It’s There in Black and White: A Conversation with Glenn Colley, Ben Giselbach, Hiram Kemp, and Melvin Otey

Editor’s Note:  Last year these four brothers in Christ co-wrote a book titled, It’s There in Black and White: Scriptural Answers to 37 Questions People Are Asking about Racial Tension in the Church.  Recognizing its relevancy in the times in which we live, I read the book and was glad I did.  The insights laid out within its pages from Glenn, Ben, Hiram, and Melvin have helped me to have a better understanding of both the situation in our society concerning race and also the guidance from our Lord in the Bible on how to achieve true progress.  I invited these four men to discuss these matters in the Carolina Messenger, and am glad they agreed to do so.

— Jon

Carolina Messenger:  Gentlemen, thank you for agreeing to discuss your book and the topic of race relations in the church with us.  To start off, how did the idea of this book and its format come about?  Did one of you have the idea and approach the others, or was it more of a group decision?  What led you to conclude that a book like this was needed in the church today?  Tell us a bit about what it was like writing this book together.

Ben:  The idea of the book originated between Hiram and me around 2018.  In the years prior, the two of us had seen the ugly influence of racial tension in the church, particularly in the wake of the Ferguson riots.  By 2018, those tensions we felt were in some places beginning to ease (thankfully), and we felt it would be a good time to undertake a project like this to help cool whatever tensions remained in the church.  Over the months, the way we organized the book began to take form.  In 2019, we asked Glenn and then Melvin to join the project, which has proven to be a tremendous advantage to the wisdom and balance we feel our book – written by all four of us – provides.

Hiram:  The book began in the mind of Ben. Ben had the idea to write a book dealing with these issues a few years ago and he approached me at Polishing The Pulpit roughly two years ago and asked me to write it with him. As we began the process, we decided it would be best to write it in a question and answer format and include two additional authors (Melvin and Glenn). The process of writing this book together was challenging but also enjoyable as we all learned a lot and grew closer to the Lord and each other as a result.

Glenn:  Spending the many months working and writing with these brothers deepened our friendships.  I really love them for their faith and the kind of secure atmosphere in which we could wade through some difficult problems (and sometimes disagree) in a productive way.  They are great men and I’ve enjoyed learning from them about the nuances of racial tension from their various viewpoints.

C.M.:  What led you to conclude that sharing the individual experiences of Michelle, John, Marcus, Aaron, and Kyle (real people whose actual names you’ve kept anonymous) would help the overall message of the book?

Hiram:  Including the real-life profiles of others was something we felt would show readers that there are real people that have various backgrounds in the body of Christ.  By including the experiences of others, it will help readers to appreciate that what we are writing about affects real people and their lives.  Furthermore, we also included some background information on ourselves so that people will know where we are coming from as writers and Christians.

Ben:  Midway through the project, it occurred to us that one of the major obstacles in a conversation about race relations is the lack of awareness people often have of other perspectives.  Sympathy is an art; it is the ability to put yourselves in the shoes of another.  Thus, it is an ability that needs to be cultivated.  Few of us share the same experiences and no people group is totally monolithic.  Our personal views are easily shaped by our personal experiences.  Therefore, we thought it was crucial to tell the stories of real people before moving into the meat of the book.  Those stories help us to think more soberly.

C.M.:  Melvin, how does the Bible define racism and is there any difference in how our culture defines it today?

Melvin:  The emphasis some people place on skin color today – assigning more or less intrinsic worth – is a sin of relatively recent vintage.  The Bible does not define “racism” per se, and to the extent that it discusses people groups it does not tend to classify people based on their complexion.  All human beings descend from Adam and Eve through Noah and his sons (cf. Gen. 3:20; Acts 17:26), so differences in eye color, hair color, or even skin color do not make them separate races.  Still, the concept of racism – believing some people are inherently superior to others based on an immutable characteristic like complexion – is subsumed by the Bible’s teachings against judging unrighteously (cf. John 7:24), being a respecter of persons (cf. Lev. 19:15; Deut. 1:17; James 2:8-9), and hating others (cf. Matt. 5:43-48; 1 John 2:9-11; 3:15).

C.M.:  That’s very true.  It would do us good to remember that we all come from the same source and that there’s no room in Christianity for looking at each other in these unrighteous ways.  Glenn, how should one’s Christianity impact one’s views on race and racism?

Glenn:  Well, there is no facet of our lives left unaffected by our allegiance to Christ and that applies to all the various tentacles of racial tension (Rom. 12:1-2).  I simply must not place my views of societal division above the teaching of the New Testament. 

