On this episode of Mind and Heart, Dr. Carl Ellis joins host Phillip Holmes. Dr. Ellis is the Provost’s Professor of Theology and Culture, Assistant to the Chancellor, and Senior Fellow of the African American Leadership Initiative at RTS. Between 1986 and 2009, Carl served as an adjunct faculty member at the Center for Urban Theological Studies and as Dean of Intercultural Studies at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Carl was recently the Associate Pastor for Cultural Apologetics at New City Fellowship. Dr. Ellis completed his MAR (Theology) at Westminster Theological Seminary, and holds a D.Phil. from Oxford Graduate School.
Holmes begins the conversation by asking Dr. Ellis about his early life and how he came to faith. Dr. Ellis became a Christian in high school before leaving for college at Hampton University. During his time at Hampton, there was a cultural revolution happening in the African American community, which led Dr. Ellis to read the entire Bible. Over the next decade, he developed his book Free At Last?: The Gospel in the African American Experience, which looks at God’s sovereignty at work in the history and culture of African Americans.
During a Wisdom Wednesday Q&A, Dr. Ellis tackled the question, “What is the root of racism?” In the episode, he explains that racism is one of many issues whose root is creaturism, which can be traced back to the fall in the garden of Eden. When man took it upon themselves to determine good and evil by their standards instead of God’s, it lead to racism and other manifestations of creaturism.
Holmes asks Dr. Ellis about some of the reactions to racism in the church today. Dr. Ellis begins by discussing oppression. Throughout the Bible – and even now – people who are oppressed tend to attribute all their problems to that oppression, leading them to forget about their internal problems. When liberation comes, their internal problems come back to the surface. Dr. Ellis explains that this cycle of oppression, liberation, and resurfacing of sin will continue until thwarted by cosmic justice. The cosmic treason committed by Adam and Even and all of our guilt is covered by Christ’s fulfillment of cosmic justice.
As the episode ends, Dr. Ellis explains what the church’s role is when we see problems in society and the world around us. He and Holmes also discuss the importance of the Word of God and our identity in Christ as we seek to further the kingdom of God.
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Learn more about Dr. Carl Ellis.
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Phillip Holmes: Before we dive into this week’s episode of Mind + Heart, we want to take a moment to highlight RTS Global, the online program at Reformed Theological Seminary. Do you want to earn a graduate degree from a trusted seminary but don’t know if you have the time? Reformed Theological Seminary offers three Masters of Arts programs available 100 percent online. These degrees are perfect for anyone pursuing full-time vocational ministry, interested in Ph.D. work, or any aspiration where theological education might enhance your gifts. These programs allow you to study at your own pace, attend class completely online, and have regular interactions with your professor and teacher’s assistants. Study in a way that suits you. Learn more today at rts.edu/online.
Welcome to the Mind + Heart podcast, which features interviews and more from the faculty and friends of Reformed Theological Seminary. We created this podcast to assist you in your daily quest to love God and love your neighbor. I’m your host, Phillip Homes, and this week I’m joined by my guest, Dr. Carl Ellis. Dr. Carl Ellis is the Provost’s Professor of Theology and Culture at Reformed Theological Seminary. In 1969, Carl Ellis began his ministry as a senior campus minister with Tom Skinner Associates in New York. Between 1986 and 2009, Carl served as an adjunct faculty member at the Center for Urban Theological Studies (CUTS), as well as the dean of intercultural studies at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has authored several books, including Free at Last and Saving Our Sons. He is married to Karen Ellis, and they reside in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Dr. Ellis, welcome to the show.
Carl Ellis: Good to be here, Phillip.
Holmes: Yeah, thank you for joining us, man. Before we dive into this week’s episode, tell us a little bit about yourself. Could you give us briefly, in two or three minutes, your origin story? Where did you grow up and how did you become a follower of Jesus?
Ellis: I was born in Brooklyn, New York. I guess I consider myself a native New Yorker. At a very young age, my folks moved to Chicago. They stayed there for a couple of years. Then to Gary, Indiana, where I spent most of my childhood. But of course, every summer, I was back in New York a lot. Graduated from high school there, went to Hampton University in Virginia. Going back to when I followed Jesus: I became a Christian the summer before my senior year in high school. When I went to college, I was already a Christian. I ended up getting connected with InterVarsity. We didn’t even have a chapter on that campus, so we got one started. It was a very interesting time because about halfway through we had this cultural revolution. Hampton is a predominantly African American school—HBCU as we would say—and about halfway through my time there, there was a great cultural revolution where everybody switched from being Negro to Afro-American and then to Black. There was a big rise in Black consciousness when we came in.
