‘Racial Indifference Is Not Hate… but It Is Not Love, Either’
In 1970, evangelist and author Tom Skinner delivered an iconic speech entitled “The U.S. Racial Crisis and World Evangelism” at InterVarsity’s Urbana student missions conference, held that year in its namesake Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.
The Harlem-based speaker brought with him a soulful worship band and drew hundreds of black students to the mostly-white gathering. During his remarks, Skinner boldly held the church accountable for racial injustice. He delineated the country’s racial history, charging that “there is no possible way you can talk about preaching the gospel if you do not want to deal with the issues that bind people.” His speech is remembered as a groundbreaking moment in the history of Urbana and of American missions—a Christ-centered call to see our racial realities through a gospel lens.
The most recent Urbana conference, held last week in St. Louis, was reminiscent of his powerful message in 1970. This time it was speaker and minister Michelle Higgins who put out a call for a new generation of Christians to stand up for racial justice and declare that Black Lives Matter.
As a blogger focused on Christianity and race, I’ve spent the past few years following evangelical responses to racial injustice and the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement. These recent events have challenged Christians to reexamine what it means to love thy neighbor and “do good; seek justice, correct oppression” (Is. 1:17). At Urbana, 2015 came to a close with one of the strongest statements I’ve seen on the topic from an evangelical organization.
Early in the conference, the worship team took the stage wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts, and I could tell this year’s event was going to be significant. How could it not? It was the first Urbana conference since Michael Brown’s death—and the subsequent heighted awareness around racialized police killings—and it was being held only about 10 miles from Ferguson.
Several musicians shared songs and testimony from the black church and how their experiences of being black in the United States had shaped their walk with Christ. Then Higgins, director of worship and outreach at South City Church in St. Louis, shared a powerful and prophetic testimony that set the tone for the rest of the event.
Shortly after Michael Brown’s death, “we began looking for churches to host discussion groups…and all of our evangelical partners said, ‘We’re not ready to talk about race and justice,’” Higgins recalled. When evangelicals hesitate to enter this discussion, they unwittingly perpetuate racism and the belief that the status quo is acceptable. “Your indifference is not hate,” she said, “but it is not love.”
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