Why the Divide Between Black and Non-Black Christians?

About three weeks ago I stumbled into a facebook group themed on racial issues. I had been formally invited into the group a few weeks prior, and was skimming the posts to get a sense of how the group operated. But I really stumbled when I started to speak up. A big stumbling block for me was that I had not realized how wide the divide is, generally, between the socio-cultural outlook of black Christians and non-black Christians.

In this case, I found that the group was overwhelmingly left-leaning in their views on race. Common left-wing assumptions were circulating as if they were common knowledge.[1] While most of the people in there were Christian, I just did not see the idealogical diversity I’ve come to appreciate in other Christian gatherings, such as Christian colleges, Bible studies and apologetics groups, or even church gatherings. I soon found out that I have a lot to learn regarding tact and timing. And I’m definitely reconsidering my “starting points”–how do I broach these weighty conversations? Which assumptions are safe? What prior learning should I be bringing to the table? Will I be labeled a “racist” if I ask for evidence before drawing conclusions? Can I engage productively in a given conversation without having to blindly accept a particular racial narrative? All in all, I decided to step away from the subject of race for the last two weeks, having had such a bad experience in that one facebook group. I’ve also been beefing up my reading on the subject.

Charlotte in Flames

So, here I’m returning–for better or worse–to this explosive issue. As we speak, the city of Charlotte North Carolina, my old stomping ground, has been racked with race riots the last two nights. According to the Charlotte Observer, these protests followed a black-on-black police shooting when the officers attempted to issue a standing warrant, and the man’s brother, Keith Lamont Scott was shot in an altercation with the police. I won’t make any judgments just yet about whether the officers involved were acting appropriately or not. But it is safe to say that the subsequent protests appear to involve Black Lives Matter (BLM). According to sources “Demonstrators shouted ‘Black lives Matter’ and ‘Hands up Don’t Shoot'” (see also, this HuffPo article). We may expect that Black Lives Matter representatives would disavow violence, and many of BLM’s public advocates are horrified by the violence that tends to ride on the wake of BLM protests in Ferguson, Baltimore, Dallas, Milwaukee, and now Charlotte. But if BLM is going to distance itself from that violence, that wedge needs to be more than verbal. It would be foolish to ignore and excuse the clear correlation between BLM and violent protests, rioting, one-sided shouting matches, and escalatiing tensions. BLM has done some good things, and I don’t want to throw out the proverbial “baby with the bathwater.” But the correlated violence is just one reason to be suspicious about this powerful group. Taleeb Starkes, a black christian and vocal advocate for black communities, has a stirring expose’ on BLM titled provocatively, Black Lies Matter (2016). And many other black voices likewise decry BLM for host of reasons (see here, here, here, and here–Language warning).

It’s clear I’m not a big fan of Black Lives Matter. I’m also not black either. Perhaps if I had walked a mile in a black man’s shoes I’d feel deeper sympathy with the message and narrative of BLM. Perhaps I’d weigh my critique differently, leading with my points of agreement instead of, what appears to be, a hasty dismissal. Still, I don’t think that my heritage as a non-black racially mixed person is enough, by itself, to explain my opposition to Black Lives Matter. Indeed, there seems to be an increasing number of black men and women decrying BLM (see the links above). Nevertheless, BLM still appears to be a leading example of the widening divide between black and non-black America, and in this case, between black Christians and non-black Christians.

The Haunting Divide

I’m surprised, . . . no, that’s not the right word. I’m haunted by how wide the divide is between black and non-black Christians who would otherwise, I assume, agree on theological and moral basics. I expect diversity and disagreement among believers. I have no problem with respectful disagreement, zealous debate, and graciously mediated conflicts. But I wouldn’t call the current racial divide a matter of mere “diversity.” There seems to be polarization, a widening divide between two echo-chambers (as opposed to the more rare reality of unity-in-diversity).

