The problem of dissonance between “our people” and “the others” has been with us since the Fall. The lingering and stubborn challenge of race is a particularly acute example, and the evangelical movement has not escaped its thorns. How might this “good news” tradition better address this challenge?
Let’s first discuss the label. American evangelicalism really took off in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and distilled Christianity to four essentials: the authority of the Bible, personal conversion experiences, salvation by Christ’s work on the cross, and an active life of faith expressed in mission and personal piety. Though both the evangelical movement and its theology have aspired to a model of complete fidelity to these essentials, the record has been mixed.
As an African American who has inhabited the evangelical ethos since my time as an undergraduate, I have great appreciation for the commitment to biblical truth and efforts to encourage a serious faith that aspires to heed to the full sweep of God’s revelation. I am also acutely aware of its unfulfilled promise. Evangelicalism’s witting and unwitting captivity to and complicity with the modern project of race, or its embeddedness in whiteness, has too often confined its commitments and practices to a narrow set of cultural assumptions that wind up resisting the proper inclusion and support of minorities. Though various evangelical institutions and communities may have set forth promises to be more inclusive, the captivity to European and a subset of American social, cultural, and political norms tends to guarantee that minorities will continue to sing the “reconciliation blues” and several other types of laments. At base, this is the result of a failure to follow the two greatest commandments, to love God above all and our neighbours as ourselves. Another way of putting this is more pointed: In spite of evangelicalism’s proclaimed commitment to biblical authority, evangelicalism often fails to be properly biblical.
For many minorities, this indictment is substantiated by their experiences in evangelical settings. In my observation (personally and through research), there is a common narrative flow for this experience within the evangelical movement, and it falls generally into four phases:
- A delight phase, in which there is excitement about being part of a church, parachurch group, or educational institution with strong commitments to the Bible, great fellowship, and an emphasis on strong Christian commitment.
- A dissonance phase, in which one discovers differences in political commitments (e.g., an African American whose family and home church was committed to the Democratic Party discovers the political commitments expressed in their evangelical context are largely Republican).
- A distress phase, in which one discovers that there is more than a single area of dissonance and that social and cultural norms determine and limit what count as legitimate theological concerns (questions of race excluded) and multiple efforts to have certain questions taken seriously are addressed poorly or not at all.
- A decision phase, in which one considers whether to stay and struggle or leave.
For many, the decision phase is followed by the conclusion that evangelicalism as a movement and evangelical theology as an articulation of Christian faith, tried and found guilty, should be abandoned for another community and theology more committed to justice and the flourishing of those who are non-white. The kinds of frustrations expressed in William Pannell’s My Friend, the Enemy, Ed Gilbreath’s Reconciliation Blues, Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism, and podcasts like Pass the Mic’s “Leave Loud” series are those of people who are exhausted by the ways in which the evangelical community seems unable or unwilling to contend with the distortions of faith in a racialized society.
What could be a response when some reach the understandable conclusion that it is reasonable (or for some, necessary) to exit from evangelicalism as a movement? One must first admit that this is a legitimate response to an unfiltered, realist view of common African American experiences within evangelicalism. An exit strategy can have a certain appeal as a prudential response to a lamentable situation. But I do not think this is the only option.
An important opportunity lies amid the struggle (or resistance) of many white evangelicals to acknowledge the contextual nature of what is alleged to be simply Bible-based evangelical theology. Many evangelical Christians claim to be open and submissive to the entire sweep of Scripture without undue privilege of contemporary contexts; if true, this reveals a desire to welcome the full implications of the teachings of Scripture. This disposition (or at least the aspiration thereof) of openness to Scripture as God’s authoritative Word indicates the possibility for producing a better evangelical theology because submission and openness to God ought to mean a refusal to close off the possibility of greater understanding of the faith and ongoing refinement of the faith in practice.
To move forward also requires reckoning with one other vital dimension essential to the identity of those under the label “evangelical” (including those who may not use the label but fit the description): evangelical theology at its best should be the ongoing product of the collective effort of those from the diverse ethnic, denominational, and traditional backgrounds that intersect at the common context of beliefs that constitute evangelical identity. It is important that this is an ongoing product because Christian beliefs are confessed and put into practice in a variety of times and places. Perennial questions may be present; some questions may emerge, fade, and re-emerge; and some questions may emerge uniquely from particular contexts.
