Divided By Faith

Over the next few months I plan to take a personal journey. I invite you to consider joining me along the way, particularly if you are a part of Redemption Hill Church. Please take the time to see the motivation and reading list

Divided By Faith, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith

“Despite devoting considerable time and energy to solving the problem of racial division, white evangelicalism likely does more to perpetuate the racialized society than to reduce it” (170).

This is the painful conclusion to Emerson and Smith’s foundational work, Divided by Faith. They published this sociological study in 2000. It has become a foundational work for Christians who want to think seriously about race and the church. As a white pastor, it’s a necessary book to pick up and read again and again.

I first read Divided by Faith in a seminary class at TEDS that was called Social and Cultural Exegesis, taught by Dr. Peter Cha. Looking back, I learned a lot in Dr. Cha’s classroom. I was challenged and stretched and I have no doubt that seeds were planted then that have only begun to come to fruition now. Still, I don’t think I was ready to really understand the concepts and perspectives I was encountering at the time. I was an idealistic seminarian who had a theological “right answer” for everything – social issues, church leadership, church structures, etc. I’d love the chance to go back and smack my seminarian self and refocus some aspects of my study and approach.

Now I’m a pastor in a racially divided city. My day-to-day experiences have brought into stark relief the reality that our racialized nation is not just a matter of individual moral decisions, but has broader institutional and societal factors that perpetuate not just segregation of different people, but the oppression of them as well. Even the journey I’ve been on through this series transformed the way I read Emerson and Smith’s work. As they referenced WEB DuBois, Booker T Washington, and Civil Rights era icons, I found myself with a much better grasp of the context.

To be honest, the book made me sad and angry. I think the analysis is dead on. And it hurts to read it and admit that I have fallen into some of the exact traps described. One term bears some explanation at this point as well – “evangelicalism”. In American history, that term was initially a movement that rejected fundamentalist separationism and brought Christian faith into life – with a high regard for the Bible, an outward social activism, the centrality of Jesus’ saving work for us, and a desire to see others join God’s family. It has been hijacked. I wrote more on that, and my own hesitancy to use it elsewhere.

Emerson and Smith note that white evangelicals largely come out of a protestant, free-will, Free Church tradition that focuses heavily, if not exclusively on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. “For this reason, white evangelicals often view social problems as rooted in poor relationships or the negative influence of significant others” (78). This impacts the view most white Christians hold on how to bring change, too. “Absent from their accounts is the idea that poor relationships might be shaped by social structures, such as laws, the ways institutions operate, or forms of segregation” (78).

White evangelicals have a consistent solution to the race problem, “For white evangelicals, the ‘race problem’ is not racial inequality, and it is not systematic, institutional injustice. Rather, white evangelicals view the race problem as (1) prejudiced individuals, resulting in poor relationships and sin, (2) others trying to make it a group or systemic issue when it is not, or (3) a fabrication of the self-interested” (116).

All of this extends into church life as well. “Those who supported the idea of more racially mixed congregations did so because they saw it as a better reflection of how the true Church should look. But there is another aspect to their support. When white evangelicals spoke of integrating congregations, they meant that their specific congregation is or ought to be open to all people. They did not mean they should consider going to a mixed or nonwhite congregation” (122).

Emerson and Smith don’t offer a lot in terms of solutions, admitting in the conclusion that it wasn’t within the purview of their work, and that solutions are larger and more complicated than could be tackled within it. The main thrust at the end was to say that white evangelicals tend to be driven more by activism than by careful thought and understanding. I’ve been guilty of that, too.

It has been a goal from the beginning of Redemption Hill Church that we would be diverse in every way diversity can be sliced. We would say something along the lines of,

The transcultural gospel of Jesus Christ shapes Redemption Hill into community of people from a diversity of backgrounds, socio-economic positions, neighborhoods, regions, political ideologies, and races – all woven together into a beautiful tapestry. We are closed-handed on matters of biblical orthodoxy, but open-handed and generous on non-essentials that otherwise might divide. In all things our identity is in Jesus Christ.

In most of those areas we have succeeded. The biggest ongoing challenge is racial diversity, which has ebbed and flowed over time for our church. What we’ve learned along the way, though, is that the quick-fix solutions don’t work for the long term. Seminars on The Gospel and Race, fast-tracking people into leadership, events to draw awareness – we’ve tried them all. The problem has been the assumption that they will solve the problem. The reality is that it is going to be a much longer road.

That’s part of why I’m writing this whole series. I want to learn. I want our church to learn. I want awareness of systemic and social issues to be a part of the air our church breathes so that the gospel isn’t just applied to personal piety for individuals, but is loosed to speak truth into broader realities. I’ve been so grateful for the patience and grace that seasoned pastors have shown me as I’ve learned from men like Eric Mason, Doug Logan, Jerome Gay, Watson Jones, and Thabiti Anyabwile.

At our church, I have been working with a group of members who are ethnic minorities and have chosen to invest themselves into the mission of Jesus Christ with us. We had dinner last month in one of their homes and I was able to sit and listen, hear their experiences of life and church. I was able to hear thoughts on how to press forward together. I’m so thankful for those who are with us for the long haul. It was refreshing for me to take a back seat and listen. I’m excited to give a voice and to hear the perspectives of these brothers and sisters, even when it stings a little. We all want to be part of the solution and not a perpetuator of the problem.




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