The Dead White Man Who Could Fix Our Race Problem: Oswald Chambers
Oswald Chambers didn’t know Lecrae and John Piper. Or your church leader or mine. He didn’t know about tensions today between white evangelicals and black evangelicals. Or between Democrats and Republicans, left and right. Even if he did, he’d still say the same thing:
“If your life is producing a whine, instead of the wine, then ruthlessly kick it out.”
That’s classic Oswald Chambers—more direct than diplomatic. More practical than politically on-point. The 20th-century Scottish evangelist and theologian known for the best-selling devotional, My Utmost for His Highest, writes with raw clarity and common sense wisdom that, according to biographer David McCasland, “makes you feel like he’s reading your mail.”
What, then, would Chambers say to believers on the 100th anniversary of his death this month about the never-settled, twisty knot of race in America—the whole mess of it, from church politics to racial infights, alt-right marchers to kneeling football players, Confederate statues to immigrant bans, from red states and blue states to MAGA and Twitter trolls, ad infinitum?
Chambers wouldn’t be surprised by any of it. “Over and over again in the history of the world,” he observed during the crisis of World War I, “man has made life into chaos.” In America, that’s surely true regarding race—the genetically irrelevant concept that has gripped the nation’s psyche from its slave-holding beginnings. If a nation and its churches can have an original sin, the scandal of racism—with its plundering of black lives (and also red, yellow, and brown)—qualifies among the world’s absolute worst.
Into this cauldron steps Chambers, a man with cross-cultural friendships who recoiled at prejudice and labeled bigotry and bias as outright “ignorance.” The question “for each of us to ask ourselves is this,” he said. “Would I recognize God if He came in a way that I was not prepared for?”
Reading this as an African American believer, I feel grateful for Chambers and affirmed in my desire to come out swinging at both racist churches and white supremacist groups. And yet, as I take the pulse of Chambers’s life and revisit the deep well of his biblically grounded teaching, I’m left not with a billy club but with a broken heart. Surrendered.
That’s the place to land, Chambers would tell us. Yielded now as “broken bread and poured out wine,” he would say we’re finally ready, as individuals and as God’s people, to respond to racial frustrations in at least four urgent ways.
1. Get on our knees.
Tarry there, indeed. When race matters confound us, our biggest deficit, Chambers would argue, is in our prayer lives. “We do not pray at all,” he said, “until we are at our wit’s end.” As he famously said, “Prayer does not equip us for greater works—prayer is the greater work.” It preternaturally “develops the life of God in us.” And the Lord’s life alone—not our own brilliance, talents, or tactics—will transform our race battles. As Chambers warned, “The more you know, the less intelligently you pray because you forget to believe that God can alter the difficulties.”
As believers, we know this in theory, of course. But Chambers invites us to let go in practice—to pray to God first, not for solutions but for him. We don’t pray to get hold of answers, says Chambers, we pray “to get hold of God.”
Frustrated activists on both sides (including myself) may be inclined to skip this step. But bending into the heat of prayer’s intimacy, “we get into union with God’s view of other people,” Chambers writes. In his view, we are called to “identify ourselves with His interests in others.” Even folks we hate? Well, yes. Especially them. Sorely divided across race, and thus from God, we’re better to “stay before him with our broken treasures and our pain,” said Chambers and watch him mend, watch him heal. How? “In such a way that we understand Him better” (italics mine).
This is a deeply needed challenge for the church universal, but especially for evangelicalism in America, a system still draped in sorrowing racial baggage. By praying with more intent, however, God’s people love with more abandon. “If my heart is right with God,” says Chambers, “every human being is my neighbor.”
It’s noteworthy, indeed, that Chambers’s first trip to America was made not with another Scotsman but with a beloved Japanese friend, the evangelist Juji Nakada. The two fell into brotherly love through work in Britain at the interdenominational League of Prayer.
Both Chambers and Nakada were drawn to the League because of its mission to pray for three distinct things: revival of churches, the spread of Scriptural holiness, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in believers. Chambers, along with Nakada, would look at today’s racially divided church and rally for these same petitions.
2. Widen our context.
Chambers was sensitive to cultural expressions of difference, delighting in how much he “liked” Japanese and black people, and comfortable saying so. Yet his reflections can sound to modern ears woefully and politically incorrect. For example, he often shortened the word “Japanese” to “Jap” and called Native Americans “Red Indians,” terms that are unrepentantly offensive to modern ears. Although he is often quoted as saying “black people are gems … and so enthusiastic,” the full statement reads, “These black people are gems, as simple as children, and so enthusiastic.”
The first time I read those words, I felt obligated, after my stomach churned, to reject the man, ignoring that Chambers—an admirer of Quaker and Scottish simplicity—often used “simple” to denote a positive trait. Looking back from the 21st century, can I know if he meant the phrase to be positive or pejorative? Should I care?
Should I judge a 1907 letter to his sister in which he wrote, “I meet Nakada at Seattle and three others Japs and seven Yale graduates who are all going to Japan”?
