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How My Multiethnic Church Became Divided Over Race

CRT’s impact on one local church


Editor’s Note: Many evangelical voices are telling us that Critical Race Theory is little more than an imaginary “bogeyman” promoted by people who don’t want to address racism. We can discuss the veracity of that claim, but the truth is, in the last 5-6 years, real people have gotten swept up in an ideology (whatever name you want to give it) that is dividing many local churches. This is the story of one of those churches. This article was originally published as a Facebook post by our friend Kevin Briggins. We have slightly modified it to fit our writing guidelines. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.



The 2016 presidential election was a major turning point in the life of our church in Augusta. The election coincided with our church’s move from a suburban setting to an inner-city setting in late 2015. This change put us in closer proximity to both poverty and the reality of true historical racial division.


The church we merged with was dying. It had become the victim of “white flight” and, unfortunately, had not engaged the new community around it. This lack of engagement was something we desired to change. We didn’t want to be a church that drove into the inner city for Sunday services and then drove back out, with no community engagement, which is the practice of many predominantly black and white inner-city churches. In addition to changing our church’s setting, several of our church members and pastors moved into the community, and we were all thinking of ways to engage the community. At the time, our church was predominantly white and middle-class with a mixture of black, Hispanic, and Asian families. We were also a Reformed (non-traditional) Southern Baptist church. I’m saying all of this to lay the context for what began to happen in 2016.



The Seeds of Division


Just as the nation was polarized by the 2016 election, so was our church. We had members on both sides of the political aisle, as well as on both sides of whether or not Christians should support Trump. The majority of our members seemed less pro-Trump and more anti-Hillary, and their primary political concern focused on potential Supreme Court nominees.


However, some of our black families didn’t see the election that way. They saw Trump as an existential threat to their lives and well-being. The racial undertones and his law-and-order rhetoric triggered memories of a not-so-distant, painful past.


This difference in viewpoints started to create major rifts in once-healthy and loving friendships. Some black families could not fathom how the friends they worshiped with could vote for someone they felt was a literal danger to their lives. Whether or not this threat was real is not relevant; what’s relevant is that their fear was real. This fear led some black families to begin reading books from the past regarding race and justice, as well as more recent books on social justice. This led some of them to develop what would be described as a “black consciousness.” In other words, they began to see the world, themselves, and the people around them through the lens of their race. We were no longer brothers and sisters in Christ first; we were simply representatives of blackness and whiteness.


This new lens came with accusations and declarations. It came with demands of justice and cries against systemic racism (as defined by them). This new “wokeness” caused them to see their white brothers and sisters as racists. In their minds, racism was the only explanation for voting for Trump. On the other hand, the white and more-conservative crowd in our church began to push back against the accusations and declarations. They expressed concerns that this new “wokeness” would lead to theological liberalism. The two camps began to clash heavily on social media.


In the meantime, I was voted in as the first black elder (pastor) at the church. I was excited to take my oath to help faithfully shepherd God’s flock. But this event placed me right in the thick of the internal fight within our church, as I had friends on both sides.


As elders, we took a discipleship approach to these issues. As the nation struggled to respond to the high-profile killings of black men at the hands of law enforcement, we wanted to help our congregation navigate these issues in a way that showed empathy, understanding, and long-suffering. Our goal was to help each side to better understand where the other was coming from.


When engaging with the white, conservative crowd, this approach often took the form of history lessons to help them understand why black people interpreted Trump’s words the way they did. We wanted to help them understand why a perceived injustice to a random black person is felt as an attack on the entire black community.


When engaging with the woke black crowd, we focused more on helping them understand their conservative brothers’ and sisters’ concerns about what a Hillary presidency would mean for the Supreme Court. We also talked through why many of their white friends typically viewed high-profile shootings as isolated incidents and not as evidence of black oppression.


Our goals as elders were to affirm where both sides had valid concerns, but to also push back where we needed to.


While the majority of the church was somewhere in the middle, a vocal minority on both sides felt like their concerns were not being adequately addressed. The “woke” crowd accused us of protecting “white supremacy.” The conservatives were concerned that we were heading down a slippery slope of liberalism. Both sides wanted us to fully reject and discipline the other.


As the social-media engagements worsened, we noticed that the conservative crowd was fairly responsive to the elders’ chastisement of their behavior as not being Christ-like. Many even made a course correction. However, the woke crowd interpreted those same calls as “silencing their voice.” In their minds, we were no longer their friends. Or their pastors. From their standpoint, if you were white, you were simply protecting your power and interests. And I was simply a token. We elders lost our influence. Many left the church.


This was a time of grief. We lost close friends. We shed many tears and shared profound frustrations.



A New Worldview


As all of this was happening, we noticed a shift in worldview with the woke crowd. They were using language in a way we hadn’t heard before. Terms like whiteness, blackness, white supremacy, oppressed, privilege, fragility, and hegemonic power now filled their vocabulary. Even words we were familiar with, had new definitions. Looking back, one of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t realize what they were reading or what this framework was called. All I knew was that every conversation had become about race and that, all of a sudden, many middle-class people were calling themselves “oppressed.” It wasn’t until I began researching that I was able to put a name to the root ideology: Critical Race Theory (CRT), or at least some of the tenets of it. Here are a few listed by the American Bar Association:

  • Acknowledgement that racism is a normal feature of society and is embedded within systems and institutions, like the legal system, that replicate racial inequality. This dismisses the idea that racist incidents are aberrations but instead are manifestations of structural and systemic racism.

