A Torchbearer’s Plea To White Reformed And Evangelical Christians For 2017

Lamont English comments
| Faith

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

At Year’s End

Here, at the end of 2016, these words by the famous Civil Rights activist ring true for me. Not only for me however but for many other Reformed African-American brothers and sisters. Who are we? We are torchbearers, picking up our rightful legacy left to us by our ancestors, carrying the flame of equality and justice for our people, both inside and outside the church. It's to many of our white Reformed brothers and sisters I respectfully and lovingly address this. My plea is that in 2017, you would see the past...and then learn from it.

The Past

Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Christian Smith and Michael Emerson is a powerful, informative, and saddening book. I would recommend this be a must read on your list for this upcoming year. Emerson and Smith write:

“In the white evangelical world, the story is quite different. Some whites did indeed participate in Civil Rights marches, freedom rides, and the like, but they were rarely evangelical Christians. Rather, they were northern liberal Christians, Catholics, Jews, and non-Christians. Southern evangelicals generally sided against black evangelicals on the segregation issue, and northern evangelicals seemed more preoccupied with other issues—such as evangelism, and fighting communism and theological liberalism...Indeed, Christianity Today actually received dispatches from one of its coeditors on the southern marches, but they ‘went unpublished for fear of giving the impression that civil rights should be part of the Christian agenda.’” (pg. 46). [1]

White Americans did involve themselves in the Civil Rights movement but rarely were they Reformed or evangelical, theologically sound Christians. When push came to shove, it was the white Americans who held to errant theology and a low view of God who came to my people's aid when we needed them the most. Popular magazine Christianity Today refused to comment much on these struggles as to not give the idea that civil rights was a part of individual and corporate Christian responsibility. Even well known and beloved evangelist Billy Graham, whom I respect and look up to as a street evangelist myself, bowed to the evil spirit of that time by compromising on this issue. He's quoted by Emerson and Smith:

“A short time later, he again held segregated meetings in Mississippi, but defied the governor’s request for separate services. At the meetings, he criticized segregation, but when this upset white southerners, he told the local newspaper, “I feel that I have been misinterpreted on racial segregation. We follow the existing social customs in whatever part of the country in which we minister. As far as I have been able to find in my study of the Bible, it has nothing to say about segregation or nonsegregation.”

Our actual Christian brothers and sisters were nowhere to be found and when they were around, they were the ones arguing and fighting against freedom, equality, and justice for us. Now, I know some would say that it was the white Christian leaders who dropped the ball but it wasn't the average layperson. Is this true however?  Emerson and Smith write again:

“As for the laity, they were probably even quieter on the race issue. William Martin notes, “Most evangelicals, even in the North, did not think it their duty to oppose segregation; it was enough to treat the blacks they knew personally with courtesy and fairness.” That is, they opposed personal prejudice and discrimination, but not the racialized social system itself.” (pg. 46-47).

White Reformed and Evangelical Christians thought it good enough to simply treat their Black neighbors with respect and politeness but did nothing to address and oppose the very systems they were being oppressed by and the systems they themselves were benefiting from. In other words, they did not show them biblical love. With that being said, we now turn our attention to the present day.

The Present

I know some may be tempted to say that although it was horrible how White Reformed and evangelical Christians treated their Black neighbors and mishandled the race issue of that day, it's in the past. Although the form may have changed, the problem has not. There is still a race issue in this country and in the church. In the world, we are gunned down by those who have sworn to protect and serve although we aren’t armed. And then, the same judicial system that has oppressed and disadvantaged us is the same one that protects our murderers, just like old times. A police officer can shoot an unarmed Black man in the back who is fleeing from him on camera and then get off without any punishment or consequence. An illegal chokehold can be administered by a NYPD officer on an unarmed Black man while he's telling them “I can't breathe” as his life fades away. We are not saying that these men were innocent but what we are saying is that they should have been able to have a fair trial which was their American right. We are economically disadvantaged as well, a result of hundreds of years of enslavement, oppression, murder, and unjust laws. We are imprisoned at a higher rate than other ethnic groups. There’s more but allow me to turn your attention to the church now.

