Saturday, June 20, 2015

Race, Racism, Culture, and Problems

In my small and relatively insignificant corner of the world, topics of race, racism, white culture, black culture, and the problems related to all of the above have been on my mind and heart heavily for the last few weeks. This has been a topic within my church (the Presbyterian Church in America), where it was the center of many conversations at our annual General Assembly last week. It has been a topic in the national news, when—as you already know, unless you’ve been out of touch with any news whatsoever—an avowed white supremacist entered an African Methodist Episcopal church in my home state and gunned down nine members of that congregation. It has been a topic within my own family for other more personal reasons. 

It’s a topic that I cannot avoid—not that I’m trying to avoid it, nor am I interested in doing so. Nevertheless, I’ve been reluctant to enter the fray regarding this topic, not least because I’ve felt that anything I may have to say about it is probably already being said much better by someone else, and on the other hand my own words about it would likely get drowned out by the many, many voices speaking up about it. 

But it is an important topic, and one that has rightly come front and center for the last year (beginning with the events and injustices in Ferguson, MO—another place and event that was close to me, as I called St. Louis home for longer than anywhere else other than my hometown. It has also been on my mind for the last year because, last summer, my family moved back to the Memphis, TN area, and as we re-acclimated to the culture here I’ve been reminded more times than I would like just how deeply Memphis and the Mississippi Delta region have been in the thick of racial tension for the last half-century and more.

As much as I’ve read about this vital issue, there are some things that I have yet to see someone articulate—or state in the way I would, from the perspective that I have—that may be worth hearing/reading. So I have set out to put a few thoughts into words and sentences, which hopefully will add to the many well-stated articles and blog posts out there as a voice of harmony: not singing the same “melody" as the rest, but also not so dissonant that it undermines the important words of others either.

(I’ve put these in “bullets” not because they are all that brief but due to the fact that the paragraphs below are related only loosely to each other.)

