Reckoning with Racism and the Church: Reformed and Anabaptist Voices

color of comprimiseLast week I offered some reflections and book recommendations on the issue of race. In other corners, a new book about race and the church was getting attention — Jemar Tisby’s volume, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. I haven’t gotten my copy of this yet, but according to historian and Gospel Coalition reviewer, Daniel K. Williams, Tisby argues thus:

From Jonathan Edwards’s slaveholding to Billy Graham’s support for President Richard Nixon’s racially charged policy of “law and order,” participation in racial oppression has tainted the legacies of many of the most gifted preachers and theologians in the white evangelical church, Tisby argues. He also claims that “Christian complicity with racism remains [in the present], even as it has taken on subtler forms” (190). If few white Christians today would repeat 19th-century Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert Lewis Dabney’s defenses of race-based slavery or mid-20th-century Dallas Baptist pastor W. A. Criswell’s advocacy of segregation, white evangelicals have nevertheless largely failed to speak out against contemporary racial injustice in the mass incarceration of young black men and police violence against blacks. “Racism never goes away,” Tisby declares; “it adapts” (190).

See the whole review here.

Tisby is active in Reformed circles, which he says is “biblical” and “helpful” but not aha panel on race“inerrant.” You can find his take on Reformed theology here. But Tisby has been critiquing the Reformed church and its compromises on racial equality for a while now — something that those in his own tradition have not really appreciated, especially now that his book is out. This is a conversation happening on the heels of a recent session at the American Historical Association meeting in which the ongoing debate about defining evangelicalism overlapped with relevant reflections on race. Here, Tisby joined up with Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Malcolm Foley-Prese, and Heath Carter. Check out Du Mez’s website for her paper and a summary of tweets from the session. John Fea recently summarized the push back sparked by Williams’ Gospel Coalition review.

trouble i've seenAnother recent study (2016) on the church’s complicity in racism comes from Drew Hart’s Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism. Drew grew up in Brethren in Christ circles and thinks about race issues from a (progressive) Anabaptist framework. Not surprisingly, Hart roots the solution of racial reconciliation in the racial teachings of Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount. I did a quick read of this helpful book in preparation for an upcoming lecture Drew is giving at Grace College. In the book, Hart says,

For too long, the church has gone about its business as though nothing were wrong. Meanwhile, it has been a racialized organism, not only fractured relationally but actually practicing, perpetuating, or remaining silent to the racial oppression of others. And yet Jesus, in his birth, life, teachings, death, and resurrection, has been the answer available to us all along. According to our sacred Scripture, Jesus lived a life that nonviolently subverted the powers and confronted the establishment. The wisdom and power of God, of a different sort from earthly wisdom and power, is something we are invited to participate in as God’s church. (73)

Rooted in deep historical antagonism, the Reformed and Anabaptist traditions have not coexisted easily, but it seems to me that some of the strongest voices from within both traditions are offering similar messages recently. Perhaps this conversation about race is one of those.

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