John B. Carpenter on the Social Justice Statement and the Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience

On September 5, 2018, James White, John MacArthur and other evangelical leaders issued a statement on “Social Justice and the Gospel.” Other than some clumsy wording about Sola Scriptura, I agreed with everything it said. But I wouldn’t sign it because of what it doesn’t say.

I scrolled through the statement on my phone, approving of every affirmation and denial. Then suddenly I reached the end and wondered where the rest was, the part where we grieve with those who grieve, where Christians show they’re not just about right doctrines – orthodoxy – but also about right passions – orthopathy – and right behavior – orthopraxy. The statement betrays a pastoral obtuseness to racial issues. It’s not racist. It simply demonstrates a blind spot, a lack of awareness. It’s the product of people responding to issues they may understand cerebrally but have never experienced. It’s two-dimensional in a three-dimensional world.

I should know, though. Awakening to something that one has never, personally experienced, especially something as often nebulous as racism, is difficult. I was raised in Alabama but my parents who rarely, if ever, mentioned race. After a parent-teacher meeting, in third grade, my mother asked me earnestly, “Why didn’t you tell me your teacher was black.” I remember thinking in my 8-year-old brain, “I hadn’t noticed.” It wasn’t something that I was sensitive to. The question made as much sense to me as asking, “Why didn’t you tell me your teacher had curly hair?” Why is that a trait someone would think is distinguishing?

We were visiting my grandparents, in eastern Arkansas, in a small town just across the Mississippi river from Memphis. I remember hearing my grandmother use a word, repeatedly, a word I didn’t hear at home. She frequently disparaged the “niggers.” Being an impressionable little child I picked it up. In the car on the way back to Alabama, before we had even crossed the bridge into Memphis, I was chattering and dropped that word. My father immediately and sternly interrupted me and said, in no uncertain terms, “We do not use that word in this family.” I’ve kept my father’s order: I’ve not used that word since then except when telling this story.

He explained that, though raised in that typically racist Southern atmosphere, when he was in the US Air Force, he learned to treat and regard black people as equals. It didn’t matter if a man was black or white, if he had a superior rank to you, you had to salute and follow orders; if he had an inferior rank to you, you couldn’t cause divisions by showing favoritism to some subordinates over others. It was the US military that taught my father not to be racist. And that’s a good thing. But think what that means. Why was it not the church that confronted and changed that racism? After all, my father and my grandmother regularly went to the Baptist church in their town. Why was it, year after year, that that Baptist church never challenged the idea that there were some neighbors they didn’t have to love as themselves? When visiting my grandparents we went to their church; I remember shaking the pastor’s hand as we left the building. Why didn’t that pastor and the rest of that church ever confront them about this problem the way the military did? Why was it that the US Air Force had the conviction and courage to change what a Baptist church would not? Today, by the way, I’m a Baptist pastor.

In college, my Greek class, at a Baptist university in Birmingham, Alabama in 1986, had a barbecue at the professor’s house. We were encouraged to bring dates. I didn’t have a girlfriend but I did have a female friend — named Josephine — who was on the track team with me and who also attended the same church I did. She was a nice girl; attractive, intelligent, with a vivacious personality, and an earnest Christian. She was also Nigerian. I decided to invite her and she accepted my invitation. It never occurred to me that her complexion would be an issue. But it turned out to be a very tense evening. I can’t describe any outrageous acts of overt racism. No one angrily shouted “N—er lover!” at me. But I could tell, in the withdrawing glance, the stymied greetings, the stiff conversation, that many of my fellow students there — Baptist ministerial students — were bothered. Subtle but unmistakable. Nothing publicly manifest. Just the look in the eye, whispers out of my hearing followed by the glance as if I was leprous. As obtuse as I can be, I could tell that I had done something that must not be done. I felt sorry for Josephine; I didn’t know what to say. I was flabbergasted and totally incapable of processing what I was experiencing. We left early. I should have apologized to her. This article is that belated apology.

Through most of my seminary years at Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, California, I hung a Confederate flag on my wall. I was proud of my ancestry, a Southerner by the grace of God; a son of Confederate veterans and plantation owners. I could argue that states’ rights is a good cause, as it can be. I could have been specimen #1 that the symbols for the old South were about “heritage not hate.” I hated racism and loved the South. Still do. But I was on a journey, from sweet home Alabama.

Like John Piper, who went through Fuller about 20 years before me, the compilation of articles on race by systematic theology professor Paul K. Jewett shook my world. Many of the articles reported race-motivated attacks in places in Alabama that I knew. The church bombing that killed four African-American girls in Birmingham, Alabama, was just blocks from where my father is buried. I was sitting in California, reading these stories about home. But I had known almost nothing about them up until then, maybe vaguely heard about them but it was, in the white Southern culture, muted background noise. Our conversations were always about other things. Now, from California, I got a new view of Alabama. So I got mad.

It was another step in what the Liberation theologians awkwardly call “conscienceization,” more recently — but just as clumsily — called “woke.” People who haven’t experienced it, as orthodox as they maybe, don’t see it; often don’t understand that we’re not just called to fine-tune our theology but “love mercy.” They need to be awoken to something that still lingers in the air to this day. It’s like what the US army did to Germans, when they came upon Nazi death camps. At the end of World War II, the US army would find the concentration camps, full of dead bodies and starving people. The German residents of nearby towns would say they knew nothing about what was going on there. So the US army took the Germans out of their towns, to the camps, then made them walk through the middle of the camps, so they couldn’t deny what had been done there. They were made aware. What happened to me in California, reading about what had been going on in Alabama, was like that.

I took the final step toward orthopathy in Singapore. Sometimes one has to be completely removed from something that is all around them to see it. Someone said, “If you want to know about water, the last one to ask is a fish.” If you want to know about racism and its lingering effects, you might have to step out of the United States. Meditating on “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a never failing stream” (Amos 5:24), I spoke before a lunch-time Bible study of business people in Singapore. I described the racism that had pervaded in my native South, the suffering of black people, the history we take for granted, the way some Christians in the United States justified slavery and racism. A young, Chinese-Singaporean lady looked up to me, with the most quizzical expression and asked, “How could they do that?” I saw her earnestness and realized there was no answer. All the historical context arguments we use to explain how our racial situation developed still doesn’t explain, much less justify, the mystery of its evil.

I put away my Confederate flag. Today I’m the pastor of an intentionally multi-racial church in a racially divided county in the South. In between Fuller Seminary and my calling now, I pursued a Ph.D. in church history that landed me in a “Business Ethics in Historical Perspective” course at the University of Chicago taught by Nobel Laureate Robert W. Fogel. Fogel had done his work on the economics of American slavery, overturning many assumptions. When I entered his class, he was finishing a book on “The Fourth Great Awakening” in which he argued, in part, that just as it had in the past, American Evangelicalism would help lead America forward spiritually and morally. Fogel, a self-described “secular Jew,” had found that slavery was not undone by economic forces, as he suspected when he started his research, but by a moral revolution spear-headed by evangelicals. I, a Reformed evangelical, wrote a paper for him in which I argued that while evangelicals had done that in the past, when they were closer to their Puritan fountain-head, they (we) were far too other-worldly now to be looked to for such a moral revolution again. We have a theology — or perhaps, spirituality — too often, that allows us to remain unconscious to parts of the world around us. He called me in to his office to discuss our differences of opinion; he politely plied me with questions, didn’t change his conclusions, and the next year asked me to be his teaching assistant for the same course. He even gave me the responsibility of giving the lecture on his controversial findings on slavery.

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Source: Christian Post