History Loves Company
The farther we stray from history, the further we break from reality.
The weight of words, and the realities they represent, piled up in recent weeks, pressing hard on my chest. Call it providence or coincidence. Call it making up for lost time. With little intention, I plucked two books from my reading list—James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree and Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise—and absorbed them at once. The resonance between them sounded like a starting gun which set my mind racing.
Tisby and Cone’s books bear more than a passing resemblance, though they place the accent on different aspects of the thorny history of race and the American church. Tisby traces threads of white Christian cowardice and complicity; Cone describes the harrowing history of death by lynching, and identifies the crucified Christ’s sympathy with its victims.
Unfortunately, the similarities extend far beyond Cone and Tisby. Their histories share a likeness with the sociology of Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s Divided By Faith; they line up with the lived and written experience of saints such as John Perkins and Austin Channing Brown; they echo the quietly thundering sermons of Martin Luther King Jr.
Set these texts side-by-side and your pen could travel unbroken, underlining from left to right across the line of books. Reading them is to know that black history is American history is church history. They also prompt hard questions: Do white Christians simply not know our church history? Or do we not care to know?
Each writer exposes tired excuses white Christians offer for racism and indifference, repeated across American history. They reveal the same glaring misuses of Scripture; they poke holes in persistent yet threadbare arguments for slavery and segregation.
In a particularly chilling passage from The Color of Compromise, Tisby reveals how racist political rhetoric stretches from the 20th century into our moment. This language grows more polite and less explicit with time, but remains no less devastating to unity and progress.
The farther we stray from history, the longer we delay a necessary reckoning.
These writers exhibit how incomplete the white American gospel is. So many of our churches preach a gospel sufficient to save, yet lacking in depth and dimension. Read the defective sermons preached to slaves, then trace the message forward. We herald a gospel concerned with individual souls, but uninterested in the reconciliation of those souls to one another.
We neglect hundreds of years of American history when we perpetuate a gospel with nothing to say about racial equality. We commit violence against redemptive history when we place the individual on a spiritual pedestal. Jesus delivers a redeemed people to his father; he does so a person at a time, but delights to build the church we read of in Ephesians 2. A chapter later, Paul said the mystery of the gospel is revealed in its width and depth, in God’s multi-colored wisdom expressed as redeemed people bend blood-bought reconciliation out to one another.
Knowing the Bible Genesis to Revelation requires rejecting an individualistic gospel. The end of the story whets our appetites for a great gathering across tribe, tongue, and nation. But the Bible’s earliest chapters also impress a collective spiritual destiny. The first conflict between brothers calls us to something messier, and ultimately better, than living for ourselves.
To fully reckon with the common condition we inherit from Cain means sounding out a different answer to God’s question in Genesis 4. Rather than hide from him and our responsibility for every Abel, white Christians must cry out:
Yes, Lord, I am my brother’s keeper
I was Trayvon Martin’s keeper, and I failed my brother
I was Eric Garner’s keeper, and I failed my brother
I was Tamir Rice’s keeper, and I failed my brother
I was Laquan McDonald’s keeper, and I failed my brother
I was Sandra Bland’s keeper, and I failed my sister
I was Philando Castile’s keeper, and I failed my brother
Somewhere between Genesis and Revelation, we encounter another pivotal point in redemptive history. Before Jesus’ glorious light breaks the veil, bestowing sight to Saul, we bear witness to his spiritual blindness. Acts 7 relays the stoning of Stephen, noting that Saul watched the coats of those who murdered Jesus’ disciple.
The most charitable reading of American church history depicts white Christians holding the coats of those perpetuating racism and terrorizing their fellow image-bearers. We hold their coats when stop our mouths in the presence of racist jokes and rhetoric, explain away their acts and systems, vote them into office and enjoy their table scraps.
The gospel shines the same brilliant light into our church history and individual histories, exposing sins of commission and omission. The farther we stray from this history, the harder our turn into repentance.
Wrestling with an unvarnished history teaches us who we are without a divine, Damascus road intervention, and leads us to imagine something better. Church history requires something of white Christians—to set down the coats of white supremacists, no matter what it costs us, and take up the cause of love and justice.
Through labored breath and childbirth pains, repentance gives life to more repentance. Hearts softened by the gospel grow more and more tender. Knowing this, white Christians can reject the fear they feel in the face of repentance. Especially as we review the history of Saul who became Paul. The more he rooted himself in the gospel, the more he resembled Jesus. Bending reconciliation into relationship, he opposed Peter “to his face,” Galatians 2 tells us, in order to advance the ethnic unity and gospel witness of the early church.
Our God wills and delights to produce similar change in the lives of white American Christians. As we read the words of James Cone and Jemar Tisby, Richard Twiss and Kaitlin Curtice, Soong-Chan Rah and others, we will know the truth—about ourselves and our history—and the truth always sets us free.
The closer we draw to our history, the more eager we become for reconciliation and restitution right now.