Racial and cultural tension in the western church is at an all-time high. With all sides speaking into the issue without, it seems, a way forward. Minority voices in the church are beginning to rise above the supremacy of white evangelicalism, which historically has been in a place of power, prestige, and privilege. Love, respect, and trust for white evangelicals are at an all-time low. Is it possible to love our so-called “oppressors”? I believe it is.
But first, let’s understand some important terms. I appreciate Ray Chang, who gives a legit definition:
- Evangelicalism: a movement rooted in the inspired scripture that emerged from the reformation and centered in the Gospel, its proclamation, and justification by faith
- White Evangelicalism: a segment of modern evangelicalism that is led and shaped by a cultural agenda defined by whiteness
Recently, Lecrae, a black hip-hop artist, said he was departing the world of white evangelicalism.
John Piper, a respected white theologian, responded to Lecrae with grace as he was trying to wrap his head around what this means.
Ray Chang, an Asian-American pastor, responded to Piper with a plea for white Christian leaders to incorporate minority leaders into their domains.
And Bryan Lorrits, a black author/speaker, responded to Chang and Piper with a more forceful and transparent tone, raising his metaphorical fist in the air to say that People of Color need to create their own spaces.
First off, I’d like to point out that these leaders all have mad respect for one another. They are, as evangelicals, for the most part in agreement theologically, it’s the cultural part that we are at odds with. These Christian leaders are voicing their convictions to the world as a way to discover unity in diversity, motivated by a genuine love for Jesus and his Bride, the Church.
But this isn’t always the case.
It’s easy to point fingers, to find blame, to feel rejected and hurt. It’s so easy to find fault with entire groups of people based on their skin tone. And as a South-East Asian-American minority who has lived (before Christ and after) under the shadow of white spaces and influences, it’s so easy to make white people the enemy.
This issue cuts deep into the core of who we are. It has affected our histories and for every believer, whether we know it or not, informs our theology and missiology. We will always view God and the world through our inherent cultural lens. The world itself influences how we see others. But the good news is that we are not of this world.
The upside-down, counter-cultural way of God’s Kingdom promises that there are places on this earth where people of different cultures can love one another in God-glorifying unity. The way of the Kingdom is so out of this world that it can even, yes, Lord have mercy, give us mad love for white people.
History Repeats Itself
Before we get into the practical part, it’s important to understand that this conversation has been going for over two thousand years. The way of Jesus was introduced to the world through the Jewish people. Jewish church leaders struggled with the idea that the Gospel was a message for all ethnic backgrounds and that the church could be expressed in all cultures. The book of Acts shows the journey of the early church from exclusiveness to inclusiveness (Acts 1, 8, 10, 15). It shows how the Holy Spirit changed minds, hearts, and practice, paving the way for a global faith that has endured to this day.
Every culture in the world has ethnocentric tendencies. Another important term:
- Ethnocentrism: judging other cultures based on the belief that your culture and people are inherently better than another group of people
Let me remind you that our world is much bigger than problems with just white people. Ethnocentrism is rooted deep in the heart of every culture and has been the source of strife, wars, genocide, and division in the church for generations. It usually rears its ugly head within the predominant culture on every continent or nation or neighborhood; among the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia. More often than not, strongly ethnocentric people have grown up in mono-cultural societies. They’ve only grown up and experienced one culture, only have tasted certain kinds of foods, only have seen one kind of religion and have no idea what it’s like or how it feels to be a minority.
Another important term:
- Mono-cultural Evangelicals: followers of Jesus who have the majority of their religious and social experiences in one single culture
Ethnocentrism exists in the church, especially among mono-cultural evangelicals. We are not judging another person’s upbringing or experiences. We are not saying they are less than anything. God can and does use our brothers and sisters who come from mono-cultural societies, like the Apostle Peter. And like Peter, there are extra cultural barriers for mono-cultural evangelicals to overcome in order to see people the way God does – Peter had to see a vision from heaven, three times (Acts 10).
The Apostle Paul, on the other hand, was bi-cultural, growing up and identifying with both Jewish and Greek culture. This made him the perfect ambassador to the nations and to people that looked and spoke differently (1 Cor. 9, Eph. 3).
Today, mono-cultural people, unless you’re Barack Obama, literally rule the world. It is the same in the church. Yet history shows us that God is able to transform deep-rooted issues in the heart of every person and every culture. White people are not the problem, the human heart is. The cure for the sin-stained human heart is unmerited love.
Love in Practice
So, in keeping with the practical nature of the Asian Rough Rider, I humbly offer a few simple ways to move forward in love towards white / mono-cultural evangelicals. Simple doesn’t mean it doesn’t require sacrifice. It means everyone can do it.
1. Speak Truth
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in leadership meetings and wanted to say something but didn’t feel like I could…because everyone was white. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt uncomfortable in white churches and white conferences and white trainings. Minorities are minorities for a reason, their voices never get heard.
There is rarely any balanced ethnic leadership in Western churches and organizations. The “colored people” are there simply to give the impression of ethnic diversity. Even among mission agencies where the primary directive is to reach people of every culture, we subconsciously feed the white evangelical beast by promoting famous white leaders.
Take for example the appointing of David Platt, at the height of his popularity, as the head of the International Mission Board (IMB). There is no doubt that David feels called to serve there. I love David, his books, his teachings and his passion. I love the IMB, but shouldn’t the mandate of reaching and loving every culture and tribe allow us to consider high caliber ethnic leaders?…we don’t even think in this posture. Or are we simply settling for the status quo of evangelical celebrity pop-culture? David sells mission to white evangelicals and so mission sells David.
