Witness

The Cost of Unity

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Once again, video-recorded violence against Black bodies has thrust widespread racial injustice into the public eye.

As a critical mass of people of various ethnicities continue to flood the streets in protest of racial injustice, many in the American evangelical church have added their voices and bodies to the swelling tide. “Black Lives Matter” can be heard passing through the lips of white believers who, in previous years, could hardly let those words pass through their minds. Churches are creating spaces for Christians to lament instances of cruelty against people like Jacob Blake.

From my perspective as a Black evangelical minister, this is a refreshing development within a church tradition that has often stayed silent about (or vocally opposed) movements that advanced ethnic minorities. We are reclaiming evangelicalism’s roots of advocacy for the oppressed, proclaiming the gospel by mourning with and seeking justice for those whom worldly systems have subjugated. But while I am encouraged by Christians’ willingness to combat racism in the world, I notice in many church leaders and churchgoers an unawareness of racial inequities within their own congregations.

While I am encouraged by Christians’ willingness to combat racism in the world, I notice in many church leaders and churchgoers an unawareness of racial inequities within their own congregations. Click To Tweet

Diversity Does Not Equal Unity

Diversity has been held as a virtue in evangelical circles for decades. Gone are the days of relegating “Colored folks” to the balcony during Sunday service. Multicultural churches have become the ideal. Most evangelicals now believe (rightly) that God’s kingdom consists of a beautiful array of people from every tribe, nation, and tongue, all equal in God’s eyes.1 Pastors—especially white pastors—become excited when Black, First Nation, Latinx, and Asian people start to call their church home.

Many of our churches are diverse, and even those that are primarily white don’t turn Black people away at the door anymore. For many, the equation is simple: diversity equals unity. If we can get people of all backgrounds into the same sanctuary, singing the same worship songs, listening to the same sermon, then we’ve done enough. In fact, we don’t even need to talk about race because God loves us all the same. There’s “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free” in Christ, so there must not be any Black or white, either.2 We can all be colorblind.

The problem with this philosophy is that it fails to address inequities that have crept from the world into the church. It makes race a taboo topic, since bringing up race might lead to division. It leaves no room for people of color to share how they have been wounded by racist encounters or how discussions of history and current policy surrounding race are personal for them, not just conceptual. It leaves unchallenged the mostly- or entirely-white leadership of many ethnically-diverse churches. If there is any unity in this ministry philosophy, that unity is neither deep nor transformative.

Cheap Unity

In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer distinguishes between “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” Cheap grace offers the easy, attractive parts of Christianity devoid of the rigors of true discipleship. Costly grace, on the other hand, entails willingly submitting to uncomfortable processes of sanctification.3 I submit that a similar distinction helps us understand Christian unity, especially when it comes to race. What has long passed for unity in the American evangelical church is cheap, requiring neither reflection nor repentance. But God is calling us toward unity that costs us something; a miraculous unity that attracts a fractured, frustrated humanity to Christ.

Cheap unity is the preaching of diversity without confronting disparity and discrimination. It is the doctrine of colorblindness, or the celebration of people’s cultures without understanding the painful history of their race and ethnicity. It produces awkward silences when people of color share wounds from racist encounters or outrage toward unjust systems. Cheap unity is no unity at all.

Squeamishness about the topic of race is a clear indicator that a church’s unity is cheap. Pastors encourage their congregants to reveal emotional and spiritual wounds from childhood, romantic relationships, addictions, and the like so that they can receive prayer and healing. But sharing wounds from racism is normally not openly invited and is sometimes subtly discouraged. Sermons and pastoral prayers decry all kinds of evils, but the few times when racism is called out, it is in reference to the lynching of days gone by, not the police brutality of today.

