CFC Lecture

“All Our White Congregations Were Awash with Racism.” Craig Bartholomew on Confronting Idolatry

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Craig Bartholomew, Professor of Religion and Theology at Redeemer University, grew up in South Africa. In a recent luncheon at Southeastern Seminary, he addressed racism, ministry, preaching, modernity and the 2016 Presidential election.

In particular, he shared what he learned about racism and idolatry from his time growing up in South Africa — and he applied it to American evangelicals.

Here is a key excerpt:

“[In South Africa] I was right in the midst… of a country built on racism. Everything depended on the color of your skin, the way it reflected light. The Christianity I was converted into was real. We had Bible studies. [We had] lovely, devout Christians, deeply committed to evangelism and mission. And [we had] absolutely nothing to say to the racism of our culture.

“And all my years as a member of our evangelical churches and as a minister, I cannot ever remember once hearing a sermon calling for repentance from racism. We called for repentance from beating your husband, for beating your wife,… drugs, all that kind of thing. There was never a contextual call for repentance from racism.

“I did my national service as a chaplain because of this kind of Christianity I was saved [into]. If you really loved Christ, you could only serve him full-time, right? Who wants to be a part-time servant of Christ? And in this kind of Christianity, that means [serving in] the pastorate or the mission field. It was never thought that you could serve Christ full-time apart from those areas. So I went to seminary, I went to Oxford…, I did my military training, and during that time I started to rethink the relationship of the gospel to South Africa. And it was through people like Francis Schaeffer, Jim Packer and re-reading those kinds of things [that] a moment of extraordinary revelation [came to] me. [I was able] to name the intuition that the gospel applies to all life as a worldview. And then [came] the realization that that includes politics.

What are your idols? And are you conscious of them?

“So I was always middle-right politically, but that [realization] changed my preaching. And so I have a little book out on preaching, and the metaphor I use for preaching, which I think is tremendously important, is ‘you have to land the plane.’ I’ve thought a lot over the years: How do you preach contextually? If you’re preaching on Galatians where Paul defends his apostleship, many of our gurus would tell us that’s what you’ve got to preach from that text. (Except most of our congregations aren’t struggling with whether Paul was an apostle that can be trusted or not.) In my opinion you land the plane at the intersection of the trajectory of the text and the congregation. It’s a contextual landing of the plane.

“But in South Africa, in the evangelical world, to a large extent, with some very notable but few exceptions, the plane was never being landed. So all our white congregations were awash with racism. They were genuine Christians. They were converted. They were attending Bible studies. And they were awash with racism. And none of our pastors would finger it.

“Some years later I was in Britain speaking in a church about South Africa, and a woman came up to me and said, ‘How was it that evangelicals could not see the problem with racism in south Africa?’ That is a question that has really stuck with me. And I like to talk about South Africa because the whole world could see that we were awash with racism, and most evangelicals in South Africa could not see it.

“Now here comes the kick in the butt, as it were, for you guys. Do you think American culture has idols? See, in South Africa, our idols were crystal clear to the rest of the world. They were staring us in the face everyday. We couldn’t see them.

“So it’s a very interesting question for me in Canada and in America to ask: What are your idols? And are you conscious of them? Or have you developed a type of Christianity, as we did in South Africa, which often explicitly endorses and supports the idols of the day. That is truly scary — that you can develop a theology which endorses the idols of the day.”

Related: Check out K. Lauriston Smith’s reflection on Craig Bartholomew’s discussion: “After the Election, Identifying American Idols.

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The L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture seeks to engage culture as salt and light, presenting the Christian faith and demonstrating its implications for all areas of human existence.

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