Weep with Me | Book Review


On June 4, North Central University hosted the funeral for George Floyd. NCU is an Assemblies of God school in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In the days that followed the funeral, my Facebook timeline was filled with Christian folk weighing in on whether this was a good idea. The vast majority thought it was, but a vocal few — all but one of them white — were angry about aspects of the school’s action.

While perusing the back-and-forth on Facebook, I received an out-of-the-blue call from a minister friend in the Church of God in Christ. COGIC is a historically black church and the nation’s largest Pentecostal denomination. My friend expressed incredible joy at NCU’s action, and he shared with me that other COGIC leaders also were happy at this unexpected action on NCU’s part.

The difference between the angry comments I read on Facebook and the joy in my friend’s phone call — anger and joy about the same event! — was (and is) jarring. Scripture enjoins believers, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). And yet, on June 4, the emotions of Christians I personally observed were out of sync.

In Weep with Me, Mark Vroegop shows “how lament opens a door for racial reconciliation.” A lament is “a prayer in pain that leads to trust.” It is a common form of prayer in the Bible, especially in the Psalms and Lamentations. It usually contains four elements: 1) turning to God, 2) complaining about one’s situation, 3) asking for relief, and 4) trusting in God for deliverance. Vroegop’s previous book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, discusses these four elements in greater detail.

Lament is largely absent from white Christian spirituality in America. It is the native tongue of black Christian spirituality, however, the essence of African American spirituals. “These songs of sorrow expressed the emotional trauma of slavery and segregation,” Vroegop writes. “They protested exile created by the sins of partiality and abuse.” Ironically, when white American Christians look for mournful songs to use in Good Friday services, for example, they often turn to spirituals such as “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”

So, how does lament open a door for racial reconciliation? To articulate the answer, Vroegop sketches out a path to reconciliation that consists of five movements.

First, love. “The church should be involved in racial reconciliation because of what we believe,” namely, that “Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11, ESV).

Second, listen. “Too often the tone of the conversation [about racial reconciliation] is marked by closed minds, hasty words, and angry attitudes.” Progress requires “a posture of listening.”

Third, lament. More on this in a moment, but for now, just keep in mind that lament “supplies a biblical voice that allows us to talk to God and one another about the pain we feel and see.”

Fourth, learn. “Our cultural backgrounds, understandings of history, and experiences create assumptions and blind spots. If we take the posture of learning from one another, we create a safe environment for asking questions and working through disagreements.”

Fifth, leverage. “The key is to understand that racial reconciliation requires action,” Vroegop concludes. “Love, listening, lamenting, and learning are designed to lead us here.”

So, again, how does lament open a door for racial reconciliation? It does so differently depending on whether a Christian belongs to his or her nation’s majority or one of its many minorities. In Part 2, Vroegop addresses America’s white majority; in Part 3, its black minority. (Though Vroegop draws on the history of America’s white-black divide, what he says could apply to white relations with other racial and ethnic minorities too.)

For majority Christians, lament engenders empathy, defined as “the ability or willingness to understand and care.” Empathy is the emotion behind Romans 12:15, which I quoted earlier, the ability to rejoice with or mourn with another. The incident I opened this review with is thus a failure of empathy. By contrast, “Weeping with those who weep emulates the heart of Jesus. It builds a bridge of grace over the chasm of division and injustice. It provides comfort to those who are hurting.”

Lament also offers majority Christians the language with which to speak up. “When it comes to racial injustice, the historical silence of most Christians has been deafening.” Lament both “acknowledges the brokenness of the world” and “refuses to remain silent.” A lament, merely by acknowledging that something is grievously wrong, breaks “the stronghold of the status quo.”

Finally, lament offers majority Christians the language of repentance and remorse. “Repentance is the change of mind, heart, and will that involves confession of specific sin and a change in our affections,” Vroegop writes. “Remorse is the heartfelt response when the weight of sin is understood.” We repent of our own sins. We express remorse for the sins of history that have shaped our present.

For minority Christians, lament offers the language of protest, triumph and faith. “Lament is an act of protest as the lamenter is allowed to express indignation and even outrage about the experience of suffering,” writes Soong-Chan Rah. In the Bible, such complaints were often found on the lips of exiles. “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept” (Psalm 137:1, ESV). The Bible licenses the negative emotions associated with unjust suffering.

