My last post I talked about vision. Today I want to talk about the heart. I am not sure how long a book needs to be out to be considered a classic, so I am going to assign the arbitrary guideline of a decade. In 2000 I read a book that in all honesty changed the trajectory of my ministry life. If you are not familiar with this book I will go as far to say that it is your duty as a Christian to read it. It is not a pleasant read by any means, but it is a truthful, heartfelt one.
The name of the book is Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion And The Problem of Race in America. Shortly after reading this I heard the call of God that my vocational life is to be dedicated to addressing this issue.
In light of that I am going to veer from the norm of small blog posts and provide a long one. Matt Knapp, a seminary student in the reconciliation course I taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, has done an excellent review of the book which will be the post for today:
In Divided by Faith; Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith assess American evangelicalism in black-white relations and demonstrate that the majority of “white evangelicals, directed by their cultural tools, fail to recognize the institutionalization of racialization—in economic, political, educational, social, and religious systems.” (170)
The bulk of Emerson and Smith’s assessment is drawn from survey data collected either by themselves via random-sampling telephone surveys and personal interviews or by the General Social Survey (though other applicable sources are also drawn from). This assessment is set in the context of the historical development of evangelical racial thought and practice as well as continued efforts by evangelicals to address the race problem.
By setting their survey results within these contexts, Emerson and Smith are able to clearly demonstrate the blindness/dismissal of the white-evangelical majority toward the racialized structural inequalities that exist throughout the United States of America today. Emerson and Smith begin their work by illuminating the reality of the racialization in America that has produced the following structural inequalities:
- Black-white marriages constitute less than one-half of one percent of existing marriages
- The degree of segregation between blacks and non-blacks is far greater than between any other two racial groups in the United States
- Segregation is hierarchical ,i.e. the median net worth of blacks is just 8 percent of that of whites
- Whites were 89 percent more likely to be given coronary bypass surgery than blacks with even higher Medicare disparities
- 95% of white Americans and 90% of African Americans attend churches composed predominately of their respective ethnicities
After explicating the reality of racialization in America, Emerson and Smith discuss the progression of white evangelical racial thought and practice from 1700-1964.
Their discussion progresses from the early view that slaves had no souls to the view that slaves should be converted while kept as slaves; to the justification of slavery from Bible-based arguments; to the height of abolitionism and the outbreak of the Civil War; to the segregated perspectives of the Reconstruction period; to the apathy toward inequality and biological racism of the Jim Crow era; and finally to the opposition of/ lack of involvement in the civil rights movement.
They follow this discussion with an analysis of contemporary evangelical involvement in America’s race problem—highlighting the work of Perkins, Skinner, and Hines as the foundation-layers for a wide list of proponents for racial reconciliation.
Throughout the discussion, however, Emerson and Smith note that, in the communication of the need for racial reconciliation to white evangelicals, the concept of structural racialization and inequality have been in many cases lost in translation. This is seen in the emphases of Promise Keepers and Christianity Today on individual-oriented reconciliation.
Emerson and Smith continue by presenting their survey results in the context of their argument that white evangelicals have failed to realize the systemic, structural nature of racial inequality in America today. The interviews and survey responses highlighted throughout chapters 4-6 clearly portray perspectives that have been shaped by what Emerson and Smith call a “cultural toolkit”.
White evangelicals process the world, including race relations, through their own toolkit which includes “accountable freewill individualism”, “relationalism”, and “antistructuralism” (76). This toolkit, on a broad level, leaves them blind to structural inequalities.
The toolkit left many white evangelicals with few options for solving the equation, “Equally Created + Equal Opportunity + X = Unequal Outcome” (98). Most sought to solve the equation by insinuating that black Americans lack hope and vision (100), and many spoke negatively of government assistance. Rather, the majority of white evangelicals sought to propose individually-based solutions to the race-problem (e.g. make friends with someone of another race, etc.).
Chapters 7-8 of Emerson and Smith’s book discuss the organizational and structural issues that perpetuate a racialized society—issues that are particularly observable in churches. Pluralism, competition, and niche-maketing (143) create a strong tendency towards homogeneity in churches. Churches that seek to address multiple groups on broad levels fall apart due to lack of specialization.
The racialization of churches, then, is embedded in a deep cultural structure of internalism and homogeneity. These characteristics of evangelical churches are especially enhanced by the human relational tools of categorization, differentiation, and group loyalty—all of which breed stronger internal structures and weaker inter-structural bonds. The movement of evangelicalism itself, according to Emerson and Smith, undercuts its own best effort against racism by relying on “racially homogenous in-groups and the segmented market” (168).
Emerson and Smith, as evidenced by their concluding remarks in chapter 9, are not optimistic about the situation of white Evangelicals in relation the American problem of race if trends continue in their current direction. They urge white evangelicals in America to think deeply about the problem of racialization in America before jumping to action. I agree with Emerson and Smith in this regard.
In light of their survey data, it seems that white evangelicals must learn to evaluate their own culture-evaluating tool-kits before seeking to bring about what they perceive to be racial reconciliation or, in many cases, before dismissing the issue of racial inequality altogether.
Emerson and Smith urge against “one-dimensional assessments and solutions to multidimensional problems” (171). In my opinion, this urging could be applied not only to the white evangelical’s understanding of racial relations, but also to the entire realm of Christian life and thought.
The sin problem is by no means a one-dimensional problem, and God’s addressing of the sin problem through Christ is, by no means, a one-dimensional solution. He is our Sacrifice, our Mediator, our Example, our Shepherd, our King, and our Priest. The Church’s identity in Christ ought to inform the way that it understand its eternal destiny, however, this understanding of eternal destiny must, in turn, inform the way that members of the Church live in relation to each other and in relation to society.
Evangelicals should fight against simplistic thinking. In this way, an understanding of the Gospel is not a means of magically solving systems built around racialization. Rather, it is a transformative reality in the life of the Church (a corporate entity). This means that the Church, in living out the ramifications of dying, being buried, and rising with Christ, ought to be engaging with systemic issues that permeate it to the core. - M. Knapp