The Unity of American Christianity
American history is marked by innovation, space exploration, and technology. Over the last twenty years, America advanced from dial-up internet to high-speed internet, WI-FI, and mobile hotspots. Arguably, the United States is experiencing measurable racial and social progress over the last 50 years. According to research, African Americans have progressed into positions of visibility, authority (the 44th U.S. President), and have made significant gains in economic wealth and status. Even though there is a great number of minorities that have progressed, there remains a greater number distressed by disparities of incarceration rates, poverty, segregation, unequal education, over-policing, violence, and the color of crime perpetuated through media. Events concerning race in American culture such as Charlottesville and Ferguson have fueled feelings and emotions even more. The outrage often distracts from the problem of inequality intertwined throughout American history. Candid discussions concerning social discrimination and inequality are rarely the focus of media. In fact, social injustice often remains silent even when issues of inequality are publicized, American Christianity, often remains silent and seemingly non-existent.
Yahweh Elohim, the Creator of heaven and earth, created humanity unlike another creation on the face of the earth. Man and woman were created in the image of God to have dominion over the earth, and steward it in virtuous harmony; However, the fall distorted humanity, and the harmony found within diversity, especially in the body of Christ. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, one of the most shameful tragedies in our nation is at 11 a.m. on Sunday morning, is one of the most segregated hours in Christian America. This remains true today. Research has shown that that only 13.7 percent of American Churches are multiracial, and 86 percent remain segregated. Racial segregation in American Christianity also shapes society as a whole.
Christian America should not remain silent, as if this is a problem best left alone. Racial and ethnic harmony within American Christianity is an important issue for the sake of the Gospel and unity. The topic of racial and ethnic division in American Christianity remains a point of friction when the Gospel is shared, both foreign and domestically. How can the church in America remain segregated, preach love and unity in Christ? This paper will (1) highlight historical narrative of the racial divide in American Christianity, (2) provide lessons learned for my current ministry, (3) taking the positive from the issue to engage a lost world for the Gospel of Christ.
To understand the growth and progression of our contemporary culture, one has to come to terms with the consciousness of race. The mandate to come to terms with race is easier said than done. The problem of race raises more questions than answers, particularly in the current post-racially aware society that tends to question the very category of race. To raise the issue of race one might ask, “why, at this moment in time, is race still a question?” This question is not only valid, but it forces one to rethink the role, function, and status of race in America. However valid the question may be, it does not negate from the racial tension that resides within the heartbeat of American culture. Without a moment’s notice, that invisible tension can culminate with the latest social injustice event gone viral. If one were to dig to unearth the roots of racial division in America, at its core, one would discover race, religion, and politics. I stress religion because Christianity and religion oppose one another. Religion and faith in Christ are not the same. Jesus makes this explicitly clear. Religion imposes rules and laws of moral perfection and of moral imperfection. As if salvation is predicated by one’s actions; as if people must earn or even keep salvation. However, Christianity – faith in Christ is not based on merit. Salvation which is not earned by moral perfection, cannot be lost by moral imperfection. If it is, then the work of the cross is of no value. Faith in Christ is achieved by belief and continued belief in the finished work of the cross. Salvation is based on His completed work and not the failed attempts of human morality. This is the freedom found in Christ but lost in religion.
Perhaps, race and religion form two of the most crucial and often challenging ideas to think through as it relates to North American history. The idea of race and religion can find its geneses as early as the Enlightenment. Dr. Corey Walker writes concerning Christianity and race; he declares the reformist of the Enlightenment framed an argument against religion in Western culture, and proposed other means to understand humanity. The same ideologies paved way for historical and evolutionary thinking, racial theories, and color imagery that made the economic and military conquest of various cultures justifiable and defensible. As a result, racial thought received inspiration and legitimation with the emergence and growth of Enlightenment rationality. Science eventually combined with Christianity in cultivating understandable theoretical concepts that rendered racial consequences that surged in the New World – America.
At the beginning of the 17th century, North America was considered the promise land for many English Christians seeking religious freedom from the British Crown. Puritans that were oppressed by the government, and the Church of England, traveled across the Atlantic to the New World. Their desire to live by the principles of a “puritanical Christianity” shaped the identity of America and the later United States. The Puritans wanted to break from the Church of England due to unfulfilled reforms which began during the Reformation. Interestingly, Western Christianity, the Enlightenment, and racial ideologies entwined once the first slave ships arrived in the New World. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, intellectuals confronted race as a theological matter. As a theological issue, Christian conversations of race grew from the allegory of Scripture and ascribed discriminatory ideas to the tangible features of race and ethnicity. Thus, theological and intellectual systems based on race were created. The ideas spread and became institutionalized. The institutionalized religious practice of subservience of color to the superiority of whites was deemed rational. Within this chaotic reasoning, we find the evolving arguments for evolutionism associated with the absolute science of race. A science which deprives humanity of its Scriptural heritage created in the image of God.
The idea of racial superiority derives from 1 John 3:11-12. In the text, John warns believers,
For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous (vv11-12 ESV).
The text is used to argue that Cain is the seed of Satan, and therefore, the seed of inferior races. This ideological principle that Cain is the offspring of Satan focuses on Hebrew grammar located in Genesis 4:1 (ESV): “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord,'” and the statement in Genesis 5:3 (ESV): “When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.”
Seth replaces Abel, who was murdered by Cain. Hence, the theological reasoning is as follows: Adam fathers a son in his own likeness after his image (Gen 5:3). Since the phrases are not used of Cain (Gen 4:1), therefore Cain is not really the son of Adam. However, if one reads Genesis 4:25, the text nullifies the Genesis 5:3 argument, which is the basis for the Genesis 4:1 argument. Furthermore, to completely nullify the ideological concept of Cain being the seed of Satan, 1 John 3:10 is key to understanding 1 John in context.
