Sunday, July 21, 2013


The Trayvon Factor: Why the Church Divides over Race

It is not alarming or surprising that the various members of the Body of Christ can come to different conclusions about the what outcome of a criminal trial in Florida should have been. Trials are complicated things, and their outcomes are not necessarily determined by what we consider most important.

What is alarming and surprising is how deeply it divides Christians over what it all means.

If you're a white evangelical, there is a substantial probability that you spent the past several weeks listening to Fox News, Sean Hannity and the Wall Street Journal explain what a joke the criminal trial of George Zimmerman was. You know all about Trayvon Martin's checkered past and Facebook posts and Zimmerman's charity work and affinity for Barack Obama. You may even have just learned that Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea combine with Robitussin to make a codeine-based recreational drug. You've concluded the Zimmerman case was politically motivated and never should have been brought to trial. Oh, and when you go to church on Sunday most of your friends agree with you.

If you're an African American, on the other hand, you are far more likely to have followed the trial as explained to you by BET, Tavis Smiley and perhaps the Daily Kos.  You know that Trayvon was a racially profiled youth who was killed for walking home from a convenience store.  You know that none of this would have happened if a gun-toting vigilante would have listened to the 911 operator who told him that his public security services were not required. The trial in Florida was yet another example of racial injustice in America. And of course, when you go to church on Sunday most of your friends agree with you.


Let's start with a discussion of bias.  Almost all of us like to think that we're unbiased. This is a pipe dream, because nobody is unbiased. A bias is simply "an inclination of temperaments or outlook to present or hold a partial perspective at the expense of (possibly equally valid) alternatives in reference to objects, people, or groups."

Everyone has an assortment of these, just as everyone has an ideology--that is, a system by which we organize our thoughts and perceptions we use to interpret the world around us. Our particular ideologies are formed by our experiences, education, upbringing, social context, and yes ... our theology (more on this later).  They are then sharpened and reinforced by a variety of popular media sources, which we select specifically because we like to listen to those who agree with our respective ideologies.

So we select our information based on our biases, which in turn serves to reinforce those same biases ... all while we convince ourselves that we are the unbiased ones.

Now, having an ideology is not itself "bad" (although one can certainly have a bad ideology). Ideology is, in a sense, as inevitable as death and taxes. I would be paralyzed if I couldn't organize the overload of information I ingest daily within some sort of ideological framework. The danger is not so much in having an ideology, but in failing to own up to it, and then in refusing to subordinate it to sound Biblical theology.

Our ideological views threaten the church when they displace theology as its foundation. Proper theology (simply, the study of God) must be the rock on which any ideological house is built. In theory, if we all diligently studied God and His precepts based on the same revelation (the Bible), we would find ourselves on similar ideological footing. Instead, ideological elements inevitably seep into the theological foundation. Such corruption is devastating to the church, because once we no longer agree on God's person, priorities and precepts, we cannot hope to agree on much else.

For example, the theology which supported black slavery was corrupted by a pernicious ideological element: Southern whites firmly believed their lifestyle was legitimate. Their upbringing, social and economic structures, media sources and life experiences all reinforced that understanding.  Inevitably, therefore, their churches misinterpreted (or malinterpreted) God's Word so as to support and reflect that ideology.

We are obviously still living with the myriad consequences of that abomination today. Because of the tendency of each particular church to develop its theology gazing through the thick lens of the history, social context and common experiences of its membership, this tends to put a premium on racial or ethnic issues at the expense of unity within the Body of Christ.

Scripture teaches us how the Corinthian church allowed their biases to infect their theology, shipwrecking their gospel mission on the shoals of their factions, and driving the Apostle Paul to sternly admonish, "Is Christ divided?". His charge could not have been plainer:
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 
In the same way, until glorifying and obeying Christ is the supreme purpose of all within His church, we simply will not find cause to do the hard work required to achieve this kind of unity. Only the supreme value of Jesus is sufficient to eclipse the temporal wounds of history and contemporary societal causes, and to unite us in our ultimate purpose. When Jesus is supreme, I cannot tolerate being divided from my brother over temporal matters. I cannot stand seeing Christ's name sullied by my refusal to obey His commands and love my brother.

The church's problem is not that we can't agree on whether George Zimmerman should have been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury of his Sanford peers.  It is rather that we can't seem to agree on what place it should hold in our corporate understanding. It is, in other words, that so many of us see God through our ideology, rather than seeing the world through sound Biblical theology.

The bottom line is this:  The church divides over race because the world divides over race, and the church is still very worldly. It won't be until we are so in love with the same God that we will unite in commitment to His priorities and focus on His mission.


  1. Thanks for this! I have strong opinions about the Zimmerman case and related matters, but, if I hear any of them from the pulpit, I'll be appalled.

  2. I suppose it's no coincidence that this was on my mind when I woke up this morning as the next topic for my blog. Racial divide is nothing new, especially among those who purport to be godly. Think of the priest and the Levi in the story of the Good Samaritan. Even though Jesus Christ whom we follow, tried to bridge the gap between the races, we still continue to cross the street and look the other way on issues affecting another race. Are we really following Jesus Christ?


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