A Time to Listen, A Time to Speak

In recent days, social media has been inundated with podcasts, articles, and videos in which individuals have sought to speak to the issues surrounding ethnic tensions and relations. While there has been much controversy, there has also been growing hostility and contention regarding ethnic strife within American conservative evangelical churches. In this post, I wish to briefly address those who may be reticent about discussing this topic publicly.

First, we need to be honest about the true state of affairs regarding ethnic tension within our society in general. It is certainly true that there has been substantial progress over the past fifty years regarding the protection of minorities under the law and in the public perception of racism. However, there are still many layers of stereotyping and prejudice that affect interpersonal relationships among ethnic groups. Some of this can be explained by ignorance, but at the heart of this, there is genuine enmity between different ethnic groups, which has consequences within American society. This is not merely white racism towards minorities; this also involves the perception of white southerners among minorities. Within the church, this manifests itself in the lack of openness, uneasiness, and mistrust between various ethnic groups.

Striving for Unity

Second, we must acknowledge that the New Testament only addresses this topic within the context of the Church. The major source of ethnic tension in the Scriptures is centered around Gentile-Jewish relations and Paul spends a great deal of time addressing this topic. Central to Paul's discussion in Ephesians is the unity of the Church. From Paul's perspective, the glory of the gospel is that there is one Church composed of Jews and Gentiles. Thus, two groups who were formerly hostile to one another have been brought together through the blood of Christ (cf. Ephesians 2:11-22). This unity is the basis behind Paul's exhortation to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (cf. Ephesians 4). Therefore, our fundamental identity is in Christ and any philosophy that seeks to undermine that source of our unity in Christ strikes at the heart of the gospel. It is our common fellowship in Christ that calls us to love all of our brothers and sisters in Christ - regardless of the social strife that may exist. Therefore, if we are truly "people of the Book," then we must be willing to address this topic in light of what Scripture teaches.

Third, do not believe the notion that there is only one approach in dealing with how ethnic/social strife ought to be dealt with in the Church. Contrary to popular belief, there is no direct New Testament teaching on how ethnic strife should be addressed outside the Church beyond the call to love our neighbor. There is the issue of ethnic strife among the widows in the early church, resulting in the formation/reorganization of the diaconate (Acts 6). However, there is no single answer to every form of ethnic strife in the New Testament. In general, we may agree on what we should do (i.e. love our brothers and love our neighbor), but we do not always agree on how that should be done (i.e. the manner in which we demonstrate this love in tangible social and ecclesiastical ways). Since the specific methodology is not given to us in the Scripture, American evangelicals tend to have two approaches: (1) use vague inferences from theocratic Israel or the New Covenant church, or (2) use social science research and/or methodologies from prior historical movements to address it. There are obvious pros and cons to each of these approaches.

A Time to Listen and a Time to Speak

When we come to the matter of speaking to the issue of ethnic strife/division, we must remember the words of the Westminster Larger Catechism on the 9th Commandment. According to Question 144, the ninth commandment

"requires that we maintain and promote truthfulness in our dealings with each other and the good reputation of others as well as ourselves. We must come forward and stand up for the truth, speaking the truth and nothing but the truth from our hearts, sincerely, freely, clearly, and without equivocation, not only in all matters relating to the law and justice but in any and every circumstance whatsoever. We must have a charitable regard for others, loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good reputation as well as regretting and putting the best light on their failings. We must freely acknowledge their talents and gifts, defending their innocence, readily receiving a good report about them and reluctantly admitting a bad one. We should discourage gossips, flatterers, and slanderers; we should love and protect our own good reputation and defend it when necessary..."

We must let these words sink down into our ears. Many individuals have contacted me privately in order to express that they strongly disagree with the trajectory of the accepted conclusions on ethnic strife, but are afraid of being slandered for speaking out on it--since slander and vitriol often ensue when someone speaks out about his or her concerns. It is perfectly understandable why people would be reticent to speak up; but, as Christians, we are called to truth-telling individuals. We are called to be people of conviction who will not allow falsehood to thrive, if we believe that falsehood is being propagated. As the Larger Catechism teaches, we must come forward, stand up for truth, and stand publicly alongside those who proclaim the truth, in spite of the consequences. This usually means that we need to forego politeness and we ought to speak frankly with one another about what truly matters.

It's important to state that there is a necessary time for quietly listening, reflecting, considering, and thinking about these issues. However, there is an appropriate time to speak. When it comes to matters of "racial reconciliation," the refrain that has been loudly promoted since the Trayvon Martin shooting in 2012 is that white southern evangelicals need to sit down and listen to their non-white brothers. The hysteria on social media regarding this topic has drowned out many balancing and stabilizing voices and has ultimately muted others. Many have sought to take time to listen. Is there not a time at which it is necessary for us to express differing opinions? Is there not a time for us to speak clearly, sincerely, and lovingly to our concerns?

When the most extreme voices have the microphone, many have operated by "charitable assumptions." believing that the tone of the rhetoric would come down. However, the tone has not sobered in six years; rather, some seem to be greatly angered and emboldened. How long can those of us who are concerned with what is being said about how ethnic strife should be handled in the church live silently with "charitable assumptions"?

Is It Worth It?

Some say that this discussion isn't worth their time. I certainly understand that reaction as well; but, this is not a matter on which Christians may remain neutral. This discussion illustrates a fundamental disagreement on the basic implications of the gospel. Some have said that racial reparation is part of the gospel. This is no longer a fringe discussion, but it has begun to fracture churches. If we believe that the solutions being offered are worse than the actual problems we face, then we must speak about it.

For those who have been reticent to speak up, may I ask you some questions: If you really believe that the purity of the gospel is at stake, is it not worth defending the gospel? Are you concerned that the gospel is being repackaged and redefined to make it more palatable to our current media agendas? Are we choosing not to speak up because we are still pondering these matters? Or are we refusing to speak out because we lack courage? Are we giving public and private encouragement to those who are confronting these issues? Are we tolerating a matter that we should be condemning and warning others about? To conclude, consider the words of the Apostel Paul,

"For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, so that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin. But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ. For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully" (2 Corinthians 11:2-4).

Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is assistant professor of atmospheric physics at the College of Charleston. He writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.