Last fall, I bought Dr. Tony Evans’ new book, Oneness Embraced: Through the Eyes of Tony Evans. Personally, I’m a fan of this pastor and his radio show, The Alternative. A few years ago, I also had the privilege of sitting under the teaching of his daughter, Priscilla Shirer, at a women’s conference held by my church. Seeing Dr. Evans was taking up the topic of race and racism in the evangelical church, I immediately got a copy. Unfortunately, it took me several months to get around to reading it. I can say that this book, written primarily to white and black audiences in particular, is a confident yet diplomatic invitation to those interested in building unity amid diversity and division in the church.
Dr. Evans begins by identifying white evangelical culture’s call to return to the good old days for what it is: an intensely problematic romanticism that overlooks the theological error and human cruelty committed by revered historical figures. Evans is gentle, generous and gracious in explaining this to his likely resistant and privileged audience:
For far too long Anglo Christians have wrapped the Christian faith in the American flag, often creating a civil religion that is foreign to the way God intended His church to function. Our nation’s founding fathers are frequently elevated to the level of church fathers in the arguments for the U.S. being founded as a Christian nation…Our founding fathers’ failure to apply the principles of freedom that they were espousing to the area of race is a prominent reason why many minority individuals are less than enthusiastic to join in with those in our nation who want to exalt or restore America’s history and heritage…what is often missing in our appeal to the return of the heritage and faith of our founding fathers is an acknowledgment and reversal of a major theological contradiction that many held–that of proclaiming justice for all while denying it for many…[We] have often appealed to that heritage while simultaneously ignoring the moral inconsistencies that were prevalent in its application. (19-20)
Evans dedicates a large section of his book to educate his audiences about the evolution of the black church in America. This is perhaps the most valuable component. While this abridged history may seem like an oversimplification for students of the subject, Evans’ presentation of the material piques one’s interest and would be engaging to any relatively uneducated audience (like me). Unlike many of his white peers, Evans, himself a mainline evangelical, acknowledges the contributions of black liberation theologian James Cone, while making clear his own points of contention with that dogma. He encourages his readers to engage in a discerning exploration of Cone’s theology:
While evangelicals would do well to listen to James Cone in the areas where he has argued correctly, we must also recognize the areas of disagreement. Primarily, Cone’s black theology greatly overemphasized the black situation of oppression to the point of compromising biblical truth. It also focused heavily on racism to such an extent that no real basis for reconciliation was afforded. Likewise, Cone’s interpretation of the relationship of Jesus Christ to liberation failed to integrate it into the whole of God’s salvific purposes for mankind. (193)
Evans goes on to address how Cone’s theology affected earlier emphases of the black church and how those shifts interacted with the social and political realm. Evans’ discussion of these historical topics is scholarly and thoughtful, inviting conversation and accepting that there are differing opinions on these topics within the black church.
Following this section, Evans lays out a proposal for establishing a multi-cultural church that addresses the reality of the racialized context of black-white relationships. Evans’ hope for unity and reconciliation in the church is not a naïve one. He confronts the situation honestly saying, “Both sides must be willing to experience the potential rejection of friends and relatives, whether Christians or non-Christians, who are not willing to accept that spiritual family relationships transcend physical, cultural, and racial relationships. He even cites Ephesians 4 and one of our favorite verses here on the blog. Evans describes the “kingdom-minded church” both metaphorically and practically (each paired with Scripture references that I’m omitting for the sake of brevity):
Someday a big show is coming to town and it’s called the kingdom of God…God has left His church here to provide clips of the major production that is to come. Unfortunately, most of our clips have been so weak in demonstrating the power and wonder of a feature film that few people show interest in picking up a ticket. Instead of previewing an epic, we often merely reflect the sitcoms and soap operas around us…While there is war in the world, there ought to be the existence of peace in the church, and prayer for peace by the church. While there is oppression in society, there ought to be liberation and justice in the church. While there is poverty in the world, there ought to be voluntary sharing with the goal of meeting existing needs in the church. While there is racism, classism, and sexism in the world, there ought to be authentic oneness in the church. Thus the world is presented with the option of Christ by being what the church is supposed to be in the world–an alternative model for the world–a community functioning under the rule of God in the mediatory kingdom on earth. (247-248)
While much of what Evans presents in the book is done so in reduced, dualistic terms (black v. white, social action v. personal transformation, etc.), there are times when this works in his favor, adding weight to his arguments in favor of a deeper commitment to social justice (something white evangelicals often eschew as a priority for “liberal” churches). The dualism also gives his point-of-view poignancy, as in his conversation with famed evangelist Billy Graham (who himself struggled for years to integrate his crusades and rectify his the mistakes he made early in his career when he kowtowed to segregationists):
While we spent the afternoon together, [Graham] expressed the concern weighing heavy on his heart. He told me how individuals would work together across racial lines to both plan and implement his crusades; however, after the event was over, these same individuals had no relationship with each other at all…In response, I told him that this happened because the event was only tied to evangelism and not to community transformation as well. When invited, black pastors joined with white pastors to put together an evangelistic outreach. But the heart of African-American Christianity hinged on a broader perspective of the scope of the gospel rather than solely on the gospel’s content. When asked to participate in the community-impact initiatives by their fellow African-American pastors, the Anglo church has, as a general rule, often not shown the same enthusiasm of partnership that they receive in their outreach requests. Without a comprehensive understanding of the gospel, we lack the common goal necessary to bring us together to evoke real and lasting change in our nation. (270-271)
Evans ends his book with a short description of how his church has integrated some of these principles in an effort to reflect the wider kingdom of God. This section is short, but offers a practical template for conducting ministry in light of and with an aim toward unity and diversity.
I’m glad to see such popular preachers taking up these issues and I’m hopeful that my next read, John Piper’s Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian, will also prove edifying.