Doug Serven, ed. Heal Us, Emmanuel: A Call for Racial Reconciliation, Representation, and Unity in the Church. Oklahoma City, OK: White Blackbird Books, 2016. 326 pp. $16.99.
I tried countless different ways to introduce this review, but they were all either risky (i.e. potentially controversial and/or off-putting) or trite (because of vagueness and generality). I tend to not say much online on issues of racial injustice and racial reconciliation because I’ve seen online conversations crash and burn as two sides misunderstand and offend/hurt each other, and I didn’t want a touchy introduction to turn people away from reading this review. Heal Us, Emmanuel is an important book for the Church, especially its more conservative wing. No matter where you stand on race issues, my hope is that you will read the entirely of this review and consider reading the book. Written by 30 PCA pastors and leaders of various ethnic backgrounds and ministry contexts, this diverse collection of essays chronicle personal journeys into awareness of racial inequality/injustice and stories of racial reconciliation, provide historical insight into some of the issues and biblical/theological rationale for pursuing ethnic diversity, unity, and reconciliation, and issue a passionate plea for the church to labor to break down dividing walls of ethnic hostility.
The essays in Heal Us, Emmanuel are divided into six sections. One of the hardest and most important things to do in the race conversation is to listen, so it’s fitting that the first section is entitled “An Invitation to Listen.” Here, five minority voices (four African Americans and one Asian American) share their painful experiences of racism and racial injustice, as well as stories of astounding gospel-empowered forgiveness and reconciliation. The opening essay by Rev. Lance Lewis kicks off the book well, as he expounds upon the weaknesses of the typical political mindset with which we approach issues of race and ethnicity and calls us to embrace a biblically grounded redemptive mindset. The second section is entitled “Awakening to Privilege” and contains five essays written by Caucasian Americans. The first essay by Rev. Dr. Timothy R. LeCroy is detailed, multifaceted, and gripping from beginning to end. He chronicles his journey from oblivious to racist to seeing the reality of systemic racism. He tells of the mighty move of the Holy Spirit at the 2015 PCA General Assembly when a resolution was proposed for the denomination to repent of its sins during the Civil Rights Era, and the confession, repentance, and prayer for healing that ensued for about an hour. LeCroy notes his subsequent realization that he needed to be active with regard to these issues not only at the denominational level but also in his local context, and detailed his following steps he took of confession from his pulpit and in the local paper and making contact with a local African American pastor. Finally, he tells of what he saw and heard of the University of Missouri protests locally versus the distortion by national conservative media.
Section 3, “Sins of Omission and Commission,” contains six essays by Caucasian Americans. Rev. Jonathan A. Price’s essay illuminates how policies and practices just a generation ago (e.g. Jim Crow, redlining) still have ramifications today, having created a society where Whites benefit and Blacks were left behind. He wrestles through simultaneously not being responsible for the sins of the past that created a racially divided church, and yet having benefited from the broken system without challenging it. Price also notes some of the progress the PCA has made on race issues, from the overture passed in 2002 confessing sins of racism to the corporate repentance and prayer in 2015. Rev Walter Henegar’s essay helpfully dispels two common misconceptions related to the Bible and African Americans: 1) that the Bible condones slavery and 2) that the plight of African Americans is related to the “curse of Ham.” Especially interesting and helpful in this section is Kevin Twit’s essay entitled “Forming Friendships Through Music: Why Style Matters.” I highly recommend this essay for anyone involved in music ministry and/or passionate about incorporating ethnically diverse styles of music. He points out the problem with the “Great Tradition” view of music and refutes the argument from laws of music and the created order that seeks to prove that Western Classical music is superior to other styles. He argues that we should not only sing the songs of our own culture and tradition, but “we must sing other people’s songs, the songs of other cultural traditions and other generations, because we must give expression to the fact that the church of God is bigger than any one cultural expression…the church is bigger than people that sing like us and talk like us” (147).
The fourth section, “Historical and Theological Perspectives,” contains five essays. In “The Theology of Race in the South,” Rev. Bobby Griffith provides a history of slavery and theology of race that Christians used to justify slavery and offers a few suggestions for moving beyond this sordid history. In “Telling the Truth”, Rev. Dr. Sean Michael Lucas hones in from evangelicalism in general and probes the racist history of the PCA; his goal is that “a more honest telling of the past so that we can understand our own place and calling and become more faithful Gospel churches in our context” (179). Dr. Craig Garriot in “Toward a Compelling Theology for Unity” offers theological, ecclesiological, and doxological applications for moving toward a more ethnically diverse church. Rev. William Castro, a hispanic serving in hispanic ministry, explores some of the reasons why there are so few Latino/Hispanic people in Reformed denominations in “Deconstructing the Racialist Framework. In the final essay of this section, “Are Segregationist Hermeneutics Alive in the Church Today?” Rev. Gregory A. Ward summarizes and critiques the hermeneutic of segregation used by Dr. Morton H. Smith (well known and highly regarded in Southern Presbyterianism) in his article entitled “The Racial Problems facing America.”