  • Rejection of popular understandings about racism, such as arguments that confine racism to a few “bad apples.” CRT recognizes that racism is codified in law, embedded in structures, and woven into public policy. CRT rejects claims of meritocracy or “colorblindness.” CRT recognizes that it is the systemic nature of racism that bears primary responsibility for reproducing racial inequality.

  • Recognition of the relevance of people’s everyday lives to scholarship. This includes embracing the lived experiences of people of color, including those preserved through storytelling, and rejecting deficit-informed research that excludes the epistemologies of people of color.

In the ideology of CRT, racism is the default. So, according to CRT, something like a police shooting is merely a manifestation of systemic racism. CRT tells us that racism explains all inequities between blacks and whites. (I am intentionally saying “blacks and whites”; if you add other races (ethnicities) to the equation or apply it to areas like the NBA, the theory itself breaks down. So we must keep it to a black/white paradigm in order to understand this perspective.) And this is why we see calls for “equity.” Equity has been redefined as the abolishing of disparate outcomes amongst blacks and whites. (Equity should not be confused with equality.) If the outcomes are not equal, according to CRT, then the reason must be racism and oppression within the system or law. To overcome these disparities, we must tear down the system of whiteness, and whites must give up their privilege and power to people of color.


As people adopted this worldview in our church, they pushed for the elders to hand over “power” to them. They believed their voices needed to be lifted as a matter of social justice, and that they should be given the authority to make the changes they believed were necessary.


Because one of the tenets of CRT is to listen and embrace the lived experiences of black people, their feelings and perceptions were to be taken as truth—no questions asked. However, truth is not relative to experience. The church shouldn’t be run by a quota of ethnic groups. As the elders, we had a responsibility to shepherd the church because we must eventually stand before God and give an account for our actions. When we did not give in to these demands, the “woke” church members said they could no longer fellowship under the “oppression” of “white supremacy.”


One thing I noticed about this ideology was that there is no way to disagree with it. You must accept it, or else. If you’re white and push back against it or question it, you are labeled fragile, or you are trying to maintain your power. If you are a person of color and you disagree with it, then you have either internalized your oppression or you are simply seeking the approval of whites for either acceptance or money. There is no room for criticism or debate.


This dynamic makes the ideology revolutionary. This is why Ibram X. Kendi says there is no such thing as non-racist. You’re either antiracist or you’re racist. Either you buy into the ideology, or you’re a racist. No one wants to be called a racist. So people began to feel bullied into going along with the movement. People became afraid to speak against this ideology for fear of being labeled or canceled. As I noticed this, I began to speak up against it because I could see how destructive it could be. I don’t believe this ideology brings us any closer to justice or to a biblical concept of unity.



My Concerns


While the overall goal of the CRT (or “woke”) movement is to reshape America and all its institutions, my primary concern is for the Church. My concern is for the unity of Christians from every nation, tribe, and tongue. Why? Because Jesus told us the unity and love we have for one another is key to the witness of who he is. In John 17, Jesus prays these words:

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (Jn. 17:20-21)

And in Ephesians 4, the Apostle Paul says:

I, therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph. 4:1-6)

The unity of God’s people is important to Him, and He has given us instructions on how to live and walk with one another. The word of God, not sociology, tells us how to love our neighbors. The idea of racism didn’t exist when the Bible was written, but the elements of ethnic partiality are not new. Scripture gives us clear guidance that we are not to show partiality to anyone regardless of their social or economic status (James 2:9; cf. Leviticus 19:15). We are to treat everyone equally and fairly.


Ethnic strife was a major issue during this time as Roman gentiles occupied Jerusalem. But at the same time within the Jewish synagogue, Gentile believers were only allowed in the outer courts and were separated from the Jews by walls. But in Christ these walls of division have been broken down. Paul tells us:

For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Eph. 2:14)

As Christians, we are no longer to judge each other according to the flesh, as we are all one family in Christ. “For there is neither Jew nor Greek: (Galatians 3:28) There is neither black nor white. This truth does not deny the reality of different ethnicities or cultures; however, those things are secondary when we come together as Christian family. This is why true white supremacy in the church is deplorable and why the history is so shameful. But thanks be to God that he has given us His Word and His Spirit so that we can overcome these things. And we can overcome them—not by turning to social theories and judging one another by skin color, but by living in community with one another while sharing and carrying one another’s burdens and griefs. This has been my message, and it is why I feel the need to speak out against the ideology of CRT and anti-racism that has become so prevalent in our society and even in our churches.



My Regrets


As I look back on my experience of the past few years, I regret that I wasn’t totally clear on where I was coming from. In the process, I hurt people I really cared about. I never meant to dismiss anyone’s encounter with true racism, as we all know racism does exist. I’ve posted about my own experiences with it, but I believe it is important that we don’t allow those experiences to shape how we view ourselves and others, and how we approach conversations on race. I pray that going forward, I will do a better job explaining exactly what I’m challenging and why I’m doing it. I also pray that those who truly know me will give me the benefit of the doubt and know that I have good reasons for bringing attention to these things.


 

Digging Deeper


The events from this blog post also inspired this podcast.


We also recommend this conversation.




Bret Weinstein, Heather Heying & the Evergreen Equity Council




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