Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Its been about a year and a half since the feature “Friday Night Frozen Dinner and an Intellectual” has appeared on this blog. (See the links section at the right for an explanation of this title.) One of the last entries in this series (10/9/10) highlighted some of the best articles appearing on Edward Gilbreath’s Reconciliation Blog. This post and the next will examine Gilbreath’s 2006 book Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity. This is one of those books that has been on my radar screen for a long time, but has taken me years to get around to reading. Much of the current discussion upon race is highly toxic and even Christians can add to its toxicity. Gilbreath writes with a disarming style which prepares white evangelical readers to be open to his rebuke of the white evangelical establishment. Part autobiography, Gilbreath explains how his life long mission is to bring about racial reconciliation among the races within Evangelicalism. He brings to our attention the heartbreak black evangelicals have experienced in attempting to be viewed as equals within the evangelical church. He also identifies what he believes are the obstacles within evangelical institutions that prevent African Americans and other minorities from becoming equal partners with whites in the work of advancing God’s Kingdom.

When Reconciliation Blues was published, Gilbreath was editor at large for Christianity Today. He also had experience working at other evangelical organizations. In serving these organizations, he was the only African American, or one of the very few, among a vast majority of white coworkers. He shares his own frustrations as well as others in working in such an environment: “Others share…observations about being disconnected, patronized, marginalized, misunderstood. Yet, like me, they know that the evangelical world is where they belong. For better or worse, this is where God has called us to serve him. This is home.”  He writes of the loneliness of acting as a representative of his race while being stifled in the process; the pain of “being invited to the table but shut out from meaningful decisions about that table’s future.” Once, his superiors told him that if too many articles on the black church were featured, white readers would be offended. Gilbreath defines “reconciliation blues” as the knowledge that in matters of race, it is business as usual, even within the Church.  

Many blacks have abandoned white evangelical institutions. Gilbreath states that the average tenure for blacks working at such institutions is four years. Many blacks have even abandoned the term “evangelical,” even though they still believe the gospel message the term is supposed to convey. Gilbreath quotes one such discouraged  worker: “I reject the evangelical label; I am a Christian. Although I understand the term to refer to people who share their Christian faith, I have never used it to identify myself because of its cultural and political overtones (i.e., white Chrisitan conservatism).” Gilbreath laments this, as he likes the term. To him, the term encompasses what he believes about the Christian life. In particular, it conveys the necessity of being born again, having Jesus as the center of one’s life, and having a spirituality that is personal but not private. Yet he recognizes the difference between biblical Christianity and “the Christ of the white evangelical culture.”

Gilbreath quotes an African American preacher, Russell Knight, who defines racism while distinguishing it from prejudice. Anyone can be prejudiced against someone because of their race or class or culture. One is a racist when one is not only prejudiced against another but is also empowered by the system to hurt or harm the object of his prejudice. According to Knight, minorities in America cannot be racists because they have no power; only whites deserve the label racist. I’m not sure I accept the distinction. Before Hitler took power, was he merely prejudiced against the Jews and then only became a racist when he and the Nazis took power? What about someone who is currently a member of the KKK? Eighty years ago, the Klan was a senior partner in the white power structure in Southern States. It actively used its power to harm blacks. Today, the Klan is powerless to stop the progress of African Americans. Are Klan members now merely prejudiced? Gilbreath quotes Knight because it was a sermon by Knight in a student chapel service that changed Gilbreath’s life. That sermon destroyed Gilbreath’s complacency concerning his own position within the white evangelical world. From that point on, he began his transformation from silent integrator to one who would be a voice for racial reconciliation. I am curious if Gilbreath accepts Knight’s distinction between prejudice and racism. I wonder if that distinction plays a role in Gilbreath’s thinking today. Perhaps I’ll get my answer next Friday when I read the second half of the book.

Many whites, including evangelicals, think that with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, racism has disappeared from American life. Gilbreath knows better. While African Americans are protected against discrimination by law, more subtle forms of racism exist. Gilbreath and others refer to this as institutional racism. Where does institutional racism appear? In failures of public schools in urban areas. In imbalances in the criminal justice system. In the financial world; it is a fact that blacks and Hispanics are charged higher rates of interest by banks. The Church in America certainly has a history of institutional racism. I never knew that Martin Luther King’s application to an evangelical seminary was denied because he was black. His only other option was a theologically liberal school. Gilbreath sees that the problem of racism in the evangelical Church will not disappear until evangelical institutions accept multi-racial leadership on boards and presidencies. Gilbreath states that progress will be seen only when whites are willing to be led by people of color. One obstacle to this happening is money. Christian organizations do not want to offend their funding base. “Whether it’s a matter of donors,” Gilbreath writes, “subscribers or even Church members, it’s a lot easier-and cheaper-to keep an existing patron than to find a new one. When Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6: 24), he was foreshadowing one of the fundamental complications of running a Christian organization today. Ask any pastor or ministry leader; it’s a crazy balancing act. Yet it speaks to the heart of where our priorities are, and who we are as a people of God.” Gilbreath is not hopeful that things will change with the emergence of a new generation. While the young make a great noise about challenging the status quo, they are most likely to fall into the same pattern as their predecessors. “Like daytime soap operas, the actors may change but the storylines endure.”

Gilbreath’s life changed after hearing Russell Knight preach concerning racism in the Church. But Knight also spoke concerning racial reconciliation. He quoted 2Cor. 5:20: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God was making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” Knight asked those present that day what kind of ambassadors for Christ they were. Were they ministers of reconciliation? Gilbreath dedicated his life to reconciliation from that day forth. He quotes someone else in defining reconciliation: creating a climate where people deal honestly with racial and cultural issues with an emphasis upon action so that leaders make changes based on feedback learned from dialogue. Reconciliation will be proven to have occurred when different styles of leadership and self expression are welcomed. People from all cultures will be considered capable of ministry and will not be expected to hide their cultural distinctives. Before he heard Knight speak, Gilbreath had read the word “reconciliation” in scripture, but had not realized its significance. In that student chapel service, he came to realize that reconciliation is the Christian’s job description.

The next half of the book deals with political issues. I know I will have some disagreements with Gilbreath. I know he voted for Obama. I did not.

Gilbreath has not posted anything on his Reconciliation Blog for over a year. He has concentrated on his other blog, Urban Faith. I have not had a chance to examine it for a while. 

Reconciliation Blues is published by Inter Varsity Press.

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