Love is action. Love requires us to speak out. Your voice is valuable. Your words carry weight. Use it. Use it with boldness, grace, and humility. Speak the truth with conviction. The Kingdom requires that we carry one another’s burden. White evangelicals need to hear our stories, see our scars, listen to our pain and ask our forgiveness. And we need to release their histories, relieve their guilt and receive their compassion and forgiveness. Loving communication is the first step to God-honoring reconciliation.
2. Serve One Another
Imagine if opposing political parties washed one another’s feet. Imagine a CNN interview where Trump supporters were washing the feet of Hillary supporters and vice versa. How would that change the tone of the conversation?
We are not of two different political parties, we are of one – the Kingdom of Heaven of which Jesus is the sole ruler and head.
The last thing we are expected to do is to bow low and wash the feet of white evangelicals we despise. The ones who we believe have sold their soul for political and cultural gain. Or the ones who are culturally ignorant and have offended our people in ways they can never understand. Or the ones who use the banner of country and cross to promote ethnocentric / straight up racist ideas. Or the ones who struggle with their sexuality and take liberties with the interpretation of scripture.
What would happen if we stopped before posting a critical statement on social media, to try and understand the context, history, worldview, culture, and background of the people we disagree with?
Wash the feet of our mono-cultural co-laborers in Christ. Serve them unabashedly without expecting anything in return. Serving them doesn’t mean we’ll come to an agreement, it simply means we are being obedient to Jesus command to love. Serving one another is part of the counter-cultural Kingdom way that only God can help us do.
3. Seek Reconciliation
Something indescribable happened the moment we surrendered our souls to Jesus, we were immediately remade into conduits of Kingdom reconciliation. Because of his grace, we are now agents of holistic transformation…spiritual, mental, physical and cultural. We are bridges for broken souls, minds, bodies, and societies to find wholeness and restoration (2 Cor. 5:11-21).
But not everyone likes to be a bridge. As Bryan Loritts points out, bridges get stepped on.
I’d like to add that we are not just bridges but we are more like hot sriracha sauce (or whatever sauce you like). We bring flavor to meals that would otherwise taste like, well, white food. People don’t realize what they are missing when they leave out the spice in their life. The meal becomes what it was meant to be and can be enjoyed in all its’ fullness.
The church is meant to be the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic mess it is. With all its imperfection, it is perfectly satisfying to God.
God especially uses bi-cultural pioneers to bring cultural reconciliation. For those of us who have grown up in two or more cultures, we have been given a special gift and responsibility. The church needs us to bridge this gap. The church needs cross-cultural mobilizers. The church needs people with cross-cultural skills to introduce them to new foods, new dress, new expressions of worship and new expressions of leadership and church. Without us, mono-cultural evangelicals have no ability to cross the cultural divide and be the church that God meant for us to be.
4. Submit to God’s Leading
There is no point denying that our western faith expression has been led and defined by a white cultural agenda. The system is in place and will be for a very long time.
Despite this God is still God and his glory is still glorious. We don’t have to be defined by a cultural or religious agenda, only a Kingdom one. Our primary biblical mandate is not a cultural one or an environmental one, it is a Kingdom one where the fear and glory of God is realized in every heart among every people, tribe, and language.
As we live out Kingdom values we get to see and experience glimpses of heaven on earth. Lives changed. People healed. Communities of faith started. Church where leadership, culture, and mission are surrendered to the Holy Spirit. People from multi-ethnic backgrounds loving one another and unified in vision.
But all this noise is drowning out the voice of the Holy Spirit. Can you hear Him speaking to you in this season? Or are you caught up in the drama of self-realization, culture, and politics?
Some of us, motivated by love, are called to remain in white evangelicalism as cultural ambassadors. Others, also motivated by love, like Lecrae, are called to forge a new path for emerging multi-cultural faith expressions. Each one is meant to submit, listen and obey the voice of God. If that’s the case, neither are in the wrong.
5. Shake the Dust Off Your Feet
As a bi-cultural Asian-American missionary I’m tired of being the poster child for white spaces and places. Like other missional leaders, I’m tired of swimming against the cultural currents of consumerism, nationalism, humanism, ethnocentrism, and materialism. Like you I’ve been hurt by and hurt for white evangelicalism. Working in an international context I have been frustrated by well-meaning mono-cultural evangelicals.
I’m tired of white mission organizations sending culturally-inept workers overseas and pouring money into communities and projects they want to control.
I’m tired of mono-cultural Asian world missionaries who build lavish church buildings in the middle of impoverished areas without building a single disciple.
I’m tired of mono-cultural Western missionaries who want to train and lead national leaders using translation rather than coach and labor alongside them in their heart language.
I’m tired of mono-cultural short-term teams who want to paint walls and build things without considering the needs of the local people and what is locally sustainable.
I’m tired of mono-cultural church planters trying to plant churches in the same places among the same groups of people without considering where the needs are the greatest.
I’m tired of the apathy of other minority Christian leaders who have the means and capacity to serve the unreached but are not willing to give up the American dream.
Just because I’m tired doesn’t mean I’ve given up. I don’t believe there is a place in God’s Kingdom for giving up on the Bride of Christ. God’s glory will always be the pursuit of every disciple.
But there are appropriate times to part ways and change directions. Shaking the dust off your sandals was a 1st-century Jewish cultural expression that meant, I was faithful to do what God asked me to do and now I’m leaving the result up to Him. It was a symbolic gesture of “washing your hands of it”.
Our call to love and reconcile with white / mono-cultural evangelicals will, without a doubt, sometimes be met with rejection and hostility. Faithful obedience is the key. And when ultimate rejection happens I believe we have the freedom to move on. We are only responsible for our obedience to God, not for the results of that obedience.
Unmerited love is the upside-down way of the Kingdom of God. This is the cure for the fallen human heart. This is the answer to racial and cultural brokenness. He…is…love.