Diagnosing Ethnic Fever

I was in Los Angeles not too long ago, about to step into some meetings when a young brother stopped me.  Slightly out of breath, he had taken time off of work in the unscheduled hope of trying to get a word with me.  His harried demeanor betrayed a sense of urgency.  We didn’t spend too long together, but those few minutes we shared in the hallway gripped my heart.  He said nothing new, just a heartfelt rant of how lonely life had become as one of a handful of minorities in a primarily white evangelical environment.  His thoughts were both convoluted and clear.  This depleted sojourner just needed some encouragement from an older traveler who was many miles ahead.  He was tired and worn out. 

I guess what grabbed me was this young brother was the latest to make a similar plea to me in the last week.  There was the black man who wrote me a note asking that I “talk him off the ledge,” as he was on the precipice of quitting his job at a white non-profit.  Another wrote of the resistance he was receiving from members of the church he served over a social media post he wrote concerning Baltimore.  Fresh in my own mind was a white woman’s comments that Baltimore was the result of liberal agitation.  She felt comfortable making this statement because I was the only African American in a setting in which evangelical had come to mean white, republican and conservative in all of its facets. 

Often in situations like these, a line from Marvin Gaye’s classic, Inner City Blues, comes to mind, “makes me want to holler”.  

We’ve got to do better. 

There’s a low grade fever running among many of our minority brothers and sisters working in white evangelical environments, and their fever is a result of varying factors that have left them vulnerable and exposed.  I cal this fever “low grade” because they can still function, yet if left undiagnosed and untreated, this ethnic fever will only escalate into a toxic sickness.  If we want to treat their condition, I find it helpful to look at the factors contributing to their ailment. 

Silence.  When events like Baltimore, Eric Garner or Ferguson happen, many of our white evangelical friends are slow at best to step into the conversation.  Need I remind us of what one of the great white evangelical giants of recent years, Chuck Colson, said, “The duty of the Christian is to read the Bible in one hand, with a newspaper in the other.”  This is sound advice.  Christians must be able to exegete the Scriptures and society, showing how the Bible comes to bear on the events of our world…all of them.  A failure to not preach, discuss and disciple our people in what some have called, “thinking Christianly” on all matters of culture is poor discipleship.  Even more devastating, the silence of our white brothers and sisters can be easily interpreted as apathy, making the conditions ripe for an ethnic fever.

Disrespecting President Obama.  I was in a meeting once, where I happened to be, yet again, the only African American in the room.  The discussion turned to President Barack Obama, and how awful of a job he was doing, and was met by applause and amens.  I couldn’t resist.  Raising my hand, I announced that while I didn’t agree with all of the president’s policies and decisions, it’s important for my friends in the room to realize I don’t believe what they believe politically.  

Along with this, I found their reference to our president as crossing the line from critique to disrespect.  The devastating effects of slavery was it’s pillaging of every article of dignity among my people.  Since our first days here we’ve been groping for dignity.  That’s why some of us will have a hundred dollars to our name and spend it all on a pair of sneakers- we’re on a quest for dignity.  The pride black people feel over Obama is rooted in our quest for dignity.  What I’m appealing to here is not an evangelical silence on our president.  Oh no, he is not above scrutiny.  Even our own Cornel West has been deafening in his critique of the president.  Instead, he needs to be critiqued with a Christian civility wrapped in the ethic of love.  In his almost eight years in office I’m scrambling to try to remember a single occasion when I heard white evangelical’s refer to him sincerely as “our president”. 

Third, a liberation of the term evangelical.  Evangelical has been etymologically hijacked to mean white, conservative, middle to upper middle class, theologically narrow and Republican.  Evangelical, instead, should be taken back to her roots, which comes from the Greek word for gospel, implying adherence to the essentials of the faith.  Liberating evangelical from her modern captivity now allows room for democrats and republicans, charismatics and cessationist’s to come to the table (among other groups).  When our white brothers and sisters use evangelical as synonymous with Fox News, it dismisses and diminishes other groups, particularly minorities, and contributes once again to the fever.

What this liberation results in is an abdication of silly assumptions, along with the freedom to disagree on important yet unessential matters while still being united by the bond of love for one another.  So I can now preach a gospel (an evangelical) that rises above a political party, social class or theological camp, because the kingdom of God cannot be monopolized by republicans or democrats, rich or poor, Fox News or MSNBC, black or white.  Broaden evangelical by returning her to her origins and you now leave plenty of room at the table for various groups, and the incarnation of Ephesians 2 in all of its glorious dimensions. 

Bricks without straw.  A fourth cause of ethnic fever I’ve seen over the years is hiring minorities in the hopes of diversifying a white evangelical institution without giving them the corresponding power and authority.  Not letting them lead at the highest levels, preach or have a weighty voice around the decision making table, is all akin to Pharaoh’s edict for the Jews to make bricks without straw.  This is both organizationally naive and ethnically deflating.  

Anonymity.  A fifth, but most certainly not final, cause of the fever is anonymity.  What I mean by this is doing little or nothing to acknowledge or show you are concerned about different ethnicity’s through your ministries or programs.  In almost everything I’ve written I have appealed to Ralph Ellison’s classic, “Invisible Man,” where the lead character, an African American, has no name.  Ellison’s choice to leave the protagonist nameless is a masterful stroke emphasizing the inhumanity of anonymity.  Every time minorities take part in an organization that does little to nothing to acknowledge them, we incarnate Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” and the fever spikes. 

I’ve seen white evangelicals take significant strides along these lines to say in so many words, “you matter.”  These small steps are paradoxically huge and put wind in our sails.  I encourage you to join in by stewarding your power well.