Holmes: What year was that?
Ellis: The fall of ’67 when the revolution actually happened. In the spring of ’67, everybody was a Negro and claimed to be a Christian; in the fall of ’67, everybody was an Afro-American and claiming to be an anti-Christian. It was quite a change. I was kind of in water over my head. What in the world do I do with all of this? Let’s put it this way: as a baby Christian, I read books. As soon as I got saved, I started reading a lot of Christian books designed for young Christians. Of course, all the people who wrote Christian books for people of my stature were dispensationalist. I became a hardcore dispensationalist. I even went so far with that to say that I believed that only Paul’s letters applied to us.
When all of a sudden this cultural upheaval happened, as much as I love Paul, Paul wasn’t helping me too much. I did a Hail Mary pass by reading the rest of the Bible. I got hit with the sovereignty of God, number one, and number two, the covenant, and number three, when I got around the prophets, I saw that God was saying some of the same kind of things that the militants were debating about, things about justice and oppression and all the rest of it. Then I began to realize that my theology was inadequate. I just believed what the Bible said, and I didn’t know it then, but I actually became Reformed like that. I didn’t know that I was Reformed until years later. That was a great growth time in my life.
Holmes: That’s really good. So this past summer, IVP re-released your classic title Free at Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience.
Ellis: It’s an amazing thing. I got the original vision for the book back in ’69, actually. I woke up at 3:30 in the morning with this seed idea, and then it started exploding on me. It started coming like a fire hose. I got up; I wrote all this stuff down. It was coming fast and furious. All these things were connecting, and by about 8:00 that morning I had several pages written, and I organized it into an outline. I realized that I was looking at a book outline. But some of the entries in the outline were concepts that I hadn’t even begun to unpack. It took me like 12 years to unpack some of those things, to be able to articulate them. I had feelings for what they were, but I didn’t have the tools to do that. When I went to Westminster Seminary, they really helped me out with a lot of the tools and I was able to articulate some of the ideas I had.
God works through the history and culture of every people group.So long story short, in ’82, I ran into some people from InterVarsity Press, and I shared with them. I said, “I think I’ve got a book in me that I’d like to get out.” They asked me to send them some of the writings that I had, and I did. And they said, “Yeah, I think you got something.” They accepted it, and it became published in ’83 as Beyond Liberation. It’s funny, just before it was published, I let my sister-in-law read the manuscript because I thought that the book was like 10 years behind the times. I wished it had been published in ’73. And I thought, “Well, it’s kind of late now.” But she read it and she said, “This book is way ahead of its time.” I couldn’t believe it, but now I do. It came out in ’83 and stayed in print for about eight years or so, went out of print in about ’91. Then it just seemed like the whole country let out a howl about it. IV approached me again. They said, “Let’s do it again.” I said, “Well ok, let’s do it.” We republished it as Free at Last. I did some major revision on it. That was in ’96, and it did pretty well on that run. It did better than it did the first time, and it didn’t do bad the first time.
Then when it went into publish-on-demand, there was a groundswell of complaints. People said, “Oh, you need to make it available again.” So they came at me and they said, “Hey, let’s publish it again. Let’s do a Signature Series.” That’s kind of how that happened.
Holmes: That’s good. Dr. Ellis, briefly, if you can kind of summarize your aim or the purpose of the book. What were you hoping to accomplish when that was released? Give me a quick one-minute answer.
Ellis: Back in the 60s, there was a whole lot of talk about a rediscovery of African American history. Having begun to really get into the Old Testament, I realized that God works through history and culture and all that. He did some remarkable things through Nebuchadnezzar and other people. I began to realize, “Well, wait a minute. Now, if God is really sovereign, and if he raises people up and takes them down and all the rest of that, God has probably been working in African American history, as he has in the history of every other people group in this world. I’m going to ask God questions about that.” He showed me and I could see things in the Scripture that really helped me to open my eyes to some of the things that God has been saying in our history. I published the book with the conviction that God works through the history and culture of every people group. I said, “OK, I believe this,” and I used the African American experience as my case study.
How can Christianity be the white man’s religion? It didn’t even start in Europe and Jesus wasn’t white.The other reason I wrote it is because I was trying to dispel the myth that had been developed that Christianity is a white man’s religion. I knew that wasn’t the case. How can Christianity be the white man’s religion? It didn’t even start in Europe and Jesus wasn’t white.