We are living in a time when Critical Race Theory has so impacted the minds of some people (some of whom are Christians) – that the theory must be studied, understood, and its many anti-biblical tentacles firmly resisted by church leaders.  The theory is dangerous to America, but also dangerous to members of the body of Christ in particular.  As a Christian I must view people as possessing souls, treating them and loving them according to what Jesus has taught, and not group people into the binary cultural categories of “oppressed and oppressor.”  Any time a Christian, black or white or red, refers to “my people,” he should be talking about people in the body of Christ universally and not about color and culture.  My “people” are those who serve King Jesus, not those who happen to have the same skin tone as me.

C.M.:  Ben, Glenn mentioned “Critical Race Theory.”  What is “Critical Race Theory” and what impact does it have on race relations in our society and in the church?

Ben:  Critical Theory, popularly known as “cultural Marxism,” is a real of studies that emerged in Germany in the early twentieth century which was designed to explain various social ills in the world.  The school of study is a synthesis of ideas advanced by names like Immanuel Kant, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx.  Critical Race Theory is one sub-field, which is the worldview that race is the fulcrum of the power dynamic of oppressed vs. oppressor, which in turn causes the disadvantages and inequalities which exist between people.  In short, CRT views the world through the lens of power.  Thus, at a practical level CRT paints a world where people groups, specifically minorities, are oppressed not by physical force or even blatant discrimination, but through the influence of power wielded by dominant people groups, imposing their norms, values, and expectations on society as a whole. This in turn relegates those who are deemed oppressed into subordinate positions.

Fundamentally, CRT and Christianity are diametrically opposed to one another.  Both worldviews speak to the most important questions.  Who am I?  What is my biggest problem, and what is the solution to that problem?  What is the greatest cause of which I can be a part?  The Bible answers these very clearly.  I am an image-bearer of God (Gen. 1:26-27).  I have sinned against my Creator and Sustainer (Rom. 3:23).  I desperately need the blood of Jesus (Heb. 9:22; 1 John 1:7).  I need to model God’s love for my fellow man, and God’s Word is sufficient in telling me how to do that (Luke 10:25-37; John 13:35).  CRT answers these questions in a much different way.  To CRT, I am fundamentally a member of either a dominant or marginalized group.  I need to recognized where I am on that spectrum of power, and either divest myself of that power and dedicate myself to what I’m told would be the liberation of others, or seek to acquire power by deconstructing all systems and institutions I perceive as being oppressive.  Said another way: through the lens of Scripture, our greatest problem is sin; through the lens of CRT, our greatest problem is oppression.

When Marxism takes root in civil society, the historical narrative tends to be one of unrest and revolution.  Likewise, when the tenants of CRT enter into the psyche of Christians, the unity of the church will inevitably suffer.  Few people in the church have heard of “Critical Race Theory,” let alone can articulate its core tenants.  (See page 47 of the book for a somewhat more detailed analysis of CRT.)  But the theory permeates popular teaching on the subject of race relations today.  The call to action must be this.  Let us reject anything that minimizes Scripture as the final arbiter of truth – truth that is accessible to all people regardless of their demographics (Ps. 119:105; John 17:17; Heb. 8:10-12; 2 Tim. 3:16-17).  Let us view all people as God sees them (James 2:1-13; Matt. 9:36) – as souls, struggling with sin, in desperate need of a Savior.

C.M.:  Thank you for explaining that and comparing it to scriptural teaching.  As Christians we should definitely look first and foremost to Scripture more than anything else.  Hiram, could you explain for us the impact culture and cultural preferences have on race relations in the church and in society?  How should one balance what the Bible says about race relations and the impact cultural differences or tensions have on race?

Hiram:  Culture and cultural preferences play an important role in discussions of race in society and in the church.  While we can rise above our culture and have different perspectives, we are influenced by the culture which surrounds us.  Sometimes what we view as racist or prejudiced may just be one’s cultural preference.  However, Christians must be careful to remember that in Christ the most important thing is our faith and not our cultural background (Gal. 3:26-29).  Since God does not play favorites concerning cultural preferences, neither should we (Acts 10:34-35).  Every one of us can enjoy his or her cultural preferences so long as they are not sinful, but we should be willing to lay them down or set them aside if they hinder our unity in Christ or if doing so will help us reach and understand others better (1 Cor. 9:19-23).

C.M.:  Amen.  It really comes down to not focusing just on our own interests, but the interests of others (Phil. 2:4), with their spiritual interests taking highest precedence.  Ben, how were racial tensions handled in the early church?  What lessons can we learn from them today?

