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A Justice-Centered Gospel: Review of Faithful Anti-Racism

By Heidi R. Ventura, Ph.D.


The book Faithful Anti-Racism: Moving Past Talk to Systemic Change launched into the 2022 world of Christians divided and looking for answers. In their introduction, Christina Edmondson and Chad Brennan provide overarching questions that they propose to answer in each chapter, and they state their definitions of three important terms 1) faithful, 2) racism, which they will use interchangeably with racial injustice, and 3) anti-racism. Their stated focus is to help readers “apply the teachings of the Bible and take practical steps for measurable change” so that they know “what we must do and stop doing in order to see change” (p. 7).


The book comprises three main sections. Chapters 1 through 5 provide contexts—research, hermeneutics, and examples from the Bible, the past, and the present. Chapters 6 and 7 address large complex barriers of racial trauma and a reliance on magical solutions. Chapters 8 through 11 suggest practical ways to support antiracism at the personal, organizational, and societal levels.


The subtitle Moving Past Talk to Systemic Change was chosen to focus on “substantive, effective action” (p. 101) because “superficial actions and verbalized support for racial justice . . . often hinders rather than promotes progress” (p. 101). In the last four chapters, they recommend personal, organizational, and societal actions. Examples include:


Personal and organizational actions

  • Individual and collective prayer (p. 146)

  • Conversations, racial affinity groups, anonymous surveys, and exit interviews (p. 149)

  • Power sharing (p. 151)

  • Establishing new colleges and seminaries founded and led by Christians of color (p. 153)

  • Sharing resources across ethnic lines (p. 156)

  • Restoring truth, wealth, and power to those by whom the expense of our benefits were gained (p. 157)

  • “Find[ing] cultural accommodations where everyone is required to make sacrifices for the sake of justice and unity” (p. 159-160)

  • “Building the right kinds of mentoring relationships” (p. 166), both of one’s own race and of another race (p. 168) who will challenge one’s thinking (p. 169)

  • Considering mentoring resources like Be the Bridge or Brennan’s organization, Renew Partnerships (p. 171)

  • Mentoring others (p. 172)

  • Using Renew Partnerships’ assessment (p. 186) “to measure your progress a minimum of every one or two years” (p. 190)


Societal actions

  • Following Black leadership (p. 194)

  • Being “willingly obedient to unenforceable obligations” per Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (p. 195)

  • Addressing the roots of racial injustices, which is “the white supremacy ideologies, distortions of Scripture, and greed” (p. 196)

  • Partnering with others, especially experienced activists (p. 197)

  • Disrupting religious, economic, and political forces that support racial injustice or are opposed to racial justice efforts (p. 198)

The data presented in the book was gathered from three marketing research efforts: 1) the Race, Religion, and Justice Project, directed by Brennan, 2) the Renew Partnerships Campus Climate Survey, administered by Brennan’s organization, and 3) Barna Group research. It is important to note some contexts of the data. For simplicity, the authors compare all Christians (e.g., evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Catholics), both practicing and non-practicing, to non-Christians for most of their data presentations. Practicing Christians are defined as those in agreement with three statements such as “I attend religious services at least monthly” (all three statements are available on p. 217). However, there are some graphic breakdowns of evangelical versus non-evangelical (e.g., Figure 1.6) or practicing versus non-practicing (e.g., Figure 1.5). Evangelical Christians are defined as respondents in agreement with six statements such as “I have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in my life today” (all six statements available on p. 217).


As I read this book and considered it as a resource, I found that I had three main areas of concern: methodological issues, inconsistencies, and the definition of the gospel.



Methodological Concerns


Methodological issues relate to how the research is conducted, described, and interpreted. One threat to validity is the timing of certain responses. For instance, it was in June/July 2020, when the U.S. was in racial upheaval, that data was collected about respondents’ agreement “that historically the United States has been oppressive to minorities” (Figure 1.1) or that “they were very motivated to address racial injustice in our society” (Figure 1.3). It is not that this data cannot be used, but it is important to acknowledge the timing in which respondents were addressing these statements.


The book contains inaccurate descriptions, such as that given for Figure 1.8, which states, “If we take economic and political power and other social indicators into consideration, it is clear that White Americans are at the top of the racial hierarchy, Black Americans are at the bottom, and other racial groups fall somewhere between the two” (p. 23). The three graphics shown in the figure depict Black Americans in the middle with Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans as equal or less than their percentages. The description simply does not match the data shown.