It was for a couple of reasons that I published it. I just really wanted to make a statement and get away from the Christian clichés. A lot of people back in those days were just mouthing Christian clichés, which really weren’t answering the questions. I sought to answer the questions that were being asked.
Holmes: Yeah, that’s helpful. Are there any other books or any other works that you’re working on that continue in that tradition?
Ellis: I have a manuscript right now that’s just about ready to go. Three out of the four parts have already been written, and I’ve got pieces of the fourth part. The problem is, in the last few years, every time I’ve gone to a publisher and say, “Hey, this is kind of like Free at Last, only it’s updated. It can stand on its own, too.” All the publishers I approached would always tell me, “Well, we don’t know how to market it.” In the meantime, I go around the country and I lecture on some of the stuff that will be in the new manuscript, and people just get all excited about it. Again, I get a lot of feedback from social media: “Hey, when is that book coming out?” etc. So with the success of Free at Last, this time I think the door has been opened to publish this new one. I’m kind of glad it didn’t come out earlier anyway because there’s a lot of things that have happened in the intervening years that I would want to put into it anyway.
Then there is Going Global, which is kind of a little glimpse into the new one, about the role of the African American church in the Great Commission of Jesus Christ. I trace some of what the African American participation in global missions was all about. It’s really a fascinating story. Tragic, too, in a lot of ways.
Then Saving Our Sons is designed to equip pastors and people who are discipling young African American men and women to resist the lure of Islam. I used to be in prison ministry at one time, and I had a lot of Muslims who would come to my seminars. Just about all of them had been a Baptist or something or other. I would ask them, “Why did you leave Christianity?” They’d say, “Well, because it didn’t answer my questions and address my issues.” When I asked what the questions were and what the issues were, I would show them right out of the Bible where it would address these things. So many times they would respond, “I became a Muslim because I was looking for what you just told me.” God blessed that ministry. I must have done seminars in about a hundred prisons across the country, and about a half to two-thirds of those who would show up at my seminars were always Muslims, and about half of them would become Christians at the end of the seminar. I didn’t do an altar call at the end, I just told them to think about it. But a couple of weeks later, I get a word from the chaplain that about half the attendees had become Christians.
Holmes: That’s really interesting, as I’ve been reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and then I just finished A Life of Reinvention, which was Marable’s take on Malcolm X’s life. There’s one that just released in October that I’m working through right now. I’m really fascinated with Malcolm’s journey into the Nation of Islam and then eventually into Sunni Islam. He felt like Christianity did not give a satisfactory answer to how to navigate white America. He was also confused by the fact that the very people that profess Christianity, who were supposed to be brothers and sisters in Christ, were also his oppressors as well. Then on the flip side, there seems to be this tension that he felt like Christianity was giving him pat answers, in a sense, to a lot of his questions, and it didn’t have the prophetic fire that he thought the Nation of Islam offered.
Ellis: Well, it’s interesting that Malcolm’s problem was not so much with Christianity, it was with American Christianity. A lot of American Christianity was, as my wife says, Ameri-centric. Let me say this: all forms of Christianity have flaws in them. I’m not going to say that Western Christianity is any more flawed than anything else. But the point is, the particular flaws that American Christianity had were partly rooted in the cultural sin of America, which was racism, slavery, that kind of thing. And of course, there were a lot of people out there who claimed to be Christian who thought that American slavery was biblically sound. Whatever you might want to say about slavery, the point is American slavery was based on ontological racism, the belief that Black people were not equal to whites in terms of their being. The Bible is foursquare against that because the Bible says that we’re all made in God’s image. There were arguments over the years about whether slavery was biblically sound, but the thing is, American slavery was built on a foundation of racism, and that is definitely anti-biblical. If the foundation is wrong, the whole system was wrong. Those are the kind of things that we need to address.
We have to do some serious theological spadework from the Scriptures, not from ideology.Today now everybody is running around with these ideologies, and everybody is looking for a magic bullet, and the magic bullet is not doing it. We have to do some serious theological spadework from the Scriptures, not from ideology, from the Scriptures, to really deal with this, Because we see that while racism is a very grievous evil in our world, it is not the only evil. It’s one among many. If we fight the battle just on the level of racism only, then everything else is going to flare up. Some of us are called to fight the racism battle, but we have to recognize that there are other evils out there, and we have to recognize that ours is not the only one. There are issues that we face, but, of course, as serious as racism is, it’s not the only thing. There’s other things we have to deal with.
