In recent years, innumerable books have been written by evangelical Christians on issues of race, racism, and diversity. Few that I’ve read are as solidly biblical, gracious, and unifying as Shai Linne’s The New Reformation. Readers on both sides of the “wokeness” debate will be challenged to rethink their views, extend charity to others, and seek to honor God in how they relate to their brothers and sisters in Christ.
While secular race scholarship appeals primarily to sociology and history, Linne’s book is noteworthy for its unabashed grounding in Scripture. He writes plainly:
“when it comes to the issue of ‘race,’ we should look to the Bible, rather than the culture, to guide how we think about it. I can’t stress this enough. Far too often, when Christians discuss this topic in the public square, the talking points sound like they come more from our favorite news channels, podcasts, and social media influencers than the Bible. This should not be.” (p. 104-105)
Throughout the book, he insists that all Christians must be held to the same biblical standards and that no group should get a free pass.
He also repeatedly returns to the great doctrines of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, etc. which shaped both his life and his music. At one point, he says outright that “the key to addressing ethnic disunity in the church is the proper application of the doctrine of justification by faith alone.” (p. 138) Ethnic division and various forms of ethnic partiality are ultimately destroyed by a recognition that all people –regardless of ethnicity– have sinned and all people –regardless of ethnicity– are justified by God through faith alone in Christ alone. This glorious truth unites Christians across lines of ethnicity, class, and gender and fulfills God’s promise to Abraham (p. 126).
Another notable feature of Linne’s book is its even-handedness. He has clearly made an attempt to acknowledge and to fairly represent different perspectives on these issues. For example, consider how he treats the highly-charged topic of police shootings:
For many Black Christians in the hip-hop community and beyond, there was a feeling of betrayal that many White Christians couldn’t understand… the moment we expressed pain we felt about ‘racial’ injustice, many White Christians were quick to dismiss us, rebuke us, or silently ignore us. If this was how we going to be treated, we’d rather go back to the churches where theological agreement may not have been as great, but at least we knew we’d be cared for, heard, and understood.
For many White Christians, there was confusion about why Black Christians were so affected by these killings, many of which involved people with criminal backgrounds. Especially because the way Black Christians processed the shootings seemed as if they were buying into the narrative of the liberal media, which does everything it can to stoke the flames of ‘racial’ tension and make everything about ‘race’ when it’s not. (p. 81-82)
Note that Linne is trying to help both “sides” understand the “other side’s” perspective, presenting their concerns as they themselves would present them. Effectively, he is embodying the “active listening” commended by Black evangelical sociologist George Yancey. Linne takes this same approach regardless of whether he’s talking about the various forms of ethnic partiality that can be exhibited by both Whites and Blacks (p. 113-116), or about attitudes toward affirmative action (p. 114), or about “not seeing color” (p. 133). In these discussions, he is following his own admonition: “[humility] means actually listening to those who disagree with us, instead of just waiting to talk so we can get our points in” (p. 165).
Because he so clearly attempts to understand those with whom he is dialoguing, it’s easier for readers to listen in turn to Linne’s perspective, which is undeniably shaped by his own experiences as a Black man. For example, he tells this story of leaving his ethnically-diverse school in Southwest Philly for a largely White school across town:
“Within weeks [of entering my 5th grade classroom], I had my first experience (of many) of someone yelling “N—–!” at me from a moving vehicle. One of my earliest memories of my new [mostly-white] school was [a child who] came up to me, and, with a big smile on his face, shared the [poem] ‘Roses are big, violets are bigger; You have lips like an African n—–!’ All the other kids who were there exploded into uncontrollable laughter.” (p. 23)
Or listen to his explanation of why the murder of George Flloyd was so painful to him personally:
“This is about how being a Black man in America has shaped both the way I see myself and the way others have seen me my whole life. It’s about being told to leave the sneaker store as a 12-year-old, because I was taking too long to decide which sneakers I wanted to buy with my birthday money and the White saleswoman assumed I was in the store to steal something. It’s about being handcuffed and thrown into the back of a police car while walking down the street during college… It’s about walking down the street as a young man and beginning to notice that White people, women especially, would cross to the other side of the street to avoid walking past me… It’s about having to explain to my four-year-old son at his mostly White Christian school that the kids who laughed at him for having brown skin were wrong, that God made him in His image, and that his skin is beautiful–after he hold me, ‘Daddy, I don’t want brown skin. I want white skin.'” (p. 218-219)
Given the unhealthy role that “lived experience” can play in our culture today, some people might be hesitant to accept these stories as relevant to a discussion of ethnic unity. While it’s true that our personal experience must be subordinated to Scripture and to objective evidence when making general claims about reality (something that Linne himself recognizes), it’s equally true that our personal experiences understandably and rightly shape our personal perspectives.
