by Alexei Laushkin
It’s hard to look at the events of the last week or weeks or months or years really without recognizing there is a deep context and history from which America’s racial divides spring. The divides in society are easy to understand, the ones in the church much harder. I want to draw attention to what this looks like in the context of the church.
Where I want to begin, is with God and his work.
Here’s what we know, in the beginning God was in the world reconciling the world to himself, and even after the events in Dallas, Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and countless other cities both known and unknown he is still in the world doing his work of reconciliation. He is the Good Shepherd, who does not abandon his children.
And who are his children? That seems to be the fundamental question facing our nation today. Who is part of God’s tribe?
We know that his children know him and call upon his name and are known by him. In the words of the Gospel of John and St. Paul blessed are you when you put these things into practice, his children are in the process of being fruitful in matters of the kingdom. His children are offering their lives as a living sacrifice, following the way, the truth, and the life.
His children are in #BlackLivesMatters and #AllLivesMatters, his children work as policemen and peaceful demonstrators, and while this is all worth mentioning, I want to highlight a way that God is at work that we are mostly unaware of, and for that we need some background and history.
America has a very particular problem with race. Meaning it has its own history, one that we don’t think on as often as we should. It also has its own church history.
It begins with slavery. At some point slavery wasn’t a purely American problem; it was used the world over in some capacity and involved many nations, but it was particularly problematic in the United States, where whole regions of the country relied very heavily on slavery.
For the most part many slaves became brothers and sisters in Christ, and over time a particularly distinct work of God, born in injustice was used to create a very healthy and vibrant branch of the body of Christ. The Lord used pain and evil and sin and turned adversity and living death into glory as only he could. It was not the first time that he took his people caught in abuse and freed them, and it won’t be the last.
Any Christian ought to lament how very wrong and evil it was to fail to see a whole continent of people as being less than their own God given dignity. They did not see fellow humans, but people that were dangerous, and is this not the root of sin. The sin of Cain and Abel, to declare to a brother, you are not me.
Wicked theology and justifications flowed from these encounters, and such things were used to justify brutal behavior for many generations.
And yet life, and yet God was at work, and a whole branch of the church gained its vibrancy. This branch is very similar theologically to their Caucasian relatives but is very much its own culture, with its own distinct history and its own saints.
And for many years and in many ways and now for a few generations there is a very real church divide between more predominantly black churches and more predominantly white ones. There are examples where this isn’t the case, but for the most part the division remains more the norm than the exception. You have attempts and works of God to bridge the divide, but in so far as many multi-cultural churches exist and many other works of unity, this is again more the exception than the norm, for some differences might not be able to merge in one body; perhaps our hearts will have to grow deeper in St. Paul’s words to make room in our hearts for the other and learn new ways of loving each other as we truly are.
What does this mean practically? Well as a Caucasian who has worked with a wide swath of the church, I would say practically it means that the very pious impulses that evangelicals carry, to evangelize, to pray, and grow in our devotional practices are very un-creative. We literally don’t often imagine black co-workers and people that we encounter as being Christian, or at least not our kind of Christian (the authentic kind).
We don’t think they are none Christian, but for the most part we aren’t even really curious, and should we happen to have a co-worker playing gospel music or some iteration of black church music, it seems somewhat foreign to us. Something we know is Christian, but that we don’t truly understand and get. We aren’t familiar with the spirituality of the black church, so we fail to see their Christlikeness in some very unfortunate ways. The biggest one is that it prevents our ability to love them as a true brother, and a true sister; what should be our strongest weapon against any bias or latent racial assumption is made dull by this lack of recognition.
I do not know how it seems to Black Christians looking at an ‘evangelical culture’ that is filled with white cultural expressions and dominated by white authors and publishers, but I do know its practical impact on white ones.
And yet God is at work. He has longed to bring healing and reconciliation between white and black brothers and sisters (Hispanic and Asian as well, but those are divides that deserve their own full treatment so as to not to diminish particular ways those relationships have formed). And he has set people in the church who have the ministry of reconciliation.
In the black and white church, among those who call on his name, there is a divide that is also made worse by how each community broadly speaking views questions of justice. It is hard to reconcile without some shared sense, some coming together on what truly given the past and present ought to be a unified focus for God’s people on matters of justice.
I don’t know what such injustices might bring in terms of fruit, but I know to reconcile without talking about justice would not be possible.
So having traced some of the dimension, what would our Father in heaven have us do?
Well first recognize that he is at work already bringing about reconciliation. Two pray for the unity of the church. Develop a hunger and thirst for his work in this area of the kingdom, ask him to give the church the visible and inner unity that it already possesses in Christ Jesus himself. Third go out today and when if God should grant you encounter a Christian unlike yourself, grow insatiably curious, curious enough to try and build a real friendship. Go in without assumption, but with the understanding that God himself is already at work in this brother, in this sister, and when you make the real relationship try and look, look for how God is working and grow in practical wisdom in how to relate to brothers and sisters separated only by a lack of encounter with the other.
Alexei Laushkin is the Chair of the Board of the Kingdom Mission Society and Vice-President of the Evangelical Environmental Network. His views are his own.