Even while Christians of all colors agree on the deity of Christ, the resurrection, the Trinity, salvation by grace, the centrality of Scripture, Christ’s imminent return, and the coming judgment, we have great freedom to disagree on most everything else. This ideological liberty means an array of worldviews, even if they overlap on Christian basics.

In this regard, there seems to be a widening worldview gap between black Christians and non-Black Christians. Nowhere is this divide more evident than with Black Lives Matter. Of course there are many exceptions, but I’m still finding the gracious and conciliatory tone that many black Christians have towards “Black Lives Matter” (the group) contrasts starkly with the suspicious antagonism many non-Black Christians feel towards the same group. BLM is clearly politically progressive, socially radical, and even Marxist with anarchic overtones especially with it’s well-demonstrated ties to the Occupy Movement, George Soros, and others prototypical conspirators on the left.[2] So I’m not surprised when Christian socialists (such as the “Social Gospel” or certain streams of “Black Theology”) sympathize with BLM. I would expect Christians on the far-left to ally with far-left groups.

I am surprised however over the wide racial divide among Christians who would otherwise agree on social conservatism. The majority of Christians tend to be conservative on social issues regardless of whether they lean democrat or republican in their voting record (i.e., traditional marriage is best, homosexuality is a sin, sex should be saved for marriage, family matters, racism is evil, sexism is evil, abortion is murder, etc.).black-girl-praying

Theology and even ethics don’t seem to be the key explaining the racial divide. So I’m left to wonder then how much of this apparent divide between black and non-Black Christians is about 1) politics, 2) economics, and 3) culture. Taking BLM as our example. Black Christians and non-black Christians seem to be deeply divided over the relative value of Black Lives Matter, yet I just don’t see how a strictly racial lense is an adequate insight into why there’s such a stark divide over BLM. BLM has given a voice of solidarity to black people and has raised such a clarifying light to the felt experience of black people that even if BLM is wrong on everything else, the group has touched such a sensitive nerve as to spark widespread loyalty. That loyalty has proven stronger than any concerns over their potentially dangerous affiliations and their politically divisive platforms.

I have no simple confident answer on this question. I don’t know how to account for the apparently wide divide between Black Christians and non-Black Christians regarding their perception of Black Lives Matter. I wouldn’t dare dismiss the pressing reality that race still matters, and people still see color through distorted lenses. Black people across the church pews and across political aisles regularly admit the reality of racism and racial prejudice. Any efforts to downplay that fact is a non-starter for non-black Christians. Black lives do in fact matter.

Still my suspicion is that there is a lot more than “race” involved in this precarious divide between Christians. Maybe the divide isn’t as wide as it seems. Maybe the divide is just as wide or wider than I realize, and race is a major reason. But even if race, by itself were the key issue distinguishing the worldviews of black and non-black Christians, we still can’t afford to treat race like it’s the only issue. A race-only outlook is just too simplistic. And biblically speaking, we can’t afford to let our sights be so constrained by a racial preoccupation that we can’t give proper attention to the sin issues, the spiritual warfare, and the need for salvation that unites all human beings in the same fallen race, the human race.

The BLM Wedge

Another way to make this point, is by saying that that everyone who lets the “black” in Black Lives Matter determine their full allegiance is letting themselves be manipulated. Black lives do in fact matter, we can thank BLM for helping to raise awareness on racial issues. Perhaps if BLM were non-partisan, or amenable to political moderates and conservatives, then all parties of most every race, color or creed could unite in support of BLM. If BLM were clearly aimed at something other than a socialist overhaul of America, then their commendable qualities could lead the way into a new era of racial healing.[4] It’s not clear at all, however, to this racially mixed Christian conservative, that BLM is overall aimed at racial equality, racial reconciliation, or even reducing racism.

