The following post is from a talk Dr. Douglas A. Sweeney gave last year in Chicago at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. In it, Dean Sweeney was addressing a predominantly white, evangelical audience, and was trying to speak prophetically among them about the need to work together with brothers and sisters of color on matters of racial justice. We think that in light of the continued racial injustice and deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, this post would serve just as well here in Birmingham today. This is Part III of a three-part series. You can read Part I here and Part II here.
My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?...if you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers…Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment! (James 2:1-13)
Bloody racial and ethnic conflict has resurfaced yet again in America in recent years, captivating the media and calling down a storm of digital comments by people from nearly all walks of life. The violent deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Freddie Gray, the Charleston nine, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Heather Heyer, and several thousand others continue to break many hearts. According to the Washington Post, 996 people were shot and killed by police last year in the United States alone, only 400 of whom are known to be white. And according to the Officers Down Memorial Page on the web, 148 police died last year in the line of duty, many in the context of racial unrest. In the midst of all this tragedy, controversies rage over Black Lives Matter, “take a knee” protests, immigration reform, the treatment of undocumented workers and their children, and other, similar happenings, many of which have also led to violent altercations. And, of course, I am only scratching the surface of the hateful ethnic conflicts that are shaking our society today.
Where does all this hatred come from, many white Christians ask? How did we get to be stuck in such harmful patterns of violence? Is there no way out of this culture of ethnic conflict? Why can’t we get along, moving past the racial problems that have vexed us for so long?
I would like to say two things in response to such questions. First, we can get along, and our churches can play a role in improving race relations in our country and beyond. And second, this will be much harder than many people assume. There’s a lot of heavy history in the challenges we face. It weighs upon us all, whether we feel it now or not—and it won’t go away by wishful thinking. The more we learn about this burden, the better we’ll be able to improve upon the past, seeking justice, love, and peace for the whole people of God, indeed the whole of our society. As we come to know the stories of those different from ourselves, we can grow not merely in our sympathy for them, but in our aptitude for dealing more responsibly, fairly, and effectively with them and the challenges we all face together. So in the time that remains, I want to tell you some of their stories, looking mainly at the early years of white evangelical relations with black Americans, then saying a few words about the history of Latinos and Latinas in this country before concluding with some practical application. (If time permitted, we would also treat the history of Native Americans, Asian Americans, and others in the struggle for racial justice. But for now, let’s start with the stories that have played the biggest part in shaping the national conversation on our topic.)
The “Next Evangelicalism” and Evangelical Ministry in Multi-Ethnic America
As we move forward together, let’s bear in mind that our evangelical coalition is changing. It’s growing far more colorful than ever before in history. We’ve always been a diverse, international movement of Christians bound together by the gospel. But “the next evangelicalism,” as Soong-Chan Rah has noted, will include more believers who have non-Caucasian backgrounds. And the changing face of America—and American public life—will help to fuel this transformation.
Only 61% of U.S. citizens are white (non-Hispanic white, that is). 18% are Hispanic. More than 13% are black. And 8% identify with other racial groups. More than half the babies born here are born to minorities. And the immigrant population is growing rapidly as well. There are 85 million new immigrants and their families now living in the States, roughly 27% of the entire population. The Census Bureau predicts that, by 2044, white people—or the people called “non-Hispanic whites”—will comprise less than half of the total population.
These shifts could prove a blessing to our movement in the future, at least if we embrace them and adapt ourselves accordingly. In recent U.S. history, immigrants have usually been appreciably more religious than the general population—before they assimilate, that is, to mainstream values—and have added both numbers and vitality to the churches most ready to receive them. Take Latinos, for example. 77% now identify as Christian. 19% now say they’re evangelical. There are more Hispanic Protestants than Jews in America, or Muslims in America, or Episcopalians and Presbyterians combined in America. Hispanics now provide much of our evangelical growth, and evangelical energy. And Asians, though comprising a small fraction of our people, are also growing fast and often punch above their weight in the ring of intellectual and institutional leadership of parachurch ministries—especially multiethnic ones. We’d do well to make good on these important new realities. We’d be wise to get in step with this movement of the Spirit—which will only grow larger in the decades to come—finding new and better ways to work together for the gospel across racial and ethnic lines.
Many white Christians today respond in one of two ways to the themes under review. Some try to ignore them, hoping they’ll go away. Others take the moral high ground, exculpating themselves from the history of racial prejudice, privilege, and sin. Both responses are counterproductive. The issues raised this morning are clearly not going away. And they’re only made worse when our shame and frustration make us holier than thou, judgmental, or dishonest about our place in the history of American ethnic conflict. All U.S. citizens, no matter their ethnicity, benefit financially—and in other ways too—from the nation’s colonial past, in which wealth was accrued through the appropriation of lands previously farmed, hunted, fished, and even owned by other people, and the enslavement of several million Africans and others to improve those lands. Further, most whites have gained from the history of Jim Crow: from separate but unequal public schools, neighborhoods, social services, business opportunities, and more. Now please don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that the white people here are glad for this, want to lord it over others, or are personally responsible for racial injustice (though perhaps some are). I’m saying that whites like me, who want nothing at all to do with ethnic prejudice or favoritism, profit nonetheless from the sins discussed today. It is crucial to admit this, and process it together—especially in our churches—if we want to understand why people of color often feel like they have drawn the short straw, and if we want to make things better in the future.
Let’s turn a new leaf in the history of redemption. Let’s join hands together as brothers and sisters in Christ, tell the truth about the past, quit trying to pretend as though we’re not part of the problem, repent of our complicity in racial and ethnic sin, and collaborate to help those in need moving forward. Let’s wake up every day, put to death the deeds of the flesh—the lies we tell ourselves about our moral superiority, the spite we feel for getting less than what we think we’re owed, the sins of omission by which we profit at others’ expense—and let the Spirit of God make us more righteous, courageous, humble, patient, wise, and loving, a team of those redeemed from heinous sin by Jesus’ blood. Let’s be the body of Christ, putting multicolored hands, lips, and limbs to the gospel for a sin-sick world. Let’s show the world around us what the grace of God can do to heal the wounds that keep us down, divided, and despairing and bring justice to the systems that continue to oppress so many in our day.
We began this morning with a reading from James 2, verses 1 to 13. Everyone here should know the words that come next:
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14-17)
May the Lord help us show our faith in deeds of love and justice, especially as we address our world’s racial and ethnic challenges. Amen.
Watch the entire talk here: