Another week, another period of racial tension and outrage in the United States.
As I write these words, this report appears at CBS News:
In cities across the country, protesters pounded the pavement to express their heartbreak, fury and frustration over the murders of two unarmed black men, Alton Sterling and Philander Castile, this week. Video footage of both murders, shared widely on the internet, has helped narrow the emotional distance the American public usually feels in police shootings of black Americans.
CBS goes on to report on protests not only in St. Paul, MN and Baton Rouge, LA, where the deaths occurred, but also in New York, Washington D.C., Dallas, and Chicago. Since George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin in February 2012, followed by a number of other incidents of black people being killed by white police officers, it seems as though the U.S. has regressed in terms of race relations.
When you add to that the anger expressed and the political animosity that has been shown toward various groups of immigrants such as Mexicans and Muslims from any number of countries, it appears that citizens in the U.S. are becoming more and more divided over skin color and ethnic and cultural differences.
I am not qualified to make cultural or political commentary about all of this, and I’m not sure one other voice offering analysis at this roiling moment would make much of a sound.
But I do want to suggest something from the standpoint of a Christian who cares about the teaching of the church and the impact it has upon our neighbors and our world.
I think one thing we are seeing in these intractable racial problems is the failure of the American gospel.
At least since the days of George Whitfield and the First Great Awakening, the evangelical “gospel” has been shrinking into an ever more individualistic, soterian shape. Evangelical churches and Christian ministries continue to proclaim this gospel while at the same time lamenting the decline of our culture.
They fail to make any link between the two. That is an utter failure of Christian theology and practice.
Earlier this year, we did some looking at John M.G. Barclay’s magnificent book, Paul and the Gift. Here’s what Barclay says about the good news of God’s grace that Paul proclaimed:
Paul’s theology of grace is not just about an individual’s self-understanding and status before God. It’s also about communities that crossed ethnic, social, and cultural boundaries. This is what made Paul so controversial in his day.
The sharp knife-edge of the gospel is right here, not only in the message of reconciling people to God, but also in the message of reconciling people who don’t like each other and who have erected all kinds of barriers to keep themselves in a state of separation and enmity.
This is not an optional addition to the gospel, nor is it simply an outcome or extension of the gospel. Rather, it belongs to the nature of the gospel itself.
Anyone who says they hold the gospel while holding on to prejudice has no grasp of the New Testament message of good news in Jesus Christ.
If the U.S. has been so influenced by Christianity, if the gospel has so penetrated and permeated our land, if churches who claim to be preaching it are on every street corner, then how can we look at either our history of racial injustice or the present moment of racial inequality, separation, and conflict, and say that we are actually holding and advancing the genuine article?
We’ve missed it. And our brothers and sisters and neighbors are suffering because of it.