Evangelicals have a special duty to fight racism

As Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, one of my joys is guiding people through our museum. Filled with historical artifacts and images, it is a testament to God’s faithfulness. One of my favorite pictures is from Billy Graham standing next to Martin Luther King Jr. I start by telling people how Graham dropped out segregation ropes for his meetings in the South.

But the story does not end there. Historian Grant Wacker notes that as the civil rights movement intensified, Graham moved away from King, trying to chart a moderate course. Decades later, Graham himself would speak of his lack of engagement with the civil rights movement as one of his great regrets.

This same story of commitment, retreat and regret has come to define an evangelical culture that is greater than Billy Graham. For over a century, the wider evangelical movement has been in a cycle of engaging when opportunities present themselves, stepping back when pressures and obstacles intensify, and regretting not having succeeded in effecting change. sustainable. Worse, the burden of this regret too often falls on evangelicals of color, as they are left behind to be greeted with new promises in the next cycle.

Against this background, the evangelical movement recently began its new episode when evangelist and writer Josh McDowell left his ministry after comment on the breed September 18 at a meeting of the American Association of Christian Counselors.

Ed Stetzer is dean and professor at Wheaton College, where he also directs the Billy Graham Center.

McDowell issued a statement seeking to be honest about his comments and apologize for his mistake: “I want to start by apologizing for my words and the implications they had. My statement began by saying ‘ I don’t believe black people, African Americans and other minorities have an equal opportunity. I really do. Racism has prevented the achievement of equality within our nation. When I said that “most (minorities) grew up in families where education and security are not given much importance, “I made a general statement which does not reflect reality. I apologize and reiterate my Christian love for all races, nationalities and groups of people. My desire is that we, as Christians, treat both racism and inequality as sins that they are in order to restore the unity and equality that God desires for all. “

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In an age of denial, McDowell’s apology is an instructive model of the causal responsibility of our words and actions in the harm of other people. Yet the episode can be an instructive example of the larger – and often cyclical – challenge the evangelical movement faces in making lasting progress on race issues.

As this discussion intensifies, let me offer three thoughts on what we can learn by trying to break out of this pattern:

Changing power dynamics to learn

Learning is about changing the dynamics of power. The murder of George Floyd last year by a Minneapolis police officer did more to ignite the conversation about systemic racism in America and the evangelistic movement than anything else in my lifetime. Suddenly, many evangelicals who had avoided race issues were asking questions and looking for leaders to speak out. While many voices have been raised on occasion, all too often white evangelicals were often more eager to talk about race issues than to listen to those who experience racism.

The ways in which this temptation strengthens and exacerbates the cycle within evangelical circles crystallized for me when several leaders African-American pastors in Chicago invited me to join them for a march of religious leaders in the Bronzeville district. After Floyd died, we walked and prayed for racial justice and for an end to the riots that plagued this neighborhood. As I walked alongside these friends and partners in ministry, my goal was simply to be present in the midst of what was their event as they spoke out against the racial injustice and riots that had plagued their communities. I needed to learn from them that Floyd’s murder was both culminating and emblematic of a lived reality very different from mine.

Listening without empowering others to speak with authority will never produce real change. To truly learn, it takes white evangelical leaders to change the power dynamics that exist within our networks, institutions and relationships to ensure that brothers and sisters of color can express themselves in our lives. It is not enough to just be silent; we have to listen and learn.

Internal obstacles to evangelism

The greatest obstacles to evangelism are internal to the movement. As I have been writing about the evangelical movement for nearly 20 years, a recurring truth is that its biggest problem does not come from external subversion. Certainly, there are many non-Christian leaders or ideologies that threaten to co-opt the mission of the church. However, the greatest obstacles to the flourishing of the evangelical movement – particularly with regard to the substantial commitment of our failures to race – have arisen from within.

Few events capture this truth as much as the debate around critical race theory. As with American society in general, recent evangelical discussions on race have been dominated by the specter of CRT. The efforts of some evangelicals to arming words like CRT and social justice for buzzwords for a dangerous ideology only fortify barricades and cripple fruitful discussions among orthodox believers about the existence of systemic sin and injustice. Indeed, McDowell’s comments stem from his participation in this review.

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When church leaders reduce complex ideas to simplistic buzzwords, the end result is always irrational fear and suspicion rather than honest dialogue. There are legitimate concerns about the CRT, and I – and many others – discussed the challenges and shortcomings of CRT. Christians would be wise to think carefully about this – as well as any academic tool – and how it intersects or conflicts with their faith. But leaders must recognize how this repeated oversimplified and over-the-top attack has once again thwarted all efforts to address race issues. And before I attack what I just said, be sure to read the next point.

Biblical understandings of race

A biblical understanding of race is not silent or neutral, but festive. Where McDowell is right, and where evangelicals can find unity, is in turning to the scriptures as a lens for understanding race. As Christians, we believe the word of God is sufficient to teach us how to relate to one another, and our reconciliation with Christ is what opens the door to reconciliation with one another.

However, it is important to recognize that the scriptures do not flatten the race in a homogenized culture. It is a persistent exegetical error of many evangelicals to portray the scriptures as reinforcing a “color blind” approach to race.

Throughout the scriptures, God constantly reverses prejudice, especially when it arises because of racial or ethnic prejudice. Yet beyond the simple rejection of prejudice, the Scriptures present a positive interpretation of race as having a distinct place in the kingdom of God. TO Pentecost in Acts 2, the miraculous arrival of the Holy Spirit leads to the understanding of various languages. This gathering then prefigures the representation of the Scriptures from heaven where each language, tribe and nation constitutes the choir of the eternal. praise (Revelation 7: 9). In either case, the presence of God works through rather than breaking down cultural diversity. Our worship and testimony are made more perfect as we model gospel-centered diversity.

McDowell’s comments and apologies have again sparked a debate that will not go away. Indeed, for many, there is a perpetual sense of déjà vu in pleading every action and reaction. But we can’t miss the moment. Breaking the cycle will require the humility to learn and repent, as well as the courage to overcome obstacles and pressures that try to deter us.

Let us once again learn from Mr. Graham’s example. Past behavior predicts future behavior, but predictions don’t have to come true. You can choose the route not taken, and that is the one that could make the difference.

Ed Stetzer is dean and professor at Wheaton College and editor of Outreach Magazine.

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