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Whenever there is disagreement or debate about race relations in the United States, or whenever we witness steps forward or backward in repentance and racial reconciliation, I notice that many of my white brothers and sisters who have a heart for unity quickly say something like this: I need to learn from others whose experience I cannot relate to. 

This is the right posture. We should all be quick to listen and slow to speak, as the apostle James commands us, but especially in those matters where we realize we lack knowledge and understanding. The posture of being quick to listen is commendable.

Rethinking Assumptions

But sometimes, I'm afraid that many of us who belong to the majority culture jump from "I want to learn" to saying, "Please come and teach me" to our black and brown brothers and sisters. And, as we lay out expectations and considerations, it becomes obvious that many white Christians believe (1) that the education we need can be resolved in a short amount of time, and (2) that African-American brothers and sisters are responsible for delivering that education.

We need to reconsider those assumptions. We can affirm a teachable spirit while pushing back on unrealistic expectations.

Education Takes Time

First, the idea that an education on race and race relations can take place in an hour-long lecture, or a half-day of conversation, or even a semester of course work is terribly misguided. It minimizes the complexity and seriousness of the issues that confront us.

Imagine telling a professor of historical theology, I need to learn the history of Christian theological development over time. Can you come to my church and teach me what I need to know?

If you're a theologically minded reader of my blog, you know that a daylong session on historical theology would barely scratch the surface. Even if you were to treat the historical development of just one doctrine, you'd not have time to go deep into the story.

We recognize the complexities of theological and doctrinal development, which is why an MDiv requires around 90 course hours and why a PhD can take years of research and writing to gather expertise on a sliver of a subject.

Why, then, do we assume that education in race and race relations is any different? We have inherited a society that was complicit in the enslaving of Africans from the time of its founding. If an overview of American history in general can't be learned in an hour's time, why would we expect to glean great understanding of history and race relations in such a short amount of time?

Education Needs Initiative

Second, a posture of learning does not obligate our black and brown brothers to teach us. Yes, we should be grateful for brothers and sisters who are willing to walk with us, teach us, and challenge us. But when it comes to an education in race relations, the onus is on us, not our non-Anglo friends.

So, as Saint Augustine heard in the garden, we too should "take up and read."

51YUb-4PHhL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In the new book Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention, Southern Seminary professor Kevin Jones recommends that we "read non-Anglo authors on a regular basis." People "in a broad array of occupations and cultural settings must diversify their reading lists." He also says we should "consider a widespread curriculum change that includes more vetted writers/authors, professors, pastors, and leaders from ethnic groups that have been traditionally marginalized" (93).

"I have to know white culture by default," Albert Tate says. "I can't get a GED without having to understand white culture. But a white person can get a PhD and never know black culture" (95).

True. And this must change.

We Can’t Wait

White brothers and sisters, we cannot wait on evangelical institutions to have diverse faculties or a diversified reading list as a part of a syllabus before we can make progress in this area. I hope that day is coming, but let's face it: in most institutions, we're not even close to where we need to be. In the meantime, let's get busy reading.

I do not speak as an expert here, but as a fellow learner. The more I learn, the more I realize what I don't know. But I've started to be more intentional.

At the suggestion of Bryan Loritts, I am reading through Taylor Branch's trilogy on the King years. Many of us know the basic story of the civil-rights movement, but know nothing of the depth of that era--from the strategy disagreements between different black organizations, to the woefully tepid support offered by John and Robert Kennedy, to the silence of the churches. (I will never take the trek down I-65 through Birmingham to Montgomery again without thinking of the Freedom Riders.)

The appendix of Removing the Stain of Racism has a long reading list on race and race relations. (The authors do not advocate all the ideas in these books, but they believe them to be foundational for gaining a good understanding on many of these issues.) I'm not going to list all of the books here, but I hope to work my way through many of these titles over the next ten years.

If you want to get started with me, then let’s tackle a shorter list of books below, recommended to me by Curtis Woods. Let’s find good historical documentaries to watch. If you have a heart for racial reconciliation and a posture of learning, then apply yourself to this massively complex subject where the world needs our gospel witness.

