Recently a black colleague of mine asked me if I was working on any new writing projects. I told him as a matter of fact I am. It is a book on The Pilgrim’s Progress. He quickly responded, “Oh, will that be a black man’s perspective on The Pilgrim’s Progress?” His response was both telling and disappointing. It was telling in how much the conversation of race and the politics of race have overtaken our conversation in the church. It was disappointing because it suggested that black men and women can’t write anything except it be explicitly the “black perspective” on a thing.
I know it might sound a bit sacrilegious these days to even raise the question, but could it be that our preoccupation with race is moving us to color the gospel? In other words, we can be so concerned with black and white issues or issues of social justice and not realize that we are slowly slipping away from the character and content of the gospel message into our personal cultural and social agendas. Consequently, we may unwittingly be saying that if the gospel proclamation does not include my felt sociological needs or cultural affirmations then it is a gospel insufficient. Thus, we may be coloring the gospel with our preferences.
It would seem obvious, but I often find the obvious needs restating: The gospel is not black or white. The gospel is the color of water (that may not be the best analogy in light of the present circumstances of our brothers and sisters in Flint, MI, but bear with me). In the book The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, author James McBride describes a conversation where he asked his mother, “What color is God?” She responded with a deftness seemingly lost on us today. She said, “God is the color of water.” In other words, he is not definable by color. He is not bound by our cultural preoccupations, and neither is the gospel.
The danger the church must be leery of today is the same danger she has had to combat from her beginning – cultural pride. And cultural pride is no respecter of culture. From the conversation Jesus had with the woman at the well (John. 4), to the neglect of the Hellenistic Christians (Acts 6), to Paul’s own explicit cultural denials (Phil. 3), the struggle to overcome cultural pride has been and is real. White Christians struggle with it. Black Christians struggle with it. Hispanic Christians struggle with it. Asian Christians struggle with it. And the list goes on and on. Racism is rooted in it. And too often my bitter responses to racism are rooted in it as well.
Sadly, it is evidenced in the nature of our conversations and exchanges. Much of the discussion on race today is accusatory–blacks accusing whites of not listening or caring; whites accusing blacks of being too sensitive and unyielding. The biblical truth is that we are all sinners and my cultural pride is no better (or worse) than yours.
Remember, Christ reminds us that there is ever a log in my eye even as I graciously point out the speck in the eye of my brother or sister (Matt. 7). I find these words of Christ requiring me to have more self-suspicion than suspicion of others. Sadly the current conversation on race often has it reversed. Nevertheless, all of my accusations (whether black or white) need to come with an admission of guilt and a subsequent confession of Christ as sufficient for accuser and accused. As a Christian black man, though I decry injustice, I am ever admitting that my biggest problem is not police brutality, or economic inequality, or disproportionate incarcerations. My biggest issue is the pride in my own heart. Cultural idols exist in black hearts as well as white ones.
I am hoping to soon complete work on the book about The Pilgrim’s Progress. The author of this book will be a black man. The thoughts and intent of this book will be those of a Christian man. Yet, like God, the gospel, and even my life, I pray this book would be less about color and more about Christ.