In the 2013 book Aliens in the Promised Land, editor Anthony Bradley along with a number of other people of color who have served in predominantly white evangelical institutions explain in great detail why, as the subtitle has it, “minority leadership is overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions.”
Amongst the most searing of the essays is Lance Lewis’s on the issue of church planting and race. Lewis rightly raises an issue that Bradley likewise has mentioned many times over the years: Too often white evangelical church planting efforts (as well as large white evangelical churches) began with the assumption that established black churches could not really serve the needs of an area or serve as valid partners in gospel ministry.
Thus the work of racial reconciliation, so often discussed in the 2000s and 2010s, was too often really a work of ignoring the black church and attempting to assimilate black preachers and leaders into white spaces through suppressing historical black liturgical practices, theology, and preaching styles. Here is Lewis:
“To this day most evangelicals know very little about African-Americans, have little real contact with them, and, like most people in dominant societies, truly believe that their way is the best and only way. This lack of knowledge leads to evangelical denominations projecting their own misinformed views onto black people on the assumption that (they) know what’s best for blacks, their families, and their communities. … The black community has had over four hundred years to grow, cultivate, and enjoy a particular and unique church culture. Do we really think that they’re just going to give that up because evangelicals show up and say, ‘Okay, we’re here, now we can really start doing church right’?”
Lewis then goes on to further argue that the black community does not trust white evangelicals because, “It was evangelicals who not only closed their churches, but also their hearts, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Yet Lewis’s words and the broader warnings issued by Bradley and the other contributors back then mostly went unheard. So in 2018 at the MLK 50 event in Memphis, Charlie Dates would sound a similar note:
“And now today we are witnessing the emergence of a new generation of Americans that are fascinated with justice, but they haven’t met the author of righteousness. They are trying to get justice on the streets apart from understanding righteousness taught in our churches. And they will never find it. And at the same time, we have a church or at least some segments of it, that are preaching righteousness but will not fight for justice. Both of those are insufficient. Both are incomplete. Neither represent the full scope of God’s call upon us. And while I cannot speak for all black America, I do have the mic today and I’m on good historical grounds to propose to y’all that this is what has frustrated many black churches with our white evangelical brothers and sisters.
Those of you who have a firm grasp on orthodoxy, who understand the finer tenets of the gospel, who launch coalitions, who sustain commissions, and who produce curriculum and lobby with Congress. We have expected you to be our greatest allies in the struggle against injustice. … But instead of finding allies in the fight for justice on the grounds of righteousness, we have encountered antagonists. Instead of understanding our pain, we have been met with demands to justify our sentiments. Instead of you coming to our churches, moving into our neighborhoods, serving under our pastors, leveraging your privilege, we have had to move into your churches, read your theological heroes, march under your banner, and keep silent in your pews when Trayvon Martin was killed. … Instead of being able to be our expressive or contemplative selves in your churches, we have had to sit down and make you comfortable. We have had to learn all about you in seminary, but you ain’t never had to learn about us.”
This is the backdrop for what appears at this point to be the failure of racial reconciliation within reformed evangelicalism. So far as I can tell, that conversation, which once showed such promise, is over. The reasons why are not hard to discern. Lewis and Dates both told us why years ago: Too often, the movement was a shell game, less an attempt to reconcile racial groups and more an attempt to establish a veneer of racial diversity in predominantly white spaces by increasing the number of people of color in their midst without actually changing any of the practices, beliefs, and norms that had been there prior to “reconciliation.” Understood this way, reconciliation ought to fail because it is not authentic reconciliation.
And yet, even so, the command in Paul rings out across the centuries to God’s church even today: be reconciled to one another. Indeed, there may well be a sense that this command possesses a unique urgency in our own day, both because Christianity is genuinely a global faith and because we live in an America where disparate groups are self-radicalizing as they become divided from one another.
This polarization makes the call to bring together the proclamation of righteousness and pursuit of justice that much more difficult, that much more distant and daunting. Despite all of that, the biblical imperative coming down to us from St Paul, the Jewish apostle who God sent to speak to foreigners and strangers like my Greek ancestors so that we too could be grafted into God’s family, still shouts to us in our day of division and discord.
