A Dialogue on Racism, and Christian Racial Reconciliation

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In June I published an article titled Race in America: Two Opposing Narratives. One narrative (the seemingly dominant one) emphasizes systemic injustice and institutional racism. It views the problems black people face as sourced outside their community, in the larger society, and attributes these problems to historic slavery and pervasive, systemic white oppression. The other narrative (the minority view) emphasizes the importance of the individual, including personal choice and responsibility. It sees the evil manifesting in society as rooted in human hearts and minds. It affirms that while white racism persists, it is far from the biggest challenge confronting the black community, and those challenges can be overcome by the actions and decisions of black people in ways that are not ultimately dependent on the actions of white people. 

My own belief is that this second narrative is far closer to the truth. Many sincere Christian friends believe the opposite. One such friend is Dennae Pierre, Executive Director of a church network in Phoenix called Surge. Shortly after the George Floyd incident and the growing civil unrest that followed, I reached out to Dennae to suggest we discuss our differences in an open, civil way that would maintain the bond of Christian friendship, and explore possible common ground. She graciously agreed, and invited a friend, Andrew Stravitz, Rector of All Souls Anglican Church in Phoenix, to join her in preparing her responses. 

Over the next several days, we will publish our dialogue in a series of six posts. Since I initiated the discussion, I offered Dennae the final word. You can read the entire dialogue here. 

What follows is our joint opening statement. My initial post will follow in a few days. 

Post 1

September 3, 2020

Dear Readers, 

The following written exchange was initiated by Scott Allen, president of the Disciple Nations Alliance (DNA) in hopes of dialoguing with Dennae Pierre, executive director of Surge, on the topic of Christian racial reconciliation in light of the events following the George Floyd incident in Minneapolis. Our goal was to achieve better understanding of each other’s perspectives and to find common ground.
Both DNA and Surge have been connected to the global church, yet rooted in Phoenix – DNA having a more global focus, Surge being strategically focused on Arizona. 

DNA exists to help the church rise to her full potential as God’s principal agent in restoring, healing and blessing broken nations. Surge exists to display Jesus in Arizona by equipping, reconciling, and activating God’s people for mission. We share a common desire to see the church remain anchored in the gospel while also engaging culture. Surge seeks to be a distinct witness to the kingdom of God in the world, DNA seeks to have a distinctively biblical redemptive impact on society and culture. 

For many years our ministries have intersected. We have participated in collaborative projects or events. As peers in different spaces, we respect one another and the fruit of the Spirit is evident in the staffs of both organizations. 

In the past few years however we have had growing disagreement about how the church might engage around race and racism. That said, we have maintained a spirit of friendship. As a result, we agreed to devote time this summer to produce a written dialogue on this important and relevant topic. In such a divisive and polarized season, our hope was to model civility, respect, intellectual hospitality, and grace in our disagreements. 

I (Scott) initiated this dialogue in response to a June 13 email Surge sent to its mailing list titled “A note and prayer from Dennae and Kimberly as the church speaks out about racism.” That email announced the formation of a new initiative called “Arizona Churches Stand Together for Black Lives.” 

Ever since its founding in 2013, I’ve been uneasy about the Black Lives Matter organization. My concern has only grown as I’ve learned more about the openly Marxist commitments of its founders, and its massive financial backing from people like George Soros and his Open Society Foundation. It was around this time that a new lexicon began to go mainstream: white privilege, white fragility, systemic/structural racism. Definitions also began changing. Words like justice, racism, and equality began to take on new meanings. Even Martin Luther King Junior’s famous dream was seemingly being discredited. Where he dreamed of a nation in which people were judged by the content of their character, and not the color of their skin, suddenly skin-color was all important and personal character seemingly trivial. 

As a result of these cultural shifts, the evangelical church began to divide. Many evangelical leaders openly supported Black Lives Matter, and freely employed the new lexicon. Others, like me, grew increasingly concerned, even alarmed, by these changes. So when I learned about the new initiative Surge was organizing, I was hopeful. Perhaps this would be an opportunity for evangelical leaders in Phoenix with differing views to come together, listen and learn from both sides, and explore common ground, working together to improve race relations. But as I read the document introducing the new initiative, the language being used, and the resources being recommended, it seemed that only one viewpoint was being represented. So I reached out to Dennae to explore whether we might discuss our differences in an open, civil way that would maintain the bond of Christian friendship. She graciously agreed. 