Genuine progress on the path forward requires a disposition I call a perpetual uneasy conscience, the result of taking seriously the pursuit of the full meaning of Scripture along with a genuine willingness to be open to aspects of God’s transforming work that may require acts of repentance and responses of renewal. On race and other matters, a perpetual uneasy conscience is a disposition of genuine concern about the ways a movement and theology with “gospel” as its root identity has failed to convey “good news” in word and deed, particularly regarding minority concerns. This disposition would also exhibit concern that in the United States, the optimistic “American” character of the evangelical ethos tends to be resistant to forms of teaching and worship that could prompt the expressions of lament and repentance that attend genuine acknowledgement of failures. Many likely struggle to have an uneasy conscience given the overall tendency toward positive messaging in evangelical culture and a general lack of a theology of suffering.
In spite of evangelicalism’s proclaimed commitment to biblical authority, evangelicalism often fails to be properly biblical.
An evangelical disposition with a perpetual uneasy conscience is not a trigger for white guilt, but a matter of necessity in order to have the emergence of a better evangelical theology and movement. To do this will likely require shifts in theological-ethical emphasis in order catalyze the formation of a perpetual unease. It also requires the sombre task of truly feeling the weight of the past and present. This further includes an openness to God and his Word in a way I once heard mentioned by Sarah Coakley, paraphrased as follows: “A theologian should always be ready to be disturbed by God.” To be disturbed by God is not a matter of threatening orthodoxy but truly a willingness to have an open heart and mind to God, which can lead to a greater grasp of and response to divine revelation. This is as much a matter of Christian formation as theological strategy. From the individual to the institutional level, a perpetual uneasy conscience prompts the question, How can we better proclaim and practice the good news? When this type of question is posed, one place to begin is with inviting other voices into the theological conversation.
The way forward requires more than the descriptive tasks of identifying the challenges for evangelical faith and the conditions for belief and practice that attend to the concerns of minorities. Though it is very important to explain how evangelical theologies have been inadequate or even harmful, it is equally important to pursue the constructive task of building a better evangelical theology.
What are some suggestions for the constructive path? I propose an emphasis on the doctrine of Scripture as living and active that informs us of truth and exposes the places in our lives where there is dissonance with the ways of God. In view of my argument above that one of the reasons for remaining in evangelicalism is the emphasis on biblical authority, it is important to consider how to get closer to a biblicism that leads to addressing rather than avoiding the questions and concerns of minorities in general and African Americans in particular. This view of Scripture as living and active can be particularly helpful for the emergence of a better evangelical theology because it gives direct attention to the function of God’s word conveyed in Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (NIV)
The posture of openness to Scripture entails a willingness and aspiration to be not only informed by the content of Scripture but also to have unveiled the condition of one’s heart and mind. To regard Scripture as living and active means having an awareness that falsehoods in belief and practice are likely to be exposed; evangelical Christians who regard Scripture in this manner reveal a willingness to be under the authority of God’s Word written and place themselves in the position to discover areas of truth, points of emphasis, and narrative arcs that will incline recognition of the need for a learner’s frame of mind. Of particular importance here is the willingness to have an openness where one is especially open to discoveries that may bring considerable discomfort; hard truths are likely be discovered along with calls for new trajectories of obedience to God and service to others.
With such a frame of mind, there is greater possibility for the recognition of and engagement with the biblical interpretation emerging from the scriptural engagement of minorities equally committed to the truth yet with different sets of contextual lenses and different areas of interpretive emphasis. One important example: This can enable greater attention to the ways Scripture exposes the challenges of race as indicative of expressions of human sin in corporate as well as individual dimensions (e.g., seen as violation of commands and the patterns of sin exposed and condemned in the Minor Prophets among other texts). Those who seek to learn from and yield to the full force of the living Word are in a position to better receive and convey the good news. Here each of us is asked: Do we really seek to know the full truth of Scripture, and are we really open and willing to learn and respond?
