this year. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the SCOTUS decision - and thanks for taking the time to apply it to even more important areas of our lives.

I look forward to reading your second book when it drops.

FellowElder said...

Good to hear from you. I pray all is well in the northern 'burbs of Chicago. We miss our fellowship with you all.

You raise some good questions. My short answer would be "I don't know." But since I've opened the discussion and challenge, let me fight for a slightly longer answer. :-)

You asked: "What would be the signs that would indicate after such an inspection that "our" Church or "our" hearts need some work?" A couple indicators:
1. If the reaction to SCOTUS in your church is decidedly for or against the decision, perhaps heart work is in order. This is a complex issue with complex effects on people. At the least we should expect a mixed reaction to such things.
2. If there is indifference, there may need to be some heart work. This is certainly not the most important thing in the world, but that doesn't mean it's unimportant. Indifference could signal callousness toward justice and/or blindness to gospel opportunity.
3. The detection of vengeance, triumphalism, or hatred would certainly reveal a need for heart work.

You also asked: What needs to be done by the rule of Christ in His Church that will begin to overturn the rule of the U.S. Supreme Court? Another good question. I'm sure you could give us some good applications, but here are a couple to start the ball rolling.
1. Every week for the next three months have someone over for dinner or out for lunch that does not look like you or come from where you come from. And do not ask them about SCOTUS. Enjoy the fellowship.
2. Consider having a special Wednesday night Bible study or some other event in the church where you openly discuss SCOTUS or other issues that raise the question: "What is and what ought to be the church's witness on issues of racial justice, unity and fellowship?"
3. Looking for a new church, consider and join the predominantly-"other" church in the neighborhood rather than driving past a dozen on the way to the predominantly-"same" church across town.
4. Pastors, rather than plant an entirely new congregation that looks like your current church, send a team of "church reformers" to the struggling church made up of people ethnically not like your congregation.

Those are some thoughts. I'm always open to suggestions for how we can experience and live the "one new man" reality achieved by Christ on the Cross.

FellowElder said...

Keep gunning for the glory of Christ in all things and every area of life!! You have my prayers. And certainly it is the Lord that builds His church... even before the faithless! Grace and peace to you, brother.

GUNNY said...

Gracias, Amigo!

Keep plowing ahead like a fullback and we'll try to keep up!

Lisa said...

*cough* In all of this (and I know Thabiti you write from the Cayman Islands) I really wonder once again whether America needs to wake up and take a good hard look at itself.

America is not the sole representative of this problem. I know that sounds profound. It is really. I don't mean that to sound harsh.

But there are perfectly good examples of how countries/cultures/communities and hence churches are interacting racially OR tackling this problem head on. When oh when will America take a leaf from their book? and take a look at these other examples... I am always one of the belief to 'think global and act local'

Field trip anyone?

FellowElder said...

Thanks for pointing out how American-centered many Americans can be. It's a problem blind spot. And my 11 months in Cayman certainly show how people outside the U.S. tire at that blind spot if not become offended. So, your comment is a helpful reminder.

I'm down for a field trip! Where in the world would you have us look for helpful examples of countries tackling these issues head on?


Lisa said...


New Zealand - my country - not perfect by any stretch of the imagination - but:
* Race relations all schools are integrated
* All schools have to be sensitive to the first people and their language and integrate this into their programme regardless of the percentage of first nations people at their school. This is a mantatory requirement and is expected to be seen in the school program.

We have a national school education board review committee that visits all schools. Normally 4 yearly but some schools get visited more often. Schools get checked on a variety of things (including obviously whether they are teaching to a high quality)

Have a look at these 2 school reviews and see what they say about how the school is catering for Maori and Pasific people.

Again I stress, like America we are facing the same problems but instead of going to court about it we have instegated grass roots programs (which I know you have some of too) and are working with those

SCHOOL 1 ( From an area of the lowest socio economic disadvantage - has many racial groups including large proportion of our first nations people)$File/2973.htm?Open

SCHOOL 2 ( Highest socio economic classification) still has to meet exactly the same standards as school 1 .$File/2813.htm?Open