Don't wait for someone to teach you. Take up and read.

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19 thoughts on “White Brothers and Sisters, Take Up and Read”

  1. Melody says:

    Thanks for the reading suggestions. It’s only been in recent years that I’ve realized that the few black people I know might feel extremely uncomfortable telling white friends what they really think and feel about things – especially since we live in a mostly white area.

    Reading blog posts or articles by other black people has been helpful in making me realize how much my friends may be leaving unsaid (although, they’ve been more comfortable speaking up in recent months – or maybe felt more pushed to speak-up, I’m not sure).

    I don’t typically think about the cultures my reading materials come from, but I guess if I looked into it, most of the stories I read would be from white Americans or Brits. I’m not a big non-fiction reader – though I might check out a couple of the books on your list. I wonder if anyone has recommendations for fiction books from black authors, I think that would be a valuable resource as well.

  2. Tiffany Ward says:

    I respect the sentiment behind this article a lot, I also love the suggestion to read more books on this topic, however I think some points might need to be reconsidered.

    “You need to get to know people’s experience, but don’t ask them about it, it’s not their job to tell you.”
    We are not our broader culture, we are the church. We are one body, and one family, and we possess one Spirit who binds us together. The rhetoric of the world is not our rhetoric, the narrative of the world is not our narrative, and the disunity of the world is not ours. I believe that racial minorities in my church have a different life experience, a different narrative than my own. And so, if they feel that my Christian love for them is somehow lacking from me not sharing in their life then they must welcome me into it. If I must be diligent to understand their experience, they must invite me into it. We are one family. Several black men and women at our church have told us that they don’t feel that they are misunderstood but that they feel they are being baited into talking more about their race than they would like to, all in the name of “racial reconciliation.” This is certainly not everyone’s experience, but would I have known that this is how they are processing it if I had simply read a book on the topic instead of asking them about their experience?

    One question I have is whether keeping with black culture would involve more actual engagement in a dialogue with black friends than the reading of books that might not fully represent their experience. “I don’t understand an issue, let me read these five books that almost none of my black or white friends have ever read” appears to be a much more “PhD” approach to gaining understanding. I must also say that I am very surprised that Racism without Racists would be suggested on the Gospel Coalition. My final remark is my sadness that this article is not grounded very much in the unity of the gospel, or biblical argumentation. In all this my husband agrees, having read the article with me.

  3. Walter says:

    I am very skeptical whenever whites tell other whites to read or do anything regarding race relations, especially when the subjects begins and ends with: “We have inherited a society that was complicit in the enslaving of Africans from the time of its founding.” No mention of the abolitionist society that died to bring an end to slavery or the desegration society that fought to establish civil rights.

    the book list is disturbingly stuff white liberals love: W.E.B DuBois is listed but not his contemporary Booker T. Washington. No books by Walter E. Williams or other blacks who don’t play into the current grievance porn industry.

    1. Yeah, understanding other cultures, not just blacks, is important, but it doesn’t take a PhD. The idea that whites can learn only from blacks is insulting to black people. It suggests that they are so different from whites that whites can’t sympathize. Human nature is the same regardless of skin color so it’s not difficult at all for whites to understand the black experience. But as you mention, there isn’t just one black message. There are many. Some people want to pretend that only their message is relevant and that message seems to be that whites can never get rid of the guilt of their ancestors. It’s similar to how Germans can never wash away the stain of the Holocaust. The truth is that the US has made enormous progress on racism since 1963. Black people in the US are the freest and wealthiest minorities on the planet and they’re wealthier than most majorities in the world. Blacks in the US are wealthier than most whites in Europe. Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell have been reminding us of that for decades.

      1. PS, it’s dangerous to assume that a writer has a monopoly on the truth because of his skin color.

  4. Joe says:

    Up from Slavery by Booker T Washington should be added

    1. Eric Kjos says:

      Yes, an amazing Christian book.

