by Justin Giboney
Faith, race, and politics were front and center in Georgia’s US Senate runoff. Raphael Warnock, the current pastor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s home church, won a historic election, during which his sermons and social activism were called into question. White evangelicals were appalled by Warnock’s pulpit rebukes of police brutality and militarism. Senator Marsha Blackburn tweeted a snippet of a sermon and said, “Warnock’s radical, anti-American views are disqualifying” and that he should withdraw from the race. Conversely, while many black Christians wouldn’t defend his pro-choice platform (among other secular progressive stances), a lot of us certainly agreed with the assertion that the Bible has something to say about racial injustice. In his book Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley says the “call for individual and societal transformation” is the mainstream black ecclesial tradition. Consequently, the election highlighted the sociopolitical divide between white evangelicals and the black church.
These two groups share the Great Commission but couldn’t be further apart socially. The American church may never agree on partisan affiliation, but what must we agree on in regard to racial justice? The Bible doesn’t make burrowing further into our ideological nests or putting our faith in politicians an option (John 13:34–35). Biblically speaking, what should be our tone and actions when it comes to race and politics?
In 2020, the pandemic forced Americans to distance ourselves physically. Our politics, identities, and worldviews forced us further apart too. We watch the same occurrences and walk away not only with different opinions, but with a different set of facts. And yet, through social media, we’ve bridged our divides just enough to antagonize one another. We make an extra effort to remind those who voted differently that they’re never right and they’re responsible for every wrong. As a new Pew Research Center study revealed, we see little common ground or common cause—even when faced with a deadly virus that does not discriminate.
Not satisfied with giving up on each other, America’s ideological tribes are resolved to punish each other at every intersection. Winning isn’t enough. We must rob every semblance of joy and worth. Even some Christians, abandoning the virtue of charity, choose to believe everything the other side does is meant to harm, deceive, or control them. Civil dialogue and political compromise are left to the naïve. But in this time of great division and belligerence, the church must choose the opposite reaction. We must be peacemakers, especially when it comes to race and politics. But what exactly is peace, and how do we make it?
Some assume peacemaking requires inactivity or silence in the face of disorder and injustice. But true peace is not passive quiet or the absence of action or the silence of indifference. Biblical peace is shalom, meaning completeness, well-being, and right relationship with God and each other. Silence or inaction amid grave partiality and inequality is not peace. When we mute the poor or rob the victim of voice, we deny peace. Gaslighting or shushing the suffering perverts the wholeness and fulfillment Christianity demands.
Others suggest that if black people would just stop talking about America’s past and move on there would be peace. But that confuses peace with personal comfort. There have always been those who found comfort amid injustice or whose comfort was built on injustice. The slaveholder who slept cozily on cotton sheets and tithed with his ill-gotten gains was in no rush to have his rest disturbed by the abolitionist’s prophetic witness. Peace defined by such a comfort is of no value in the economy of God.
Neither the warmonger nor the pious bystander is a peacemaker. Those too heavenly or high-minded to soil their ceremonial garb by touching common ground and advocating for their neighbors aren’t peacemakers. Moreover, those who exploit prayer as a copout to neglect the issues God has placed in their sphere of influence aren’t peacemakers either. Their silence condones a conflicted state of affairs and makes them keepers of a riotous status quo.
Peacemakers will engage the conflicts necessary to achieve racial justice, but they won’t be carried away by the moment. In the tensest times, they’ll watch their words, acknowledge their opponent’s human dignity, and guard their hearts against tribalism. They’ll address today’s bleak situation with tenacity and moral imagination, rather than cynicism. This means peacemakers will seek out approaches that transcend the inadequate options offered by ideological conservatives and progressives. They won’t run from reality, but they’ll attempt to reach higher ground rather than settling for the base terrain immediately available.
If majority Christians sincerely want to be peacemakers, they need to reckon with America’s history, realize with humility how it continues to harm people of color, and reform. Due to historical misdeeds and resource inequities, the majority church bears a larger peacemaking burden here, but all of us are obligated. Peacemaking takes work to bring about the harmony a Christian understanding of peace entails (Eph. 4:3).
Acknowledging America’s racial divide, recognizing its historical causes, detailing its present consequences, and demanding justice isn’t divisive. Racism is divisive and responsible for a great number of our society’s ills, but creating storylines where it’s the cause of every problem blinds us to other sins that afflict us. We should be cautious of talking about race in a way that’s more aimed at inflicting pain than persuading. Sometimes speaking the truth about racial injustice with blunt rhetorical force is necessary to drive the point home. But in many cases, being artful, strategic, and shrewd is more productive. Seasoning piercing words with salt often takes more effort but opens the door to peacemaking.
Christians can’t be peacemakers in this polarized age by committing sins of omission. We must unify around the authority of Scripture, which compels us to make peace by dismantling iniquity and treating each other with dignity. We can be bold and passionate when we pursue justice, and we won’t all express ourselves the same way. However, we can’t be vengeful or resigned to permanently separating ourselves from other believers, no matter who they voted for.
Unfortunately, not everyone will have the will or fortitude to endure the sacrifices that come with peacemaking. The unwilling—those more worried about race theories than actual racism—can no longer be allowed to hamper the process. Placating Christians who have no intention of earnestly addressing race or who are too prideful to be corrected is a dead end. Similarly, those who embrace secular theories on race without a solid biblical critique will also stunt peacemaking. In our pain, some of us have run from orthodoxy into the arms of secular prescriptions. Those voices cannot lead this journey toward renewal. Peacemakers must combine orthodoxy and orthopraxy, biblical conviction, and social action.
No other group is better situated to bring healing to this land than the church. There are Bible-believing Christians on both sides of the political spectrum, and outside of politics, we have a lot in common. We’re stuck with one another for good. We need each other. It’s time to set our partisan hang-ups aside, make peace, and do justice.
Justin E. Giboney is an attorney, political strategist, president of the AND Campaign, and coauthor of Compassion (&) Conviction: The AND Campaign’s Guide to Faithful Civic Engagement.