It is, then, with that twin realization, both that past calls for reconciliation were inadequate and that reconciliation must remain the goal, that I write against a recent essay penned by a teaching elder and a former teaching elder against still another teaching elder in my home church, the Presbyterian Church in America. The essay comes from the pens of Duke Kwon and Greg Thompson, written against Kevin DeYoung, who previously published a critical review of Kwon and Thompson’s book Reparations. (We have also published a review of Reparations.)
In his review, DeYoung criticized the book on several grounds, some more substantial than others. Indeed, the day of the review I ran a short piece on my personal blog noting, amongst other things, that DeYoung’s historical arguments were quite weak and evinced a lack of curiosity about the persistent effects of racial injustice in America. Yet for all its faults, DeYoung’s review had this one great strength: It sought to engage the issue on theological grounds. In so doing, it implicitly established the parameters in which the discussion about racialization and racial injustice must take place amongst Christians—within a domain in which the concerns of scripture and of theology are given preeminence. In particular, DeYoung sought to establish what the relationship between justice and grace is and how reparations can be practiced in ways that do not tacitly create a permanent division between those who once were thieves and those now receiving recompense for what was stolen. I disliked the way DeYoung sought to answer that question, to be clear, but it is an important question for us to consider.
In replying to DeYoung, Kwon and Thompson could have replied in kind, foregrounding the theological questions raised by DeYoung. Indeed, they could easily have made the case that on the merits of DeYoung’s own theology he should be far more concerned about justice than he seems to be from his rhetoric. There are ample resources for making this case, some of which they already develop in their book. One might consider the work of Herman Bavinck, who despised American racism and warned against the dangers of colonialism in 1911. B. B. Warfield was, likewise, a keen critic of American racism, after growing up in a slave-owning home in ante-bellum Kentucky.
Moreover, it was only a few years ago that Jacob and Rachael Denhollander presented a paper at ETS arguing that penal substitutionary atonement actually provided an especially profound and powerful basis for the pursuit of justice and healing in cases of serious abuse. The point, in any case, is that given their common ecclesiastical home, it would have been easy (and effective, one hopes) for Thompson and Kwon to critique DeYoung on chiefly theological grounds.
Unfortunately, this is not what they chose to do. Rather than highlighting points of tension between DeYoung’s stated theological principles and his argument in the review, they shifted the terms of debate away from theology and toward sociology, arguing that DeYoung only thought he was engaged in a theological project. In reality, they say, he is engaged in a cultural project and the theological language he uses is merely an accessory to the culture he seeks to preserve. This move is already a bad one for Christians to make on principle, I think. There has been a breakdown of some sort when Christians arguing with other Christians tacitly ally themselves with the modernist project of casting the queen of the sciences down from her throne.
The questions inherently raised by racialization, questions concerning the nature of the person and his relationship to nature and neighbor as well as questions of work, the telos of the human person, and the nature of property and ownership are all questions which theology furnishes us with resources for considering and responding to. DeYoung’s review, though lacking in its understanding of history and, at best, underdeveloped as it concerned questions of justice, was an attempt to do precisely that.
By framing the debate around questions of culture rather than theology, Kwon and Thompson inherently shift the terms on which the debate continues. Once the move to culture and away from theology is made, the argument is won or lost by legitimizing the connection one seeks to make between the theological posturing and the culture being protected. What this tacitly does is it shifts the debate away from theology—and thus from the domains that govern theology, scripture foremost, but also traditional church teachings—and into the sphere of what you might call sociology.
Such a move is not necessarily invalid, to be clear. If you are critiquing an ideology, it is worthwhile to discern how the ideology uses theological language and claims to serve its broader purposes. And yet this is a dangerous move for several reasons.
First, to foreground questions of power in the debate is to begin the debate on the wrong foot. Certainly, understanding power dynamics is essential to understanding countless contemporary dynamics. And yet if Christians are not able to relegate power to a secondary status in these debates, subservient to the sincere and mutual pursuit of truth set alongside the genuine possibility of persuasion, then it seems to me that the work of reconciliation is truly dead—and not simply racial reconciliation, but any kind of reconciliation.
Put another way: We should assume the sincerity and good faith of our critics unless given overwhelming reason to do otherwise. To use DeYoung’s review as an occasion for attacking white supremacy in reformed evangelicalism is not such an occasion. By doing so, the common church membership shared by all the authors in question is erased and replaced by a cultural power struggle in which the authors find themselves at odds with one another. Indeed, having spent the past five years in countless tiresome conversations with Trump-supporting evangelicals prepared to justify virtually anything if it gives us access to power, it is more than a little annoying to find people who are more-or-less on my own team in my home church making a similar move to shift debate away from an irenic and properly theological foundation and toward bare power.