  5. David says:

    I am skeptical anytime someone starts talking about “black culture” as a monolithic entity – you’re just buying into the identity politics that is poison to unity, including within our churches. Shall we bring the same assumptions that motivate campus protest culture into Sunday morning? I’m especially reminded of this Rod Dreher post: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/burning-out-on-race-relationships/. I continue to believe, and experience with our own church would attest to it, that those churches that truly embody racial diversity within unity are those that do not talk about racial diversity! They talk about the gospel. All are welcome, and yes they have some kind of culture as all churches do. But they don’t obsess about race. Let’s leave that to those sad folks would see everything that happens in America through a lens of power dynamics.

  6. Jon Dansby says:

    I’m torn about this post.
    Wouldn’t it be a huge step forward if black authors and pastors weren’t only read and invited to speak when it’s time to talk about race, but about everything in the Christian life? Won’t people of color will feel closer to the equality they deserve when they aren’t only brought in to give the “black perspective” or the “latino perspective” on hermeneutics or justification or devotion (or whatever)? But rather, they should be referenced and invited to just teach sound hermeneutics or justification or devotion (or whatever). I think I heard Dr. Jarvis Wiliams mention this. That seems like true progress to me!
    Is this post (unintentionally) reinforcing the error that blacks can only speak authoritatively or helpfully on race?

  7. Chris Ross says:

    Hi Trevin….. As an Australian l acknowledge that we have little understanding of race relations in the USA, however we have issues here to deal with. Rather than read books relating to the issue, l was wondering whether there were any particular African American preachers we could listen to on a semi-regular basis that would give insight into the history of and ongoing struggles of African Americans and how these issues might be resolved in a Biblical manner? Thanks…. Chris.

    1. Adam Shields says:

      The Pass the Mic Podcast by the Reformed African American Network is a good thing to listen to if you want to listen instead of (in addition to) reading.

  8. DCal3000 says:

    Like a couple of other commenters, I am concerned by this article. Before I address two of those concerns, however, I would note that I fully agree with the author that we should study the sinful, racist side of American history, grieve with the victims of that racism, repent of sins, and work toward racial reconciliation. I also greatly appreciate Trevin Wax, the example he sets through his commitment to the Christian faith, and his academic integrity. I wish I had even a fraction of his courage to stand for Christ.

    But the approach to race running rampant through the Reformed world has been displaying problematic characteristics, and this article, unfortunately, illustrates the problems in several ways. First, Mr. Wax addresses his article to “whites” alone. Perhaps that is useful when discussing historic sins of which whites were predominately guilty, but here, Mr. Wax is discussing the mere study of race issues. By addressing only “whites,” he is implying that the color of one’s skin determines one’s academic knowledge. On the one hand, he suggests that “whites” alone are ignorant of the books he suggests; on the other hand, he suggests that minorities are marginal to his intended audience.

    Second, Mr. Wax treats “white” and “black” culture as being monolithic. The suggestion, by someone Mr. Wax cites, that one cannot get a GED without understanding white culture is simply erroneous. Even if the GED, which incorporates subjects such as mathematics and social studies, is implicitly “white” (I have little knowledge of the matter), I would question whether it would give someone an “understanding” of white culture. In my home state, white (and black) culture can differ from county to county. Cultures in America are far more complex than the simply “white” and “black” dichotomy we currently find in Reformed discussions on race. Indeed, we are not even having a serious discussion of Hispanic or Native American contributions to race relations. Historically, more than whites were slave-holders, and more than African-Americans were oppressed.

    Even in the name of racial reconciliation, Reformed Christians have been viewing the world through the embarrassingly simplistic lenses of “black” and “white.” We say we want the church to be reconciled, but we obsess over the skin colors of our leaders, the authors of the books we read, and the audiences to which we write. We need to start focusing more on our unity in Christ, or we will leave our society and our churches racially divided, however much we profess the importance of racial issues.