For example, my wife is an ER doctor and one night, she had to treat two boys whose parents both died in a terrible housefire. She came home and immediately purchased several new smoke alarms for our house. Her experience did not increase or decrease the chances that our house would catch on fire, but it made her aware of a danger that she might otherwise have minimized. In the same way, we might know in the abstract that racism exists, but it is obvious that those who have experienced racism personally are more likely to be aware of it than those who haven’t.
Even more importantly, acknowledging a person’s experience is crucial for knowing how to love and care for them. For example, if a woman was repeatedly sexually assaulted as a child, it is entirely understandable if she has some residual mistrust of men. Christian men should not be offended by her anxiety and demand that she “just get over it” (!) On the contrary, they should be especially sensitive to her concerns and should work to show her that the church is a place where she will be loved. There is a time to speak the truth in love to people whom we believe are misinterpreting their experiences. But earning their trust by understanding the source of their feelings is an important step.
“When we pursue unity, we are living out the oneness that is already ours in Christ” (p. 161): this statement is a plumb line for The New Reformation and ought to be a guiding principle for all Christians. Too many books in this genre are largely dedicated to creating unity through a particular shared vision of race. Instead, all Christian thinking about race should begin with the recognition that we are already united in Christ. This commitment to our present unity in Christ is a recurring theme:
“Ethnic idolatry occurs whenever a Christian makes their ethnicity their primary and ultimate identity, rather than the fact that they are united to Christ” (p. 115)
“Ethnicity has worth. It’s valuable, beautiful, and reflects the wisdom and creativity of God. But compared to knowing Jesus, it’s ‘loss’ and ‘rubbish‘… God forbid I toss my White brothers and sisters in Christ to the side in some misguided attempt to prove my authentic Blackness.” (p. 150)
“I, as a Black, dreaded, hip-hop head from West Philly, have fundamentally more in common with a White coal miner from the mountains for West Virginia, a White stay-at-home mom from South Dakota, or an aging Chinese-American doctor from the Bay Area –if they are Christians– than I have with my Black, hip-hop head cousin from South Philly who doesn’t know Christ! This is the glory and beauty of the new humanity” (p. 191)
These are the kinds of affirmations the evangelical church desperately needs in today’s toxic racial and political climate.
Reaching Across Differences
A proper understanding of our unity in Christ will also make it possible for us to acknowledge where our thinking diverges. Though I strongly appreciate The New Reformation, I suspect that Linne and I do indeed differ on several issues. For instance, Linne makes passing references to “mass incarceration” (p. 115 – citing Alexander’s New Jim Crow) and “some… sociological factors [that] haven’t changed much since slavery” (p. 207 – citing Emerson’s Divided by Faith) that left me with questions.
However, it’s here that “anti-woke” evangelicals (and I include myself among that number) will have to make a decision about the degree of uniformity that we will demand in our churches. On the one hand, I emphatically believe that ideologies like critical race theory do pose a serious theological danger to evangelicalism, particularly because of their “intersectional” understanding of race, gender, and sexuality. On the other hand, I emphatically do not want the church’s unity to be grounded on political consensus rather than on shared doctrinal commitments.
I fully admit that this is a difficult line to walk, since some political issues (say, abortion laws) are closely connected to our theology. But here, books like The New Reformation are crucial. It is through dialogue, not name-calling, that the church must decide which issues are non-negotiable and which issues should be held with an open hand. Working out these two categories will take discernment, prayer, and a commitment to genuine discussion rooted in Scripture.
As Linne reminds us: “It’s far easier to dismiss someone as a ‘racist’ than it is to love them enough to consider their genuine concerns. It takes far less effort to write someone off as a Marxist than it does to pray from the heart that God would comfort them in their grief, even if we can’t understand it” (p. 180-181). Amen. May our churches be places where open dialogue flourishes, where unity is found in the gospel, and where charity is found in abundance.
- A Long Review of Yancey’s Beyond Racial Gridlock – Part 1
- A Short Review of Morrison’s Be The Bridge
- A House Divided: A Review of Tisby’s How To Fight Racism
- Whose Justice? A Short Review of Williams’ Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth
- A Short Review of Swanson’s Rediscipling the White Church