And yet, lament also gives minority Christians a language of triumph, as they acknowledge God’s power to redeem them out of their pain. Using Psalm 94, Vroegop draws three lessons about the power of lament. First, lament “validates the concern with injustice.” Second, it “shows us an appeal made not only because of personal wrongs but also because the divinely given system of justice was not working. And third, it “helps us see what to do with our frustrations and deep concern,” namely, turning to God and foreswearing vengeance.

Finally, lament gives minority Christians a language of hope about four things in particular: “God will help you,” “hardship can be transformative,” “people can change,” and “God will make it right.” Black Christians’ experience of suffering has often give them reservoirs of hope unavailable to those who live in comparative ease.

Weep with Me doesn’t claim to be the be-all, end-all of racial reconciliation. Much more has to be done than simply lamenting the current state of race relations in America, even among American Christians. And yet, the more I ponder the disparate responses to George Floyd’s funeral I mentioned at the top of this review, the more I wonder whether lament is a crucial missing step in contemporary reconciliation efforts.

Perhaps black and white Christians in America cannot move in step until our hearts are in sync, mourning together … and rejoicing too.

Book Reviewed
Mark Vroegop, Weep with Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

Roadmap to Reconciliation 2.0 | Book Review


The Bible begins with a family and ends with a multitude. Its narrative arc thus includes unity and diversity. Because of creation, all who bear the image of God are also children of Adam and Eve. Because of the new creation, the “great multitude” gathered before God’s throne in adoration encompasses “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9).

We do not live at either the beginning or end of the biblical story, however. We live in the middle, in a world divided by sin from God and from one another. The reason Jesus Christ entered the world was to overcome both divisions.

The apostle Paul makes this clear in Ephesians 2:15–16, where he writes: “[Christ’s] purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” The Cross, in other words, is the place where Christ reconciles us both to God and to one another.

The Church’s mission, following in Christ’s steps, is to advance the work of this twofold reconciliation in both word (the gospel we proclaim) and deed (the gospel we practice). In my opinion, American Christians are better at the former than the latter. We have well-developed systems of evangelism but underdeveloped systems of racial reconciliation.

Brenda Salter McNeil’s Roadmap to Reconciliation 2.0 helps rectify that problem by outlining how Christians can pursue racial reconciliation personally, in their churches, and in their communities.

She defines racial reconciliation as “an ongoing spiritual process involving forgiveness, repentance and justice that restores broken relationships and systems to reflect God’s original intention for all creation to flourish.”

She then outlines “five primary landmarks as signs that will produce lasting personal and cultural change in people and groups” committed to such reconciliation:

  1. catalytic events: “painful but necessary experiences that happen to individuals and organizations that serve to jump-start the reconciliation process”;
  2. realization: “a state of awareness that requires a response because it literally changes everything we thought we understood about an experience”;
  3. identification: “where we begin to identify with and relate to other people who are experiencing the same thing”;
  4. preparation: where we move “from the personal and relational to the structural and the transformational, and the gap between the two is huge”; and
  5. activation: where we begin “to repair broken systems together.”

Throughout the book, Salter McNeil roots her counsel in biblical teaching, insights from social science, historical analysis, and long personal experience doing the work of racial reconciliation. The result is theologically rich, thought-provoking and eminently practical.

Salter McNeil argues that efforts at racial reconciliation usually break down in the preparation phase because personal relationships begin to impinge upon powerful structures. “Folks typically tend to gravitate to the first half of the model, engaging in the realization and identification phases with urgency and focus,” she writes.

Building personal relationships across lines of race and ethnicity is comparatively easy. Changing powerful structures is really hard. In the end, though, she writes, “relational connections cannot be sustained without structural intentionality.”

America is at an inflection point, and its churches have been given a kairos moment. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, among others, have reopened the wounds of our nation’s longest injury, and the Church has a gospel capable of healing it through a call to repentance, the offer of forgiveness, and a commitment to justice.

At this moment, whether the nation hears that gospel may very well turn on whether it sees Christians putting racial reconciliation into practice first.

