Three Evangelicals Walk into a Race Conversation

You know what it’s like. Race is brought up and suddenly the atmosphere in the room changes. Some are eager to start talking. Others seem confused by the conversation, willing to learn but unable to contribute and eventually get left behind as the conversation continues. Others bristle as soon as the topic is brought up, unwilling to talk about race and are defiant. “Why are we talking about race at all?” they ask.

That’s because in evangelicalism, there are three types of people who enter into the race conversation. Until we know which group we belong to, the potential pitfalls we could fall into, and what groups other believers might fall into, the race conversation will spin its wheels.

1. “Awakening” Evangelicals

What does it mean to be “woke”? Well, the term was coined by Erykah Badu on her 2008 album The New Amerykah. In the song “Master Teacher“, Badu dreams of a day when there would be “no n*****” but that everyone would instead be seen as “master teachers”. Badu is awake to the reality, however, that the dream of being viewed as equals is still afar off. Throughout the song she repeatedly charges her listeners to “stay woke” to the realities of oppression and injustice that keep black people and black communities from attaining this dream.

Since Badu released her album, the term has taken on a life of its own. But the term isn’t really appropriate for those outside the black community. It is telling that the modern use of the word grew out of the black experience and can only really be claimed by those who have felt the oppressive sting of anti-black oppression.

It may be better, then, for non-black brothers and sisters like me to use a related, but different term: awakening.

“Awakening” evangelicals are those who have taken the time to invest in cross-cultural friendships, listen and learn from minority groups, become aware of the history of oppressed people groups, and pursue racial and ethnic equality and justice.

Awakening is a good thing. And conversations around race are normally most effective when guided and led by woke and awakening people who can help others along.

There is, however, a pitfall that woke and awakening evangelicals need to be aware of: pride.

Pride can be a catch-all term so let me explain what I mean. “Wokeness ” can puff us up and make us feel superior to others. It can cause us to look down on other brothers and sisters who “don’t get it” or are “ignorant.” Remember, you’re not there yet! Nobody has fully arrived at “wokeness” unless you’ve lived the black experience. Even our black brothers and sisters recognize that wokeness is a process that will never be fully achieved. The rest of us are all still “awakening.” So remain humble about how far you’ve come.

Now, it is important for awakening Christians to share the burden of our black brothers and sisters and teach others, but the truth is to always be seasoned with love. And the fruit of gentleness and kindness should mark the way we speak with one another. Otherwise we become nothing more than clanging gongs that cause others to cover their ears.

Paul encountered this kind of pride when dealing with food sacrificed to idols. He warned the people not to use their understanding to lord over other, weaker brothers and sisters. In fact, it would be better to join the weaker brothers or sister in their weakness so that together we may grow up into the mature body of Christ.

So do not use your understanding to press down on others. Instead, build one another up in the faith for the good of the church.

2. “Seeking” Evangelicals

I’ve run into a lot of people who just don’t know how to engage the race conversation. They know the conversation is important, but they’re unsure where to start learning and are confused about biblical and theological perspectives on race. These evangelicals are “seekers;” open to the conversation and willing to learn but not sure where to start and often are scared of saying the wrong thing.

I’m excited about “seeking” evangelicals. I believe there are more seeking evangelicals out there than we often think and if we hope to move forward together and find unity in the Gospel, seekers must take the initiative to learn and grow in their understanding of race and ethnicity. The unity we seek in the Body is only possible if we see one another holistically, aware of and valuing each other’s race and ethnicity.

So what are some practical steps forward for those who are seeking?

First, invest yourself in the lives of people who don’t look like you or come from the same culture as you. Don’t just “make a black friend.” Consider attending and becoming a member of a multi-ethnic church or a black church or an ethnic church. Get to know people on a deep spiritual level. Frequent minority-owned businesses. Consider moving to a neighborhood that isn’t dominated by your same ethnicity and race.

The stark reality is that many of us live our lives segregated from people outside our race and ethnicity. So before we can desegregate our churches, we must desegregate our lives.

Along with desegregating your life, it’s also important to desegregate your mind.

A natural place to start is by identifying the depth of the problem. My favorite resource for this is the book Divided by Faith written by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith. This may be one of the most important studies of the segregation still present in the American church. It traces the development of church segregation and examines the factors that make desegregation so challenging.

Also, listen to podcasts like Pass the Mic or Jude 3. Look for sermons preached by people from a different ethnic background. Read literature, both fiction and non-fiction, written by people of color. Watch movies like Roots, 13th, Selma, Fruitvale Station, early Spike Lee films, and others. Here’s a helpful list to get started.

To summarize, listen to communities of color, be impacted by their art, and allow other perspectives to begin changing yours.

If you’re a seeking evangelical, you may have just read this and felt what you’ve felt before, fear and frustration. It’s scary to intentionally begin changing your life for the sake of your brothers and sisters.

Remember, the Lord does not call us to unity and then leave us to figure it out. We are reconciled together by the blood of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. Lean on him. Pray. Meditate on Scripture. Ask for the Spirit to calm your fears and help you move past frustration. The goal of all of this, remember, is to help us better love one another. So I encourage you, keep seeking. Keep pressing on. Do the work.

3. Hardened Evangelicals

There is a third group of people who enter the race conversation: those who think it’s stupid. There are many ways this shows itself. Sometimes it’s by belittling those who are trying to have the conversation. Other times it’s by embracing a “colorblind” worldview and refusing to see it to be as fruitless as it is. Other times it manifests through direct acts, words, or thoughts of racism and ethnocentrism.

This is a sinful, damaging disposition. It is as absurd as it would have been for Apollos to refuse help from Priscilla and Aquila. It would be as unthinkable as Peter refusing to listen to Paul and demanding that Jews and Gentiles remain separate. It’s not only damaging to the church, but it’s damaging to your soul. Brothers and sisters, this conversation is not going away. Minorities are here and we’re not going anywhere.

I ask you, if you read this and only feel anger or disgust, repent of your hardness. Allow the Spirit to work in your heart and show you the racism and bitterness that is keeping you from hearing the voices of others, the pleas of the oppressed, and keeping you from understanding the full impact of the Gospel. For God has not only called us out of the kingdom of darkness but has also called us into the Kingdom of his beloved Son. In this kingdom, every image bearer in the fullness of who they are – race and ethnicity included, not disregarded – is welcomed in by the King.

This conversation is messy. And it’s hard. And we’re all coming into it from somewhere on the spectrum between hardened and awakening. But for the health of the church and for the sake of our witness in the world, we must figure out how to have this conversation and how to have it well. So press on, brothers and sisters, and together we can stumble our way forward to greater unity, greater equality, and greater love.

Marcos Ortega

Marcos Ortega (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is an Assistant Pastor at Goodwill Church (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) and lives in the Hudson River Valley in New York with his wife and two daughters.

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