By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother (1 John 3:10 ESV).
The contrast is between the children of God and the children of the devil. Cain is the model figure of the children of the devil because they do not practice righteousness and they do not love the brethren. Humanity is not the physically procreated by God but rather procreated by both man and woman. Therefore, the descendants of Cain are not physically procreated by Satan, either. The point of both (children of God and children of the devil) is clearly stated that the children of the devil are those who do not practice righteousness.
Again, the need of this particular ideology was to promote the Biblical teaching of a superior race. The use of Scripture to depict Satan as the father of Cain, rationally separates Cain from the line of Adam. This theologically drives a wedge between the Adamic race and a Satanic race. The intent is to classify Jews, blacks, and people of color, in a less than Adamic racial status. Adam’s race becomes the master race because it is closest to God and excludes other races. This particular eisegesis of Scripture was prevalent throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. To some extent, this ideology is still present today.
Modern racial thinking merged with Christian exegetical and interpretative practices, to yield lengthy and quite influential discourses on the racial structure of Israel, Cain, Jesus, other Old and New Testament communities, figures, and events. A reason to hate and commit human atrocities was linked theologically to American Christendom. This is a recurring theme throughout Christian America.
In order to combat the racial theology of colonial America, Liberation Theology found its identity within the black population. Liberation theology is most popularly known as Black Theology. Black theology developed as a way to respond to the oppressive nature of slavery in Christian America. For many white people living in the United States, the entanglement of Christianity with slavery and antiblack racism forms a set of confusing paradoxes. Through one lens, the nation understands itself in terms of freedom. Yet America is unable to grapple with depriving people their freedom in the name of prosperity and legalized segregation. As a result, the American Christian color divide was born.
James Evans Jr. declares that Black Theology differs from traditional theology in much the same way that African American Christianity differs from the Christianity of Europe and the North Atlantic. This type of ideology, which began in the Enlightenment, perpetuated the soul of Christian America. African American theology became a response to white Christian oppression for many people of color. However, it inadvertently added to the strain of a segregated Christianity.
American Christianity is not all dark and full of gloom. Prior to the Civil Rights movement, there were prominent white clergymen who spoke against Christian segregation. Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921) outspokenly condemned racism and the segregation of American society of his day. Racism deeply wounded the soul of Warfield. As a Christian, racism had no place in the Church and American society. Moreover, it ruined the Gospel message. His opposition was based on two theological principles: 1) the unity of the human race created in Adam in Gods image, and 2) the unifying entailments of the gospel of Christ. Warfield laments over how racism and social injustice was apparent in almost every part of the American society of his time. He declares:
“[Negros] are taught to know ‘their place.’ Even in the congregation of the saints, their place was not in the midst of God’s children but off to the side. Are we today to reverse the inspired declaration that in Christ Jesus there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondman, freeman? Sustained treatment of this kind destroys hope, paralyzes effort, and cuts away all inducement to self-advancement.”
Warfield foresaw how the despising treatment of ethnic sin within society would only breed resentment and hatred. The social upheavals and race riots America would witness only decades later would not have surprised Warfield he predicted it. He was not the most popular, considering his radical stance, but this did not break his resolve it was strengthened. He urged Christian America to learn to live together in mutual peace, respect, and helpfulness. Christianity had to work together for the achievement of national ideals and the attainment of a true Christian civilization. His views were ahead of his time with regard to understanding the evils of racism.
Personally, there are many lessons that can be learned in order to promote Christian unity within in my current ministry. As an elder in a multi-cultural church, methods for Christian unity must be thought of and addressed differently. American Christianity has pointed fingers and taken sides, in a failed attempt to unite. This does not work. As Christians, we are called to forgive, listen, and care for our brothers and sisters. Forgiveness without holding offense is the first step in reconciliation. Reconciliation involves fostering honest dialogue conducted under the lamp of Scripture. As Christians, we must take the same energy used to divide humanity and use it to show Christ’s love to those in the household of faith. Especially to those that have been hated against. I love Anthony Walton’s radical idea of unifying segregated Christianity in America. Christian America must be viewed from the vantage point of a natural disaster this may help to reconcile the issue. When a natural disaster occurs, we recognize the collateral damage and begin creating a plan to fix and alleviate the situation. We do not judge, instead, we focus on the situation, identify those who are in need, then we act.
To combat segregation in ministry, the key is to move towards a more inclusive theology of humanity and race. We must begin to fellowship and worship together in the service of love. We must also work in the unity of faith exposing racism’s sin against the body of Christ. Instead of causing the hurt, we need to mend it by providing a voice of love, assistance, and education. What if churches build relationships & partnerships with the local community, police and emergency services? Host meaningful outreaches to serve those who are hated against while educating those who are abusive. What if the church educates its members on the blessings of servitude, unity, and honor? Albert Einstein once said, “we cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used to when we created them.” Unfortunately, Christianity shares a deep historical link to social injustice in the United States. Therefore, we need to approach cultural change with love in our confession and education in our practice.
To engage a lost world with the redemptive power of the Gospel, American Christians must seek unity. One way to achieve unity is to heed the advice given by B.B. Warfield. We must understand that humanity is created in the image of God. The desire to rule over and exploit one another is a direct result of sin. However, through the Gospel of Grace, we are redeemed as one nation, being transformed in the image of Jesus Christ. In Christ, there is no division of race, culture, ethnicity, gender or socio-economic status. As believers, we need to reconcile with one another, just as we are reconciled in Christ. Through Christ, God provides reconciliation for humanity. As ambassadors of Christ, as his image bearers, we are to reconcile with one another. To engage the lost world with the power of the Gospel, Christians must confront the sin of division, and begin the healing process.