If you are opposed to racism and racial discrimination, as I am, then we have equally strong reason to reject the Black Lives Matter organization.[5] I see no redeeming Christian spin on the BLM marching chants: “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon” or “What do we want? Dead Cops! When do we want it? Now.” BLM has tried to distance themselves from overt violence, but the stream of race riots and violence in Ferguson Missouri, Baltimore Maryland, St. Paul, Minnesota, and now Charlotte North Carolina testify otherwise. The spike in targeted attacks on cops, including police shootings in Dallas Texas and Brooklyn New York, likewise betrays the modest “non-violent” claims of BLM. BLM has some modest demands and some reasonable voices expressing an intelligent and responsible line of discourse about social reform. But as David French points out with National Review,

that’s not the only version of Black Lives Matter. Existing side-by-side with the millions of Americans who express the sentiments above is an extraordinarily radical organization, along with a persistent strain of violence that — if present at conservative events such as tea-party rallies or pro-life vigils — would completely discredit the movement.

Asra Q. Nomani, an avowed liberal and racial justice advocate, concurs with French in her piece: “The Violent Tone of Black Lives Matter has alienated Even Liberals Like Me” (9 July 2016).

Black Christians and non-black Christians alike are free to choose their social, political, and religious affiliations. No one can rightly deny black people’s “blackness” if they choose to distance themselves from a questionable group who seems more harmful than helpful. And in the case of Black Lives Matter, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that BLM is too conflicted and partisan to merit allegiance from socially conservative Black Christians.[2]

Furthermore, Black Christians can call upon their Christian heritage for a wealth of ideas, history, and culture as reference points in deciding what to think–for one’s self–about Black Lives Matter. Does Black Lives Matter reflect the peaceable, gracious, and restorative spirit of Christ? Does Black Lives Matter reflect the beatitudes? (Matthew 5:3-12). Does Black Lives Matter reflect the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23)? Does Black Lives Matter focus on a biblical sense of “justice” or does it import the foreign ideology of “social justice”?[3]

With BLM, the organization does well in paying attention to race, but it’s not clear that their goals are aimed ultimately at racial healing. Instead, BLM demands seem to be using race to hammer down political agendas from the moderate to radical left. Just look for yourself at their list of demands:

Income redistribution (code language for socialist economics; this appears a lot in their demands)
Lgalizing drugs
Universal single-payer healthcare
Defund fossil fuels
Cut military spending
Institute a progressive tax code
Institute a ‘living wage’ (code language for raising the minimum wage regardless of market forces)
Abolish private schools and homeschools
Immediately release all black “political prisoners” (incl., cop killers, convicted homeland terrorists, etc.).

Now we can admit that there are some real inequalities between black and non-black communities, in terms of absent fathers, out-of-wedlock birthrates, income, jobs, and so on. If black communities have been historically victimized by long-standing racism dating back to slave days, then we can expect many contemporary black communities to reflect the long-term affects of that racism in the form of broken families, poverty, and  crime. It would also seem counterproductive–for the sake of those impoverished communities–to constrain the hiring opportunities, and income opportunities in black neighborhoods. Yet dropping economically restrictive policies and an omnibus social welfare program on struggling communities is a surefire way to perpetuate the cycle of poverty. Inculturated dependence is no cure for the social ills that black people suffer. Weakening the economy–even with the best intentions–offers no great hope for empowering members of poor black communities to escape the cycle of poverty. Instead, when systemic poverty takes root in communities (black or non-black), and left-wing economic policies reinforce that poverty by crippling the job market and punishing material success, then we have every reason to expect families to keep struggling, and income levels to keep floundering, and crime to stay high. Why would successful employers want to subject their thriving business to higher tax rates when they can move their business one state over, be more successful, and hire more people?

BLM supports progressive tax codes, meaning higher taxes on employers, who thereby can’t afford to employ as many people or they move their businesses elsewhere/overseas to escape the heavy tax burden. And the most common denominator, besides race, in all of the BLM hotspots (where there have been race riots) has been left-wing politics. Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Ferguson, Baltimore, and even Charlotte, have all been heavily Democrat run cities. Some have been democrat hubs dating back to the civil rights era of the 1960’s.

