Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A white man reflects on race in the American Church

Disclaimer: The following is a collection of thoughts from a Christian conservative who is white. This is a long post.

I was very disappointed in Lecrae’s latest album, Anomaly. In my mind I had been preparing a blog post about it over the last several weeks, as I would do some kind of end-of-year Christian music wrap-up. I still think that’s profitable and I might do it eventually.

(UPDATE: You can now find that post here.)

But I was disappointed in Anomaly because, as Rembert Browne points out, “its primary theme isn’t Christianity.” Lecrae himself has said, “But Christian (sic) is my faith, not my genre.”

Although Lecrae has been saying this for a while, this is the first time it really surfaced in an album. From Real Talk to Gravity, his albums have always been full of theological enrichment – something not typically heard on mainstream Christian radio. As he preached against the secular/sacred divide and how to engage culture, he produced albums that were true to who he is: a new creation in Christ. The words of Scripture just overflowed in his songs and his records were a great edification to the church.

Then Anomaly comes along and the mood changed. Theological overtones were traded in for a cultural commentary. And it’s exactly what Lecrae wanted to do. Sure, there are Christian themes found in bits and pieces along the way, but it’s a stark contrast to his older stuff.

Over time, he’s gained great influence inside and outside Christian circles and, consequently, Anomaly reached #1 on the Billboard Top 200. It was the top album in the country. It was something no Christian album has ever done and, arguably, still hasn’t. The record just doesn’t have an appeal to Christianity and is much more divisive than anything else he’s done.

His change of focus turned him into a clean rapper with values instead of a biblical edifier. Regardless, Anomaly also topped the Billboard gospel charts.

But, as I implied in the introduction, this isn’t an end-of-year Christian music wrap-up. I bring up Lecrae’s album only because it provides the perfect segue into the issues in Ferguson, MO and the issue of racism in the church.

For example, in the album’s second song, “Made in America,” Lecrae raps these words:

Yeah, made in America // Momma told me that I belong here // Had to earn all the stripes had to learn all rights had to fight for a home here // But I wouldn’t know a thing about that // All I know is drugs and rap // I probably could have been some kind of doctor // Instead of holdin’ guns and crack // I was born in the mainland // Great-grandpa from a strange land // He was stripped away and given bricks to lay // I guess you could say he a slave here // But I was made in America // So I don’t know a thing about that // All I know is Uncle Sam lookin’ for me working on his corner so I know I gotta pay tax

The song goes on to portray different people’s views (a military veteran and an immigrant) on our country, identifying problems along the way. Then the song stops. The next one starts up. Problems are exposed and solutions are…well…not there. Instead of preaching a message of hope found in the gospel, Lecrae rants and gives no answers to the issues he brings up.

Instead of providing principled truths about justice, righteousness, honor, love, humility, etc., the rapper drops his microphone and walks away.

Lecrae brings up another issue without solutions in the song “Dirty Water”:

I just dug a well in West Africa // But how many of my friends is African, huh? // No habla Español, just show me tu baño // Ain’t trynna get to know you, I’m too busy readin’ Daniel // Most segregated time of day is Sunday service // Now what you think that say about the God you worship? ... // … Worthless, worthless, 400 years we done heard that // My family came here on slave ships // Some herd cattle, some herd blacks // Know some of y’all done heard that // My kin was treated less than men // That’s why we raised to hate each other, cause we hate our skin // Lies you told about yourself that you don’t realize // I must be a thief, she locked the doors when I was walking by // They must be whores ‘cause the master rapes them an leaves the child // So dead beat daddy was taught to me way before my time

This Lecrae, unlike the Lecrae of old, is preaching about racism yet does not talk about the unity there is in Christ. Instead of preaching a truth like Galatians 3:26-28, he blames racial (and inter-racial) tension on slave owners that lived in the 1800s and leaves it at that. It’s not exactly my cup of tea.

But you might be reading this and completely disagree with me. You might be thinking that this is exactly why there are protests all across America right now. Lecrae is simply pointing out issues that have existed under the surface and have made places like Ferguson a time bomb that has now exploded. He is being a prophetic voice to a generation classified (and even defined) by demographics of race, education, income, and the like.

Pointing out these things might be commendable, but what is he doing about it? I know he has been involved with the This Is Fatherhood initiative and likely countless other efforts to reach out to the urban community. But how is he currently using his biggest stage? He’s using it to bring up subjects that require discussion and reason, but there is no discussion and reason. He has changed his presentation as a Christian man with Christian answers to a Christian man with cultural instigations.

So then there’s Ferguson.

Yesterday, Lecrae made a statement on his Facebook page that you’ll see below.

This is certainly what many black people are feeling across the country – Christian or otherwise. “Justice and race” are issues that have been ignored and it has oppressed them. They have suffered under the unfair leadership of people who will never understand what it’s like to be a challenged minority. They’re angry.

As the Christian conservative white male that I am, here are my immediate reactions to Lecrae’s post and the rest of the Ferguson happenings.