That’s kind of what Free at Last was trying to do, trying to show that a lot of our problems—I mean, I don’t care what race we are or whatever, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. The sin has different manifestations; we have to recognize the manifestation. The analogy I like to use is trying to cure a tree by pulling off all the leaves. Well, that’s not really going to do much to cure the tree. It might make it look a little better. That’s ok to pull off the dead leaves, but you’re not going to cure the tree unless you do something with the root, unless you heal it at the root. That’s the thing that’s missing in a lot of ideologies today.
Holmes: That’s the perfect transition into our subject for today. The topic of racism is charged among evangelicals, it’s a very charged subject among evangelicals, which is why I think it’s so important that we address the topic from a biblical worldview. You talked about how important it was for us to understand these things from the Scriptures, not from other ideologies. I think that’s extremely important and key. In 2018, Dr. Ellis, you answered the question, “What is the root of racism?” via Wisdom Wednesday, which is our weekly Q&A video series. Let’s take a moment and listen to Dr. Ellis’s response to the question: what is the root of racism?
Ellis: Creaturism goes all the way back to the garden. In one way or the other, you can say that Adam and Eve, when they decided to eat of the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil or the determination of good and evil, they weren’t getting the information about good and evil. They knew what good and evil were. They knew what good and evil were by the Word of God. The real temptation is: how do you determine what good and evil is? How do you distinguish? Do you distinguish these two by the Word of God or do you distinguish them by your own opinion?
When they did that, they said, “We will determine what good and evil are by our opinion.” In essence, the creature then becomes the standard of judgment and even the standard of judgment of the Creator. So the creature then becomes the standard of judgment for everything. That’s creaturism. Having taken that, then there are many manifestations of creaturism. There’s me-ism, when I judge everybody else by the standard of myself. There’s culturalism, when I judge other cultures by the standard of my culture. There’s racism, when I judge other races by the standards of my race, on and on and on. Sexism: I judge the other gender by the standard of my gender. Whenever you judge anything or anybody by the standard of yourself, the other person is inferior by definition because nobody could be me as well as I could be me. No race can be my race as well as my race can be. That’s where racism comes. So it’s one of the manifestations of creaturism.
Whenever you judge anything or anybody by the standard of yourself, the other person is inferior by definition because nobody could be me as well as I could be me.You go to some other places, it’s tribalism. You go to some other places like India, it’s the caste system. It’s classism, like you had in Europe. It goes on and on and on. All of these are manifestations of the same thing. They have the same basic patterns. Racism is only one of the manifestations. It’s kind of akin to the dead leaves on a sick tree. You can shake the dead leaves off all you want to, but you’re not going to cure the tree. You’ve got to get at the root, and the root is creaturism.
Holmes: So, Dr. Ellis, you talked about how racism is not the only issue. It’s one of many issues. I oftentimes wonder if racism is the only thing that we oftentimes know how to talk about because it’s the only issue that we’ve been given vocabulary to articulate and also because it’s been made to sometimes even be a scapegoat in some ways. I definitely think that racism is important. I talk about it all the time in social media outlets. I’ve written about it. I think that is a grievous issue that America still is not ready to deal with, which is one of the reasons why I’ve been doing so much reading in regards to Malcolm X because I thought that he had a very, very firm grasp on Christian America and America in general. The way that he talked about America, particularly white America in his day, a lot of those things still ring true in much of America today. I thought that was fascinating. How would you respond to the problem of racism and why we’re obsessed with either denying that it’s that big of a problem or making it the number one and main problem?
Ellis: It all kind of depends on whose ox is being gored, doesn’t it? If I find out that a certain neighborhood is undergoing a lot of incidents of theft and everything, but if it’s not my neighborhood, I’m not going to be all that concerned about it. But if it’s my neighborhood, I’m going to be all of a sudden concerned about it. The thing that really happens is that there’s a tendency, and you see this in the Bible too, there’s a tendency for people who are oppressed—Now let me explain what I mean by oppression. Oppression happens when you try to impose your sin or the consequences of your sin on someone else. That will be my definition of oppression. Everybody has problems, oppressed/oppressor alike, everybody has problems. But when people are oppressed, their tendency is to attribute all of their problems to their oppression.
Oppression happens when you try to impose your sin or the consequences of your sin on someone else.Case in point would be Jerusalem in the time of Nehemiah. If you would ask any Jerusalemite at the time, “How are things going?” “Oh man, they’re not going well.” “What do you mean?” Well, the walls are broken down and the gates are burned with fire.” That would be the standard response. Then Nehemiah comes on the scene, and he empowers them to rebuild the walls, to restore the gates, and all the rest of that. They had attributed their problems to the condition of the walls and the gates, and of course, that was enforced by Sanballat and Tobiah.
