Many of these dissenters have put racial justice and reconciliation activities at the center of what needs to be done. There are reconciliation conferences, trips to Selma and Birmingham, Ala., study groups that Martin Luther King Jr. and Howard Thurman read. Evangelicals played an important role in the abolitionist movement; these Christians are trying to connect with that legacy.
Eugene Rivers is a prominent black Pentecostal movement that has worked to bring white and black Pentecostals together. This seems an unlikely undertaking, as white Pentecostals are often among the most conservative of the group. But Rivers says their encounters were compelling. For example, Rivers helped organize a prayer vigil for the nation in Washington on January 6 of this year and white Pentecostals from the working class showed up. “They’re on the floor crying,” Rivers says. “There is no artifice with them. These guys are the most wonderful, loving people.”
Rivers says the churches are the key to racial reconciliation and racial justice. He notes, “You can’t have a rational discussion of evil outside of agape love”—the kind of self-surrender love for others that is supposed to be at the heart of the Christian life. “Without love, the accused are defensive because they feel guilty, because they are, and the prosecutor ends up alienating only the people he contacts.”
David Bailey has been doing racial and other reconciliation work with church and other groups since 2008. He says 70 percent of evangelicals are open to this work, but the 15 percent on either side are less so. “The extremes are becoming more entrenched, but I don’t think they are growing,” he notes, before continuing: “We are reminding people that peacemaking and healing are at the heart of Christian identity. There is no way of spiritual formation. unless you practice healing and atonement.”
He says race isn’t always the most intractable difference. His church in Richmond, Virginia, is “racially diverse and socio-economically diverse, and it’s the economic differences that are the hardest to heal,” he says.
One source of division could be a force for innovation: generational differences. Christians who are millennials and younger have different views on things like LGBTQ issues and are just used to mixing with much more diverse demographics.
Mark Labberton is the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, which caters to students from 110 denominations and 90 countries. He says the average student at Fuller is about 31. Many Fuller students, Labberton says, believe in the central creed of Christianity, but not the institutional veil in which it is wrapped. That is, they love Jesus, but they have it with many of the institutions their parents built in his name.