  • The last day of General Assembly for the PCA (and particularly from about 7pm on) was incredibly moving, humbling, and, overall, a powerful and large step in the right direction. I am grateful that my denomination seems poised to take real action, from the highest levels on down, to make confession of our sins regarding racial injustice, inequality, and indifference. It is encouraging to see those who sometimes (and even frequently) disagree come together in unity to act on this. Yet I find myself wrestling with temptation to be pessimistic, and even cynical, about the possibilities of how this will play out: too many times, an action like this one (where something substantial happens at a denominational level) can serve as an excuse or even cover for local congregations that need to do much, much more than just pass resolutions to simply give a nod toward the denomination’s action and little or nothing more. I pray that the small part of me that doubts will be astounded by how wrong I am.
  • Like many others, I applauded the words of one of the founding pastors of the PCA, Jim Baird, when he stood and gave assent to his own participation in racial injustice in the denomination’s early years. Like others, I recognized this publicly by posting a photo of him on Facebook and Twitter, calling his action “brave, humble, and heroic.” I stand by my claim that this was indeed a powerfully humble thing; however, after being checked by my friend Jeremy, I have reconsidered whether it was truly “heroic”—and I think now I must say that, as great a moment as that was, it fell short of true bravery and heroism. In re-reading the transcript of what was said, there were ways in which Dr. Baird hedged his words a little too much, and qualified his positions and actions too frequently. I’m certain that saying what he did took great humility and no small amount of courage, but it also strikes me as falling short of what we needed to hear from one of our remaining founding fathers: that the actions of many PCA churches were not just indifferent but aggressively (even if often passively) racist, that we need to repent of that as a denomination, and that local churches need to repent of that as congregations. Given the context—where he was in perhaps the very most favorable of all circumstances to make such a public confession—he would have had nothing to lose, and everything to gain, in making such a statement. It is impolite, I admit, to critique another man’s public confession of sin, and I apologize for that; but I feel the need to say it, as much to recant my own public statement as anything.
  • There’s something to be said for giving people credit for “progress” when it comes to growth with regard to their worldview and cultural mindset, such as how they think about racism and those of other races. I’ve heard, and said myself, qualifications like, “…considering that they grew up in a racially segregated culture…” But let’s keep that in check; the American Civil Rights movement began over 60 years ago, and even the oldest generations among us have lived more than two-thirds of their lives under its influence. It’s time to stop giving a pass to people who persist in racist behavior (even—and especially—when it is more subtle and passive) just because they are old. I know a man who, in his 50s, decided to stop going by “Dick” and start self-identifying as “Richard” because he recognized that the former made some people uncomfortable. If he can change his very identity for something so relatively insignificant, who among us is unable to strive to change something that is as important as racism?
  • I’ve heard and read the words of a number of people criticizing public officials for “politicizing” the shooting at Emmanuel AME Church of Charleston, SC. This doesn’t make any sense to me; isn’t this precisely what we both need and expect our civic leaders to do in a moment of local, national, and cultural crisis? It may be idealistic and even naïve of me, but I think that is actually what they are there for. Politicians are put into office to serve their constituencies, and service to them at this moment should look like a compassionate display of commitment to stand against such acts, as well as the motivations that beget such acts. Or, put another way: if circumstances like what we’ve seen this week are not the very reason for our civic leaders, then we actually have a very low view of the offices they hold (and should cease complaining when they “don’t lead” in other occasions).
  • One thing that has struck me is just how deep the racist divide goes in terms of an “us vs. them” mentality, and how this affects the way people speak. At General Assembly, I heard someone say that they hoped that the African-American pastors in the PCA could/would “teach us” (my emphasis) how to relate to “them” more inclusively. I’ve read, in response to the Charleston shooting, that “we” (referring, of course, to white people) need to see this as the racially-motivated crime that it is. If true racial reconciliation is going to occur culturally—within the church and/or outside of her—then white people have to stop talking like this! “We” includes black people and white people, as well as hispanics, asians, and other ethnicities and/or races. Do I think about the fact that every time I say “we” or “us” and mean white people, I may be inadvertently setting up my black, asian, or other non-white brothers and sisters as outsiders? (I do now.)
  • The shooting at Emmanuel AME was unquestionably a racist act, and as such fits the bill as a “hate crime.” It was a crime that was deeply rooted in sin and specifically in the disregard for the lives of others. Yes; AND, it’s also an act that should call us to consider how guns come into play in crimes like this. Sure, he could have used a knife, an axe, or a match—but he didn’t. (And can we agree that he probably would have been subdued without killing as many, at least, as he did, had he been using a knife or an axe?) We have sin problems in our culture, we have race problems, and we also have gun problems. Arguing that “guns are not the issue” is simply a false dichotomy and, in my opinion, willfully turning a blind eye to one of the pressing matters that also needs to be addressed, along with race and sin. Can we quit treating these as if they are simple “either-or” issues? (I say this as a gun owner, by the way.)
  • It so happens that I am preaching tomorrow; I seriously considered setting aside the sermon I was planning to preach, and instead turning to Scripture to exhort the congregation about race and racism. I’m not going to, because I’m not the pastor of the congregation I’m preaching to and that is really his ministry to them, not mine. That said: if your pastor hasn’t seized upon the many cultural moments that have presented opportunity to preach about the problems of race and racism in our world, perhaps you should ask him why he hasn’t. The reconciliation of the gospel is not only about racial reconciliation (and some pastors err in seemingly trying to make it so), but it certainly does include racial reconciliation. You—and me, and all of us who sit under the preaching of God’s Word—both need and deserve to be taught and ministered to on that topic, especially when the topic is so pressing culturally.

Well, that’s all I have to say for now. Thanks, as always, to my tens of readers (if you’ve made it this far) for checking in.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Pep Rallies and Denominational Divides

…Or, why I don’t fit into “categories” (and I don’t think you do either)

If you’re into the “inside baseball” of denominational polity—and perhaps especially within the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)—then the last couple of days have probably been an occasion for pondering and assessment. A couple of days ago, the latest issue of byFaith magazine (the PCA’s denominational publication) came in the mail, and yesterday byFaith’s website ( posted an article from it: “The State of the PCA” by Dr. Bryan Chapell. On the heels of that, today saw the publication of a response on the Reformation21 website: “Dear Bryan: Replying to ‘The State of the PCA’" by Dr. Rick Phillips.

Both articles are written by respected and influential men in the PCA. Dr. Chapell is the President Emeritus of the PCA’s Covenant Theological Seminary, a seasoned pastor, the author of a number of books, and the current (and soon-to-be outgoing) moderator of the denomination. Dr. Phillips is a leader and board member of a number of familiar ministries (the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, The Gospel Coalition) as well as Westminster Theological Seminary, and is also a seasoned pastor and published author. While I don’t know Dr. Phillips personally, I do happen to have some background with Dr. Chapell—he was my professor at seminary, and also offered personal counsel to me on more than one occasion. What I know to be true of Dr. Chapell is, I am certain, also true of Dr. Phillips: these are men who deeply love Christ and his church, are committed to the advance of the gospel, and long for greater unity within the PCA.