I (Dennae) agreed to participate because I want the church to be awakened, healed, reformed, and renewed by the gospel. I want God’s people to receive the benefits of lament and confession of both communal and individual sin. I want them to then go with joy into the most painful parts of our communities and display the kingdom of God as they repair what generations of sin erode. Not to simply try to rid the world of brokenness, but to point our pain-filled world to the future restoration of all things and invite them to join God’s mission and display that kingdom now, on earth, as it is in heaven. I want the wealthy and the poor, the powerful and the oppressed, to see Christ’s healing restorative light break into darkness and reconcile us to one another. I want the prideful to delight in being humbled and the humble to delight in being exalted. I want us to pour out our privileges for the weakest among us. The gospel initiates, produces, and sustains this fruit. 

I believe Scott says he shares many of these desires, but is ignoring evangelicalism’s participation in racial injustice and minimizing our role in systemic sin, and by doing so, he is unwittingly creating barriers to our world clearly seeing and hearing the gospel. Scott attributes the cultural shifts to be what is causing division in the church even though Black evangelicals have been describing the division the entire 20 years since we started multi-ethnic ministry, hundreds of years prior to that and presently from stories of longstanding communal pain. I attribute the division to pride that is blinding the church of her idolatry and a lack of repentance for past and present sin. Evangelicals struggle to read their opponents charitably and to know how to apply common grace to ideas outside the Christian faith. 

Scott’s assessment of the events lack an articulation of the complex and longstanding pain that has led to our generation’s racial justice movement. While Scott is gracious to approach me and polite in his communication, there is increasing militancy from many who share his convictions (as well as those who share mine). I’m concerned we aren’t using the basic habits of peacemaking, let alone reconciliation, and if Christians do not learn some new dialogue patterns we may be contributors, even initiators, of future violence in our nation. 

My desire to engage in this dialogue is to attempt to get to the root of what we are truly disagreeing on. Our disagreements are not small or insignificant and I believe where they go unresolved it will continue to have serious consequences to the church scattered throughout the United States. I desire to demonstrate that the way forward is not to compromise Christian character or kindness even while uncovering significant differences. In this specific way, I believe Scott and his followers can choose to be partners in modeling brotherly kindness to a church that demonstrates greater and greater hostility to one another. Lastly it should be noted that I asked an Anglican pastor in downtown Phoenix, Andrew Stravitz, to join me in writing the first two of the three letters. 

~

Brothers and sisters, we recognize the confines of word limits. Six brief exchanges are inadequate to fully deal with the important questions raised in these letters. We hope those who take the time to read the full dialogue will take seriously the gravity of the times we are in and discern the response of faithful discipleship and missionary encounter in the midst of it. We both feel honored to serve the pastors and churches connected to each of our ministries and leave our exchange committed to more fervent prayer along the lines of Paul’s beautiful prayer for one another and God’s people in our city:

“I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe …” Ephesians 1:17 -19.

May Christ’s peace rule God’s children,
Dennae Pierre, Executive Director, Surge Network
Scott Allen, President, Disciple Nations Alliance

5 Responses

  1. Dialogue is the way to go. This is a moment of reawakening and blessed are those who humble themselves and hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to the nations. It is a critical moment in history as the foundations we humans have built to serve our individual ends (cultures, values, laws etc) are being shaken and exposed so that only what endures remains. The question is are we on the Lord’s side or the world’s side? Let’s be ready for more shake-ups.

  2. I got a chance to read through all 35 pages of your dialogue with Dennae and Andrew several days ago. It looked as if you all were talking past each other in a number of places and that the dialogue did not reach the hope-for conclusion. However, I thank you for engaging in it and for sharing it with others. I believe that it is a good starting point.

    Here are few of the thoughts that I had while reading through it. In some cases, I am reflecting on your position and in some cases on the position of Dennae and Andrew. I trust that these thoughts will be useful.

    Individualism

    I have said for many years that I thought the US had the most individualistic culture in the world. While exceptions might be found, I am sure that it would be near the far end of the spectrum. Thus, the charge of individualism in the mainstream (predominantly “white”) culture is probably valid. I have often used Japanese culture to represent the other end of that spectrum. You — with your experience living in Japan — would know better than I if that characterization is correct or not. In any event, I do not see evidence of “hyper-communitarianism” in our culture in the same way. What I do see is an increasing push toward group identity in an effort to divide our society but this is more at an academic/political/media level than at a cultural level.