Edmondson and Brennan assert, “There is a strong connection between Christian nationalism, White nationalism, and racism” (p. 104). To provide an example, they describe Christian respondents’ agreement with the statement “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation” (Figure 5.3) and point out that “approximately half of the Christians in all racial groups agreed with that statement” (p. 104). If all racial groups have similar agreement with the statement, then this research data point does not support their assertion.


Another methodological issue is inaccurate interpretation, illustrated by how they interpreted this interviewee quote:


The church should not devote its time and effort to social justice. The church should be more focused on changing the hearts of people, which is the real problem. If people have accepted what Jesus has done for them there will be a heart transformation. No they will not be perfect but they will hopefully be trying to avoid being racist because God calls us to love everyone. (White, male, 18-19) (p. 42)


Edmondson and Brennan’s commentary made regarding this interviewee statement says:


Notice in the comment above that the individual believed “changing the hearts of people” and “heart transformation” is [sic] separate from, or even in opposition to, social justice. They seem to believe that the Bible only addresses “heart transformation” in regard to our vertical relationship with God; but the Bible also addresses “heart transformation” in regard to our horizontal relationships with one another. (p. 42)


However, the interviewee did not say that heart transformation is in opposition to social justice. He also did not say that the Bible only addresses it in regard to a vertical relationship with God. In fact, he specifically stated that this heart transformation should impact one’s horizontal relationships “because God calls us to love everyone” (p. 42).


Another troubling issue of methodology is illustrated by the heading “Accurate Explanations for the Above Trends” (p. 20). In presenting ideas and research, one may have possible, theorized, or proposed explanations. But to assert that one has “accurate explanations” indicates a perspective that is closed to other possibilities or to being wrong.


These examples demonstrate significant issues in methodologies. Research must be conducted in ways to minimize biases and validate the results. In this book, there are examples that the phrases asked, timing of surveys, interpretation of participants’ words, and understanding of figures are biased or completely incorrect. It makes the reader question not only the data presented in the book but also the larger projects of the organizations involved.



Inconsistencies


A second issue I want to address is inconsistent treatment of offensive language and discussion of Christians of different perspectives on racial injustice.


At the beginning of Chapter 11, the authors note that they have replaced the previously used term with “African American” in extensive quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (p. 194). This courtesy was not awarded to other quotations throughout the book. The offensive term was kept in various other quotations, such as the 1963 public statement of eight Birmingham pastors (p. 78), Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail (p. 78-79), and a 1971 recorded conversation from President Richard Nixon (p. 92).


Second, in the section on disrupting religious forces that perpetuate racial injustice, Edmondson and Brennan provide sweet advice about “one of the most complex challenges we face as faithful antiracists” which “is graciously working with our brothers and sisters in Christ who are opposed to racial justice efforts” (p. 198). These include praying and approaching them with grace, humility, patience, and love; focusing on the Bible’s emphasis on social justice and compassion for the oppressed; and avoiding participation in religious organizations that support injustice (defined by the authors as organizations that “insist that racial justice is a distraction from the gospel, unbiblical, or not a high priority”) (p. 199).


I was surprised by these gracious recommendations as compared to the book’s introductory comments. I quote the introduction here at length so that the reader can more fully understand the context:


I firmly believe that the biblical gospel is catholic, or global, and if true endures within all our cultures and people groups. I am grateful for the Spirit-wrought global contributions to the practices and hermeneutics of the church. At the same time, I recognize that due to the sins of colonization the “Christian industrial complex” deifies Eurocentrism and protects White patriarchal supremacy. It is “Black folks’ Jesus” that has kept me from hopeless deconstructing or physical departure from the local church because I know Christ can hit a “straight lick with a crooked stick.”


Like Jonah, I’d have little desire apart from the work of the Spirit to see the group associated with the dehumanization and suppression of my kinfolk, Black folks, receive grace. If there was a way to confront racism without dealing with resistant White people, I’d gratefully take that path. Christian antiracists work with actual racists—those who know they are racist and those who don’t. I am under no delusions; racism cannot simply be cuddled and wooed through Negro spirituals into loving Black people or releasing its idolatrous grip on White people. Racism must be resisted and the captives set free. This includes the captives that don’t know they are imprisoned by false gospels and cultural idolatry.


