Book Review

"Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity" by Edward Gilbreath

Douglas D. Webster
Edward Gilbreath
Friday, August 31st 2007
Sep/Oct 2007

Reconciliation Blues is an autobiographical look into the state of racial reconciliation in American Christianity. For over a decade, journalist Edward Gilbreath interviewed many of the key leaders in racial reconciliation. In his latest book he turns the art of interviewing upon himself. The outcome is a compelling personal look at the way evangelicals thoughtlessly perpetuate racial inequalities, stereotypes, and prejudices. Philip Yancey's description of Ed Gilbreath as a "gentle prophet" fits the tenor of Reconciliation Blues. This is not an angry, judgmental book that shouts at white evangelicals from a distance. If anything the author comes alongside the reader as a brother in Christ and raises the reader's awareness of the often subtle, sometimes overt ways we continue to practice demeaning and damaging racial attitudes. Sadly, these unbiblical habits persist in our institutions, relationships, and in our souls.

Gilbreath describes what it was like growing up in Rockford, Illinois, and living in two worlds. His Sunday school teacher at Memorial Baptist Church was Mr. Kaiser, an average, working class man. "Looking back, the image of this thick, redneckish white man teaching a little nappy-haired black kid about Jesus couldn't seem weirder" (27). Ever since those elementary school years, Gilbreath has been interfacing with white evangelical Christianity, struggling to discern the truth and throw away the chaff, whether in identifying himself as an "evangelical," or as a student at Judson College, or being the first African American journalist at Christianity Today magazine. In a chapter on Tom Skinner, he recalls how a "prophet out of Harlem" rocked Urbana 70 with his message on Jesus the Liberator. In "Waking Up to the Dream," he explores white Evangelicalism's ambivalent attitude toward Martin Luther King, Jr. My adrenaline surged as Gilbreath described Dolphus Weary, one of two black students at Los Angeles Baptist College in 1968, listening to the news of Dr. King's assassination over the radio, while white students down the hall laughed and jeered as they listened to the same news. Today, Dolphus Weary is a much admired communicator of the gospel and executive director of Mission Mississippi. Gilbreath shows his even-handed journalistic skill throughout, but especially in his chapters on Jesse Jackson, political parties, other minorities, and worship music. There is plenty of material here for thoughtful Christians to discuss. Reconciliation Blues is a consciousness-raising book, but it is also a meditation on what it means to follow Jesus.

We were meant to see people the way God sees them, as people for whom Christ died, and all those in Christ, as God's new creation. Gilbreath explores how this relational vision gets worked out in authentic racial reconciliation. When white evangelicals single out African Americans for special attention it comes across as patronizing. Or when they ignore the ideas and perspectives of their black colleagues it comes across as insensitive. We might wish it were otherwise, but the problem is real. Gilbreath writes, "When so many otherwise successful African American Christians still express frustration and disappointment over the state of race relations in the church, as my research indicates, something is not right. We need to listen and learn. As members of the body of Christ, we should be determined to hear and understand the concerns of our brothers and sisters" (89).

One of the issues that I would have liked Gilbreath to look at more closely is the difference between racial integration in secular and Christian institutions. Power, position, and pride have motivated persons of color to cause "racial breakthroughs in the secular world." Racial integration in employment, education, housing, election to state and federal positions, and to some extent even marriage, has been achieved through a legitimate drive to obtain status, power, and respect. Black people have never quit the integration struggle in the secular culture, but Gilbreath devotes a chapter to black people quitting evangelical institutions. Are the motivators different in the evangelical world? Are most black people as comfortable, emotionally, spiritually, and financially, worshiping in black churches as in white or racially mixed churches? Do black people who worship in white or racially mixed churches do so based on personal preference, or power, position, and pride? I need help in understanding one of the comments that Gilbreath received from his survey of African American evangelicals: "If today's brand of racism is financial oppression and blocking access to positions of power and authority, then the American church is guilty." Evangelicals may do a poor job at racial reconciliation and meaningful integration but are the real issues money, power, and status?

What I especially liked about Reconciliation Blues were the occasional reminders that our identity is rooted in something other than race. Gilbreath is right: "Some of the moments I've felt most keenly aware of my 'otherness' have had nothing to do with race" (33). His bottom line on the evangelical identity is clear: "But most of all, I want Jesus" (40). He holds up David Anderson's experience at Moody Bible Institute in the 1980s as an example of courage and vision. The reason: "Because he did not get bogged down in the angst of being a black student on a mostly white campus-real though it was-David was able to change hearts and open minds" (53). When the focus is race we will always find racial problems, but when the focus is Christ we will always find the way of the cross.

Gilbreath's account of John Perkins's closing words at a racial reconciliation summit held in Indianapolis in 2005 is especially moving. Movers and shakers from a variety of Christian organizations and institutions spent the morning reflecting on the discouraging and difficult task of racial reconciliation. Gilbreath sat in a large circle with these leaders, listening to the weariness of these wounded healers and wondering if everyone was going to leave the summit more disillusioned than when they came. But then John Perkins suddenly walked into the room. At seventy-five, Dr. Perkins is recognized by many as a modern-day evangelical prophet who has had a profound impact on the cause of Christ among both blacks and whites. He was asked by the moderator, "What is your sense of God's message for us today?" Dr. Perkins stood in the center of the circle and began to sob. He described his profound discouragement over his son Spencer's death from a heart attack, the very son who had led him to the Lord forty-eight years ago. He shared how he was angry with God, but that God quickly "sobered" him and brought to his mind Jim Elliot's quote: "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." After a few seconds, Perkins said, "I love Spencer, but God loves him more."

For John Perkins to talk about the loss of his son in that context rather than as a racial setback, lifted his Christian calling above race and focused it on obedience to Christ. Perkins concluded,

What is God telling us? I feel he's telling us Philippians 1:6-"He who has begun this good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." It is God who gave us this ministry, and he will be the one to fulfill it. We just need to continue to give our hearts and souls to loving others and living the gospel in an incarnational way, and then trust God to bring the change (186).

The reason for John Perkins's "long obedience in the same direction" lies in his understanding of the ministry of reconciliation, that God is reconciling the world to himself in Christ. He agrees with the apostle, "For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again" (2 Cor. 5:14-15).

Friday, August 31st 2007

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