Edward Gilbreath, Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006).
Everyone views the world along an angle of vision that affects both how he interprets the world and lives within it. That angle of vision itself is formed by, among other things, time and place and creed and culture, not to mention the postmodern troika of race, sex, and class. To understand why a person interprets the world the way he does, then, we must begin by understanding the person.
Edward Gilbreath is editor at large for Christianity Today and editor of Today’s Christian. These are two mainstream evangelical publications, placing Gilbreath firmly in the evangelical camp. In America, evangelicals are predominantly white, but Gilbreath is black. That status as a black evangelical gives Gilbreath a unique angle of vision, which he writes about in Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity.
In a moving paragraph, Gilbreath describes
the loneliness of being “the only black,” the frustration of being expected to represent your race but being stifled when you try, the hidden pain of being invited to the table but shut out from meaningful decisions about that table’s future. These “reconciliation blues” are about the despair of knowing that it’s still business as usual, even in the friendly context of Christian fellowship and ministry.
Gilbreath’s story is not unique. Although much of Reconciliation Blues is autobiographical, Gilbreath also writes about such pioneering black evangelicals as evangelist Tom Skinner, publisher Melvin Banks, and activist John Perkins, not to mention other lesser-known pastors and professionals. They trod (and continue to tread) a lonely road within evangelicalism’s predominantly white subculture.
Historically, that subculture was not friendly to black demands for civil rights. White evangelicals sat out the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. Or worse, they rooted against its heroes. Gilbreath tells the story of Dolphus Weary who, as a student at Los Angeles Baptist College (now The Master’s College) heard white students laughing at the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Of course, that event is forty years in the past, and Gilbreath concedes that white evangelicals have made progress in their racial attitudes. But there are still blindspots. Gilbreath mentions the 2004 brouhaha over LifeWay Publisher’s VBS curriculum, Rickshaw Rally, whose stereotyped artwork offended many evangelical Asians. Rather than admitting offense, LifeWay dug itself into a hole defending the curriculum.
For Gilbreath, as for many black evangelicalism, part of the problem with white evangelicals is institutional racism, defined by sociologist James Jones as “those established laws, customs, and practices which systematically reflect and produce racial inequities in American society.” Examples of this kind of racism include:
the failures of public education (why are inner-city schools devoid of proper resources?), imbalances in our nation’s criminal justice system (what’s with the inordinate number of black males in prison?), and the inability of African Americans and other minorities to keep pace with their white counterparts (why do some banks charge higher rates on loans to African Americans and Latinos?).
These examples of evangelical insensitivity and institutional racism raise political questions that make white evangelicals uncomfortable. Two of the more challenging chapters in the book are back-to-back chapters on politics: “Is Jesse Jackson an Evangelical?” and “God Is Not a Democrat or a Republican.” Jackson is a lightning rod of controversy among conservative white evangelicals, both for his politics and for his personal indiscretions, but he is viewed with admiration by many in the black evangelical community for his social concern. Indeed, his heir apparent at Operation Push is a Bible-believing, black evangelical pastor named James Meeks. And while in the abstract many white evangelicals agree that God is not a partisan, they still have problems with the concrete practice of voting for Democrats that is so prevalent in the black evangelical community.
(Indeed, after reading Gilbreath, I began to wonder whether politics is a stalking horse for race in contemporary American culture. That is to say, I began to wonder how much of the tension between white and black evangelicals is due to political differences rather than racial ones.)
Gilbreath tells his story and provides challenging analysis, but throughout this book, his main concern is racial reconciliation among evangelicals. This was a prominent them among evangelicals in the 1990s. Promise Keepers made racial reconciliation one of its seven key promises. And white Pentecostal denominations (such as the Assemblies of God) disbanded the all-white Pentecostal Fellowship of North America and joined with black Pentecostals and others to form the multiracial Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches of North America in 1994 (the so-called “Memphis Miracle”).
Unfortunately, racial reconciliation has fallen on hard times. The first sentence of Gilbreath’s book is the sentiment of a black female friend of his: “I’m sick and tired of racial reconciliation.” And the Epilogue of the book describes a November 2005 conference of dispirited racial reconciliation leaders, Gilbreath among them. Despite the history, heartache, and hard work, Gilbreath isn’t giving up on the dream of reconciliation. “I think about Jesus’ prayer for his followers, ‘that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you sent me’ (John 17:21).”
As I said at the outset of this review, everyone has an angle of vision. Gilbreath has his, and I—white, Pentecostal, and politically conservative—have mine. But surely Jesus’ angle of vision is the one that counts, the one that calls us to work through our differences to a higher unity based on our common life in him!