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Its undeniable that we have a history of racial oppression in the United States. But in the context of personal salvation and personal responsibility, so it goes in the mind of many, we need to just let this go, move beyond it, maybe even stop dwelling on it and discussing it so much. Blacks and whites, the argument is sometimes made (usually in white evangelical circles), have opportunities that are theoretically equal and cultures that are different. The fact that we worship differently, in different places, is simply historical and cultural contingency and doesnt reflect significantly on the nature of the Christian church itself in America.Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove doesnt agree. Wilson-Hartgrove is part of a growing voice in evangelical circles calling for the Church to address systemic sins, institutional injustices, things that weve inherited and for which wed like to continue telling ourselves we bear no responsibility. Hes certainly not alone in this. If I had to pick one primary thing thats changed or is changing on the evangelical landscape in America it would probably be this: a growing awareness that salvation isnt a personal issue, that there are a host of things we simply cant shrug off with an attitude of Oh thats too bad but dont make me feel personally guilty about it because its not my responsibility.That approach-- the understanding of salvation as being this entirely personal thing between me and Jesus-- doesnt work anymore (if it ever did). It doesnt work for the environment. It doesnt work for the context and the consequences of consumerism. It doesnt work for rampant militarization. And it doesnt work for race. Weve inherited structures not of our own devising, its true, but by accepting them as inevitable or as too overwhelming or entrenched to address-- be that environmental degradation, a disposable economy, a self-perpetuating War on Terror, or the racial injustices that continue to create a stratified society-- we add our culpability to their perpetuation.This is a book about one of those systemic sins, racial prejudice and segregation, but its also a book about how to understand Christianity. As Wilson-Hartgrove argues, there are two strands in Christianity that are relevant in the context of race: one that says to live quietly doing good works, and another, revolutionary strand that says the Kingdom of God exists in opposition to racial injustice now, not in some apocalyptic hereafter. The battle against principalities and powers, according to this second strand, is the battle against systems in which lives are devalued, exploited, and destroyed because of skin color.Of course Wilson-Hartgroves position (in as much as he takes a position in this book, which is largely a narrative of his own experience in a black community and congregation in Durham, North Carolina) is a bit more nuanced than simply a call to arms or a condemnation of the Churchs implicit acceptance of these power structures in our history. Indeed, he talks about the danger and pitfalls of believing that we as privileged white Christians can rush in and fix things with programs and good intentions, especially things as thorny as racial injustice. Usually our best intentions find us simply making the problems worse or perpetuating the hierarchy of power.What then is to be done? This is where the authors position becomes truly radical and hard to swallow-- not so much because of its enactment as in its implications. The book is Wilson-Hartgroves story of becoming a part of a black church, of a white boy from the south living, worshipping, and serving in a black community not in an attempt to fix anything apart from his own view of Christianity. He is there (with his wife) simply to learn. The idea, he would say, of successful racial reconciliation, of crossing the color line, is to do so in a spirit of submission, to be powerless and humble, to simply live in community and learn.Its clear hes done this, both through his own scholarly work at Duke (though this book is an entirely accessible popular account) and his experiences. The text is filled with episodes from his life in Walltown and with history and literature from the black experience in America. Its not a how to book, as the author admits, on anything. Its simply an account of one persons attempt to understand race and what its meant for the Church.Whats harder to accept though are some of his conclusions from his experience, namely that Christianity in America has been defined by the question of color, that there is truly a black Christianity and a white Christianity, and that the most genuine Christian experience in America-- the experience that has been closest to persecution, abuse, and brokenness-- is the black experience. White Christianity, Wilson-Hartgrove maintains, lost its credibility by participating, perpetuating, and even justifying first slavery, then segregation, and now enduring prejudice and systematic injustice. The true miracle of Christianity in the New World is that blacks took from their oppressors the genuine parts of Christianity while rejecting the hypocrisy. If you want to know real Christianity in America, the author claims, a place where Christ has been and remains with the despised, outcast, and down-trodden, you have to go to the black church.This book makes me sad like the rich young ruler who wanted to follow Jesus but went away because he was very rich. Im the young ruler, and Im very white. And though I can see the truth in what Wilson-Hartgrove is saying, I resist an interpretation of his claims that would be exclusionary. He seems to be saying that its all about black and white, that in the American Church this is the problem, and that in American this particular instantiation of Christianity (the black church) is most genuine. That seems dangerously reductionistic. What about the Christianity of the reservation? What about the Old World liturgy of the immigrant-- be it Greek, Armenian, or Hispanic? An uncharitable reading of this book might be that you have to be black to genuinely know Christ in America, or at least be bound to a black community and congregation.I hope this isnt true, but I dont think that his strongest claim needs to be argued. Its enough to accept a weaker version: that at the very least you need to know the black experience, that you need to learn it-- ideally through relationship with black brothers and sisters in Christ-- to understand a very large and an enduring piece of the puzzle of Christianity in America today.

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