Ben:  Since the inception of the church, there has been a diversity of people groups represented (Acts 2:9-11).  Inevitably, racial tensions arose, but how they were handled should be of utmost importance to us.  Problems were handled, first and foremost, in the shadow of the cross.  There was an awareness of the shared, equalizing identity we all have in Christ (Gal. 3:26-29).  In Christ, there is no distinction of race, gender, or socio-economic status.  We are one in Christ and equally in need of His forgiveness.  Second, problems were handled with the goal of there being a resolution (Acts 6:1-7).  The sins were identified and solved with intelligence, urgency, and finality.  Third, problems were handled with the proper attitude regarding materialism (Rom. 15:25-27).  We are utterly unworthy to have the blessings we have; no one is obligated to give us anything.  All that we are – all that we have – is from God, and therefore we use our blessings for the benefit of others.  Fourth, problems were squelched with the awareness that no people group is better than another (Acts 10:28).  In fact, any kind of partiality toward one people group at the neglect of another group was met with a stern rebuke (Gal. 2:6-7, 11-15).

C.M.:  This really shows what all of you keep emphasizing in this discussion: that Scripture is where we find the answers.  Gentlemen, what progress has the church in America made concerning the problem of racism during the past few decades?  What should we still work towards, and what counsel do each of you have to help us improve in the areas in which growth is still needed?

Melvin:  Progress has certainly been made in the church, just as it has been made in society at large.  Decades ago, segregation and bigoted attitudes were common in American culture and in our churches.  Even where churches may have been more “progressive,” this was largely only in relation to the larger culture.  Still, as overt bigotry, forced segregation, and the sinful attitudes that support such things have diminished in American society, they have diminished in churches as well.  Progress has been made, but there is more progress to make.  In my estimation, Christians need to embrace the responsibility of leading the way and setting the example of unity and fellowship in Christ, not for society’s sake but for our own.  It is not enough to be on par with, or even a bit better than, unbelievers.  Christians need to set the pace.  This requires a change in our thinking and more intentional and meaningful joint participation in Christian service.

Glenn:  I do not believe anyone who has seriously studied this issue could disagree that the church, like the country, has come a long way since the legal practice of slavery in 1850.  That does not mean, of course, that Christians never struggle with racism, but that the church taught in the New Testament has always been the resolution to racial problems because it teaches us how to love one another.  Adherence to the teachings of Christ is the solution, and the history which has unfolded over the last few decades has demonstrated that.

Some point to the fact that we – particularly in the South – still have many towns in which Christians are segregated in black and white congregations and that this evidences serious racial tension among us.  I’m not convinced that’s necessarily true.  I believe most racially distinguished congregations in American towns may have no animosity toward one another but still meet in separate buildings because of habit and cultural differences.  I do not think it always implies racial angst or bigotry toward one another.  A member of the church of Christ who is bigoted is not the norm in the various congregations where I preach through the year.  Black and white congregations may enjoy sweet fellowship while worshiping in separate buildings.

Having said that, I don’t believe that it is a fully righteous thing to have our congregations separated by race, particularly if our buildings are near one another.  Read Galatians 2 where Paul withstood Peter to the face because Peter preferred to not eat with the Gentiles if his Jewish friends were present.  I think Peter would have loved permission from the Lord to have separate Jewish and Gentile congregations who preached the same gospel but were nonetheless divided as we do with black and white brethren.  Wouldn’t it be great if today, while cities smolder with the embers of racial destruction and anger, the church of Christ could be known as the happily integrated group where people of all races love one another and worship on the same pews each week?  You and I should be about glorifying the Lord who died on the tree, and bringing racial strife into the body of Christ is the antithesis of glorifying Him (Eph. 4:1-3).

C.M.:  You bring up something we all should work toward.  The church should lead the way in this.  Great strides not only in racial unity but also in bringing souls to Christ could be made if we all were known for our unity in these matters.  Hiram, to what degree does repentance play a role in improving race relations in the church today?  Is there a biblical case to be made that repentance should also be applied to the mistakes and sins committed by other brethren of previous generations?

Hiram:  Repentance is the proper response to every sin we know of which we are guilty (Acts 17:30; 2 Cor. 7:9-10).  Those guilty of racism, prejudice, bigotry, or any behavior that involves mistreating others based on physical appearance must repent.  As we state in the book, where racism or prejudice is known it must be dealt with and members should know that such behavior is sinful and unacceptable (cf. 1 Tim. 5:20).  Concerning other generations, we should acknowledge their shortcomings (as we do in the book) but no one can repent on behalf of another nor should the be asked to do so (Ezek. 18:20).  We can look to the mistakes of the past and learn from them, but we cannot be saved based on the righteousness of past generations.  Neither can we be condemned based on their sin.

