Vince Bacote is associate professor of theology at Wheaton College. He is also the director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics (CACE). The following interview revolves around his just released book, Reckoning with Race and Performing the Good News.
Interview by David George Moore
Moore: What was the impetus to write this work?
Bacote: I was invited to write on evangelical theology for the Brill Research Perspectives series, with the encouragement to write about it from a different angle than what one would normally expect from a book on evangelical theology. I then decided to address the challenges with questions of race for evangelical theology and the evangelical movement.
Moore: Your book addresses the American scene. Are the ways “evangelical” gets used here in America more problematic for the Christian faith than other places outside the United States?
Bacote: While the meaning of the term has been long debated, we are in a time when the label has negative connotations because of certain political associations, including connections to Christian nationalism. While the evangelical movement is global, there is big problem to the extent that “evangelical”, or more specifically “white evangelical” is understood less as a theological and more as a political and cultural identity in the United States.
Moore: Many Christians are shedding the label “evangelical.” Two related questions: Does the word still have any value, and is it possible for the word evangelical to evoke “good news” for minority groups?
Bacote: The “Good news” of the gospel is what is meant by the main idea of the label, and for that reason I think it still has value if the movement, theology, and institutions associated with the label actually better live up to it. Put another way, “evangelical” can still mean “good news” when it means those persons and institutions who are conveying the fulness of gospel, including aspects of the evangel that identify and address the various theological and ethical questions of minorities.
Moore: You helpfully offer four “d” words to describe a person’s relationship with the church. Would you briefly summarize those for us?
Bacote: The first is a “delight” phase where a person is excited to be part of group that is focused on learning and practicing a faith rooted in the Bible. The “dissonance” phase occurs when one discovers cultural norms in the evangelical movement, but often a failure to recognize that some things regarded as “biblical” (like an approach to preaching) are cultural, and often that presumptive “Christian” political commitments are different from one’s own. The “distress” phase occurs when the dissonance is intensified and when one experiences apathy or resistance to their theological concerns (often questions connected to race, etc.). The “decision” phase is when a person arrives at the choice to either stay with or go from their evangelical or church associations.
Moore: We have talked before about the problem of treating theology as a separate field from ethics. In just about every seminary I know, theology is always required whereas classes on ethics are typically filed under the elective courses. How has treating theology and ethics as totally separate fields of study hurt our ability to navigate the issue of race in America?
Bacote: Perhaps the best way to put it is to note that Jesus told us not merely to believe in him but also to follow him. Our beliefs and our practice of life should be clearly connected. As your question suggests, for many Christians there may be a fervent commitment to believing certain truths but not a sense of how those truths open up trajectories of ethical practice. Regarding race, a failure to practice good news as expressions of neighbor love has been a result of not going where our beliefs about doctrines such as sanctification could take us, or not recognizing that our beliefs about sin ought to lead us toward a disposition where we are always asking how we the vestiges of depravity remain in our engagements with others. If we really believe sin can blind us and we also believe that we are always on a path of growth, then we certainly ought to ask whether our sin creates problems in our perception of what is happening with matters of race. If people say “I don’t see a race problem”, perhaps they should ask “is it because I am blinded to it because of parts of my perception that need to be transformed by God’s sanctifying work?”
Moore: I have read and done interviews with both your colleague at Wheaton, Esau McCaulley and the historian Jemar Tisby. Their books, Reading While Black and The Color of Compromise are terrific. I am grateful for these voices and certainly for yours.
I am under no illusions that all African Americans are in total agreement on how to address the vexing problem of race in America. Thabiti Anyabwile would disagree on various points with Voddie Baucham. It is the same outside the church with John McWhorter and Ibram X. Kendi. How do we know who to listen to when there are so many voices? I think it would be helpful for you to tell us how you navigate this very challenge.
Bacote: In the book I encourage a posture of dependent yieldedness to God’s transforming work, which is essentially a willingness to be open to new ways God may transform and change us. We ought to be willing to seek truth wherever it can be found, and if we know that we are not omniscient, then we ought to have a disposition of humility that orients us to learn rather than a disposition of defensiveness that thwarts an openness to learning. Chances are there are truths articulated by all of those you have mentioned and many others; we can better assess the contributions of each if we approach them by asking questions like “what point are they trying to make?” and “what brought them to this approach?” and “how does this help me to be more truthful about the complexities of race and the range of responses we need to address this with faithfulness?” This will help us to be learners first who seek to discover more truth and respond better to questions of race.
Moore: What kinds of conversations and action do you hope will be spawned by those who engage with the arguments of your book?
Bacote: I hope the book will encourage conversations about how churches can facilitate a more holistic approach to discipleship, a catechesis for a life of clear commitment to God expressed in love of all neighbors. In additions I hope for conversations about how Christians can lead the way on questions of race as well as paths to hopeful prospects for the evangelical movement. I hope that individual Christians as well as institutions will cultivate a Christian faith that more readily connects theology and ethics, a truly living faith that demonstrates the good news, particularly by not only becoming better at discussing race but also doing the long, hard work of life together that includes learning how to live well together as Christians from every tribe, tongue and nation.