There is a second problem here as well. Kwon and Thompson lead their essay with a breathtakingly reckless and irresponsible attack on DeYoung by suggesting that he is, in some sense, an advocate for white supremacy. In the first place, no matter what you say after that, simply making that remark destroys any possibility of persuasion with the overwhelming majority of conservatives in the PCA, many of whom have, in the past, voted in favor of resolutions condemning racial injustice and repenting of the PCA’s past racial sins. (The 2018 overture on racial reconciliation was passed by the denomination with 85% of general assembly commissioners voting in favor of it.) Of course, if the goal of the reply was simply to educate people who already agree with them, then I suppose they have their reward in full.
If, however, the goal was to persuade DeYoung or other conservatives, as it seems to be based on several remarks they make in the reply, then that accusation alone obliterates any chance of Kwon and Thompson achieving their goal. While they do try to qualify their claim, their qualifications will be lost on most readers, who are going to see the accusation and conclude, not unreasonably given the history of the term “white supremacy,” that DeYoung is being accused of spending his weekends terrorizing minorities while wearing a white sheet, or, perhaps even worse, that DeYoung is functionally enabling the people who do such things through his public performance of white supremacy.
Several more problems quickly present themselves given this method of critique: In the first place, if it is true that DeYoung is, in some sense, promoting white supremacy in his work, does it not follow that Kwon or someone else in the PCA should be bringing DeYoung up on charges? Moreover, if DeYoung is promoting white supremacy, then it seems safe to say that a large majority of the PCA is promoting white supremacy. Indeed, Kwon and Thompson’s reply invites such a reading because of the way they focus on DeYoung’s methodology, a methodology which is not uncommon in the PCA or conservative reformed circles more broadly. This also raises the question of whether or not Kwon’s presence in such a denomination does, in some way, implicate Kwon himself in the sin of white supremacy? (To his credit, Kwon does concede something like this point in Reparations.) On the other hand, if DeYoung is innocent of the charge, then does DeYoung have grounds to bring Kwon up on charges for violating the ninth commandment?
A further consequence of sidelining theology and making sociological claims central is that what theological reasoning there is in the reply is very hit-and-miss, sometimes missing quite egregiously, as in their conclusion where they say that,
What would it look like if we did this?
It would look like deliberately centering voices outside of our tradition—voices who have important and critical things to say to us, and not least, who have spoken about reparations for hundreds of years. It would look like seriously reckoning with the sin of our national and ecclesial history and refusing the temptation to garland them in exonerative myth. It would look like prioritizing and actively pursuing the well-being of our neighbors—on terms recognizable to them and at cost to ourselves. It would look, in other words, very much like what the Christian church refers to as grace.
The difficulty here is that none of the things they describe are actually grace. They are, rather, concerned with justice, which is a serious and sober calling given to all Christians, one that the white church in America has almost constantly failed to hear, as Lewis and Dates rightly said. Even so, the difference between grace and justice is significant and, indeed, a confusion of the two was precisely one of the animating concerns in DeYoung’s review.
Not only that, I wonder if this confusion actually weakens their argument. If attending to the voices of people of color, prioritizing the well-being of our neighbors, and so on is about grace, does that not imply that people of color do not have voices that are inherently worthy of being attended to? Grace, after all, is the giving of favor to someone who has not merited it. To anchor these desired outcomes in justice is to rightly insist that people of color ought to be heard and to receive what is their rightful due not because of grace but because their nature as human beings made in the divine image demands such a response from their neighbors.
Indeed, the basis for saying that reparations are owed to the descendants of slaves, and, frankly, to the descendants of many Native peoples as well as the descendants of those affected by more recent evils, is not that we offer them grace when we give reparations but, as Kwon and Thompson rightly insist elsewhere, because justice demands that restitution is made for what has been stolen. To suggest that the desired outcomes described at the end of the piece are grace is to seriously misrepresent their broader argument, and the error they make in introducing this confusion to their argument is, in fact, one of the problems that DeYoung raised in his review.
