Do the Enduring Racial Divisions Within the Church Grieve God?

(Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images; Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

My younger brother and I grew up very close playmates. He’s about two years younger than me—the perfect age gap for me to boss him around while still sharing similar maturity levels and interests. I remember him following me around everywhere, and together we played Power Rangers, jumped rope, performed mock criminal trials (my brother was always the criminal, I the prosecutor), and when we got into trouble, we hugged each other piteously and cried.

That kind of camaraderie eroded over the years. We hung out less and less, and part of that was natural—he had his friends, I had mine, and we were two drastically different personalities. But then when we were both young adults, a conflict arose, and it lingered until soon we barely had any genuine relationship beyond sharing the same blood. It wasn’t that we were hostile to one another; we just grew apart, and made very little attempt to preserve our sibling bond.

At the time, I felt like I was fine with it—but it broke my parents’ hearts. When I admitted to them that my brother and I hadn’t called or texted each other in a while, my parents would look despondent and shake their heads. “Remember those days when you guys were joined at the hip?” my mother would sigh. And my father would say, “Nothing pains us more than to see our own kids not in harmony.”

I thought of my parents’ broken hearts when I read the controversial Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel and observed the responses among my evangelical brethren to it. The statement, released in early September, warns Christians about “an onslaught of dangerous and false teachings that threaten the gospel, misrepresent Scripture, and lead people away from the grace of God in Jesus Christ.” As I write this, more than 8,500 individuals have signed the statement, including individuals I respect. And it seems to have lit a fuse within our evangelical circles.

Keeping the church rooted and centered on the gospel is an imperative goal. Unfortunately, the statement seems to be criticizing an idea so broad and ambiguous, using terms so imprecise and contentious, that it probably has further blurred the evangelical stance rather than clarifying it. Though the statement also condemns cultural narratives about sexuality and gender roles, the conversation it has sparked among evangelicals predominantly centers on race.

That’s because when it comes to “social justice” issues, most conservative evangelicals agree on what the Bible says about abortion, sexuality, gender roles, and caring for the widows and orphans. But when it comes to the matter of race, it sometimes feels like we’re not reading the same Bible. The statement—and the reactions to it—exposes just how far away we in the church are from true racial reconciliation.

Though I am neither black nor white, nor even a natural-born American, seeing the pervasive racial division within my brothers and sisters in Christ grieves me. Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in America, and even in racially diverse churches such as mine, segregation persists in subtle yet powerful ways. I remember my parents’ own grief over the emotional distance between my brother and me, and I think, “How much more does God grieve to see His children harboring so much misunderstanding and apathy and bitterness against one another?”

The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel comes in the wake of the deaths of Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, Black Lives Matter, the 2016 election, and Charlottesville. It also comes in the wake of various churches and leaders attempting to address racial reconciliation, such as publicly confessing sins of racism, preaching about racial reconciliation from the pulpit, and holding an MLK50 conference to discuss the state of racial unity in the church.

For some people, this statement is a rightful censure against the encroaching leftist identity politics that crowns victimhood and idolizes skin color. They see how quickly such a mentality has invaded college campuses and mainstream media, recoil at the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore and Charlotte, and worry when they hear fellow Christians mix similar political buzzwords with Scripture.

But to other communities, this statement reeks of past rhetoric that condoned racism—back to the 1800s when some churches claimed addressing slavery would distract people from the gospel, back to the civil rights era when certain groups labeled civil rights leaders as “Communists,” accusing them of trying to undermine American democracy and incite havoc through interracial marriages.

A day after I read the statement, I had lunch with a reporter from a major newspaper in his 50s and a comic book writer in his 30s. The reporter is black, the comic book writer is white, I’m Asian, and we’re all professing Christians. We got together over burgers and iced tea because we wanted to seek community as believers in a lonely writing field. And somehow, we got to the topic of race.

In addition to his journalistic career, the reporter runs a ministry with his wife that allows him to engage with hundreds of churches and church leaders, and he says those interactions have left him tired, frustrated, and discouraged as an African-American man. So he had a lot to say about this subject and I had a lot of questions, while the comic book writer mainly listened. For the next three hours, the reporter aired out his grievances about living in a society where the police pull him over and the store manager tails him simply for his skin color. But his greater grievance comes from the church’s response.

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SOURCE: WORLD Magazine, Sophia Lee