The question, How does the good news of Christ’s work of cross and resurrection lead us to a theology of survival? is expansive. When asked with African Americans in mind, it casts a wide net that extends from the literal matters of life and death experienced in the wake of past horrors and present reverberations of slavery and Jim Crow to the internal traumas (e.g., antitheses to good news) experienced within broader society and Christian communities. If the gospel is the announcement and experience of good news because of the victory that has come through Jesus, how do we speak of it and put it into practice in the wake of horror, including a reckoning with the fact that versions of “good news” were conveyed by Christians who supported and/or perpetrated these acts of dehumanization?
How to answer these questions? First, to speak of good news means there has been (and is) bad news. In addition to the recognition that an unfiltered recognition of the effects of depravity helps explain why humans have perpetrated horrors of all kinds (and that Christians can indicate open vistas of sanctification by their complicity in these horrors). Christian participation in the horrors in the past and present is an indication that such Christians have a need for sanctification in place of the actions that perpetrated or approved of the horrors. To admit complicity in horror is to be possibly on the path to becoming holy. This framing of the question inquires after dimensions of human estrangement, reverberations of the Fall manifested as dehumanization efforts such as chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws, and more subtle forms of personal and systemic racial animus. To reckon with the bad news means to truly believe humans (including Christians) can truly do their worst, all the way to building and maintaining systems of oppression.
An evangelical disposition with a perpetual uneasy conscience is not a trigger for white guilt, but a matter of necessity in order to have the emergence of a better evangelical theology and movement.
The good-news part of the answer includes the truth that questions of survival and theodicy are not addressed to a void. The horror is not unending. The arrival of God’s reign includes the announcement not only that God only sees suffering and hears cries of distress and lament but also that Christ’s work of cross and resurrection (as well as the arrival of the Spirit at Pentecost) brings both vertical reconciliation and horizontal transformation of persons, communities, and institutions. Just as the advent of sin reverberates beyond the breach between God and humans, Christ’s saving work reverberates beyond the benefit to individual persons, ultimately reclaiming and bringing shalom to the created order. Through Christ, God saves persons, but the kingdom also includes the good news that a new society is at hand. A society is far more than an atomistic collection of individuals who have experienced personal salvation; a society includes modes of interaction and a corporate identity, and ultimately a new world. This new society exists now, though imperfectly, and ought to be characterized (at least in part) by embodying the answer to these questions of theodicy and survival.
With this emphasis on the dimensions of Christ’s work that address questions of survival, we must further ask, If Christ through his death and resurrection has vanquished evil, conquered death, and brought new life, what theological and ethical imagination should be cultivated so that the proclamation and practice of the gospel not only speaks to concerns about survival but also opens the path to flourishing? Part of the answer: the good news of the kingdom includes the amazing truth that proximate forms of justice ought to occur among God’s people and be pursued where possible in society. The gospel is a message to be shared in word and deed as the new people of the new society seek God, asking for guidance to be “good news people,” true evangelicals. These true evangelicals are happy to say salvation is not by works (Ephesians 2:8–9), but they recognize that the grace of salvation has made it possible to do perform works (Ephesians 2:10) that include the pursuit of life together the shows the effect of the good news, works that include opposing racism (indeed living into the implications of Ephesians 2:11–22).
To close, briefly revisiting some of my work in The Spirit in Public Theology: Appropriating the Legacy of Abraham Kuyper can represent the pursuit of a better evangelical theology, particularly as a dimension of this fourth posture. In that book, I note that my experience with Kuyper has walked through the phases of delight, dissonance, distress, and decision. My encounter with Kuyper via his Lectures on Calvinism was at first wonderful, because in him I found a figure who gave me theological language for my interests in a theology of public engagement, particularly with his language of common grace. Before I finished the book, however, I encountered the remaining three phases because of Kuyper’s terrible views on race. It is no exaggeration to say that I came face to face with a figure whose words brought me delight but who then brought me to the place of decision because I had to contend with his racism. Beyond this I also had to further contend with the question of Kuyper’s associations with South Africa’s apartheid: Was he guilty of providing part of the theological basis for the crimes against humanity committed? I had a great crisis.