A standout essay in the penultimate section, “Confession and Reconciliation are Necessary,” is the first one by Rev. Barry Henning (“Reconciliation is about Obedience”). Henning begins by noting the necessity of reconciliation in the church on biblical grounds, helpfully pointing out that reconciliation is not merely diversity and does not merely encompass ethnic issues. He asserts that both theological change and commitment to system-wide structural changes in churches and denominations are necessary, and charges that we need to embrace reconciliation as a covenantal obligation. And in a paragraph perhaps shocking for some conservatives but a necessary corrective, Henning addresses the error of equating the “good news of the kingdom of God” with only personal justification. Finally, Heal Us, Emmanuel concludes with a section on “The Way Forward.” Scott Sauls (“Meet My African American Mentor”) notes that a first step toward true diversity is the recognition that charity toward minorities is not enough. It must also result in empowerment, especially where injustice and inequality exist. In other words, invitations to give input and lead are not enough; they must be accompanied by opportunities to speak and to lead. “Crumbs from the table must be replaced with a seat at the table. Otherwise, we remain stuck with an anemic, counterfeit diversity” (276).
As I noted at the beginning of this review, Heal Us, Emmanuel is a very important book for the Church, especially for its conservative/Reformed/Presbyterian sector. While there are a good handful of books on racial reconciliation and a steady trickle of continued publications, they tend to be from more liberal/progressive Christians. Books on this topic are rare from Reformed folk, so whenever one does come out I get excited and I read it. I think there is a tendency for conservatives to see it as a “liberal danger” and part of a “social gospel,” which is why the correctives in books like Heal Us, Emmanuel are so important. This is a book that I’d especially encourage conservative Christians to read, and most crucially those who do not see racial diversity/unity/reconciliation as a gospel issue. As a minority (Reformed) Christian, I beg you as a sister in Christ and co-heir with Christ (not to mention co-lover of forensic justification and Reformed soteriology!!) to listen to the stories in this book. They come from both Whites who chronicle their own journeys to seeing the existence of systemic racial injustice and that racial reconciliation is a biblical mandate and then pursuing reconciliation, as well as from minorities who write of the racial injustice and pain they’ve experienced as well as stories of forgiveness, reconciliation, and hope. More progressive/liberal Christians probably would not find this book helpful because they are so much further along on this journey than we are; they would likely be frustrated at our lack of progress and talk. To these brothers and sisters, I ask you to rejoice with us at the progress we’ve made (because though talk is not enough, it’s a necessary initial step and something we don’t do enough) and to pray for our continued pursuit and growth.
The majority of this book consists of personal vignettes, with light sprinklings of theology and practical steps. This is not necessarily a criticism, but just a caveat lector because if you’re looking for a biblical theology of race/reconciliation or a practical book through-and-through, you will be disappointed. But the stories have the potential to change our minds and broaden our perspectives, and they are filled with hope that Gospel-centered reconciliation is not only mandated, but possible; and not only possible, but by God’s grace inevitable because one day every nation, tribe, and tongue will worship together before the throne of the lamb who was slain to reconcile us both to God and to each other.
One true critique of Heal Us Emmanuel is something inevitable for all multi-author essay collections: it’s unbalanced (with a few essays very short and not really adding value, while others being very robust) and there’s a bit of repetition among essays (e.g. some of the same stories and historical notes and PCA happenings told in multiple essays). I do think a few essays could have been eliminated, as this book is somewhat long for a nonacademic popular-level book and does get a bit tedious at points. I also wish that there had been more essays by Asian Americans, or that Dr. Alexander Jun would have addressed more than just “unintentional racism.” While I don’t want to discount the problematic and hurtful nature microagressions (I continue to experience them on a regular basis), our part in the American story of race and racial reconciliation is broader and deeper than that. Granted, the race issue in America is largely a white-and-black issue; and sandwiched between essays recounting unspeakable horrors of the African American experience (e.g. slavery, Jim Crow, etc.) it’s inevitable that no matter what an Asian American writes, it will likely seem like a “first world problem”, so to speak. But the “yellow” story is deeper than “unintentional racism,” and especially since many in the majority culture do not see microagressions as racist, the Asian American perspective would have been stronger in this book if some stories of overt racism had come out. The Asian American experience is deeper and the role we can in the racial reconciliation journey is bigger than it appears in this book.
The points of critique are minor compared to the strengths and importance of Heal Us, Emmanuel. It’s a book that I encourage every conservative Christian to read, especially those who do not see the reality of systemic racial injustice and do not hear the biblical call of racial reconciliation. And I’m encouraged by the progress being made in the PCΑ in the difficult yet crucial work of racial unity, diversity, and reconciliation.
I received a free digital copy in exchange for an honest review