A few days after George Floyd’s tragic death in Minneapolis, I gathered with some of my soldiers for our weekly Chappy Hour discussion at a nearby pub. It turned out that I was the only white person there. Naturally, we decided to discuss race.
Some of what these friends told me surprised me—both their experiences and their conclusions. One couple from the deep South told me that our area in the North was more racist. Why? The racism this couple grew up with was overt, could be identified, and worked around. The racism they dealt with in the present day was hidden by layers of public philanthropy that actually kept minorities at arm’s length. In other words, people cut the check so they wouldn’t need to forge the relationship.
Now this discussion, for all of its value, was still hampered by a binary left-right consideration of race. It is hard not to slip into the mode of which political movement cares more for minorities and does more to help them. Likewise, it is hard to ask these questions and navigate this issue without inadvertently soundly paternalistic and condescending.
I wish I had a copy of For God So Loved the World: A Blueprint for Kingdom Diversity, edited by Walter R. Strickland II and Dayton Hartman, on hand for that discussion. The diverse array of writers in this volume invite their readers to examine the cultural blind spots that accompany their Christian worldview. This book will confound those who seek to impose the binary left-right categories on their reading of the book. The writers question rather than condemn; encourage humility rather than self-congratulations.
The book is divided into three portions: historical context, public theology, and practical theology. Of the three chapters on historical context, Hartman’s chapter on “The Shaping of the Christian Mind” provides the most heft. He looks at how the Western context of much of Christian history affected philosophical, theological, and cultural considerations surrounding the faith. It prompts the reader to scrutinize what is biblical against what is cultural.
Steven Harris follows with a closer examination of Christianity and race in American culture in a chapter entitled “The Segregated States of America.” While also helpful in reexamining cultural assumptions, some of the force of this chapter is hindered by sweeping historical generalizations and the overuse of secondary sources, rather than primary ones. For example, Harris quotes a primary source—Alexander Stephens—Vice President of the Confederacy, who insisted that the initial Union “rested upon the assumption of the equality of the races,” but then contradicts Stephens’s assertion with the conclusion of an historian: “The political system white Southerners proposed to export was simply, as many claimed, the original republic of the United States redeemed and perfected” (34-35).
Was slavery the betrayal or consequence of our founding principles? Harris would assert the latter, but without making a substantial case to this effect. In the process, he obscures follow-on points regarding the centrality of slavery to the Civil War, the Civil War as a theological crisis, and the failure of the white churches in the South during this period. All of these points are worth our consideration, but they need to be nested in a more historical and less polemical approach. Such changes might make this the most valuable contribution in this volume.
Once we reach the public theology portion of the book, Bruce Riley Ashford provides a rousing defense of a “whole-life, pro-life ethic” (67). This chapter reads like a sermon and reminds the reader the guarding the image of God in humanity, whatever the race or stage of gestation, is a clear prerogative of the Christian. Similar implications are then set forth for immigrants within the church in the following chapter.
In the practical theology portion, Chris Williamson’s chapter on “Shepherding toward Racial Reconciliation” provides a useful diagnostic for how we deal with race in our respective churches. This is followed by perhaps the most important chapter of the book—Walter Strickland’s “Teaching Scripture with a Kingdom Hermeneutic.” This chapter is jarring as it challenges the objectivity of inerrantist interpretations and preaching. The author subscribes to biblical inerrancy, but he challenges the church on whether we teach and preach this without conditioning by culture and race. If you believe in biblical inerrancy, this chapter will make you bristle, but the offense may be a result of our conditioning rather than biblical truth itself. It will force you to wrestle with your own cultural presuppositions.
The final couple of chapters seem a bit out of place. There are two helpful chapters on how complementarians can dignify women, but it really seems like an afterthought and tangential to the overall focus on race. While gender and race are both worthy topics of discussion, the former distracts from the latter in this volume and deserves a volume of its own. The last chapter—“Tales from the Trenches”—would probably fit better as an epilogue or appendix since it is largely a collection of unconnected (but helpful) anecdotes.
Why should you read this book? It will not help you with your dissertation or with talking points in a polemical debate. Rather, it will help you question your own cultural assumptions that accompany your belief in Christ and presentation of Christ crucified. We often struggle with how to present Christ faithfully and whether we are causing offense and creating barriers that are not inherent to the Gospel. In this sense, this book is not only valuable, but teaches us something that extends to but is not encompassed by race: How to delineate Truth from personal experience. This is why the political binary is not helpful. Taking a different track, this book challenges our traditions in order to exalt that which is really true.