Book Review: Reconciliation Blues, by Edward Gilbreath
Upon completing seminary, I was hired by a small evangelical Bible college. While teaching during the 2000 election cycle, I suggested that I might not cast my vote simply based on the issue of abortion alone. "You mean you would vote for Gore?" asked one student, who then remained after class to lecture me for 45 minutes on how I could not possibly be an evangelical if I voted for anyone other than George Bush. As outwardly patient as possible, I attempted to share with this student how I might see the need to consider issues in addition to abortion, especially as one who served among ethnic believers who still see issues of race as moral issues with great political ramifications.
I have yet to tell anyone how I voted that year. Nevertheless, I have shared this story many times in order to enter a dialogue on race with fellow evangelicals. Now, Edward Gilbreath has provided a means of entering and furthering the discussion by sharing similar experiences to a broader evangelical audience.
In Reconciliation Blues, Gilbreath, an editor-at-large for Christianity Today and editor of Today’s Christian, offers the closest thing to a history of African American evangelicalism in print, albeit a biographical history that reads like a "Who’s Who" of African American evangelicalism. Reconciliation Blues traces the storyline of many individuals who paved the way for a younger generation of African American Christians to have a voice among evangelicals. Yet Gilbreath’s purposes are not simply historical. His hope is "that this inside perspective on what I regrettably call ‘white Christianity’ can help both Blacks and Whites get a better sense of the condition of our racial reconciliation and the distance we need to travel to make it something more authentic and true" (19).
It’s refreshing to read something in this genre that doesn’t simply give "Ten Simple Pointers Toward Reconciliation." The voices, opinions, and personal stories give the book a personal flavor that might not have been achieved by a series of propositional truths and application points. As an African-American, I could identify with Gilbreath’s personal stories as he recounts enduring busing-desegregation, having to "play the race cop" at his workplace (29), or receiving an overfriendly invitation to dinner (an attempt to receive the "racially sensitive" badge?).
In twelve easy-to-read chapters, Gilbreath portrays what life is like for evangelical ethnic minorities who are attempting to live within white evangelical culture while maintaining their cultural identity. Along the way he considers the problematic term "evangelical," what life is like in evangelical educational institutions, as well as what it feels like to be a "Jackie Robinson"—the first African American to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball—in an evangelical ministry.
BALANCED BUT HARD-HITTING
Some readers will not agree with Gilbreath’s optimistic tone in the beginning of his work: "Things are by no means all sweet and rosy on the race-relations front. Our nation continues to stumble. But, overall, most people would concede that there’s been significant progress" (10). Yet Gilbreath is a realist and later concludes that, even though new generations of black evangelicals have been motivated to address the issues of race and social justice by the life and work of Tom Skinner in the sixties and seventies, the bad news is that "we still need to talk about" the church’s mishandling of race and social justice "forty years later" (72).
Gilbreath’s conciliatory tone is balanced by many bold criticisms of the slackness of white evangelicals on race. For instance, he writes,
To break out of the white cultural status quo of today’s evangelical movement, we must confront hard truths about ourselves and about the things that truly drive our institutions. If we don’t, we’ll never find ourselves in that place of total freedom and faith and unity that allows us to be used by God in radical ways. As evangelical leaders, are we trusting in God to use us to build his kingdom—in all its glorious diversity—or are we too busy trying, in his name, to preserve our own?
If we expect to see God move us toward a place of true and lasting unity, we cannot do business as usual. Nor can we wait for an older generation to pass away (82-83)
Gilbreath is even willing to criticize his employer Christianity Today throughout the book. Such risk-taking proves that the author is not just a casual observer but an active participant in the struggle. He is willing to take the hard strides and to demonstrate the forthright and vulnerable discussion necessary for true reconciliation.
The tone of the book is not angry, but Gilbreath admits that sometimes he lets "the angry young black man" slip out when dealing with race issues (129). Still, he is clear that the book is not an indictment of white Christians (19). Gilbreath recognizes that he and all of his readers—whether racist, greedy, prideful, or just indifferent—need grace as sinners.
ON JESSE JACKSON
For this reviewer, the heart of the book seems to be the chapters covering Gilbreath’s non-evangelical heroes, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson. As it concerns King, space will not permit me to provide a proper analysis.
Concerning Jesse Jackson, I was amazed that Gilbreath dared to ask "is Jesse Jackson an evangelical?" In doing so, he seems to be suggesting (i) that "evangelicalism" is broad in practice; (ii) that African American evangelicals may have to stretch their "evangelical" boundaries in order to find heroes of their own hue; (iii) that those outside of the African-American family should stop calling someone else’s baby "ugly." In order to achieve his goal, Gilbreath must justify evangelical leader James Meeks’ relationship to Jesse Jackson while assuring readers that Meeks is truly evangelical in belief. That such a defense is necessary was demonstrated by the response Gilbreath himself received when he told his white friends and evangelical colleagues he was working on an article on Jackson:
I could see the contempt spread across their faces. There was an almost visceral distaste for the man, and this was from progressive evangelical types who had made racial reconciliation and social justice priorities in their churches and personal missions.
But Gilbreath relieves the sting of this criticism just slightly by noting that "dislike of Jackson is not just a white thing" (117).
Exalting Jesse Jackson is not the point of the chapter that bears his name in its title. When all is said and done, the reader is still left with errors in Jackson’s theology and his episode of sexual immorality. Instead, the chapter on Jackson provides the reader with a significant look at the author’s struggle to bring Jackson to print in a positive light on the pages of an evangelical publisher like Christianity Today. Editorial revisions of the original article on Jackson that Gilbreath submitted to Christianity Today—revisions that seemed unnecessary to Gilbreath—brought his own anger to the surface as he tried to work peaceably yet honestly as an African-American in this evangelical institution:
The problem is, my gripes usually go unspoken—especially in an evangelical world where minority voices often get drowned out by assimilation. My white bosses just don’t get it, I say to myself. But if I say something again, I’ll be labeled as an overreacting whiner. Or, worse, an angry black man (129).
THE BOOK’S LIMITATIONS
While this work is most enjoyable and all evangelicals should read it, it does have its limitations. For example, Gilbreath is not explicit about how the gospel demands and fosters racial reconciliation. That said, the book’s stories should lead a reader to make wise conclusions about his or her next step toward the cross of reconciliation.
Also, the book does not provide a robust discussion of black preaching, the black church, and the racial divide. It doesn’t discuss the role that white evangelicals’ perception of black preaching plays in keeping evangelicals separated. And it doesn’t examine why white evangelicals seldom join predominantly African-American churches with African-American leadership. Reconciliation is ultimately a gospel issue pertaining to the heart, including heart issues that contribute to the racial divides that play themselves out in economic terms. The "white flight" of evangelical churches that follows that white flight from neighborhoods as African Americans move into those neighborhoods is one example. Gilbreath’s book would have been strengthened by a discussion of this issue or a similar issue that exemplifies the role economics plays in the racial divide among evangelicals. Admittedly, he does raise the topic in an interview with Crawford Loritts, but he never challenges the reader with it (79).
Gilbreath suggests that he wants his faith "to be one that is nurtured, strengthened and stretched by the Psalms, the Gospels and the Epistles, as well as Bono, MLK and The Matrix" (40). While this reviewer is not so sure about Bono and The Matrix strengthening his faith, I agree with Gilbreath’s general sentiment. Evangelicals need to be stretched if there is going to be true racial reconciliation, and that stretching will occur as when we see our primary identities as people of the red blood poured out at the cross. This and this alone is the real cure for the Blues. If the reader keeps this in mind while reading Gilbreath, there may be hope for true reconciliation among all races.