Sure it sounds compassionate and helpful to redistribute wealth through tax codes roughly equalizing all parties, but biblically, is that the way Jesus describes kingdom economics? In the parable of the talents, the landowner entrusts stewards according to their ability, and rewards them according to their fruits (Matt 25:14-30). And what does he do with the steward who refused to invest and create wealth? He takes that talent and gives it to the most successful steward. God can still care about fairness and equality, but he’s also concerned for fruitlfulness. And it makes sense to reward wise, hard-working managers with more investments so that they can keep bearing more and more fruit. There’s no great honor in distributing people’s resources down to a perfectly equal poverty. That sort of practice discourages hard work, inhibits investment, and undermines growth.

Wherever black communities are struggling with poverty, we do well to acknowledge the complex interplay of forces that enculturate people into poverty (including both material and social poverty–broken families, unsafe neighborhoods, etc.). History is a factor. Family is a factor. Local job opportunities are a factor. Churches are a factor. The quality and strength of local businesses are a factor. Government policies are a factor. Police and the legal system are a factor. Lending and hiring practices are factors. But practically speaking, it’s hard to make any lasting positive impact to the local economy when local tax codes are so strict that all potential employers won’t go near that neighborhood. Where neighborhoods continue to struggle in poverty, we have every reason to expect crime, broken families, and all the statistical correlates that come with poverty. When its black neighborhoods burdened with a depressed economy in a jobless community, then the measures of racial equality will continue to sag. The racial inequalities will incite louder more frantic cries for racial justice. And, according to BLM, those cries should be answered with more socialist policies–that continue to drive away businesses, kill jobs, cripple investment, and destroy local economies. In other words, BLM’s solution to racial inequalities are liable to generate more racial inequalities. For lack of a sound economic mind, and a political alliance with left-wing ideals, BLM’s political agenda may spell more harm than help for black communities. I’m sure racism is an issue at some level, but it’s hard to see just how much racism is at work here when rudimentary economic errors are all standing in the way.

We don’t have to ignore or dismiss the role of race (i.e., being “colorblind”). But neither does it seem wise for genuine non-socialist Christ-followers of any race or color to hitch their wagon to BLM. My suspicion is that heavyweight political opportunist are eager to exploit racial unrest to advance political agendas but, for the reasons stated above, they offer no real hope for actual racial reconciliation, healing communities, or tangible justice. Black Christians have every right and every reason to affirm the good things that have come through BLM. Non-black Christians should equally support the good things that have come through BLM.

Bridging the Gap

If you are a black Christian reading this and you now feel led to distance yourself from BLM then we’ve made some progress at bridging the gap between black and non-black Christians. meanwhile, on my side of the divide, I would do well to keep seeking the kernels of truth underneath the media noise, affirming the reverberations of ancient racial animosity without affirming the violence or bad ideas they may carry. That task can take me a long way in identifying with and understanding the unique plight of my black brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s safe to say, we all have have a long way to go in identifying with each other’s plight and bridging the wordlview gap between us.

Fortunately, the body of Christ admits rich diversity and even deeper grounds for unity in Christ (Eph. 4:11-13). The whole landscape of Christian faith has been forged with the superabundant grace of Christ our savior. We can forgive as we’ve been forgiven. We can love as He first loved us. And wherever we are liable to disagree or rise in anger, “love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8, NIV).

End Notes

[1] One about race typically circulated among left-leaning theorists is the “one-way” definition of racism where it’s not just about racial prejudice (hating white people, hating jews, hating black people, etc.) but there has to also be power leveraged against the marginalized group. In that way, black people, being the racial minority, can be victims of racism but can’t be perpetrators of racism. Another example idea is that numerical disparities are default proof of racism, for example: Higher rates of black incarceration, lower wages among black people, etc.  To be fair, there could be racism involved in wage earnings and rates of arrest, or there could be racism in the prior causes leading to poor numbers. But there could be other, more prominent causes such that racism isn’t a significant factor. One does not have to assume on one end that all these disparities are proof of racism, nor that we can safely “blame the victim.” There are more potential causes out there than these extremes.