C.M.:  That’s a very good point.  Melvin, to what extent should Christians be involved in the social activism which takes place in America today?  Are there any types of social activism Christians should avoid?  Are there any in which Christians should include themselves?

Melvin:  Christians have a responsibility to be salt and light in their communities (Matt. 5:13-14).  This necessarily includes speaking up for things that are righteous and standing against things that are unrighteous.  The biggest problem, though, is that Christians should generally stand together and speak up for Jesus, but we too often stand with non-believers who have agendas that go far beyond Jesus’ agenda.  In so doing, our ability to stand out for God is compromised and we open ourselves to unnecessary criticism.  Furthermore, the conflation of spiritual priorities with political and social agendas certainly can cause Christians to lose focus and begin to think their political and social agendas are synonymous with serving Jesus.  Any kind of activism that leads to these results is problematic, however otherwise laudable its goals are, and should be avoided altogether if it cannot be pursued within proper bounds.  Rather than pursue change by participating in larger movements of unbelievers, Christians would be better served, and God would be better glorified, if Christians banded together to pursue change specifically in Jesus’ name.

C.M.:  As Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness…” (Matt. 6:33).  Glenn, what role does personal evangelism play in improving race relations, both within the church and in helping the church positively impact race relations in society?

Glenn:  When I practice the evangelism that Jesus taught it will have nothing to do with the color of people’s skin and everything to do with which souls are receptive to the gospel.  Godly evangelism will resist any worldly effort to value one’s soul over another and it will lead people to be baptized into the one body of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23; 1 Cor. 12:13).  It will change the people men and women in the South (and elsewhere) are talking about when they smile and say, “These are my people,” and that’s a profoundly happy thought.

C.M.:  I’ve long thought that if more of us were a lot more personally involved in one-on-one evangelism with more of the people in our lives, more congregations and more Christians individually would find themselves growing closer to Christ and overcoming more of their struggles with sin and their problems.  Gentlemen, let’s close by getting from each of you what you personally believe is needed most of all to help each Christian in the church shine their light and reflect Christ in the best way possible concerning matters of race.

Hiram:  What is most needful in the church to help Christians be what we should in matters of race relations is a deeper knowledge of the Word of God on this subject and an honest heart that wants to do what the Bible says.  Too many Christians rely on the news, culture, or their own upbringing when dealing with this subject.  If we are going to be the people of God, we must allow His Word to direct our steps on this issue and every issue (Prov. 3:5-6).  The Bible not only condemns racism but it teaches us how to deal with it and how by loving our neighbor as ourselves we can shine our light in this world of darkness (Matt. 5:16).

Ben:  I believe the Bible has always contained the answer to racial tension in the church.  We err when we look outside the Scriptures for the solutions.  The best way to immunize the church against further tension is for every Christian individually to think more about the cross, our desperate need for God’s grace, and a steadfast desire to remain in the objective doctrine of Christ (2 John 9).

Melvin:  I personally believe individual Christians and church leaders need to reappraise their commitments to the country and every sub-group within it other than the Lord’s church.  We are deeply compromised in that we perceive and reason like Americans, white people, black people, Republicans, and Democrats at least as much as, if not more than, we perceive and reason as Christians.  This doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning our appreciation of the various sub-groups we may be part of, but if we can do a better job of stripping away the distraction of strong allegiance to these groups, Christ is all that remains.  And, I believe this is how He wants it.

Glenn:  Racial tension, whether it originates with black Christians or white ones, is of the world and sinful.  It is a division over something superficial which will certainly divide churches where it exists.  I believe most of our congregations are not struggling significantly with racial sin.  Elderships are often made up of men from different colors.  Our church lobbies are populated with black and white members alike showing genuine Christian love to one another as they should.  The challenge, as has been true since the church was born in Acts 2, is for elders to persistently push against ideas and actions which will divide the church.  That naturally includes worldly, bigoted beliefs.  What is true about one race is true about another: We all step out of the worldly values that have guided us and into the values of our Lord when we grow as Christians. 

I know the readers of this paper love the church as we do.  This book, It’s There In Black And White, is about loving it, loving one another, and pursuing peace among Christians.  The world may hate one another over race, but we will not.  We serve a different Master.

C.M.:  We certainly do.  Thank you for reminding us of that.  Thank you all for taking the time to discuss this with us, and thank you for the work you do in God’s kingdom.

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