Reaching all people

Are You Avoiding Conversations About Race and Privilege?

Don’t avoid. Jump in. We need each other.

The 2018 EFCA Theology Conference (on “The Gospel, Justice and Compassion”) was a powerful and convicting reminder that good theology—a right understanding of God and His gospel purposes—is the foundation for any serious attempt to address the racial and social divisions of our day.1

And that’s what the diverse group of speakers did: biblically, clearly, profoundly and provocatively call us to see the divisive issues of our day through the lens of Scripture and to face them as citizens of a greater kingdom.

I don’t know what it’s like to be denied entry into an evangelical seminary due to the color of my skin. I didn’t know the extent to which many of my theological forbearers justified and/or practiced slavery and segregation. I never really considered why I read so few nonwhite theologians during my seminary studies.

Like a fish that doesn’t know what water is, Dr. Carl Ellis2 reminded us, “the dominant culture doesn’t even realize it has a culture.” In this country, that dominant culture is my own. And whether I like it or not, it affects how I read the Scriptures—helping illuminate some elements of the Word of God even as it blinds me to others.

I can’t see outside of my own culture, evaluate it and place it under the gospel without the help of others who are unlike me. And that is exactly what God does through the Church, when all of us commit together to “speak the truth in love” and so grow into genuine maturity (Ephesians 4:15-16).

We can’t move forward unless we keep pressing in, keep talking, keep listening and keep seeking Jesus together.

As evangelical civil rights leader John Perkins exhorted us at the conference: “We’ve got to take equal responsibility for this problem because we are ‘broke’ together.”

After one of the sessions, I grabbed lunch with a visiting pastor from Mexico City (where I serve with EFCA ReachGlobal), and we talked about how the conference applies to our own particular ministry context. He was troubled over the race and class divisions where we serve and concerned about how the Church interacts with and even perpetuates them.

Yet he was also concerned about how white American missionaries—like myself—have historically engaged the Mexican Church. He said some hard things I needed to hear. Then he gave me an opportunity to share some of my own thoughts and concerns. Instead of arguing with me, he told me that I needed to say these things to others. I told him I already had. He pushed back, telling me that I needed to do it again.

I think that is when it all clicked for me: We can’t move forward unless we keep pressing in, keep talking, keep listening and keep seeking Jesus together. The conference laid out the theological foundations, but that lunch brought it all into focus. Our theology will only bring real change when we are willing to keep engaging one another in bold, humble, mutually honoring, empathetic love.

Only when we are neither ignoring issues nor trying to win an argument about them can we say the hard things and grow because of it. Only then can we honor one another as people created in the image of God, and so fulfill God’s commands to “love one another with brotherly affection [and] outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10).

Our current national discourse fails to do either of those things well, and we are worse off because of it. But as followers of Jesus, we belong to a greater nation, a greater kingdom. Truly, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20).

As a citizen of this heavenly kingdom, I commit to work harder to listen and understand the experiences and perspectives of those who are different from me, especially those of color. And I am going to invite others to do the same. When I move back to Mexico City this summer, I want to sit down with my Mexican ministry partners and build upon that conversation that started over lunch, doing a better job both hearing them out and pressing into the harder things we both might rather avoid.

Maybe it won’t change the world, but I believe it will change me. And we’ve got to start somewhere, right?

A total of 225 EFCA leaders from across the movement attended the 2018 Theology Conference. If you missed it or just want to ponder the powerful messages again, stay tuned to this blog for upcoming links to the podcasts. And consider joining other EFCA leaders at the MLK50 Conference, April 3-4, 2018, in Memphis, Tennessee. 
Dr. Carl Ellis Jr. is assistant to the chancellor, senior fellow of the African American Leadership Initiative, and provost’s professor of theology and culture at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Tennessee.

Photo by Natalie Pitts

Joshua Smith

Joshua Smith is the EFCA ReachGlobal City Team leader in Mexico City and is co-pastor/planter of Comunidad Cristiana Roma in the city center. He and his wife, Naomi, have served with ReachGlobal since 2001—originally in Spain.

Send a Response

Share your thoughts with the author.