In his recent post — “Multiethnic churches saying and doing different things” — DJ Chuang writes about the difficulties the church still faces when it comes to race. DJ notes that while it is a positive step for 9 Marks Ministries to take on the problem of racism in their latest issue, they do not engage these issues in a way that might actually provoke transformation:

I found most of their articles to barely scratch the surface of the embedded problem of race within the American church. While upholding the imperative to think theologically about all things, and perhaps due to the limited space of addressing such a complex and multi-layered problem, all the energy gets spent on theological abstractions and doctrinal priorities with little consideration for strategic moves to make long overdue systemic and structural changes.

Right theology, doctrine and belief are important. Sincerity is not enough; as the old cliche goes, there are plenty of people who are sincerely wrong. However, I am increasingly frustrated with the kind of emphasis on orthodoxy that is completely disconnected from the transformation of our lives. This kind of orthodoxy is almost paralyzing — any discussion of orthopraxis is immediately dismissed as “emergent” heresy or caving into the culture. In these circles, people can be overbearing, obnoxious cavemen (and it usually is men in these cases) who insult, belittle and demean others and yet still be held in high esteem if they promote their particular theological agenda with zeal.

The church fails when we evade the topic of race and reconciliation under the guise of upholding right theology. If our beliefs are so deeply held, shouldn’t we see radically different communities of faith rising up? Even if we overemphasize the personal nature of salvation, wouldn’t a result of having more Christ-like individuals be more Christ-like church communities? As DJ asks in this incisive but crucial question:

And, why is it that just thinking rightly about theology, the Gospel, and the cross, and supposedly living out of that faith, has not resulted in Reformed churches being any more ethnically-diverse than non-Reformed churches.

In the reviews of Growing Healthy Asian American Churches over at 9 Marks, the reviewers repeat the mantra of “doctrine, orthodoxy, doctrine” as their main critique. One reviewer writes, “Since doctrine must birth action, people must first know who God is and what he desires of them before adequately addressing the how-tos of church.” Even if we grant that this sequential nature of spiritual growth is true (which, as David Park points out below, is not necessarily the case), we still find ourselves in the same dilemma — where doctrine is emphasized as an end in itself, and never actually gives birth to action.

Further, I am disappointed with the criticisms both reviewers have of the theology and ecclesiology in GHAAC. Instead of criticizing the authors’ theology or ecclesiology as “weak” it would be more accurate — and honest — for the reviewers to simply say that they disagree with the authors’ perspective. The theology/ecclesiology described in the book is only “weak” if one considers one’s own perspective on these issues as normative for all believers and all churches. It seems that part of the point of having a book written by multiple authors is to gain a broad spectrum of insights; as such, it is not a legitimate critique to expect a book like this to articulate one clearly defined theology or ecclesiology.

Growing into the people God has called us to become, in and through Christ, is not always a neat, linear process — although such a concept squares nicely with a Western perspective, reality can often be a much messier prospect. David Park sums up this idea nicely in a comment on DJ’s site:

I don’t disregard the notion that discipleship comes with submitting ourselves to the transformative process of the Holy Spirit. However, I find that this “hierarchy of spiritual needs” to be retarding the activity the body of Christ is called to do. That’s like saying I shouldn’t raise children until I learn to be a good husband when the fact of the matter is, that the raising of children can positively impact my ability to be a good husband. Besides, when is ever a good time to have children? We don’t control these passions. I believe God calls us to those things that are on his heart and we should not say, you are skipping steps 5-17 before getting to 18, lest we become Pharisaical in the way we view of God. Love does not have to follow a certain order.

Perhaps, ironically, Western evangelicalism doesn’t personalize our faith enough. We emphasize personal salvation and sanctification, but prescribe a sort of one-size-fits-all approach. However, life is messy. No matter how badly we want to systematize, categorize, guarantee or prescribe a set pattern for growth, it will not necessarily look the same for each of us. There are certain common elements to be sure (e.g., prayer, Bible reading, fasting, etc.) but I think this kind of “my way or the highway” type of thinking doesn’t add much to the conversation.

On a personal note, I was really frustrated by Jeremy Yong’s accusation that GHAAC was “misleading” in many ways. In particular, Yong criticizes Soong-Chan Rah’s call for the church to acknowledge and confront systemic racism and injustice. Here is Yong’s quote:

Another misleading example comes from Soong-Chan Ra’s chapter on mercy and justice. He calls the church to confront “systemic injustice.” Then he names several examples like “the enslavement of Africans, the genocide of the Native Americans and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War 2” (197). Then, three lines down on the page, he speaks of the “racist attitudes” of LifeWay Christian Resources (of the Southern Baptist Convention) and their 2004 Vacation Bible School curriculum “Rickshaw Rally: Far Out, Far East.”

Huh? How can he mention the enslavement of Africans and LifeWay Christian Resources in the very same breath? Call LifeWay what you want, but is not comparing chattel slavery with the blunders of LifeWay an injustice itself?

I cannot speak for Soong-Chan, but I find it hard to believe that he is equating the Rickshaw Rally debacle with chattel slavery. However, Yong misses the larger point: LifeWay was not only guilty of creating a reprehensible, racist VBS program — their stubborn refusal to apologize or make amends reveals a deeply ingrained racism. In his misguided attempt at garnering sympathy for LifeWay by claiming injustice on their behalf, Yong does the entire church — not only Asian American followers of Christ — a massive disservice. We cannot continue to sweep these issues under the rug. It saddens me that these reviewers have no problem naming what they perceive to be the theological shortcomings of the authors, but cannot acknowledge the blatant sinfulness of LifeWay’s actions. Obviously, the Rickshaw Rally curriculum was not equivalent to slavery — but both find their roots in the same attitude.

I am not trying to dwell in the past. It takes courage to name and confront systemic racism in the church, but perhaps it takes even more to work towards understanding, reconciliation and love. As many have said, we cannot move forward if the needle keeps getting stuck in the same groove over and over again. A final word from DJ:

So let’s get to the fresh thinking about racism already, rather than concluding with the same song to get more theological and get more thinking about the racism problem. And let’s really dig deeper and recognize how culture shapes theology, and the lens by which theological constructs were put together may need re-examination and itself re-considered in a more multicultural context.