Michael Brown, Ferguson, and the Church Risking Irrelevance to the Gospel

Many evangelical Christian writers have responded to Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a police officer and the subsequent protests and civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. I appreciate how they let the gospel of Jesus Christ inform their views of these events. The African American leaders of my denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC), wrote a response emphasizing their commitments to reconciliation and to standing in solidarity with those who suffer. Dominique Gilliard, a pastor in the ECC, gave an interview to Amy Julia Becker on Christianity Today’s “Thin Places” blog in which he offers some broad strokes advice on how Christians can be agents of reconciliation. He says, “To foster reconciliation and healing within churches and the broader culture, Christians must be humble, repentant, and longsuffering. This process begins by having candid conversations about race, history, and injustice.” Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, offers some other steps Christians can take to address the reality of systemic racism in our nation with the truth of the gospel. Christians need to educate themselves, listen from those who suffer, stand in solidarity with them, and act for justice. Morgan Lee of Christianity Today reports key findings from research on white and black evangelicals’ views of race. The results sadly show their views are moving further apart, with 69% of white evangelicals now believing, “one of the most effective ways to improve race relations is to stop talking about race.” But we should be careful not to think all talk of racial reconciliation is a white and black matter or the events in Ferguson only effect white and black people. Eugene Cho, another ECC pastor, writes churches cannot ignore what happened in Ferguson and must instead address it head-on, for, “The integrity of the church is at stake because when it’s all said and done, it’s not a race issue for me, it’s a Gospel issue.” Thabiti Anyabwile, writing at The Gospel Coalition, also argues the costs for churches to ignore these matters are extremely high. He challenges evangelical churches—really, white, conservative evangelical churches—to respond to racism or face becoming irrelevant. It is not the irrelevance to the larger culture that concerns him, but irrelevance to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Anyabwile writes:

Around the country evangelical leaders participate in “racial reconciliation” conversations and repeatedly ask, “How can we diversify our church?” or “How can we attract more African-American members?” Why would diverse groups want to belong to an evangelicalism that does not acknowledge their diversity where it hurts when it matters? You want diversity in your membership roles? How about forgetting your membership statistics and further diversifying the picket lines and protests thronged by the disenfranchised in their just fights? We don’t want to be your statistics—whether wrongful death statistics or church membership statistics. We want a living, breathing, risk-taking brotherhood in the gospel lived out where it matters. Until evangelicalism can muster that kind of courage and abandon its privileged, “objective,” distant calls for calm and “gospel”-this or “gospel”-that, it proves itself entirely inadequate for a people who need to see Jesus through the tear gas smoke of injustice.

Looking through the New Testament, particularly the letters of Paul and the book of Acts, we see two great themes: the fulfillment of God’s promises through Jesus Christ and the reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles in the new covenant. In other words, the majority of the New Testament concerns itself with grace and race. In Ephesians 2, one of the great chapters of Scripture, Paul describes the power of the gospel to take people who were dead in their sins and make them alive again in Jesus Christ. The first part of the passage contains one of evangelicalism’s favorite statements, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (2.8-9, NRSV) But we often stop reading around verse 10, even though the argument continues. Paul goes on to show how this new life affects the relationships among Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus. Ethnic and cultural distinctions, while still important, are no longer barriers to fellowship. Just as Jesus Christ made reconciliation between God and people possible, he also makes reconciliation between ethnic groups possible.

Ephesians 2 is not unique in the New Testament. Rather, it fits well with other passages that show the good news affects more than just our relationship with God. Paul does not see reconciliation with God and reconciliation between races as separate objectives—they are the same mission. Notice how explicit Paul is when he talks about ethnicity and race. Paul does not believe, “one of the most effective ways to improve race relations is to stop talking about race.” He seeks to improve race relations by bringing the tensions and conflicts into the light of the gospel. The New Testament does not discuss race relations in the abstract. Rather, the conversations are very real, very earthy. The New Testament contains passages on how we share a common table, what ethnic markers we place or do not place on our bodies, how we worship God together, etc. The discussion of racial reconciliation in the New Testament assumes many of the early congregations comprised different ethnicities.

How can we white evangelicals say our congregations are faithful to the New Testament witness if we do not discuss and pursue the dual themes of grace and race? I wonder if we don’t give as much attention to the second half of Ephesians 2 because we do not worship in diverse communities and our privilege in the larger society means we don’t have to think about race on a daily basis. Perhaps we white evangelicals don’t pay attention to the biblical emphasis on ethnicity not because we find that topic uncomfortable, but because we find the New Testament’s teaching on the subject irrelevant to the issues our congregations face. The real issue is, however, that our congregations risk becoming irrelevant to the New Testament. If our faith communities do not wrestle with the challenges that come from diverse people groups sharing life together, whole swaths of the Bible will not make sense to us.