Finally, if we are speaking in theological terms, then, as Thomas teaches us, we should be careful in how we talk about “grace.” Properly understood, “grace” is something God gives, not man. It is true, of course, that we can be “gracious” in a colloquial sense or, perhaps, hospitable to our neighbors, which is a kind of grace, one might grant. And, obviously, white Christians have often failed in these ways in their relationships with people of color. Indeed, the backlash to the 2018 event where Dates spoke the words cited above is perhaps one of the most recent and vivid examples of that failure. Even so, to speak about these things as if they are ultimately concerned with grace rather than justice is, I think, a serious misstep on Kwon and Thompson’s part suggesting a lack of theological care which is not unsurprising given the way they set up their critique of DeYoung.
In a follow-up to the reply, Kwon explicitly expanded the scope of what needs to be restored to the victims of racial injustice in the US, noting that “black truth” is one of the things that has been stolen. The authors make the same move in their book, linking the theft of black truth with the theft of black power and black wealth. I can’t help but wonder if that move is indicative of where the breakdown has begun to open up in the ongoing conversation about racial justice within reformed evangelicalism.
Ordinarily, when we speak of something being “stolen” we are speaking of tangible goods. Indeed, even when we speak of more abstract things being stolen, such as “power” or, as we sometimes hear elsewhere, “identities,” the root claim beneath the abstraction tends to be tangible. The theft of “black power” manifests itself in specific ways as it relates to black wealth and agency. Likewise, “identity theft,” usually manifests itself as financial theft which is accomplished through stealing a person’s identity.
It is not clear to me how “truth” can be made tangible in this way, however. One can, I suppose, argue that if one lies to the public, one is obliged to make a kind of restitution for that by doing all one can to insure that their proclamation of truth is heard as loudly as was the previous proclamation of a lie. But even this is some ways away from legally enforceable monetary reparations to the victims of specific economic or political injustices.
Indeed, by dislocating the issue from questions of economic and political justice and broader questions of institutional membership and leadership, Kwon and Thompson actually undermine the very strength of a project like Reparations. What focusing the conversation on reparations could do is it could accentuate the tangible toll of racism in the United States. Kwon and Thompson rightly excoriate the idealization of racism in America, as if “racism” is chiefly a matter of “beliefs that exist in one’s head” rather than tangible, empirical realities that afflict many African Americans down to this day. Focusing the debate around racial justice specifically around reparations helps to reinforce the material realities of American racism and tacitly rejects the intellectualized understanding of racism. (Incidentally, the PCA’s 2018 AIC report on racial and ethnic reconciliation explicitly condemns “systemic” racism.) However, when something more abstract, like “black truth,” is drawn into the conversation about “reparations” then that benefit is watered down considerably.
Whether it is their promiscuous use of “white supremacy” or the notion of stealing “black truth,” these moves toward the abstract can have the effect of unmooring the conversation from economic injustice and even some forms of political injustice and anchoring it instead in vagaries. In this respect, Kwon and Thompson are playing directly into DeYoung’s critique, which is that the concept of reparations as they are deploying it actually undermines racial reconciliation by creating a permanent state of unrepayable debt.
It is true, of course, that inherent in the idea of “justice” is giving to someone what they are due. It is, moreover, true that white American Christianity has often massively under-stated and under-valued the debts owed to people of color simply by virtue of their status as human beings, bearers of the divine image, let alone what further debts have been accrued due to past thefts. As Lincoln said, if every drop of blood drawn from the lash—and, we might add, the lyncher’s noose, the policeman’s nightstick, and the abuses of our prison system—must be repaid, then still we can only say that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. We would be helped in addressing these problems by recovering more traditional Christian ways of thinking about property and wealth and even an adoption of ideas more commonly associated with Roman Catholicism, such as the universal destination of goods. All of these are the sorts of moves one could make to critique DeYoung’s review if one wished to do so.
What worries me is that while a properly Christian conception of racial justice seems to inherently trend toward reconciliation amongst brothers, sisters, and neighbors, the underlying logic and grammar of Kwon and Thompson’s thinking trends not toward reconciliation but a hardening and calcifying of cross-racial relations, such that they are forever and inextricably governed only by power claims.
DeYoung’s review was, in many ways, a failure, but it was a failure that sought to reflect on questions of race and justice chiefly using the teachings of Scripture and the discipline of theology. Though their reply has several strengths, Kwon and Thompson’s reply failed to do the same. Due to this, it did not help point us toward the formation of beloved communities, gathered around goods both natural and supernatural, but rather undermined that vital and necessary and profoundly Christian work.