(To read Part I, click here. To read an explanation of the title “Friday Night Frozen Dinner and an Intellectual,” see the links section on the right side of the screen.)
I expected to find areas of disagreement with the second half of Edward Gilbreath’s Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity. I expected to vehemently disagree with his chapter entitled “Is Jesse Jackson an Evangelical?” However, I was surprised to find no major points in which I could disagree with Gilbreath. The author made a conscious decision to avoid making moral judgments upon political matters. “I have learned the hard way that it’s best not to talk politics among friends, especially when they’re evangelical—you might get your head bitten off.” In referring to conservative evangelicals, Gilbreath admits to sharing many of their moral instincts which led him to vote Republican: “In fact, whether I like to admit it or not, I’m generally one of them. Up until the 2004 election, there was never any doubt which party would get most of my votes. Though I have long identified myself as an Independent, the white evangelical influence runs deep in my bones. After college, I instinctively voted for Republican candidates because I figured that’s what I was supposed to do as an evangelical.” I suppose white evangelicals, including myself, always expect minorities to be liberal in both theology and politics. I remember a good friend of mine, a white evangelical, predicting that Clarence Thomas would be a liberal justice once he was confirmed to the Supreme Court. So I guess some of that state of mind played into my expectation that I would be disagreeing with Gilbreath on a number of issues. I also did not expect Gilbreath to defend conservative African Americans who have aligned themselves with the Republican Party. He included the chapter, “God is not a Democrat or Republican,” partly to defend conservative black evangelicals from attacks made by liberal black evangelicals. He quotes one black evangelical: “The Klan in Memphis when I was a boy denied me the right to think what I wanted. We shouldn’t get to a time in our lives when our own people deny us the same right to think.” Gilbreath is concerned that politics has divided the African American church as much as it has divided white Christians from each other. And he is rightly concerned with conservative evangelicals identifying their political positions with the gospel itself, as well as loosing sight of God’s love for those whom they disagree with.
Gilbreath uses the life of Martin Luther King Jr. to illustrate how white evangelicals have separated social issues from the gospel message. He points out that King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” was written to clergymen who felt that it was not for Christians to actively challenge social injustice. He quotes King from this document: “In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I’ve heard so many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern,’ and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.” Like John Wesley, King believed that Christians engaging society on behalf of those most vulnerable was a natural outgrowth of God’s love dwelling within Christians. Gilbreath quotes King: “The church once changed society. It was the thermostat of society. But today I feel that too much of the church is merely a thermometer, which measures rather than molds public opinion.” As Gilbreath points out, white evangelicals operate according to the same philosophy today in engaging society on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. “Political engagement is no longer taboo for conservative believers.” However, conservative believers can be charged with separating themselves from the poor, they can be charged with making the gospel message purely about individual salvation while ignoring what Wesley called “social holiness.” One of the most damaging wounds to evangelicalism was self-inflicted; the white evangelical church refused to get involved with the civil rights movement. And its current failure to make itself visible in the struggle against the social ills plaguing minorities today makes it appear more and more irrelevant.
As I wrote above, I was surprised at the chapter on Jesse Jackson. It was a balanced portrait of Jackson, dealing with the good and the bad. However questionable Jackson’s theology and actions, Gilbreath believes Jackson’s true legacy will be those African American Christians who he inspired to minister to those within and without the church. Many African Americans credit Jackson with teaching them to reject the separation of the sacred and secular that so incensed Dr. King. Gilbreath quotes Dwight Perry: “What I find missing in a lot of evangelical Christianity is a focus on the importance of social justice. We understand the evangelistic part, but there is still a need for someone to cry out for justice. Jessie fills that void for a lot of us.” Even though my feelings toward Jackson are still mainly negative, I am glad to know that his influence has born fruit in the ministry toward those in need. Gilbreath acknowledges that Jackson’s old school tactics need to be replaced, as well as Jackson’s moral failures and his pursuit of publicity. Yet he educates readers concerning the roots of Jackson’s rage, as well as his desire to be seen and heard. He quotes Jackson about growing up in the shadow of Bob Jones University, “which had the audacity to preach to us about having saved lives while they advocated a white supremacist God.” Jackson has spoken of his father who served as a janitor in white churches: “The strange thing…was that my father could clean up a church on Sunday afternoon but couldn’t attend it on Sunday morning.”
What are key steps in producing true racial reconciliation with the Church? In interactions with evangelical leaders of all races, Gilbreath focuses on intentionality among the pastoral staff and on the role of the lead pastor in particular. He states that there must be a healthy mix of races, genders, and cultural backgrounds on the pastoral staff. But just a visual demonstration of multicultural ministry is not enough. The pastoral staff must clearly articulate a multicultural vision continually lest the vision slowly perish. And it is the lead pastor who has the greatest influence on congregations accepting the vision. “Our local church pastors,” Gilbreath writes, “may not all be as dazzling as T.D. Jakes or Rick Warren, but back home at their average size churches, they set the tone. That’s why in the evangelical movement’s pursuit of racial reconciliation, the role of the preacher cannot be stressed enough. For many believers, whether or not they embrace the call to racial unity in the church is often a direct result of the premium their pastors place on it.”
Gilbreath cites Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s book Divided by Faith as identifying the key obstacle to true racial reconciliation within the evangelical church: the individualistic gospel preached by white Christians. He quotes African American pastors echoing this view: “Evangelical theology has robbed the church of a healthy dialogue on race relations, because everything that is not primarily about evangelism—like godly social justice—is put on the shelf as secondary.” Evangelical preachers preach a gospel that is primarily concerned with how one gets to heaven, while ignoring issues concerning social holiness, which is a major theme throughout scripture. Without a recovery of social holiness, there will be no racial reconciliation. With the loss of social holiness, the church has lost its prophetic voice. If social holiness is not restored, then perhaps white Christianity will be supplanted by Christianity with third world origins. (I am speaking for myself in this last sentence.)