Sermons and pastoral prayers decry all kinds of evils, but the few times when racism is called out, it is in reference to the lynching of days gone by, not the police brutality of today. Click To Tweet

Often when Christians of color share unsettling experiences of discrimination, others will shift uncomfortably in their seats. Instead of listening empathetically, they may question whether the encounter was really about race, or encourage the sharer not to let it bother them. They may launch into a prayer, MLK (mis)quote, or impromptu sermon about how God doesn’t see color and we should all just get along. Or, for fear of accidentally speaking offensively, they may awkwardly change the subject. These responses crowd out or invalidate the vulnerable sharings of people of color, communicating to them that church is not a safe place to have their racial trauma heard by others and healed by Jesus.

White normativity is another telltale sign of cheap unity in a ministry. The dominant Anglo-American culture dictates—sometimes explicitly, but more often implicitly—what is normal and acceptable, no matter the diverse ethnic makeup of the congregation. Most or all of the pastors, elders, and other leaders in these diverse churches are white, not because they harbor any conscious malice toward people of color, but because the avenues to leadership are most easily navigated by those conversant with the dominant culture.

Even though Christians of color have a robust set of ministry skills and spiritual gifts to offer, they rarely find themselves on the giving end of charity and service or the teaching end of Bible and theology; they are more often recipients and listeners. This disparity in access to decision-making positions leaves church leadership lacking in diverse voices, unintentionally perpetuating the age-old American structure of whites at the top and Blacks, immigrants, and the poor on the bottom. People of different races occupy the same sanctuary, but they are not unified. In practice, they’re not even equal.

Costly Unity

The American evangelical church—like mainstream American culture—has largely eschewed overt racial discrimination. But we must reject the lie that the task of racial justice is complete. Vestiges of the old system of blatant racism remain in both society and Christian ministry, and our passivity allows these inequities to carry over from one generation to the next. In many cases, we have achieved diversity, but the only unity that we have earned is the cheap kind. Only by actively rejecting racial injustice can we achieve the true, costly unity to which the Lord calls his children.

Costly unity requires justice and equity. It involves seeing and knowing wounds that prejudice and injustice have caused Christians of color, seeking true healing and not just quick cover-ups. It means clearly, unequivocally calling out racial injustice as evil, and petitioning God to intervene on behalf of brothers and sisters of color. Costly unity is the only kind of unity that God desires from us.

This unity may cost white Christian leaders a measure of their power and influence. These leaders must address racial power imbalances in their churches and parachurch organizations, intentionally giving decision-making roles to wise, mature believers of color—even (and especially) when this requires dominant-culture leaders to relinquish some of their own control over their ministries.

Costly unity is the only kind of unity that God desires from us. This unity may cost white Christian leaders a measure of their power and influence. Click To Tweet

To advance toward costly unity, Christian leaders must publicly repent of their (intentional and unintentional) obstinacy toward issues of race, and instead mold their churches into safe contexts to express racial trauma and voice opinions about issues of racial justice. White Christians must stand alongside their Black and Brown brothers and sisters as they protest injustice in law enforcement, the broader justice system, education, healthcare, job availability, and more. Even when people disagree on political or social matters, believers’ commitment to unconditional love must drive them to prioritize the wellbeing of those in their number who have been marginalized because of their race or ethnicity.

This divinely-inspired love should mitigate the fear that conceptual disagreements on racial injustice will lead to ecclesial divisions. Jesus said to his followers, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”4 Surface-level, conflict-avoidant love does not display Christian discipleship. This contentious, divided generation will see Jesus at work in us when we confront the racial issues that tear the world apart, generating stronger love and deeper unity in the process. We represent a heavenly society where people of every tribe, nation, and tongue kneel before God’s throne, each member equally loved and valued by the Lord, and we actively combat sinful forces of racism and discrimination that attempt to disjoin us. Mundane racial tolerance is no sign that we walk with Jesus. Miraculous, costly unity shows the world that God’s kingdom is breaking into the world through us.


[1] Revelation 7:9
[2] Galatians 3:28
[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, trans. R.H. Fuller (New York: Touchstone, 1937), 45-49.
[4] John 13:35

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