    Racism in Our Country’s Foundations

    I believe that is it useful (and needed) to recognize that the taking of the land from the Native Americans by force or deceit was largely based on greed and usually justified by racism. As such, we could perhaps use 1607 (or 1565) as “founding years” rather than 1619 (or even 1620). All of these were key years and represent different events, attitudes, and motivations. Even here, the relationships between the European colonists and the Native Americans was complex. Many considered the Native Americans to be fully human, with souls and capable of a relationship with God (examples are John Eliot and Fray Bartolomé de las Casas). Others did not, at least, in their public pronouncements and/or actions.

    Similar comments can be made regarding African blacks. Clearly the Sub-Saharan slave trade had to be theologically justified by those involved — first, by the Muslim Arabs and then by the Christian Portuguese and other self-proclaimed Christian countries. Part of that involved constructing theological and social ideas of black inferiority and “race” — departing from the biblical teaching that we are all descendants of Adam and Eve but are in numerous tongues, tribes, peoples, and nations — not in 3 or 4 or 5 “races”. Clearly the practice of chattel slavery in the US (pre- and post-1776) can be considered racist as well as the Jim Crow laws and other legal institutions and practices.

    For me, these are serious flaws in our country’s foundations rather than the essence of those foundations themselves. However, I believe that most non-Black Americans and non-Native-American Americans do not know our country’s history well enough (or accurately enough) to be sufficiently aware of how profoundly these two “original sins” (respectively) have shaped our culture. I believe that part of our “confession” (a la Nehemiah and Daniel) needs to recognize them. Now the issue of to what degree there is still systemic racism (against Blacks) is a lot less straightforward with lots of contrary evidence. I am old enough to have seen carryover patterns from the Jim Crow era and to have witnessed tremendous, positive changes over my lifetime but need to leave this topic for a different day.

    Phoenix Churches

    You ask about “institutionalized whiteness” in churches in Phoenix. With Phoenix being re-founded in 1867, it is a postbellum city and its churches did not exist during the slavery era. Some of the older ones did exist during the Jim Crow era which did impact Arizona but not in the same way or degree as in the South (and also involved institutional discrimination against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans). There are good questions to be asked about to what degree these churches spoke out against those forms of discrimination. In territorial days, Blacks made up about 1% or less of the territory’s population. In the first 50 years or so of statehood the Black population got up to about 3.5% just after WWII and dropped back to ~3% for most of the rest of the century. (It is now ~5%.) I suspect that most Phoenix churches were indeed segregated based mostly on language (e.g., Navajo, English, and Spanish) but also based on the Black-white divide. Were Blacks welcome in the predominantly white churches? I do not know but suspect that in many cases they were not. Even in the 70s I witnessed discrimination against a Black friend when he visited our church in Winslow. The perpetrator was a transplant from the South. Most of the other members were welcoming and some simply kept their thoughts to themselves.

    Some of the churches in Phoenix are part of national denominations that were explicitly complicit with slavery and Jim Crow (e.g., Southern Baptists). Others — like the Northern Baptists (now American and Conservative Baptists) — opposed slavery and others were historically Black. So members of churches from some denominations may have historical sins to confess but not explicit local sins. I also wonder about independent churches that were founded in the last 20-40 years. Have those churches ever been directly complicit in discrimination? I suppose some have but many have not. Have they all spoken up as they should? Probably not.

    Back to current “institutionalized whiteness” in churches in Phoenix. All the churches that I have attended in the Phoenix area have had (or have) Black members, and not just on the periphery. They have always been a small minority of the congregation on the order of 1-3%. This is not surprising considering the percentage of Blacks in Arizona. I think that the main question needs to be if Blacks feel fully welcome in our churches. Dennae and Andrew may have other questions that they would feel to be even more important to ask. If so, I should like to hear them.

    While traveling in Maryland last year, my wife and I found ourselves in Harriet Tubman territory and learned a lot about her life and the environment where she grew up. One thing that profoundly struck me was seeing the courthouse in Cambridge, MD where slaves had been bought and sold on the courthouse steps. I could only imagine what a Black person today must feel as they walk by and think about their ancestors likely having been bought and sold there. Tangible historical ties like that really bring home the reality of the slavery. We do not have those in Arizona. We do have historical places which remind us of our taking the land from the Native Americans (e.g., Cochise Stronghold, Hohokam Expressway) not to mention more than a quarter million Native American neighbors who serve as living reminders. But we have no such historical markers regarding slavery. Phoenix was not involved but a lot of people living in Phoenix have come from places that did have slavery. For many of them, I am sure, the history of slavery seems much more personal and immediate than it does for an Arizona native like me who grew up on the reservation. Which lead to…

