Cautiously optimistic in tone, the author posits that if the American church is going to live into Christ's prayer request for His church to be one (John 17:21), if the church is going to deal effectively with the fallen powers and win people to the Lord, then Christians will have to face and overcome the complex and tragic history of racial antipathy in this country; also, the church will have to learn how to successfully navigate a spiritual and cultural minefield. The author has distilled the three main cultural controversies (mines) that can explode/implode the church's intercultural hopes, down to:1) Culturally-Based Worship Preferences 2) Culturally-Based Views on Ministerial Authority, and 3) Biblical Hermeneutics in Black and White. It is the author's conviction that in spite of these areas of potential conflict, God has given the church the power to become an intercultural community that is distinctive, attractive, and authentically Christian
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The American Church in Black and White
Navigating Minefields to Become God's Intercultural Community
By Gregory Emanuel Bryant
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2016 Gregory Emanuel Bryant
All rights reserved.
The Problem of Racial Disunity is Rooted in a Spiritual War
"... Where is your brother, Abel?" He said, "I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?" And the LORD said, "What have you done?" Listen: your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground!"
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against authorities, against cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
It was quite an incendiary video clip that was being played over and over on Fox News, taken from the social video site, YouTube. A video snippet from a Chicago- based preacher had gone viral (Thanks to some surreptitious, political trickery from both Democrats and Republicans, and a couple of cable television talk show hosts who aired the edited sermon material almost daily) and the controversy surrounding it, seemed to threaten the presidential candidacy of then, Illinois Senator, Barack Hussein Obama. The Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright was captured in full preaching rhythm and sermonic intonation as he deepened his voice and shouted, "The government ... wants us to sing, "God, bless America. No. ... no no, not God bless America ... God damn America! It's in the Bible, for killing innocent people ... for treating her citizens as less than human!" With the controversy over the sermon clips building, and the fact that Senator Obama's church membership was held at Trinity United in Chicago, where Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright had been pastor for nearly three decades, Senator Obama and the watching nation had to once again, come to grips with the issue of race in America, in the spring and summer months of 2008. The issue of what really constitutes racism, prejudice and anti-American hate speech came to America's living rooms, vis-à-vis a bold, well-read, scholarly, fiery, black pastor who was captured shouting into church cameras at a climactic moment in his sermon, what was for some, unpatriotic vitriol or even unchristian, blasphemy; and yet for others, what was heard was passionate, provocative, focused, edgy, preaching in the prophetic tradition of an Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, and even Jesus, all who called for and warned of God's impending justice and judgment that would confront sinning and unrepentant nations. And yet, because of a combination of factors, like: The political machinations of those who wanted to eclipse the meteoric rise of Senator Obama's political star, coupled with a sometimes shallow understanding of the wide and varied biblical tradition that has been given to us by God as a gift to the nation's populace; and a fundamental lack of familiarity, among most whites and many blacks, with the kind of liberation-themed preaching that has marked the black church's pulpits for centuries through preachers like Frederick Douglass, Jarena Lee, Mordecie Johnson, Vernon Johns, Benjamin E. Mayes, Wyatt T. Walker, William Hannah (my late mentor), and Martin Luther King, Jr.; to preachers today like Jessie Jackson, Johnny Ray Youngblood, Charles G. Adams, Gina Stewart, John Bryant, Vashti Mckenzie, Father Michael Pfleger, Frank Reid III, Frank Thomas, Tom Benjamin Jr., Otis Moss Jr., Otis Moss III, Rev. Freddy Haynes, Al Sharpton and Susan B. Cooke, to name a few. The nation was all knotted up in a media driven frenzy. Consequently, the church and nation were shown (via a plethora of dialogues and debates among political pundits, social scientists and clergy) to be made up of fundamentally two different Americas – one Black and the other White; essentially the very thing the Kerner Commission Report had revealed four decades earlier.
African Americans, on the whole, were not as outraged as white Americans were by the Black Liberation Theology rhetoric of Wright; offended by some of his language? Quite possibly, but outraged? Not so much. Whites of all political persuasions (except maybe those who could be categorized as being a part of the far left) were, for the most part, outraged and or shocked, by the kind of speech articulated in the sermon clips that had gone viral. It must be mentioned that it is believed in some circles, that it was Democrat operatives, supporters of Hillary Clinton's bid for the white house, who were behind the initial effort to bring attention to Jeremiah Wright's controversial sermon material; illustrating that playing upon peoples' racial fears has been an equal opportunity tactic used by both white Republicans and Democrats.
