Book Review: Gracism: The Art of Inclusion, by David A. Anderson
Racism has a long, sad history in the United States. The stain of two centuries of race-based slavery and the Jim Crow segregation laws of the twentieth century both bear witness to Americans' deeply troubled history in regard to race.
With the 2008 presidential election upon us, Americans are confronted once again with the question of race. This year, the nominee of one of the two major political parties is an African-American (of bi-racial descent to be precise). Whatever one thinks of the policy positions and ideology of Barack Obama, it is obvious that we have indeed reached a monumental moment in our national history. Even a generation ago, it would have been unthinkable for one of the two final candidates for president to be a Black man. Clearly, the national mindset has changed, and many of the assumptions, prejudices, and even hatreds that would have made such a scenario impossible in the past have now been blunted.
Even so, racial prejudice and ignorance still exist in America, and the national coming-to-grips with the fact that we are a multicultural and diverse society is not complete. That conversation is a continuing one, and it is one which the Christian church ought to be at the very center of. After all, surely the people who are longing for the day when they will stand before God's throne with ones from every tribe, tongue, people, and language will have something useful to say about how those tribes should relate to one another today.
David A. Anderson is an Oxford grad and pastor of Bridgeway Community Church in Maryland. In addition to pastoring a multicultural church, Anderson hosts a radio talk show called "Reconciliation Live", is CEO of an organization committed to the same end, and also teaches a college course on cultural diversity.
In his book Gracism: The Art of Inclusion, Anderson gives a Christian perspective on racial reconciliation and cultural diversity. Notwithstanding Anderson's obvious zeal and commitment, the book left me with mixed feelings. There were a number of things I truly appreciated, such as the acknowledgement that while great progress has been made on race issues, there is still more work to be done. "Even in my own multicultural church," Anderson admits, "we have to disciple people out of racist mindsets." This is helpful because we often tend to be extremists on the subject of race. Some look at the obvious signs of progress and assume we have arrived. Others see the remaining residue of racism and bigotry and declare that things have not changed at all. Gracism artfully balances the tension between the "already" and the "not yet" of social change.
I also appreciate some of the simple and practical suggestions Anderson offers to facilitate that kind of change. Legislation is a major reason for much of the change we have seen, but Anderson argues that it is ultimately individuals' mindsets and actions that will bring about positive change in the future. The suggestions in Gracism make the task of changing those mindsets less daunting.
One of the most powerful statements in the book is, "There must be a theological response to racism in the culture and racial segregation in the church." I couldn't agree more. However, Gracism is not that theological response. To be fair, giving a theological response does not seem to be the author's intent. At best the book offers helpful, biblically-based principles for dealing with racism in the church and the culture. But here is where I had my difficulties. For one thing, the anecdotes were far too personal and self-serving. David Anderson seems like a very nice guy, but his personal references were too frequent.
The greater issue is the title-term "Gracism". Anderson combines racism—defined as "speaking, acting or thinking negatively about someone else solely based on that person's color, class or culture"—with grace—"the unmerited favor of God on humankind." The result is "gracism," "the positive extension of favor on other humans based on color, class or culture."
This cute and catchy term is used to great effect throughout the book. But Christians do not need a new term or standard for dealing with people of different races and cultures. We already have a term and a standard. The term is sanctification and the standard is the second table of The Law, summed up in the command, "Love your neighbor as yourself." When Christians are racist in their actions and attitudes towards their fellow humans—whether in society at large or in their dealings with brothers and sisters in the faith—that is sin, and the solution is repentance.
In "Reflection Question #4" at the end of chapter 1, Anderson says that racism is sin, which is correct. It is here that Gracism could become more theological in its analysis, but it does not. Perhaps the biblical principles are intended to be the author's theological analysis, but these principles are in fact closer to therapeutic formulas than theological discussion.
If Gracism were more theological, perhaps the emphasis would not be so much on ways to show more favor towards people because of color, culture and class. Instead, the charge to Christians would be that all men are created in the image of God, and although that image is marred because of The Fall, we are to respect and grant to every human being the dignity warranted by the divine image they bear. This is the biblical basis for our acts of mercy and compassion.
Anderson's use of the term "gracism" sounds a great deal like affirmative action with a biblical twist. I think the tried and proven biblical standard and terms are sufficient for the task. The church's shortcomings in the area of racial reconciliation in the past were due largely to a failure to call racism a sin against the 2nd table of The Law. As I said above, there is much that I appreciate about Gracism, and I do consider it a step in the right direction. But I also think a more theological reflection on the issue would be of greater benefit to the body.