The murder of nine black Christians who were gathered for Bible-study at the historic Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina last Wednesday by the hands of a single gunman who was there “to shoot black people” is horrific. But it is also a terrible reminder or the racism and violence that pervades America as a society. Unequivocally, racism and violence are two major issues in America, both of which causing great harm to the victims of such evil as well as undermining any sense of a civil society. The good news is that the church, called to live as an embodiment of the gospel of Jesus Christ, is poised to counter such racism and violence with the love and peace of Christ. Yet when the church ignores racism as a significant issue and justifies violence as a sometimes-necessary way of life, the church loses its prophetic gospel witness amidst an American society full of racism and violence.
Denial and Justifying the Wrong
The racism and violence that pervades in America should concern the church but sadly, this is not the case for many churches and the Christians who make up those churches. Instead of calling people to embody the love and peace of Christ as a counter-narrative to values of racism and violence, Father’s Day sermons were preached in many churches − because that’s the expectation of the chaplaincy pulpit.
It gets even worse when we turn on social-media, for there we encounter the failure of Christianity in America to embody a prophetic gospel witness. First, there are some white Christians who just want to deny the reality of racism. They speak of their own un-prejudiced treatment of blacks and other minorities and think that because they are not prejudice, that racism is not really that big of an issue. Some Christians will defend the symbols of racism, such as the Confederate Flag, as though these symbols are meaningless. They don’t want to have any constructive conversation about racism, a decision that white privilege allows since it is not the white person who has historically suffered under racism.
When it comes to violence, some Christians would rather talk about how allowing a concealed-carrying gun permit would make us safer. Instead of asking how the church can church can press deeper into faithfulness during such challenging moments, they want to talk about what level of violent measures might be necessary to make our worship gatherings more secure. In order to justify the “necessary” violence, appeal is made to Jesus. Yes, Jesus! Ignoring the peaceable kingdom-narrative that Jesus embodied… ignoring the self-sacrifical manner of life that Jesus lived which refused to harm others… ignoring the fact that Jesus went to the cross and told his disciples that if they are going to follow him then they better be ready to carry their own cross, some Christians will proof-text the story of Jesus overturning the table and driving the animals out of the temple to suggest that Jesus was violent and therefore justifies our violence. I’ve heard others, in a twisted anachronistic logic, appeal to Trinitarian doctrine to say that since Jesus is God in the Flesh that Jesus in the Old Testament approves of violence since God in the Old Testament approved violence (and they don’t even see the hermeneutical problems… should we stone every adulterer too? And put to death disobedient children?).
Forget the Irrelevant Nonsense… Embody the Gospel
This is where the church needs to wake up! Every day I read some blog or article about the evangelistic struggles that churches are encountering. Most of these article offer nothing but more nonsense (another phrase comes to mind but I’ll restrain myself) suggesting that if pastors just double-down on more creative preaching, if churches just get on board with the latest trendy worship style… was it contemporary, Taizé, liturgical, or…, offering four or five strategies for becoming missional, or offering four to five leadership principles to reignite your outreach, and on and on it goes. Nonsense!
You want to know why the church is becoming more and more irrelevant? It’s because the churches in America have little left by way of an alternative life. Regardless of what churches say they believe when you click on their “about us” page on their website, too many churches offer little alternative to the pervasive racism and violence because of the way they, through the Christians that make up these churches, ignore the issue of racism and justify violence. Who needs a church when that church appears and sometimes does embody the same life embodied by the American society at large? Why should any non-Christian desire to become a part of a church that isn’t any different from America? Nobody needs a church for that, they already have America!
If churches want to reach their community with the gospel of Jesus Christ, they must learn to not only speak the gospel but embody the gospel. That means speaking prophetically to the issues of racism and violence while embodying the kingdom alternative which is the radical love and peace of Christ demonstrated through forgiveness and reconciliation. We saw a sign of that embodiment when the daughter of Ethal Lance, one of the victims killed at the Emmanuel AME Church, said to the accused killer “But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
A Final Thought… The Kingdom Alternative
Are there other pressing issues the church should be prophetically speaking about? Of course, there are. But the issues of racism and violence are the issues at hand now and they are issues that have and will continue to plague society without any church ready to demonstrate the kingdom alternative. To dismiss the issue of racism and justify violence, or to try shifting the conversation by bringing up other issues, only makes the church more anemic. In such a difficult time, it is time to press deeply into the gospel and ask what it means to faithfully embody the kingdom alternative among a society plagued by racism and violence. That can’t be done pretending racism isn’t a big issue or engaging in hermeneutical gymnastics in order to justify violence. That happens by following Jesus who showed us what it means to love God and neighbor…even our enemies!