This incident had provided another seminal moment in American spiritual/political history. The hot flash of outrage was sending waves of heat throughout the cable television, and social networking world; in town halls and in barbershop and beauty shop hamlets throughout the country. Again the nation was in a position to dialogue, agree, disagree, cry, laugh and shout about the issue of race in America. Not since the O.J. Simpson murder trial, 13 years earlier, had the nation had the mirror of its racial soul held up so closely to our collective racial consciousness. Many political pundits, both liberal and conservative whites, advocated that then Senator Obama quickly denounce and renounce his pastor. Others, especially many of the African American cable news pundits, advocated on behalf of Obama, Wright and the prophetic tradition of the Black Church. Many blacks (though, not all) came to the defense of this candidate and the prophetic religious tradition expressed in his pastor's sermons, in efforts to defend the black church and insulate to some degree, the first really viable African American presidential candidate from what they perceived as a damaging attack from the right wing. Also some pundits, scholars and preachers desired to use this as a teachable moment, and therefore they attempted to explain to the larger populace the rich social gospel, prophetic and liberation tradition that was part of the history of the black church. But on the other side of the racial divide, many white political commentators (and a few blacks), particularly conservative ones, continued to vehemently reject all such explanations as attempts to excuse a seemingly irrational rage among left leaning blacks who seemed to hold deeply anti-patriotic (and anti-Christian) views. The ancient battle lines were being drawn again. Song writers, Sylvana Bell and E.V. Banks, through their lyrics, which were added to Thomas Dorsey's musical arrangement, have captured what black and white Christians seemed to be expressing in regard to the racial tensions that were feeding the debate. Hear anew, Bell and Banks' lyrics in the hymn, I am on the Battlefield for my Lord.:
I'm on the battlefield for my Lord, yes I'm on the battlefield for my Lord, and I promised Him that I, would serve Him till I die..... Yes, I'm on the battlefield for my Lord!
Such lyrics are appropriate when understood in the context of an age-old fight against god-denying forces; loveless, demonic powers, filled with evil intent against heaven and humanity. But, far too often we who claim faith in this country, seem to view our Christian neighbor, of a different race, or different political persuasion, as being The enemy. What do we desire to do with enemies sometimes? Destroy them.
Landmines – An Analogy
Land mines are and have been a terrible, yet effective, weapon of war. Banned in 1997, by most countries, under the Ottaway Treaty, which was signed by 156 countries, excluding 38, which unfortunately include China, Russia, and the United States. Over the years these weapons have struck terror in both combatants and civilians alike. In fact, many mines which have been left unexploded from past wars still lay buried beneath the surface of former combat zones, especially in Europe, unfortunately rendering large sections of geography unsafe for humans to traverse. Originally these mines were designed and strategically planted for two primary purposes: 1) to stop the forward progression of an advancing army, while also luring unsuspecting troops into kill zones. 2) To lower the morale of an enemy army by inflicting indiscriminate material and personnel damage. The land mine was used as a strategically placed weapon; one that was undetectable until one stepped on the detonator. It was effectively insidious in that it could kill your opponents without your opponents ever really knowing what hit them, until it was too late.
On a spiritual dimension, a similar kind of weapon has been used by our spiritual adversary to keep the church and our society divided along racial and cultural lines. As we discussed in the second section of this book, there are three primary controversies which can potentially explode or implode the churches efforts to be the church, in a multi-cultural way – worship, views of appropriate pastoral leadership, and how we approach the Bible, hermeneutically. When the church of Jesus Christ attempts to work, learn and love together for the glory of God and the good of society, the deadly mines and IEDs of racial disagreement are right there, buried beneath our radars, designed to keep us from being our most effective. These often hidden and complicated issues come with explosive emotional triggers, which often seem to lie somewhat dormant, underneath the church's emotional surface until unsuspecting and often well-intentioned Christians, many of whom seem motivated by the kingdom idea of worshipping and working with others beyond race and culture, try to link arm and arm, red, yellow, black and white, to move and change the status quo of a church living in hypocrisy then there is a trigger and an explosion. It has been my observation that when Christians set out to live out a notion of a more authentic church - a vision of a called out people; a vision originated in the first century as a dynamic, intercultural, Holy Spirit empowered and anointed community of believers in Jesus Christ; believers who were forgiven of their many sins through Christ's saving work, in order to serve God by making a soul-saving and soul-healing appeal to the diverse tapestry of humanity; it is when the church in general, and the North American church in particular, begins to move together in this decisive direction of making disciples of every nation, utilizing the gifts from every nation, that the danger of us stepping on these destructive, spiritual, historical and emotional mines increases and becomes more real.
Dealing with the sins of racism, and racial bitterness are easy or pleasant endeavors. Trying to avoid the IEDs of racial misunderstanding, in and outside the church, is a complicated matter. This kind of struggle predates the existence of the church in North America.
