It has been 20 years since Rodney King famously asked, “can we just all get along?” following the acquittal of the police officers who tirelessly beat him under the watchful eye of an unseen video camera. When it comes to the issue of race, racial justice, and racial reconciliation, that is the question so many want to ask: why can’t we “just” all come together in the body of Christ? Just like in South Central Los Angeles in the early 90’s, the unity question in the church is laced with social complexities, moral contradictions, and spiritual ambiguities. One thing for sure, wherever there is a vexing problem, there is no easy solution lying undisturbed in plain sight.
The American church is evidently vexed on race, or ethnicity, as it is called by iconic Christian Hip Hop (CHH) artist shai linne in his ambitious project The New Reformation: Finding Hope in the Fight for Ethnic Unity. Such a lofty aim would seem naïve were its mission not so fundamental to the veracity of the gospel and in so many ways the moral credibility of the church. There is much that shai gets right, there are some vitals he speaks about but never really confronts, but his belief in the eschatological vision of the kingdom professes hope beyond the visible evidence of the American church getting “race right.”
Shai’s use of his personal story to profile the experience of late Black Gen X and Millennial Christians whose faith was nurtured on American Reformed Theology is a vivid strength of The New Reformation. He describes his discovery of CHH in the influential genius of the Philadelphia-based Cross Movement. There are many Black Christians who came to Christ through the preaching of hip hop and so the evangelistic force of that movement should not be lost on American church historians. Shai is correct, it was nothing short of an awakening.
The early CHH movement and shai’s portrayal of “Lyrical Theology” was largely a rap-based expression of theological ideas that were birth outside of the community in which these young men and women were shaped. Their lyrical theology was not based on a reflection of their communities or even the experiences Shai discusses about his encounters with the police. On page 49, he says, “There was a direct pipeline from the church to our Romans studies (done together with artist Timothy Brindle) to our writing sessions to the recording booth.”
Though all of this is simply context for shai’s message, it is some of the most valuable parts of his book, offering a sociologist’s and historian’s gold mine for understanding the conceptual and cultural forces shaping CHH. For example, unlike the Reformation and American literary movements like the Harlem Renaissance, CHH’s core message was not shaped by the cultural lived experience of its artists but was the creative re-expression of the original convictions of others, men such as John Owen and John Piper.
The New Reformation shines in other ways too. In the chapter entitled “Déjà Vu,” shai highlights the inner turmoil experienced by evangelically shaped Black Christians whose soul distress amid unjustified police killings of Black men was met by confusion and indifference among their white church-mates. These opposing reactions are not only important for describing the divergent cultural realities within American Christianity but also prompts important questions about the nature of the church. Why are there irreconcilable convictions among Christians on ethical matters? How does our pneumatology align with opposing moralities in the church? These are needed questions Shai does not explore.
Perhaps the most significant contribution of shai’s project is his resolute convictions about multi-ethnicity and church unity. His chapters on “Jesus’ Desire for the Church” and “We Got Some Work to Do” speak to this God-given multi-ethnic vision that is intended to display the very glory of the gospel in mosaic communities of colors, cultures, and languages. Shai shows the significance of the gospel’s reach to catch anyone without any disadvantage of heritage or history. Though we rightly reject universalism, the universal reach of the gospel does bear witness to its authenticity, and shai uncompromisingly trumpets this in chapter 10. His “new ‘we’” concept warrants more development as I would have expected him to connect that to Peter’s words in 1 Peter 2:9 and unpack the reality of the church being comprised of a new genos. It would have been great if he had argued that such a genos redeems and interprets all ethnicities into a new kind of humanity. He implies it but it would have been helpful to see that idea more developed as Jarvis Williams does in his One New Man.
Despite the integrity of shai linne’s pursuit, there are a few glaring absences. He begins the book discussing his experience of police misconduct and never really shows how, if at all, the ethnic unity project resolves racial disparities and possible injustices. Perhaps it’s when he talks about proximity leading to sympathy that many Christians will understand better and then advocate for Black men and women not being killed by police when they are not a threat? Is that where sympathy leads? Or is that the goal of mutual understanding?
Instead, shai refocuses from these injustices onto issues of disagreement and how we respond to those with whom we disagree. This is very evident in the chapter “Agree in the Lord” as he opens with his own transparency regarding preaching through Philippians in 2014 overlapping with the killings of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice. Shai colorfully describes the existential nausea of so many Black people by using the term “the Collective Groan,” which speaks deeply to the anguish of a community. He mentions his wife’s own anxiety about the real risk of their son playing with guns, and then he abruptly changes the conversation to the subject of agreement! How does agreement among Christians relate to real lives at risk?
This pivot is not only confounding but it depicts what is exactly wrong in this so-called conversation about race. Living and dying is not an issue of conversational etiquette. Ought Christians be concerned about these killings or not? If so, what are they to do about it? To turn the emotional and existential soul crises around racial injustice into a reflection on how Christians should get along with other Christians with whom they disagree is to recenter the problem away from an entire community’s core concern, which is to imply their fears are of secondary importance to the church.
Shai’s exhortations for ethnic unity fit well where people in diverse settings simply have different experiences and assumptions about each other. In those settings there’s a need for people to listen to each other and learn, give one another the benefit of the doubt, connect into each other’s worlds, etc. This is good counsel for the church today. But it fails to reach the height of Black existential threats around the issues Shai himself highlights. It also does not connect the unity crisis in the church to broader the racial divide in our society. Whatever our understanding is about how the church should be countercultural to society, racial division is one place the church has not only be in lockstep with the broader culture on racialization, but she has also led in providing moral and even theological cover for the same. The New Reformation chooses not to confront these realities.
The grandest reach of Shai’s lengthy project is the provision of a theological framework anchored in the doctrine of justification. This functions in two ways: a) as the ground of multi-ethnicity, i.e., cultural heritage has no presence in our getting right with God, and b) the sins of all, even those we disagree with, are covered under the same justification. Those are true statements but why is justification the key doctrine for undoing the tangle of ethnic disunity and racial injustice? The Black pastors in May Beth Mathews’ Doctrine and Race get closer to a theological framework to process these items through reflections on both pneumatology and ecclesiology, i.e., what is the significance of the Spirit’s presence and how he shapes the church of Jesus Christ in a racialized society? How does that inform the church’s authenticity or inauthenticity?
The New Reformation is a fair depiction of the CHH movements and its own theological developments, but if its ambition is to be realized, the theological sufficiency of American Reformed Evangelicalism will need to be questioned more rigorously and not so easily defended.