Good Intentions

So I take for granted the fact that both articles have as their intent the goals of giving clarity to what has sown division among our denomination, and also identifying hoped-for paths toward overcoming that division. What I wonder, however, is whether the approach that these articles employ is useful to reach those goals—or are they actually counterproductive?

Both Dr. Chapell and Dr. Phillips do a fine job—though at different points—of highlighting areas where division rests. As I read each piece, I found things to affirm and agree with, recognizing wisdom in how they exposed particular problems in the PCA. It’s probably fair to say that, if you want to get an accurate picture of how to divide up the various members of the PCA according to categories, you should read both of these articles and generate something of a synthesis.

My question is: why do you want to divide us up that way?

Pep Rallies

I went to Hammond School, a small private school, from first to twelfth grade. It happened that this school had a pretty strong athletic program (regularly winning state championships in football, basketball, baseball, and soccer), and during my time there that was a point of great pride and unity among the student body. (That athletic tradition still continues, and is still a minor source of pride: “our” football team has gone to the state championship for the last eight years straight, winning six of those; both the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams competed in the state finals this year, and the boys’ team won it.)

Pep rallies at Hammond were an interesting experience. They were raucous, energetic events—we knew that this was one of the things that brought us together the most. Yet, there would inevitably be a point where the emcee would introduce some sense of intra-school competition, usually in the form of, “Which class can cheer [read: yell] the loudest?”

Was it the lowly freshmen? The coming-into-their own sophomores? The restless juniors? The confident seniors? Maybe even the rowdy eighth graders or the barely-adolescent seventh graders?

The thing is: this was a very small school. My graduating class had 34 members (so, yes, I finished in the top 30 of my graduating class). The whole K-12 student body was smaller than my wife’s single class. I had good friends who were four and five grade-levels above me, and by the time I graduated I knew most of those students below me down to the seventh grade. I still keep in touch with a number of fellow Hammond students (mostly via Facebook); recent sudden deaths of alums, even though not a part of my own class, stung as though they had been in my year.

Because the student body was so small, almost every school activity included students spanning four and five grade levels: school plays were for seniors and seventh graders alike; the chorus had eighth grade students alongside juniors. Varsity sports might celebrate a senior with several years’ experience behind him, while also starting a ninth grader (or sometimes even younger). There was much, much more unity among the student body than there was division, at least compared to most other schools. 

Though I didn’t realize it as much at the time, in retrospect it is clear that the purpose of grade levels like sophomore, junior, and senior at Hammond was more a function of academic progress than much else. Which is why the dynamic at pep rallies always seemed a bit contradictory and out of place. These were real categories, to be sure, and they mattered—but they were so far from embodying the real identities of the students themselves that appealing to them rang false.

They Don’t Fit

That’s how I feel about the imposed categories by Drs. Chapell and Phillips as well. I’m sure that there are pastors, ruling elders, and perhaps even whole congregations that line up tightly and tidily into the categories laid out in those two articles—just as I am confident that some of my Hammond classmates felt a much closer identification with their class-year than I did. But I don’t know many (if any).

Breaking it down a bit, with myself as an example:

  • Dr. Chapell offered a point of division the PCA by broad age categories—which Dr. Phillips questioned, and rightly so. While generational experiences always matter in terms of how we understand our world, my own experience has consistently been that age matters only so much. Meanwhile, I’ve always found great affinity with older ministers and been able to work alongside them easily. Which age demographic do I fit better with, Dr. Chapell?
  • I agree with Dr. Phillips’ assessment of the reasons and need to embrace the “cultural isolation” that Christians are increasingly facing; yet I also agree with Dr. Chapell’s claim (and hope) that there is still a place for “winning a hearing for a credible faith” as a means of influencing, if not the collective culture, then the individual culture-makers that we each encounter. And I’m suspicious of both takes, insofar as they seem to hold cultural change and impact as a metric for the faithfulness of ministry. So which “camp” am I a part of when it comes to culture, Dr. Phillips?
  • It seems that an underlying difference that neither is willing to directly call out is the fundamental, 15-year-old debate (still raging behind the scenes) over “good faith” vs. “full” or “strict” subscription to our theological standards. This is the meta-issue beneath so much of what is discussed in these articles: some members of the PCA believe we opened the door to potential theological liberalism (or “progressivism”), while others believe that the best way forward is down the path we have taken. I’ve blogged about this before and obviously I come down on the side of being in favor of “good faith” subscription; nevertheless, almost all of my own exceptions are matters of “semantic” difference and not theological ones, and would probably pass the smell test for a “full subscription” examination. Still, the “full subscription” folks wouldn’t have me, because I’m open to the idea of “good faith” subscription in general. 
  • Meanwhile, both Dr. Chapell and Dr. Phillips use terms like “progressive” and “confessionalist” (or “traditionalist” as Dr. Chapell has it)—which strike me as false dichotomies. The values attributed to each are not mutually exclusive, and every value deserves a place of emphasis in proper context. Are they simply saying that some of us err in misplacing emphasis at times? We all do that. All of these are highly-charged terms that entrench more than they helpfully qualify. 