[2] Ann Sorock  of Frontier Lab writes: ”

Black Lives Matter as a movement represents the hopes and dreams of leftist organizers who shared with us that, until now, they had never felt such a sense of hope and excitement that their goal – as one operative put it, “total social upheaval,” and “systemic change” — could be realized in their lifetime. From veteran agitators like the Weather Underground’s Bill Ayers to a new crop of social-media-wielding female and LGBTQ leaders, Black Lives Matter is encapsulating the hopes and dreams of multiple generations of progressives in a way, they say, no movement has before.

The three female founders of the movement have made it clear, and the message has seeded itself as far down the chain as the operatives we spoke with, that Black Lives Matter is the vessel through which all progressive causes can flow. LGBTQ, illegal immigration, abortion, and countless other causes are simmering just beneath the public face of the focus on police violence. Even police violence flows neatly, according to Black Lives Matter, into economic violence — wage issues, workers’ rights . . . The panoply of leftist groups come together under this banner.

Quoted in: http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2016/08/what-black-lives-matter-really-is-about.php.

See also these reports from Daily Wire, National Review, TheFederalist, The Trumpet, Washington Post, TownHall, and Project 21. See also the list of demands on the Black Lives Matter website.

[3] An excellent source detailing the exact meaning and significance of the term “social justice” is the United Nations report, “Social Justice in An Open world,” (2006). The authors explain in no uncertain terms that “social justice” is heavily affiliated with left-wing economic and social policies of redistribution and equal outcomes. In their words:

“[S]ocial justice may be broadly understood as the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth” (pg. 7).

“Social justice is not possible without strong and coherent redistributive policies conceived and implemented by public agencies” (pg. 6)

“[P]resent day believers in an absolute truth identified with virtue and justice are neither willing nor desirable companions for the defenders of social justice” (pg. 3).

Note clearly, from the quote on page 3, that “social justice” is not friendly towards to the classical biblical notions of “absolute truth,” “virtue,” or “justice.” Justice is normally understood in terms of merit and intrinsic worth–getting what we deserve, whether that’s a honest days wage, a criminal punishment, or the entitlements stemming from intrinsic human rights. Social justice can actually perpetuate injustice where people are denied the full wages they’ve earned, or they are granted a scholarship over another more-worthy candidate, all for the sake of “equal” distribution.

[4] Sources vary on what, they think, is the long term ambition for Black Lives Matter. But it seems the politically searching reporters are starting to agree that the BLM ideology is imbedded in radical progressive and even socialist/marxist categories with no shortage of Black Panthers and Occupiers. See, James Simpson, “Reds Exploiting Blacks,” in Accuracy in Media [Website] (12 Jan 2016); John Perazzo, “The Profound Racism of Black Lives Matter,” in FrontPageMag [Website] (1 June 2015); Adam Cardo, “Anthony Hill, Black Lives Matter, and DSA,” in Democratic Socialists of America [Website] (27 Feb 2016). And, The Socialist Alternative is pretty clearly allied with BLM at least in spirit if not in material support.

[5] An important distinction can be made between the Black Lives Matter movement and the Black Lives Matter organization. It would be wrong to treat them like the same thing, as if BLM organizers are directly to blame for any and all craziness from opportunistic anarchists. However, if we have principled reason for rejecting the BLM organization then any serious advocates for racial reconciliation would do well to explicitly distance themselves from BLM affiliations and that means intentionally defining their cause apart from BLM. Partaking of the BLM movement lends steam and strength to the BLM organization. Supporting one implicitly supports both. A safer track would be to identify with groups or ideologies that don’t have the baggage of BLM, but which still clarify and further the cause of racial reconciliation.

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