  9. deepika chatterjee says:

    As a brown descendant of an immigrant from a country that was oppressed by white people, I can authoritatively say: Get over race and perceived or real racial insults. Jesus transcends race, ethnic group, gender, sexual identity, socioeconomic class, etc. We are wasting our time reading books by black authors or white authors or brown authors. You feel affronted because your black granddaddy was treated poorly by white men? Jesus paid for the white man’s sin on the cross. Jesus gives you a new eternal life free from oppression. You may be treated poorly because of your race in this life and in this country, but all that sin should remind you that THIS IS NOT YOUR HOME. Stop whining, follow Jesus, love your neighbor even if he is white, and tell other “Christian” people of color to get over themselves. It is plain and simple hubris to think our petty racial issues are more important that Jesus life, death, and resurrection.
    I’m also saddened that the Gospel coalition is no longer talking about the Gospel as it relates to race. When we stop looking at our culture through the lens of Jesus, we lose our “saltiness” and fail to demonstrate the true countercultural nature of Jesus.
    Also, white people, don’t indulge the guilt trips of people of color. Sure, you can say, “I’m sorry your grandaddy/you were treated that way.” But remind your brothers of all colors that Jesus went before us to break down the walls of color and white people should neither feel responsible nor pay penalty for those past sins. Otherwise, Jesus was crucified in vain and we serve an impotent God.

    1. Eric Kjos says:

      Thank you, Brother! I was going to write a point by point dissection of this leftist malarkey, but your pithy post so perfectly hit the mark, you were definitely in the Spirit when you wrote it! My eldest son is subjected to this Leftist drool in his teaching classes at Michigan State, and I will encourage him up by showing him your post. I will add that every concept Trevin used, such as “majority culture” was from the Atheist Left’s playbook.

    2. Ron says:

      I am a follower of Christ, of European descent, 70 years old and live in South Africa, so I know something of the issues regarding race relations and a little of the indescribable pain caused by the oppressive system of apartheid which scars our beautiful country to this day. This in part is what makes Deepika Chatterjee’s letter all the more remarkable for having lived in similar circumstances. How does Deepika do it? Obviously it is by the grace of God and I would imagine, having a deep understanding of Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The lesson that some are learning in South Africa? It is the gospel that liberates everyone of us, regardless of our ancestry. Pray for Africa, that God will raise up mighty men and women into leadership positions – such as Nelson Mandela, Gatsha Buthelezi and Michael Cassidy – so that our land can be healed.

  10. Andrew says:

    Thanks for this Trevin! I just read John Perkins biography and it’s really opened up my eyes to the need to hear more stories and view points from on issues of race. As a white man growing up in a white town and now pastoring in a minority-majority city I have a LOT to learn

  11. “I can’t get a GED without having to understand white culture.”

    It’s not white. Look around white Europe and see how many and varied cultures there are. American culture is Christian. Read Larry Siedentop’s “Inventing the Individual” and Rodney Stark’s “How the West Won” and Victory of Reason. Whites’ have created some awful cultures, such as the French Revolution, fascism of Italy, Nazism, and Communism in all of Eastern Europe and the USSR. The best of the “white” culture in the US is Christian. The worst of white culture, and there is a lot that is awful, is anti-Christian.

  12. Shannon says:

    Wow. The white fragility in this comment thread is astounding. Preaching unity and color blindness is only white washing the issue to make white people feel more comfortable. God forbid you actually try to walk in another person’s shoes and see what their experience is. While you’re “focusing on unity” in the church your brothers and sisters are getting stopped disproportionately and some won’t ever make it to your service BECAUSE of the color of their skin. Reading creates empathy. Try it.

  13. David says:

    It really takes both sides. For example, how can I as a white person take a legitimate critique seriously, when the NAACP and gang’s grievence industry seeks to portray every criticism of black liberal politicians’ behavior or policy proposals as steeped in racism. Or how about criticism of a column, which a black friend recently posted, that compares a U.S. Grant, who freed the only slave he ever owned though he desperately could have used the $1200 that said slave could have fetched at auction, to Hitler, but gives Franklin Pierce, a pro-slaver from NH who never owned a slave a pass, and in the process be ignorantly accused of supporting slavery.

    While there may be things that white people can learn from black people, it really requires a two-way discussion and open, teachable heart and mind on both ends.

    Or how about the hard-heartedness and unwillingness of some to applaud and encourage the SBC delegates for doing the right thing, because they are so filled with prejudice and hatred toward white people, they can’t process facts.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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