 

Book Reviewed
Brenda Salter McNeil, Roadmap to Reconciliation 2.0: Moving Communities into Unity, Wholeness and Justice (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2020).

P.S. If you liked this review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review appears in the July-August 2020 issue of Influence magazine and is cross-posted here by permission.

In Search of the Beloved Community | Influence Magazine


Reflecting on race relations in the early days of the Azusa Street Revival (1906–1909), Frank Bartleman famously wrote, “The ‘color line’ was washed away in the blood.”That unity was short lived, however. Deep-seated feelings of white supremacy and Jim Crow segregation quickly redrew the line, resulting in decades of division and disparity between black and white Pentecostals that persist to this day, though to a lesser degree.

The same thing might be said about American Christians and American citizens more broadly. Though progress undeniably has been made, racial divisions and disparities stubbornly persist. This fact should be an affront to Bible-believing Christians, for the blood of Jesus Christ did indeed wash away the color line. What the apostle Paul said about the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles applies to allracial and ethnic divisions: “[Christ’s] purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Ephesians 2:15–16).

The question is, therefore, why racial divisions and disparities persist among American Christians. And what should be done about them? Three new books from evangelical publishing houses point to answers to both questions.

In The Color of Compromise (Zondervan), Jemar Tisby recounts the tragic history of American Christianity’s complicity in racism from the colonial period to the present day. Racism, in this account, is not merely personal animus. Tisby defines it as “prejudice plus power,” the combination of personal animus with impersonal systemic inequities.

“Historically speaking, when faced with the choice between racism and equality, the American church has tended to practice a complicit Christianity rather than a courageous Christianity,” Tisby writes about white Christians. “They chose comfort over constructive conflict and in so doing created and maintained a status quo of injustice.” To take just one of many examples, white evangelicals and Pentecostals were silent about the Civil Rights Movement at best. At worst, they opposed it.

Charles Marsh and John M. Perkins take up “the unfinished business of the Civil Rights movement” in Welcoming Justice (IVP Books). In a 1956 speech, Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed, “the end [of the movement] is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.” Beginning in the mid-1960s, the influence of black churches in the movement began to wane. “Removed from its home in the church, the work of building beloved community withered and died,” Marsh writes.

For nearly sixty years, however, and starting in rural Mississippi, Perkins has continued to seek the beloved community through faith-based community development. His model of development is based on “the three Rs” of relocation (“incarnational evangelism”), reparation (“sharing talents and resources with the poor”), and reconciliation (“embodying the message that ‘ye are all one in Christ Jesus’”). Perkins’ life and ministry thus continues the work of Dr. King.

Finally, in Woke Church (Moody), Eric Mason encourages the church “to utilize the mind of Christ and to be fully awake to the issues of race and injustice in this country.” (The word woke is slang for being conscientious about issues of racial and social justice.) According to Mason, a woke church is characterized by four things: awareness of the “overarching truths” that unite the Body of Christ; acknowledgement of our nation’s history of racism; accountability for Christians to “reclaim our roles as light and salt in the world”; and action to “bring healing and justice into our spheres [of influence].”

Each of these books is challenging in its own way. The Color of Compromise shines a light on American church history that whites often overlook or downplay. Welcoming Justice is a hopeful book, but it challenges “the cultural captivity of the church,” a captivity that promotes individualism and consumerism over solidarity and generosity. And Woke Church refuses to let readers separate the gospel from justice. All three books are well worth reading.

As I closed each book in turn, I found myself asking three questions: First, have I listened to the experiences of black brothers and sisters, which are often different from my own because our social locations are different? Two, have I taken what I’ve heard and used it for self-examination to identify wrong attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors? And three, what actions am I going to take to pursue the beloved community in my church and neighborhood?

Christ has washed away the color line with His blood. Let us lean into the reality of the “one new humanity” He has made!

Books Mentioned
Charles Marsh and John M. Perkins, Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement toward Beloved Community, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2018). Individual review here: https://amzn.to/2zwREIC.

Eric Mason, Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice (Chicago: Moody, 2018). Individual review here: https://amzn.to/2AthA7T.

Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).

P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

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