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RACE AND COVENANT: Recovering the Religious Roots for American Reconciliation

RACE AND COVENANT: Recovering the Religious Roots for American Reconciliation


By David W. Virtue, DD
December 13, 2020

Race and Covenant: Recovering the Religious Roots for American Reconciliation
Edited by Gerald McDermott.

Grand Rapids: Acton Institute, 2020. 278 pp.

This new book edited by Anglican scholar Gerald McDermott breaks new ground on the thorny issue of race in America. There is no irony in that most of the chapters are written by blacks, who, while taking race seriously refuse to indulge in the narrative of systemic racism, nonetheless take the plight of poor blacks seriously.

“This nation is hurting. In many ways it is broken, and racial division is a big part of that brokenness. But there is hope. The source is spiritual, not political. It comes from humility and prayer and seeking God’s face. . . .Our racial divisions suggest that we have experienced covenantal judgment and exile. But we can also experience covenantal forgiveness and healing,” writes McDermott.

The book is divided into three parts. The first is The National Covenant in Scripture and History. The second is Race, Covenant, and Contemporary American Society. The third is Theology and Practices of the Covenant Community.

Eight of the authors are black and two are Jewish scholars. Most authors reject the dominant, mainstream narrative on systemic racism and the politics of grievance. Instead, they build a Christian case for positive action and reconciliation.

The key concept of the book is national covenant. This is the idea that God deals with whole nations and not just individuals, and that he has more intimate relationships with nations that acknowledge the God of Israel as Lord. Many of the writers argue that the American founders acknowledged this God at the beginning of this nation, and so God has rewarded and punished America with exile, just as He did with ancient Israel. They believe that the beginning of the end of exile came with the end of slavery and Jim Crow. While they think that our current racial tensions are signs of continuing exile, they suggest ways to come out of exile.

Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin says identity politics involves both internal contradiction and hypocrisy. “On the one hand, it requires us to see people in tribal terms, as responsible for the sins of those related by blood, past or present. But [it also argues] that tribes cannot reconcile because suffering at the hands of the irresponsible is not forgivable.” So there is no chance of reconciliation.

Each of the writers explores a central theme. James M. Patterson explores “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the National Covenant.” W. B. Allen, whose great grandfather was a slave, weighs in on “Race and Economics: The Question of Human Agency.” He compares King to Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington.

Glenn C. Loury, a black economist at Brown University, calls for a “trans-racial humanism” in “Exile and Return from Slavery.” He observes that “not all moral dilemmas are justice dilemmas, and not all inequalities are the result of unfairness.”

What about reparations now being widely touted as a way forward for whites to be relieved of their guilt for slavery?

Four of the writers address the issue. The best summary is by Rabbi Rocklin: “Reconciliation can only happen, however, when both sides conduct themselves with dignity. Reparations are an easy way out that can prevent giving and receiving that dignity. There are two reasons for this. First, reparations allow the descendants of perpetrators the false comfort of believing that the existential evils of the past are somehow forgivable. Second, they encourage the descendants of victims to see themselves as perpetual victims who would do better to blame the righteous descendants of evil perpetrators than to forge new bonds of friendship with a new people constituted to a new national covenant. If we treat each other as equals—as covenantal creatures with divinely granted dignity—we can reconcile on the basis of our distance from crimes of the past.”

This review would not be complete without touching on Black churches and the National Covenant. Carol Swain argues that blacks and their churches should return to Christian identity first and black identity second. Derryck Green, a young black political scientist, sharply criticizes the heretical turn toward an “idolatry of race” in the influential black theology of the 60s. He writes that the Civil Rights Movement was the result of the long history of black churches pursuing biblical justice. He argues that just as God used black churches to achieve racial neutrality and integration during the 1960s, he can use black churches again to renew our civil compact with one another and to renew our national covenant. The writer does a brilliant job laying out the history of blacks in America with several criticisms of other scholars on the state of blacks in the US, but he concludes with these words; “The one framework that should displace all others is the identity of being a new creation in Christ. This new identity, which includes brotherhood with Christ in the family of God, should supersede all other identifiers and man-made divisions.”

As one who worked as a pastor for two years in a black church decades ago, I found this chapter the most compelling. Perhaps that is my prejudice. There are excellent chapters by Osvaldo Padilla on the “Hispanic Church and National Covenant,” and “Race and School Choice” by the legendary civil rights activist Robert Woodson.

A chapter by Timothy George, "Geography, History, and Eternity: A Theological Stewardship," tells the story of a 1921 visit by President Warren Harding to segregationist Birmingham to call for an end to lynching, and of a KKK rally in 1923 in the same city, when Hugo Black was inducted as a member. As a sign of the ironies of American church and legal history, Black taught a Sunday school class that regularly attracted 1000 students, and as justice on the U.S. Supreme Court joined the majority decision in 1954 to strike down school segregation.

In another powerful chapter called “Little Black Lives Matter,” Alveda King, MLK’s niece, argues that abortion is the greatest violence perpetrated against the black community in this country. She points out that Planned Parenthood targets low-income black and Hispanic neighborhoods with their clinics, and that its founder Margaret Sanger described African Americans as “the great problem of the South . . . [who] still breed carelessly and disastrously.”

One of this country’s most illustrious black preachers, Robert Smith, finishes the book with the sermon given at the 2019 Samford University conference that prompted this book, “I Don’t Want No Trouble at the River.” Smith writes on the time in Joshua 22 when two and a half tribes in Israel were misunderstood by the rest of the twelve tribes and narrowly avoided war.

This review does not do justice to the depth these authors penetrate in dealing with race in America. Dr. McDermott, recently retired from the Anglican Chair at Beeson Divinity School, must be congratulated for bringing together this bevy of heavy-hitter writers on racial issues that presently plague our country.

As another reviewer noted, “This book is an important alternative to the quasi-Marxist approaches to our racial conundrum that have so dominated secular elite interpretations and proposals for action. It is deeply religious and resonates with our Judeo-Christian heritage. Moreover, the black contributors show bravery in breaking with the popular purveyors of racialism. We can only hope that more of our religious and political leaders will take it seriously.” Amen to that.

The book can be purchased here at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Race-Covenant-Recovering-Religious-Reconciliation/dp/1880595222/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1EXS4SCUSRVZR&dchild=1&keywords=race+and+covenant+mcdermott&qid=1608061074&s=books&sprefix=RACE+AND+COVENANT%2Cstripbooks%2C150&sr=1-1

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