As an African American woman, I could rage at these statements and see them as disqualifiers of all things Chambers. Instead, I feel compelled to study his cross-cultural traveler’s life and dare to embrace his bracing conclusion: “I have met nothing strange. All treat me as friend and brother. Negro, Jap, Red Indian, American. I feel unspeakably at home among men, now that I know God.”
This larger insight seems to be the point. What we see in each other starts with what we see in God. “The world is very wide and God is reigning,” Chambers wrote aboard the SS Baltic, bound for New York. This perspective widened his heart, saving him from grievances, resentments, and dogmatism.
In this era of racial strife, can we, too, walk in grace and evoke what Chambers calls “a strong family resemblance” to Christ?
3. Read the Bible, but don’t stop there.
Chambers, a voracious reader with a passionate love for books and learning, devoured the Bible but also novels, plays, poetry, history, philosophy, psychology, and theology. In a letter to a friend written from Egypt, where he was serving as a YMCA chaplain to British Commonwealth troops, he reflected: “I am reading two very different but entrancing books out here. One is the Book of Deuteronomy. The other is The Arabian Nights.”
Books and art, Chambers knew, help us decipher each other’s stories—a basic requirement for mutual respect and for serving God as a unified church. Speaking about poorly prepared missionaries, for example, he said, “To ignore all the vast and competent literature relative to every country under Heaven today and to go to work for God, living more or less a hand-to-mouth spiritual life, is to be unfitted and unable to rightly divide the word of truth.”
As for the Bible, Chambers invited readers to become “well soaked” in it, and not only to “exploit certain passages” for “a kind of jugglery to prove special doctrines.” The key to understanding the Bible is our “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” As the greatest book, the Word of God “is no use to me,” he declared, “unless I know Him.”
In the context of race relations, we often encounter the same problem: a lack of knowing, not just of God but of each other.
In America, it’s a national indictment, indeed, that 75 percent of white Americans don’t have any close non-white friends, according to 2016 findings by the Public Religion Research Institute. Religious insularity is a problem, too. Among white evangelicals, 80 percent of their social networks also identify as Protestant, compared to mainline Protestants (64 percent) and black Protestants (62 percent), the study said.
This sorrowing problem—a lack of knowing people outside one’s racial and religious box—seems tough to overcome but critical to correct. Disciples are called to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” If we go with a narrow and one-dimensional lens, however, our walk is compromised—awkward and tentative. If we go, like Chambers, with open-hearted excitement about all people and their cultures, we help grow the global church and our effectiveness in it.
In my own personal writing ministry, for example, I confess to pushing back at white evangelical readers who don’t think racism is “still” a problem. Asking the Lord to quiet my judgments allows me to serve this community as I open my heart and theirs through Scripture and story. Racial healing is tough work. But as Chambers affirms, God is all the greater.
4. Stay at the table.
Table ministry, as prosaic as it may seem, defines perhaps the most powering element of Chamber’s ministry with his wife, Gertrude “Biddy” Chambers—their hospitality.
“If you have a house,” Chambers said, “the next thing the Bible counsels is hospitality.” In Egypt, where they barely had a tent, Chambers and his wife still managed, with a few helpers, to host 500 to 700 soldiers inside a YMCA hut every Sunday for tea. Not to preach. Not to proselytize. Not to debate theological or social problems. “They came to eat,” Chambers said, “not to hear a sermon. There’s a meeting later tonight if they want to stay and hear someone preach.”
When one of the soldiers said to Chambers, “I can’t stand religious people,” Chambers answered, “Neither can I.” With that settled, biographer McCasland wrote in Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God, “they could talk about Christ and how it changed all of life to know Him.”
At table meetings, racial adversaries today can do the same—just meet, drink coffee, and extend the love of Christ. In churches, where potluck dinners in fellowship halls used to be standard practice, it’s past time to revive such gatherings. Not to debate each other but to say hello again—or, in some cases, for the first time.
It’s in these “shallow things,” Chambers said—our “eating and drinking, walking and talking”—that we share evidence of the Cross. “The Cross of Jesus Christ is not the cross of a martyr, but the door whereby God keeps open house for the universe. Anyone can go through that door.”
The wisest of us walks in and stays at the table, even when things get heated. That’s what Jesus did at the contentious Last Supper, said Quaker theologian Parker Palmer.
Sounding very much like Chambers, Palmer claims that “as we become disillusioned with community and more dependent on God, we also become more available for true community with each other.” Adds Palmer: “The community we have yearned for is among us, in exactly the measure that we are able to discern God’s presence in our midst.”
As church folks struggle across racial lines, a broken world is still desperate for us to set out the snacks and invite them in. Not because we have solutions, along with a gazillion gallons of coffee, but because we have Christ.
After 100 years, Chambers still invites us to accept such humbling invitations from each other, then extend the same to a hurting world.
What will we do next? Watch God work.
Patricia Raybon is an award-winning author whose bridge-building books include My First White Friend, winner of a Christopher Award, and Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace. All Oswald Chambers quotations cited are from Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God, The Quotable Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, and Utmost Ongoing: Reflections on the Legacy of Oswald Chambers.