·         I may not know what it’s like to suffer as a black person, but most black people don’t know what it’s like to always be viewed as an oppressor that never does enough for others
·         The incident that started everything in Ferguson is the main issue and the officer’s actions have been declared justified by our judicial system
·         When it’s implied that justice has not been served in this case, it’s communicated that favoring minorities is more important than truth and righteousness
·         My guess is that the vast majority of those protesting the Mike Brown case have not read through the hundreds of pages of documents from the grand jury (I read nearly 300 pages yesterday)
·         Mike Brown was a grown man who committed a felony (assaulting a police officer) before being neutralized; it's been found that he was not an innocent, unarmed “teenager,” but rather a very dangerous criminal
·         Our country has never treated minorities more favorably than they do now
·         We all exist under the same Constitution and have the same opportunities (though it may be harder for some to realize the opportunities that exist)
·         The breakdown of the black family is the biggest issue in that community
·         They have made themselves their own community (as have other races to a certain extent)
·         Nothing that white conservative men do will ever be enough

This is how the Ferguson situation (and other race issues) is being viewed through the eyes of people like me.

And what doesn’t help is the solution bank coming out of the protests. Suggestions to completely re-construct our justice system, walking across an interstate in order to block traffic, and using this incident as an opportunity to let out pinned-up rage through violence and robbery are all completely unhelpful reactions. There has been very little acceptance of justice in the black community and very few are looking to understand and reason with others. It’s taken a huge turn for the worst.

This man's comment reflects the feelings of many whites.
Many Christians, like Lecrae, who have been instigating discussions on racism even before Ferguson are, for the most part, not helping. For example, Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, just wrote this article in which he states, In the public arena, we ought to recognize that it is empirically true that African-American men are more likely, by virtually every measure, to be arrested, sentenced, executed, or murdered than their white peers.

He eventually goes on to say, “We will need churches that reflect the manifold wisdom of God (Eph. 3:10) in the joining together of those who may have nothing else in common but the image of God, the blood of Christ, and the unity of the Spirit.” And that’s totally true. But what's his point in mentioning that blacks are more likely to be arrested?

Once again, through the lens of a Christian conservative white male:

·         Black men are more likely to have problems with the law because they are more likely to not have fathers who were involved in their upbringing
·         Black men are more likely to have problems with the law because many spend more time on the streets than the average man
·         Black men are more likely to have problems with the law because many of them listen to music that glorifies a law-breaking lifestyle
·         Black men are more likely to have problems with the law because many are more interested in the unity of the black community rather than Christian unity
·         Black men are more likely to have problems with the law because the ones they look up to have likely had problems with the law also

Yet these issues don't get brought up in the article. 

I don’t see a problem with the law, I see problems with the law-breakers. Does that make me racist? I’d certainly hope not!

 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.
Romans 13:3-4

My primary concern is not with the color of people’s skin, but rather the status of their hearts.

Many protests have taken place since August 9, when Michael Brown was killed.

But many Christian minorities disagree with me, as they have been making the case about a systematic failure on the part of the American church. Many say the church doesn’t do enough to encourage multi-ethnic congregations. According to D.A. Horton, The way we move from our status quo is to; proclaim the gospel and practice it’s (sic) implications by putting diversity on display. I’m not advocating putting minorities on stage to be ‘eye-candy’ for the visiting minorities to see and identify with rather, I’m talking about integrating credentialed and qualified minorities in decision-making leadership positions.

This is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse. He’s saying that diversity must happen in leadership in order for a more gospel-like ethnicity to occur in the congregation. And though he denies it in the quote, it is, in a way, an advocacy of minority “eye-candy.”

The answer is actually that the gospel must be proclaimed by leadership of all colors, then people of all colors must submit to it, and finally, church diversity occurs (if there was none to begin with).

We can’t fashion diversity in the church and expect all of our problems to go away. People must gather under the umbrella of the gospel, not under the umbrella of diversity. We’ll reflect on our diversity once we’re all in Christ – until then we’re just trying to rig the show.

I’ve been heavily involved in four churches across two states in my Christian life. The cumulative number of regular attenders among the four totals somewhere north of 400. Out of all of those people who regularly attended these gospel-preaching Bible churches, only two were black.

Is it the fault of those churches? Is it the fault of the blacks who didn’t come? Is it even a fault?

I don’t know.

All I know is that those churches faithfully proclaimed the Word, didn’t turn people away, and loved the ones that came.

So putting it all together, there’s Lecrae and the generic “We have race issues” declarations, there’s the constant protesting we’re seeing right now across the country due to a grand jury decision, and there’s the ever-present sore thumb of religious segregation.

And what’s the answer?

Correcting our focus.

I love my black friends (yes, I have some) and I don’t think of them as being much different than me. For the most part, we were raised not knowing the gospel, came to know the Lord, and now look to serve Him faithfully. Generally speaking, we have similar stories when it comes to our spiritual background.

I don’t feel the need to talk to them about race or hot-button racial issues, though. I already enjoy them, I don’t need to try to figure out how I can be friends with more of them. That’s not my focus.

My focus is to love Jesus and His people. When that happens, I get to be friends with all kinds of people – white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and all other ethnicities. We’re all uniquely gifted and have different cultural insight; God knows that and uses that. When we come together, we can do awesome things for the kingdom and spread the gospel message to places unreached. That’s our collective focus.

We don’t need to be focused on the color of people’s skin; we need to be focused on the status of their hearts. We need to want to see people know Christ. And when we do that, He’ll bring about diversity.

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