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Ferguson & Bourgeois Christianity

Baptist pastor Thabiti Anyabwile throws down a challenge to us middle-class Christians, both progressives and traditionalists. Especially us traditionalists, which are the ones he takes seriously. He’s writing to fellow Evangelicals, but this is by no means a challenge only to Evangelical Christians. Excerpt:

When James Cone wrote A Black Theology of Liberation in the late 1960s, he was attempting to provide a theological framework for understanding and guiding the feelings and actions of African-American protestors. He wrote in the wake of a deadly riot in Detroit. He felt a burden, a heavy weight to say something meaningful as a Christian. He felt, as many had before him, that if Christianity had no answer for Black people caught in the roiling cauldron of Jim Crow segregation and state-sponsored terrorism then Christianity had no credibility whatsoever.

I wish the evangelical church felt the same way that Cone felt. Though I find Cone’s answers unbiblical and untenable, he at least raised and grappled with legitimate questions of justice from the vantage point of the oppressed. And until evangelicalism finds the courage and the love to enter those questions with empathy for that vantage point on a quest for better answers than Cone’s, then evangelicalism as we know it is dead.

I’m not talking about the “evangelicalism” of progressive Christians who seem to rarely preach and emphasize the biblical gospel while championing every cause, the “evangelicalism” that has no evangel. I’m talking about the “evangelicalism” of “Bible-believing Christians,” of “gospel-centered people,” of “conservative” movements that pride themselves on not being “those liberals.” I’m not talking about your local church or my local church as much as I’m talking about the movement as a whole, at its highest levels. I’m talking about the “movement evangelicalism” that I run in. That evangelicalism is dead.

Or, to put it another way, you don’t answer oppression, violence, poverty, sexism, corporate theft and a host of other problems with theology alone. Theology alone is not an answer. Nor are vague appeals to the gospel, however true it is that the gospel is our first, only and greatest hope. Action and policy guided by sound theology are answers. When Paul wrote to Philemon on behalf of the enslaved Onesimus, he reminded Philemon of the gospel and the duty of Christian love. Then in love he told Philemon to take an action consistent with that theology: release Onesimus and receive him as a brother. Evangelicalism is long on theology (gospel) and short on ethics (loving action).

More. He’s talking about the response to Ferguson:

Nevertheless, most of what’s been said by evangelical leaders thus far (including my post yesterday) has been a general lament. It’s been the expressing of sentiment. There’s not yet been anything that looks like a groundswell of evangelical call for action, for theology applied to injustice. It’s possible (even likely) that I’ve missed a call for action from my colleagues and peers in the evangelical world. But I don’t think I’ve missed our most influential leaders with the widest reach. They’ve been silent en masse. Today I think we need to be pushed a couple steps ahead.

Otherwise, orthodox evangelicalism is dead. It’s dead to oppressed folks in our back yards who need to hear the word of God spoken into their situation with all the prophetic unction our Lord would give. It’s dead to grieving parents required to have closed casket funerals for their children because racist systems and people so disfigure the body it can’t be shown. Orthodox evangelicalism is dead to the marginalized because it’s so allergic to the margins. It wants its mainstream, its tree-lined streets of cultural acceptance, its reserve and respectability. So it’s dead.

Read the whole thing. If you don’t see this as a challenge — I do, to myself — you probably need to look harder within. You don’t have to decide who is Right in Ferguson, and what version of events is the Truthful one before acting in other cases. As the pastor says, there are lots of cases in our own backyards that never make the news, but that we know about. Or should know about. The preacher is talking about Ferguson, but he’s really talking about our own hearts.

My friend Charles Jenkins, the retired Episcopal bishop of Louisiana, found that Hurricane Katrina woke him up to poverty and injustice right under his nose in New Orleans. Excerpt:

They are an unlikely pair, chatting up people on porch stoops in the poorer neighborhoods of New Orleans: Bishop Charles Jenkins, 57, the son of white, rural north Louisiana and pastor to 18,000 south Louisiana Episcopalians, and Jerome Smith, 69, black and rumpled, son of Treme, a former Freedom Rider from the civil rights movement.

Before Hurricane Katrina, in the days when Jenkins says he was focused more on the well-being of his predominantly white church than his predominantly black city, they might never have crossed paths.

But since Katrina, they have forged a relationship in which Jenkins, now deep into a profound personal and spiritual transformation, said he has come to love and rely on Smith.

Smith, a sometimes fiery activist in whom Jenkins sees a gentle soul, has become one of the bishop’s principal guides into New Orleans’ poor African-American culture, a landscape Jenkins said he previously glimpsed but did not understand.

“He’s my mentor, you know,” Jenkins said recently. “It is a good day whenever Jerome Smith comes by.”

But Smith is only one symbol of the journey of Charles Jenkins, and by extension Jenkins’ diocese, since Katrina.

More:

Fundamentally, Jenkins has embarked on a personal re-education in which he seeks to see the city through the eyes of the poor. And that education inevitably yields a new personal mission: to work for citywide racial reconciliation and for purging the social injustices Katrina laid bare.

Before the storm, “I thought Christianity and priesthood were primarily about the cult,” Jenkins said. “And doing the actions correctly — holding my fingers correctly at Mass, not wearing brown shoes when celebrating the Mass. That it was getting all those right.

“And I was missing the larger picture of the dignity of humanity and the world for whom Christ died.”

Read the whole thing. (Christian blogger loosens his collar nervously, looks around for the exits…)

[H/T: Charles Featherstone. — RD]

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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