Faithful Antiracism: Moving Past Talk to Systemic Change by Christina Edmondson and Chad Brennan

Faithful Antiracism cover imageTakeaway: One of the most significant hindrances to systemic change is the inability of White Christians to speak clearly about the reality of race. 

I am not sure how to discuss Faithful Antiracism. Over the past two years, I have participated in a zoom book discussion group centered on racial issues in the Church. It started as a Be the Bridge group and then discussed Jemar Tisby’s Color of Compromise, and since then, it has discussed various books about race and the Church. As part of leading the discussion of Faithful Antiracism, I would listen to the audiobook early in the week. And then reread it in print on Thursday afternoons and make notes on how the section was structured and questions to ask. This means I listened to and read the print version of the book over five weeks.

Much of my thoughts are about how Faithful Antiracism is an example of the difficulty that the White Evangelical church has about addressing race, even in the more progressive parts of the Church. I am very familiar with Christina Edmondson. I have heard her speak in person a couple of times. I have listened to the Truth’s Table podcast for years. I have read many Intervarsity Press books about race. I was not familiar with Chad Brennan before the book, but I was familiar with the research he helped to direct in partnership with Barna, which is being formed into several books. Micheal Emerson, who coauthored Divided by Faith, spoke about this research in this 25 minutes talk, which I recommend. I also was in an earlier Be the Bridge group with one of the Barna staff who helped manage the research as it was being worked on over the past couple of years.

Over and over, as we discussed Faithful Antiracism, we could not figure out why the book seemed to hold back and frame issues in the American Church as if they were universal problems and not problems centered in the White church. One straightforward example is in the chapter about truth-telling about the recent history of the Church and race. The chapter focused on Billy Graham as the moderate in conversation with the more racially progressive Carl Henry. The point of this chapter was that there were both progressives and moderates, and we can’t claim the progressives and ignore the ways that the White church also upheld moderation (and opposed desegregation and integration of the culture as a whole.) But this framing ignores the third member of Evangelicalism’s founding fathers, Billy Graham’s father-in-law, the pro-segregationist Nelson Bell. The fuller picture is that while many White Evangelicals were moderate like Graham, and some were progressive like Henry, many were explicit segregationists like Bell. Without grappling with that whole history and the ways that both moderates and progressives often were willing to organize with segregationists like Bell for evangelism and institution building (see Bad Faith), we can’t get a good picture of the history that needs to be grappled with.

I know that both Edmondson and Brennan know this from the rest of the book. I know that they are interested in systemic change and truth-telling, but consistently throughout the book, it felt like they were held back. I don’t know if it was pressure from editors or a desire to make a more palatable message for white readers, but I felt like this happened regularly.

Chapter 9, where the book discusses evaluating our progress in antiracism, was regularly framed with the illustration of a doctor meeting with a patient about a health problem. But that framing confirms the individualistic orientation of White Evangelicalism. Instead, the more accurate illustration is not an individual doctor with an individual patient but a public health professional trying to address systemic health issues. Both primary care doctors and public health doctors address individual diseases like heart disease, but they do it differently. A primary care doctor may talk about exercise, eating right, and the targeted drug regimen. But a public health doctor will address the ways that the structure of our society as a whole is contributing to heart disease. It is not that individuals eating right and exercising aren’t essential for the individual, but that only addresses that individual, not the whole system, which has subsidized unhealthy foods and oriented toward an economy based on private cars, which often do not have sidewalks to walk and exercise safely, etc. Until this point and even in this chapter, the importance of moving toward systemic change is emphasized (it is even part of the subtitle), but the illustration chosen as the center of the chapter undercuts the point by again emphasizing the individual.

Again, my main point here isn’t that Faithful Antiracism is a lousy book. Instead, my point is that it is a book that is an excellent example of where even in the attempt to overcome white reluctance to discuss the systemic reality of race, it still centers the white reader, the individual model of change, and frames issues as problems for all of society to address instead of addressing racism as a problem of white ideology.

Every book on race published by Christians seems to have to convince the white reader that there is a problem. As my group has read a variety of books on race, we keep having discussions about the fact that every book seems to have an intended audience of people just being introduced to race as a problem and addressing those same people later in the book as if they are ready to lead their churches and community organizations in addressing the problems of an ideology of white supremacy. People who had to be convinced of the reality of the problem of race at the start of a book are not the same people who should be reading about how to structure appropriate measurements of organizational change at the end of the book. And I don’t know where the books are coming from evangelical publishers starting with more advanced assumptions. To use the academic metaphor, a book can’t be a 101, a 201, and a 9999 class simultaneously. It can’t even really have a 101 and a 401 audience at the same time.

I am far from an expert, and this is primarily a complaint from silence; at least part of the problem of race in the white evangelical Church is that we want to be inclusive, and when someone that is at a 101 or 201 stage expresses interest, the whole group is asked to go back and center their perspective instead of centering the perspective of those that are experienced.

If you have read more than a handful of books on race and the church, Faithful Antiracism probably will not have a lot that is new. But I don’t think that is fundamentally the problem of the book, but instead the problem with even progressive publishers centering the white evangelical experience. There are no simple solutions. A book has to break even if it does not make money. A book published by evangelical publishers that speaks more clearly about race than most white Christians want them to won’t make money and will likely be targeted for institutional backlash. White Evangelicals tend to not want to attend churches that were founded by Black or other minority denominations and leaders. They tend to want to attend churches that are white-led but inviting racial minority Christians into them to create more diverse but still white-centered spaces. I do not really know a solution until that fundamentally changes.

Faithful Antiracism: Moving Past Talk to Systemic Change by Christina Edmondson and Chad Brennan Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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