Evangelism after Charleston

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The tragic massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in which Dylann Roof brutally gunned down nine innocent African-Americans attending a prayer meeting and the subsequent controversies surrounding the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina state house grounds painfully remind us of the racial fault lines that still divide our nation.

These incidents arrive on the heels of heartrending deaths of unarmed blacks, such as Trayvon Martin (Florida), Eric Garner (New York), Michael Brown (Missouri), Ezell Ford (California), Tamir Rice (Ohio), and Freddie Gray (Maryland).

These tremors are not isolated, episodic occurrences, but indicate forces that run deep and wide.

The geographical locations of these incidents and their frequency suggest that these tremors are not isolated, episodic occurrences, but indicate forces that run deep and wide, like the movement of tectonic plates colliding against one another and shaking the foundations violently. Indeed, although what happened in Charleston and the deaths of unarmed blacks are two separate issues that should not be collapsed, our responses to them may reveal our fundamental values about race, which is the issue at hand.

It is in this racially supercharged context of public life in the United States and other global locales where the intersections of race, religion, culture, class, and gender are ripe with tension and potentially violent clashes that we pause to think about the very nature of Christianity and more specifically the meaning of evangelism.

Christianity and Charleston

What does Christianity have to do with Charleston? What is the witness of Christian faith in experiences of void and abyss that refuse any easy, readymade defenses of theodicy? How do we move forward with the dangerous memories of the past and yet with hopeful imaginations about the future of common flourishing?

What does Christianity have to do with Charleston?

Notwithstanding the enormously difficult, if not impossible, questions about race relations, we cannot remain silent but must speak lest we be liable to the charge of appalling silence that Martin Luther King Jr. issued against moderate Christians. Having to speak, however, so that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition is not the appalling silence of the good people entails coming to terms with the fact that there is no panacea that will remedy the human condition in an instant.

Only God’s grace can move us toward healing through the long and rigorous therapy of transvaluation of values that are inveterate but not incorrigible.

H. Richard Niebuhr did not remain silent but spoke with eloquence and insight about revelation in terms of transvaluation of values in The Meaning of Revelation. He bemoaned the fact that the gospel ideals of Christ, i.e., unity, brotherhood/sisterhood, and the reign of God, have not been realized as the American society capitulated to national, ethnic and class divisions in his own lifetime.

Misplaced objects of devotion

Noticing widening disparity between gospel and culture, Niebuhr attributed its cause to people centering their lives on misplaced objects of devotion, such as power, self-fulfillment, family, race, or nation, rather than God. He also pointed out that when this happens, all too often, one’s faith, church and religion become captive to such centers of value and pressed into service of anthropocentric piety in which God becomes an instrumental means to distorted, or even demonic, ends.

God’s revelation is not about impersonal facts or creeds.

Niebuhr clearly saw the grave danger of accommodation and sought to disentangle the church from unholy cultural alliances through devotion to God who has revealed Godself to us. God’s revelation is not about impersonal facts or creeds, such as inerrancy or the virgin birth, but has to do with personal knowledge of God and ourselves in an I-and-Thou relation. This involves reciprocal valuation in which God values us and we value God in return.

More specifically, to know God means to be known of God through seeing ourselves reflected in the eyes of God as created, finite and sinful but also loved, judged and redeemed as God’s children with infinite worth. We encounter a God who radically reorients our subjectivity and enables us to reflexively value God in the deepest sense possible and regard ourselves appropriately. In short, revelation has to do with transvaluation of values that turns us from anthropocentric piety to theocentric piety, to borrow the words of James Gustafson.

The personal nature of revelation is not without a rational dimension as it is central to it. Transvaluation of values radically alters our previous conceptions about the past, present and future of our personal lives and the history of the world, allowing us to discern order, unity and meaning in a single cosmic epic of creation, redemption and consummation.

Light of divine revelation

There is no part of our history that is destroyed, forgotten, or blinded by the light of divine revelation but brought into a sharp and clear focus. This means we have to face all of the resurrected buried past, even the crimes, absurdities and denials of humanity, such as slavery, and see them in light of God’s judgment and redemption. Clearly, transvaluation is no easy undertaking but requires conversion of memory and hope that leads to the common good of all.

If revelation is about transvaluation of values, then evangelism understood as Christian witness to God’s self-revelation is by definition implicated in a profoundly meaningful and hopeful endeavor of reconstituting individual selves and communities in theocentric piety. On a realistic note, evangelism is a highly costly undertaking that demands a revolutionary transformation of our habits, dispositions, affections, and worldviews, ushering us into a strange world in which God’s power is manifest in self-emptying sacrifice and existence for the other. Highlighting such upheavals of thought and life, Niebuhr said, “The self we loved is not the self God loves, the neighbors we did not prize are his treasures, the truth we ignored is the truth he maintains, the justice which we sought because it was our own is not the justice that his love desires.”

Seeing ourselves, neighbors, truth and justice as reflected in God’s gaze is without question a daunting task, but certainly worth the risk because black lives matter, and all are invited to the beloved community.

Editor's note: Dr. Daniel Shin is Bishop Cornelius and Dorothye Henderson/E. Stanley Jones chair of Evangelism and Assistant Professor of Evangelism at the Interdenominational Theological Center, Atlanta. This article first appeared on UM & Global, a blog intended to provoke conversations about the global nature of The United Methodist Church. To help in that process, United Methodist Professors of Mission provide content.

Letter to the Editor