In the decision phase, I chose to continue to study Kuyper’s work while maintaining a critical engagement. I clearly face his failings on race (as well as his inability to transcend the intoxication of his great abilities) while appreciating and stewarding the aspects of his work that are helpful for discussions of public theology and the practice of Christian public engagement. In the book I make the connection between Kuyper’s doctrine of common grace and his doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit in creation, ultimately leading to the view that the Spirit’s work in creation enables and encourages public engagement as an expression of the responsible stewardship of the created order.
Looking back, I maintain this approach to a theology of public life, but I would now give emphasis to the work of the Holy Spirit in particular grace as well as common grace. Whereas common grace is God’s work of generosity to the creation that enables fruitful obedience to the cultural mandate in Genesis 1:26, 28, the Holy Spirit’s work in particular grace is important for providing the illumination to see, recognize, and respond to the possibilities for ongoing obedience to the cultural mandate due to the Holy Spirit’s common work of animating and preserving the creation. The work of the Spirit provides a double compulsion toward public engagement stemming from common and particular grace. Of course, it is one thing to speak about possibilities for public engagement and quite another to move from possibility to practice. It is here where I offer a suggestion of action that can address some of the specific concerns of African American evangelicals.
The Holy Spirit’s work in common grace and particular grace opens the pathway toward constructive Christian public engagement on questions of race in church and society. The double compulsion of the Spirit can provide the vision to recognize that we Christians have a perpetual opportunity to seek after the construction of forms of society where there is consistent commitment to the flourishing of all—true common good. This common good in society is not pursued as an act of fanciful imagination but as creative projects always subject to refinement and revision; some fruit of common grace may cross into the heavenly city, but not all. Specifically, this is the building of systems of politics, public health, economic life, education, the arts, and more. Because we live in a world full of centuries of system-building, this pursuit of the common good for all requires attention to what has worked somewhat well and what has not, along with cultivating proposals for better systems. (Context will, of course, enable greater possibilities in some societies more than others. The United States is a place where there can be genuine human agency; North Korea, less so.) What this means in terms of racism is not only asking whether white supremacy is baked into systems but also considering which ones can be improved and which ones need replacement or radical transformation. Because this work is the work made possible by common grace, it is important to emphasize that this is a great human task. Common grace makes possible positive contributions from those outside the church as well as those from Christians (there can be partnerships), though here I want to emphasize the opportunity for God’s people to be the architects of systems that promote the common good (or human flourishing).
Though it is very important to explain how evangelical theologies have been inadequate or even harmful, it is equally important to pursue the constructive task of building a better evangelical theology.
Here I wonder about a true “evangelical” possibility: Can evangelicals of all racial backgrounds own the possibilities stemming from God’s common grace and begin to work toward systems that bring imperfect, proximate good to all, particularly inviting the leadership and contributions of African Americans? Can those evangelicals given eyes to see possibilities for the responsible stewardship of creation begin to ask, What is our role in working in God’s world to bring good to all, especially those who contend with effects of racism? Will evangelicals (especially those in the majority) be sensitive to the Holy Spirit who compels them to serve God at least in part by building systems, indeed systems that Kuyper would not have imagined could include the prominent contributions of those whose lineage is from Africa? Can there be holistic mission on the terrain of common grace that is a “good news” public witness because one of its markers is the increased flourishing of African Americans? As I look back and forward in my engagement with Kuyper, I hope to provide one model of retrieval and recasting of the work of brilliant but flawed forebears.
The crisis is one in which there is surely a need for white participants to renew, refine, and enhance their approach to theology, but my emphasis makes prominent the need for non-white voices that make theological contributions that are incorporated into and even transform the work done by white evangelical theologians. Ultimately we need all hands on deck, and I am emphasizing the need to call for the contributions of non-whites who can make original contributions, who can run with what I begin to propose above as well as make their own proposals. This is an invitation for a renewal of evangelical theology and ethics. From the leadership to lay levels of the movement, in the past and present there have been those receptive to similar invitations in past decades; there has been occasional light. As one who believes the good news can produce good fruit, I hope what is offered here contributes to forms of theological fruitfulness that make for a more hospitable movement and much greater light in the future.
This essay is adapted from Vincent Bacote’s book published in 2021, Reckoning with Race and Performing the Good News.