    Centrality

    For those of us in Arizona who are not Black, the Black-white dynamic can seem very foreign and very distant (in both time and space). In a random group of people in Arizona, one in twenty will be Black. Similar numbers will be Native American or Asian. About 85% will be “white” or some combination of European and another “race” (this category includes most of the ~30% Hispanics). So for those of us in Phoenix who are not Black, our interactions with Blacks are likely to be very limited and similar in number to our interactions with Asians. Thus, the Black-white dynamic is often a sidebar issue that we non-Blacks don’t think a lot about. However, for Blacks, about 95% of their interactions are likely to involve a Black-non-Black relationship and most of these will be Black-white. Thus, the topic of your dialogue is likely to be central to the lives of most Blacks (and unavoidable) but peripheral to the lives of most non-Blacks. This is a key dynamic that I believe both sides of dialogues like this need to appreciate. (However, this would not be the case in, say, Atlanta or Chicago.) The peripheral nature of the Black-non-Black dynamic in the lives of most non-Blacks may come across as a lack of concern or caring. In this moment of time, I think it is wise and loving to go out of our way to listen, learn, and care.

    Critical Race Theory and Liberation Theology

    I believe that there is a lot we can learn from the church’s experience with liberation theology that also applies to CRT. In my experience with liberation theology, I came to see it as a combination of biblical principles with Marxist thinking. Some of the analysis had value. This included the observations that God has a special concern for the poor and oppressed, that laws can be unjust, that the enforcement of unjust laws can be a mechanism of oppression, and that systemic changes are often needed. On other hand, the thinking that the poor are morally better than the wealthy is clearly problematic. Both are terribly sinful. We are all in desperate need of a Saviour. There is also an emphasis on corporate sin rather than on individual sin (and individual agency). The same applies to corporate salvation being seen as the goal rather than individual salvation. One of my criticisms of liberation theology is that it tends to make the exodus the central event of salvation history rather than the cross. The Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua was basically a triumph of liberation theology. I have often said that the Nicaraguans were indeed saved from the sins of Somoza but not from their own sins. Liberation theology movements often advertise that they are working toward a just, equitable, and participatory society. What Nicaragua got was none of the above, though it was more equitable in the sense that in the 80s almost everybody was equally poor (except the ruling élite, of course, who were “more equal than others”).

    I am not sure of all the lessons learned from dealing with liberation theology from a biblical point of view. This would be an area of further investigation. It is clear to me, however, that there is a lot of similarity between CRT and liberation theology.

    Scott, as mentioned, I greatly appreciate the scholarship you have done in the area of social justice and your willingness to engage in dialogues on the racial issues in our country. I hope that these observations will be of use.

  3. I’m glad yo’re doing it.
    I look forward to not only reading it myself but to sharing it with racially-concerned pastors I know in Evansville and Indianapolis, IN.

  4. I very much appreciate this attempt at Civil Discourse, initiated by Scott. I would like to respond to these first two posts by Scott and Dennae respectively before reading (and responding to) subsequent posts.

    As I read accounts of slavery (currently reading David Blight’s recent bio of Frederick Douglass), I realize the degree to which my school books and classes failed to educate me on many of the darker realities of our nation’s past. Confronted with so many horrific abuses, among them, the Doctrine of Discovery (in which the Church and later the U.S. Supreme Court sanctioned seizure of land from natives by white men), and then the millions of Africans kidnapped and made to endure unspeakable horrors — those whom God created in His image, regarded as chattel by self-declared Christians, and brutalized without mercy — I’m moved to repent of my former nationalistic illusions. We whites have reaped the benefits of free land and free labor for generations, and then we dare to look down on non-whites and wonder why they can’t get their act together? A black man whose enslaved forefather had absolutely no agency to protect his wife from rape or his children from being sold, and we wonder about absent fathers in the black community? Why are we so inept at connecting the dots? We have tried to put a band-aid on a pus-filled abyss of a wound. It’s not working. We, the Church, abdicated our role as a healing agent for our nation (which claims to be “under God” — such a claim violates the 2nd commandment). Only when we own and confess and lament our hundreds of years of sin against God and humanity can we Christians in America begin to be freed from our blindness to these gross injustices. The enemy of our souls has largely succeeded in distracting us, who bear the name of Christ, with decoys. Thank you for offering this platform as a means of dialogue regarding these issues. I look forward to reading future posts and comments.

    1. Susan, Thank you so much for these words….for the lament, for the confession, and the prayer. Thank you for taking a journey to read, un-learn and relearn. God is gracious to give us this moment of human history to see, repent, and be renewed in the gospel and experience deeper reconciliation between one another.

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