The sixth chapter of the book of Acts is replete with the account of one of the early church's first major skirmishes – the preferential treatment of some widows. This potentially explosive issue regarding an ethnic based prejudice, which resulted in an ecclesial injustice, could have halted the great move of the Holy Spirit which was powerfully at work through the young church. I imagine that this would have been to Satan's delight. The brewing controversy involved a serious case of cultural and ethnic discrimination which played out in the first class treatment that Hebrew speaking Palestinian widows were receiving in contrast to the second class treatment the Hellenistic widows experienced. This preferential treatment, coupled with a lack of love-sensitivity, was seemingly steeped in humanity's proclivity to revert back to a me- first or those-like-me-first mentality. The food and other necessary supplies for sustaining the health and life of first century widows, widows who lacked the benefits equivalent to a modern day life insurance policy in case of a husband's death, were quickly offered to the Hebrew speaking women without reservation; while conversely, the Hellenized widows were being neglected in the ministry distribution. This sociological problem which had its root system, anchored in a deeper spiritual problem (selfishness, favoritism), almost took the spiritual oxygen out of the new Holy Spirit-inspired movement.
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food (Acts 6:1).
This account illustrates how issues related to ethnic and cultural prejudices have been at work to damage the church's witness for a long time. Ironically this incident dates back to a time not long after God revealed through the Spirit's visitation in Acts 2, God's desire for the church to be on the cutting edge of ethnic unity, demonstrating how the Spirit desires to rest upon, and empower all Christians. Those from Africa, Europe, the Middle East, were baptized in the Spirit, and were involved by the Spirit in the growth and formation of the early church so that the power and presence of God could freely spread like fire throughout the world.
As a pastor, I have discovered what many stories in the scriptures and what many social studies reveal, and that is that most people don't like becoming embroiled in controversies of any kind. The problem in Acts 6 was messy. Studies on human behavior reveal that in order to avoid conflict, people will not take a strong position on an issue if they feel that a messy conflict will result. From my observations this seems to be true across the cultural and racial spectrum; human beings in general don't like being involved in the kind of group dynamics, or interpersonal relationships, that have constant and potentially incendiary drama built into their DNA - the kind of drama that can cause painful divisions, strife, and emotional injury. For most people, it is painful to think of all the lives that have been negatively impacted over the centuries by a church living in opposition to the kind love-unity, for which the Lord prayed in the gospel of John 17:20-23. But as uncomfortable as it might get sometimes, if we are going to be the kind of Christians who follow our Lord through crucibles of pain, winning love victories, because of the reign of God, then we can't run from our crosses, particularly when they are connected to the promise of societal redemption and resurrection. Though the battle is often not pleasant, nor easy to endure, the disciple of Jesus Christ we must be willing to take risks, for the greater good.
The well-known and often quoted maxim, which declares that 11o clock is the most segregated hour of the week, stands as an awful indictment against the Church in this nation. It points to a chink in our spiritual armor as we claim to be a dynamic power against evil; it reveals a weakness in the Church's theological praxis. It is hard for the Church to claim resurrection power and declare that the Lord is love and the center of our collective joy, when there is the stain and stench of hypocrisy on our ecclesiastical garb. And on top of all of this, when we fail to work at the problem of sin, division and separation that exists in our midst and in the broader world culture, then we forfeit the treasure trove of joy, victory and the blessings of divine wisdom and anointed fellowship that are the results of a church that has learned to walk in victory. God has a blessing for us and our communities, but with the blessing there is a pressing forward that must occur -even through dangerous territory.
Excerpted from The American Church in Black and White by Gregory Emanuel Bryant. Copyright © 2016 Gregory Emanuel Bryant. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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Table of Contents
PART 1 - THE ROOTS OF DIVISION,
Chapter 1 The Problem of Racial Disunity is Rooted in a Spiritual War, 3,
Chapter 2 Lord, how did Central Brookside end up Here?, 48,
Chapter 3 Lord, how did the American Church end up Here?, 87,
Chapter 4 Lord, how did the American Church end up Here?, 118,
PART 2 - THREE MINES LINKED TO RACE AND CULTURE,
Chapter 5 Worship in Black and White, 161,
Chapter 6 Worship as a Personal Act in Black and White: God's Immanence, God's Transcendence, 185,
Chapter 7 The Role and Authority of Pastors and Ministers in Black and White: The Archetypal Figures of Moses and Aaron, 223,
Chapter 8 Approaching the Bible in Black and White: A Different Hermeneutic Focus, 271,
Chapter 9 Approaching the Bible in Black and White: Clergy Opinions – Survey Says!, 310,
PART 3 - VISIONS OF THE INTERCULTURAL CHURCH,
Chapter 10 Navigating the Move from our Segregated Reality to a Vision of Intercultural Possibilities, 347,