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.
September 3, 2020
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.