To be fair, it is acknowledged (by Dr. Chapell directly, and I assume Dr. Phillips would agree) that these are not universal categories, but that they are common ones. I guess I would openly challenge that premise, recognizing that if that premise fails then the whole argument collapses.

How Does This Help?

One thing they both agree on is that there is a disconcerting degree of factioning in the PCA, and that we are dependent on particular factors (especially external ones) to overcome the divisions marked by these factions. This is not, in fact, the first time that we’ve been told this. At least three times in the past decade I can recall articles or presentations that sought to give a “state of the PCA” description and that essentially boiled us down to how we are divided.

What I keep asking myself is, “How does saying this over and over help the situation?"

I’m not sure that it helps at all. I think it might be hurting things a bit.

A few weeks ago, a few friends on Facebook linked to an article wherein an activist for homosexual civil rights was cited as saying that the ultimate goal of seeking the legalization of “gay marriage” was to obliterate the institution of marriage entirely. These Facebook friends and others were doing the digital equivalent of jumping up and down while pointing and angrily crying out, “You see? I knew it! They all want to destroy marriage!"

On one of those posts, though, a mutual acquaintance who happens to be homosexual commented, “That may be her goal, but it’s not everyone’s goal."

This is an important point that we shouldn’t miss: just because one person avows something, it does not necessarily make them a representative of all the rest of their “category”—even if they say that it does. Even if they are a recognized voice that often speaks for that category. The truth is that people are much more complex than that.

So it is in the PCA too: we hear or read something by someone in another “camp” and we infer conclusions about the whole camp through it. When we do that, our factions become more deeply divided and entrenched in our opposition. We turn against each other more readily and with greater perceived right to do so.

What if that which we are dependent upon to overcome divisions are not external factors but internal ones? What if the way through this as a denomination is to quit focusing so much on what divides?

A Team Sport

The kind of article that Drs. Chapell and Phillips have penned often set the tone for General Assembly—poorly. We read them, then we go in watching for the factions and picking sides. I think that’s a mistake.

In the end, General Assembly should be much like a pep rally (yes, I’m oversimplifying). It’s a chance to hear the voices from the different classes calling out their various cheers, and recognizing where we are different in good-natured ways that nevertheless are overcome by the ultimate unity behind the true goal: our team is in play.

When a team takes the field, every player has a different role. The goalie doesn’t often take shots on the opposing goal; the quarterback doesn’t usually make interceptions; the pitcher doesn’t field fly balls at the fence. They need each other to accomplish the purposes they have been given as a team—together.

Dr. Chapell closed his article saying that he hoped, "the great battle will lead to new levels of graciousness to each other and dependence upon the grace of our Savior.” Dr. Phillips agreed with that hope, but cautioned that his fear is that "the very thing which divides us is our approach to this common enemy, so that it is perhaps more likely that we will pull apart.” But I Corinthians 12:12–27 suggests that both of these statements are missing something: we’re not only dependent upon the grace of our Savior to extend that kind of grace to each other; we are, by the grace of our Savior, also dependent upon each other.

If you follow my analogy above, you’ll see where I’m going with this. Dr. Chapell (who, Dr. Phillips suggested, leans slightly to the “progressive” side) needs Dr. Phillips’ “confessionalist” approach to round out the team. Dr. Phillips needs Dr. Chapell, too. I need my confessionalist friends to check my progressive tendencies, and I need my progressive friends to motivate them. I need my progressive friends to balance out my confessionalism, and my confessional friends to encourage them.

In spite of my wondering about the value of either article, I agree with Dr. Phillips’ final statement as an urging toward this team spirit: “It is essential that we love one another and seek venues in which our personal and pastoral understanding may be increased.” May it be so.