Often times, Black Christians experience a hostility and are kept at arm's length in predominantly white Reformed and Evangelical churches. Unless, of course, we assimilate to the dominate culture and become “culturally white.” Some of us have been asked directly, “Why don't you just assimilate?” We've been told that our upbringing in the traditional Black church has contributed to us having a wrong and unbiblical view of worship. We've been told that Christian hip hop and rap is ungodly and immature, although God has seen fit to use this medium to bring many minority Christians to an understanding of Calvinistic and Reformed Theology [2].

I don't bring any of this up to garner pity, but so that those asleep would wake up and see the truth that there are very real racial issues inside many churches—maybe even in your own church. And these issues are hurting your minority brothers and sisters in Christ and bringing reproach and damage to the name and witness of Jesus to a watching world. Are these issues part of our “Christian duty” however? Let's allow our Heavenly Father to answer through His Word.

Am I My Brother's Keeper?

“learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.” -Isaiah 1:17

"Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” -Isaiah 58:6-7

“Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” -Proverbs 31:8-9

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” -Micah 6:8

“And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets." -Matthew 22:37, 39-40

“And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” -Acts 2:44-45

“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” -James 2:15-18

Ever since the beginning, we humans have asked God and ourselves whether we are responsible for each other. His answer, as we've seen here, is a resounding “YES!” With that established, allow me to share my heart with you.

The Words of Enemies and the Silence of Friends

It's hard at times (a lot of times, actually) being a Black man in America and a Black man who is Reformed in a predominantly white, reformed church. From the mouths of our enemies, both inside and outside the church, we hear all sorts of slurs, insults, and phrases. That's to be expected and honestly, we don't really remember them as much as we do your silence, friends. When we see you, white Reformed and Evangelical Christian friends, standing up for righteousness by standing against abortion, we stand with you and say “Amen!” When we see you stand for righteousness by standing against same-sex “marriage”, we stand with you and say “Amen!”

Yet, when another black image bearer is gunned down by a Police officer in the wrong, we hear...silence. Crickets. We hear what those in the Civil Rights movement did from their Christian Reformed and evangelical friends...silence. It is your silence that many of us will remember, friends. Why is it that we, like our Civil Rights ancestors, see and hear white non-Christians listening, standing, and speaking for and alongside us and yet, we don't see or hear you, our very own family? Why is it that for those who hate Jesus, we hear Him as they stand by us? Why is it that for those who love Him, we hear nothing? Or, if we do hear some of you, the voice of the Accuser is what comes through as we are called names such as “race baiters” amongst other insults? We find it ironic and discouraging at times when we are told to keep quiet or we have Scripture twisted and used against us (i.e. Galatians 3:28) in the attempt to silence us as well. No, my friends, we will not keep silent. We will continue to speak. And it’s our prayer and hope that you’d take your God-given place alongside us and stand for righteousness in this arena as well.

Now, this is not to say that there haven't been any white Reformed and Evangelical friends that haven't stepped forward and stood beside us this year. There most definitely has and it seems that the Holy Spirit is waking up more to the realities faced by their minority family in Christ. I know some of you and I not only thank God for you but am encouraged by our friendship and your stand. To you my friends, we, your Black brothers and sisters, say a heartfelt, “Thank you!” This is not addressed to you.

I end with a plea, yet again. I plead with you brothers and sisters, for the glory of God, the good of us, your Black brothers and sisters in Christ, and the good of our witness to a watching world, to first listen. Don't deflect. Don't get defensive. Simply listen to those who have an experience different than yours. To do as the Scriptures say in James 1:19 which is to “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” Afterwards, to believe us and then stand with us. Speak up. It is not enough to simply be friends with us. It's a good place to start, for sure but it has to go further than that. There are systems inside and outside the church that need to be confronted and changed. Look at the past. Then learn from it, and change.

In 2017, your Black brothers and sisters will continue working through the power of the Holy Ghost for Christ-centered, God glorifying change in the world and church...will you stand with us?

1. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Christian Smith and Michael Emerson

2. http://brenthobbs.com/index_files/Christian_Rap.php


Lamont English

Lamont English is the assistant director of Mission to the World’s West Coast Office. He is currently enrolled at Birmingham Theological Seminary and pursuing a Master of Arts in Public Theology. He has a heart for evangelism and apologetics as well as teaching others how to share and defend their faith. He and his wife live in Southern California with their three boys and are members at Christ Presbyterian Church in Temecula, CA.