As the events in Ferguson show us, we need racial reconciliation not merely so we can enjoy one another’s musical traditions in a worship service. The gospel places demands on us to stand with those who suffer and seek justice on their behalf. Racial reconciliation cannot take place only within church walls, though we obviously have a long way to go on that front. The gospel compels us to take risks and walk with those who seek justice. Anyabwile is right to offer the challenge to let go of our membership statistics for faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus, which stands beside the oppressed.

I appreciate Anyabwile’s post because he reminds us having uncomfortable conversations about race is not enough. Christian communities cannot be satisfied with honest, gracious dialogue. Those conversations are absolutely necessary, but not an end to themselves. If our conversations about race do not lead us to prayer and to, “further diversifying the picket lines and protests thronged by the disenfranchised in their just fights,” then our conversations are merely theoretical exercises. Theoretical exercises will not help establish the vision of the African American Denominational Leadership of the ECC of “a church and society where reconciliation and justice are indispensable norms.” These leaders rightly remind us it is the cross of Christ that will break the wall of hostility. That is, Jesus’ actions and not merely his words create peace and justice. As followers of Christ, we must remember Jesus’ example and allow our theological reflections lead us to action.

We have to ask how have our communities of faith addressed the events in Ferguson? What has been the conversation? How have we prayed for peace and justice? What actions have our congregations taken? How has this event catalyzed our commitment to stand with those who suffer?

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Imparting Faith: Forgiving My Father and Being a Father

In the Bible, God gives parents a vocation to pass their faith on to their children. This central aspect of my vocation as a father consumes my thoughts more than remembering Elijah’s vaccination schedule, cooking him healthy meals, or offering him adequate educational stimulation. I see too often the gloomy statistics of children walking away from the faith once they leave the home. These statistics concern me because I want my son to experience the love and joy from Jesus I have known. I want him to “take hold of the life that really is life.” (1 Tim. 6.19)

Gary Walter, president of the Evangelical Covenant Church, recently published, “Teach and Love Your Children Well,” in which he encourages parents to consider how to raise children in the faith. He points to University of Southern California sociologist Vern Bengtson’s research that shows faith is best passed on in families in which parents prioritize and talk about faith and model faithful practices. Another factor, creating an environment of familial warmth, is actually the greatest indicator of faith being passed between generations. Bengston’s research shows a close bond with one’s father matters more than with the bond with one’s mother, though that bond is still important. As Walter summarizes, “Dads, when you combine a sincere faith with a quality relationship with your children, you enhance the likelihood of your children owning their own faith.”

Walter’s article made me reflect on my father as well as my role now as a dad. What did I receive from my father and how can I pass the faith on to my son?

My parents created an environment of familial warmth, but for the majority of my childhood, my father was not a model of the Christian faith. He did not tell my brother and I the stories of the Bible. He seldom attended church services—usually Christmas, Easter, and Mother’s Day—and chose instead to work on the Christian Sabbath. He bowed his head at prayers for meals but rarely, if ever, led them. I only remember him reading the Bible when asked to during Advent candle services in the home that my mother initiated. My mom was the spiritual leader of our house, communicating the truths of the faith and modeling the practices for us. She taught us to pray. She showed us the Christian basis for generosity and compassion. The faith I have today is more a product of my mother’s faithfulness than my father’s example.

Near the end of my adolescence I grew jealous of my friends whose dads were spiritual leaders. I longed for a father who could impart to me the wisdom and truths of the Christian faith. I resented my dad for not being a spiritual father figure to me.

In college I read Henri Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal Son, a powerful reflection on Jesus’ famous parable and Rembrandt’s painting of it. Nouwen explores the characters of the younger son, the older son, and the father. The sons must each, in his own way, return home and accept the father’s unconditional love and their identity as their father’s beloved child. Nouwen tells the personal story of coming to the realization that in order to truly find his place as God’s beloved son, he must forgive his own human father for his shortcomings. Nouwen describes this forgiveness, this release as a “return from a false dependence on a human father who cannot give me all I need to a true dependence on the divine Father.” The return to the divine Father “allows me to let my dad be no less than the good, loving, but limited human being he is and to let my heavenly Father be the God whose unlimited, unconditional love melts away all resentments and anger and makes me free to love beyond the need to please or find approval.” (83)

These words helped me to forgive my human father for not being the spiritual father figure I desired. In doing so, I learned to allow my dad to be “the good, loving, but limited human being” he was. My eyes opened to the many ways he did embody the Christian faith in his quiet and radical generosity, his refusal to speak ill of people publicly, the hospitality he and my mom extended to people who needed a meal or a place to stay.

Walter’s article and Nouwen’s book remind me that though God tasks me with passing on the faith to my son, I will not be, indeed cannot be the perfect Heavenly Father Elijah needs. I pray fervently that Elijah will know, love, and follow Jesus. I work hard at telling him the Christian story and modeling faithful practices to him, even at this young age. My wife and I seek to create warm familial bonds with him. All the same, I must remind myself that I will fall short, and one day Elijah will have to forgive me for not being the heavenly Father he needs. This fact is humbling and at times humiliating, but I cannot let it shame me. I have to let my shortcomings draw me even deeper into prayer.