As Bob Trube noted in his blog entry yesterday, last Sunday he preached about the parable in Luke 18:1-8 that Jesus tells in order to encourage his disciples to be persistent in prayer—especially prayer for justice. Bob commented on recent events in which African American men were killed by white police officers and suggested that we not give up praying and acting for racial justice and reconciliation.
I have long wondered why it is that African American Christians and white American Christians see things so differently. We’re all followers of the same Jesus, but our theologies have different emphases and we tend to belong to different political parties. (I’m making broad generalizations, of course, but there are observable tendencies here, at least among evangelicals.) I’ve learned a lot by listening to my African American students. I’ve also had my eyes opened by a book called Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith (Oxford, 2000).
Emerson and Smith argue that white American evangelicals have an “accountable freewill individualist perspective” on how the world works: things happen because individuals make free choices, for which they are held accountable by God. This perspective shapes the toolbox with which we engage the world: individualism, relationalism and anti-structuralism. I don’t know about you, but in my experience this is pretty much on-target. Evangelicals (my own context) believe that God deals directly with individuals, because God wants to form a personal relationship with each individual. Conversion is an event between the individual and God; church is a helpful but non-essential add-on. This view may be one reason why the number of people who identify as Christians but have no church connection is growing.
This “personal” (individual) perspective means that white Christians tend to be blind to structural sins like racism. Emerson and Smith define racism as “the collective misuse of power that results in diminished life opportunities for some racial groups.” If the topic of racism comes up, we inventory ourselves and decide that we aren’t racist. We harbor no ill will toward persons of another race; some of them may even be our friends. Our responsibility ends there. If other individuals are racist, they should repent of that, and everything will be fine.
This approach ignores the fact that sinful social structures take on a life of their own. America’s history of slavery is a case in point. People on both sides of that debate were Christians, and they argued from the Bible to prove their case. Most Christian slaveholders made no connection between their faith and freeing their slaves, because slavery was a socially accepted institution. The only reason the institution was eventually abolished was because society changed—in this case, through civil war.
Similarly, many people involved in the 1994 tribal genocide in Rwanda were Christians. Some of them were even pastors. One at least one occasion, a pastor offered sanctuary to members of the other tribe and then locked the refugees in the church and burned it down. These Christian murderers had accepted the validity of their faith for their personal lives but didn’t let it transform the tribal hatreds in their society.
When we hear about events like the shooting of an African American man by a white police officer, do we think of it only as an event between two individuals? Or do we reflect on the social context of the event, asking why there are still racial tensions in that community—or in ours? Do we jump in to defend one side or the other, or do we ask ourselves how we might contribute to reconciliation instead of division?
Prayer for justice is certainly one of our responsibilities in situations like that. But as Bob suggested, we should also consider what role the church should have—and what actions the church should take—in addressing the social realities that give rise to such situations. We should never accept the suggestion that our faith is valid only for our personal lives. Jesus is Lord of all, and he plans to extend his rule into all areas of life (1 Corinthians 15:22-28). He wants to renew the world and fix everything that’s broken (Romans 8:18-21; Revelation 21:1-5). What might he want us to do in his name? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that Christians listening to one another would be a good start.