I show up to do this work, and it is taxing work, because I am compelled by the Scriptures and empowered by the Spirit, and I desperately want something better for my kids and millions of kids like them. I know “Black folks’ Jesus,” and more fully the catholic Jesus, is returning for the church and will place racism in hell. (pp. 4-5).


In these two examples of inconsistencies, it is apparent that there are differences in perspectives of how language should be used or how people who call themselves Christians should be considered by those who uphold Edmondson and Brennan’s viewpoints. Perhaps the differences are due simply due to having two authors; however, even that explanation would underscore that Christians seeking the same justice-centered gospel have significant differences on how faithful anti-racism should be lived.



What is the Gospel?


A main theme of the book is that of seeking to overcome a justice-less gospel. While this term is not clearly defined, Edmondson and Brennan argue that many Christians believe their reconciliation with God (vertical relationship) is the only thing that matters and that reconciliation with those around them (horizontal relationships) is not relevant to the Christian life. For Edmondson and Brennan, the a justice-centered or true gospel is that which causes a Christian to actively seek racial justice in the ways that they believe the Scriptures require:


Sharing a justice-less version of the gospel hinders racial progress. Finally we want to emphasize that the effectiveness of helping people to become Christians as a way to produce racial progress is dependent on the type of gospel we are sharing. In chapter two, we looked at the sad reality that many Christians seek to downplay or remove the Bible’s teachings on justice and protections for the vulnerable and oppressed. When a justice-less gospel is shared, it leads to justice-less Christians. Justice-less Christians oppose or neglect racial justice efforts rather than support them. (p. 128)


Edmondson and Brennan seem to view Christianity as authentic when measured by the fruit of activity in racial justice efforts. In the chapter about the over-reliance on “magic” solutions, they describe the solution of leading more people to know Christ:


Some people might ask, “What if we help people become authentic Christians and help them to be active in racial justice efforts?” . . . Yes! We believe that would be very helpful. That’s why we wrote this book and do the work that we do. But unfortunately that is not what many people are referring to when they advocate for helping people to become Christians as essential for racial progress. They often believe that simply helping people becoming [sic] Christians will magically address racial injustice. (p. 128)


However, in their chapter on recommendations for changing society, the authors conclude:


Therefore, our most important action step for promoting racial justice is remaining in Christ and Christian community (John 15-17) and walking in the Spirit (Galatians 5). Only then will we have the “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23) required to be obedient to unenforceable obligations. (p. 195)


It is difficult to understand what Edmondson and Brennan believe the gospel itself is. It makes the reader question how a Christian would demonstrate a faithful life if one were living in a nation or during a time in which there was not racial diversity. Regardless of our time or circumstances, the essential truth of the gospel–that we are born in sin and need a Savior who reconciles us to God and each other–must prevail.



Conclusion


In Chapter 1 and again in the concluding paragraphs, Edmondson and Brennan state that “being a faithful antiracist is an art . . . requir[ing] knowledge, skill, experience, and creativity. Most importantly, it requires the leading of the Holy Spirit” (p. 205). They provide many examples from Scripture, the past, and present-day scenarios to contextualize their thoughts. To spur Christians to action, there are many ideas that may be appropriate for consideration.


Despite these positives, I have serious concerns about the methodology of these research projects. There are cases in which the data provided in the book actually opposes Edmondson and Brennan’s interpretations or assertions. Unfortunately, these examples cast doubt on other statements or interpretations based on data that was not included in the book and therefore, cannot be validated. There are inconsistencies in how they engage with language and describe their perspectives of Christian sisters and brothers. Most importantly, it is unclear how Edmondson and Brennan perceive the Gospel. This book leaves the reader with the impression that racial justice works are a necessary demonstration that one is an authentic Christian.



Reference

Edmondson, C. B., & Brennan, C. (2022). Faithful anti-racism: Moving past talk to systemic change. InterVarsity Press.

 

About the Author: Dr. Heidi R Ventura is a Professor and Associate Dean at Trevecca Nazarene University. She is also a member of CFBU’s Academic Advisory Council.


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