Once Nehemiah empowers them and, in a sense, liberates them, something even more sinister comes up that was plaguing the Jerusalemites all along. It was Jew-on-Jew exploitation. Through tax manipulation people were forced to sell themselves into slavery. The families would sell themselves to the rich as slaves in order to pay their taxes. And the daughters, the beautiful daughters, would be in turn sold to Gentiles. Really it was a tragic thing. But that was what was happening within the inhabitants of Jerusalem. So what happens is that when people attribute all of their problems to their oppression, their own internal problems kind of get forgotten about. When the liberation comes, then their own internal problems come back to the surface.
That’s one of the reasons why I say it’s a good thing to liberate the oppressed, so they can find out that they’re sinners too. It’s very easy to be lulled into thinking that if you are oppressed, you’re not as sinful, let’s say, as your oppressor. But everybody is equally sinful. But within that relationship, oppressed versus the oppressor, the oppressed are more righteous in that because it’s more righteous to resist oppression than it is to perpetrate it. Does that make sense? But that phenomenon is only temporary, situational, and relational. As soon as you get rid of the oppression, then your own sin comes back to the surface.
The problem with [many] ideologies is that they have a very poor and inadequate understanding of simple human nature.Now, the problem with a lot of the thinking of the ideologies out there, they say that that differential in righteousness is permanent and ontological. They think, “That’s just the way it is.” That’s why people don’t give any thought to this and they said, “Well, let’s just take the oppressors and put them on the bottom, put the oppressed on the top, and everything will be just fine.” Well, it’ll be ok for a while until things degenerate and eventually the oppression will come back with a vengeance. That’s the problem I have with a lot of ideologies. The problem with these ideologies is that they have a very poor and inadequate understanding of simple human nature. That’s the Achilles heel.
That’s where the Christian comes in. We know, yes, oppression does exist, but we recognize that everybody is a sinner. As you seek to free the oppressed, you also have to help them to understand that they are sinners too and they need the saving grace of Jesus Christ. That’s often forgotten in our ideologies today. Then you see it over and over and over again, you see revolution after revolution after revolution: “If we could only get rid of this terrible dictator.” Everybody rises up, they overthrow him, and they end up with a worse tyrant. The Bible gives us the wisdom that we need if we’re going to flourish. It’s a shame that the people out there are not really listening to the wisdom of God. Creaturism is the main problem, and all these other things are manifestations of that.
The Bible gives us the wisdom that we need if we’re going to flourish.Holmes: This will be our last question: how do we avoid that pattern that we continually see? A revolution takes place, all of a sudden the oppressor becomes the oppressed, the oppressed becomes the oppressor. There are different types of manifestations of this pattern that have happened throughout history, whether the oppressed began to oppress the former oppressor, or the oppressed goes somewhere else and becomes the oppressor.
Ellis: Or what happens is that somebody else comes to power, and he puts the former oppressed back into oppression. That happens, too. Well, let’s try to tackle that. I think at the end of the day, the only way that this thing is going to be solved is for every wrong to be made right, every oppression avenged, every inequality corrected, all the rest of that. In order for it to happen, and it’s all got to happen, and the only thing that’s going to do that is cosmic justice. That’s it. It’s going to require an absolute cosmic justice. It’s going to also require transformation of people because people are sinners. As long as you have sinners, you’re going to have problems.
The only way to deal with cosmic treason is with cosmic justice.Now, what happened in the garden when Adam and woman decided that they were going to be the ultimate judges of right and wrong and even judge over God, that was cosmic treason. The only way to deal with cosmic treason is with cosmic justice. Now, the problem with cosmic justice, though, if we’re going to make all wrongs right and bring justice to all injustices, if that’s going to happen, then all of us are going to be found guilty and be condemned because all of us fall short of righteousness anyway. If we really want to solve the problems that are out there, ultimately, it’s going to require a cosmic justice which will obliterate all of us. I heard a rap song the other day; it was called “Loophole.” There’s one loophole to it, and that is when cosmic justice is applied, if cosmic justice for me and you and others has been satisfied, has been already paid for, then we will see the benefits of cosmic justice without having been condemned by cosmic justice. And of course, that is the essence of the good news.
The good news is that, yes, God is going to fix it. He’s going to make everything that’s wrong right. But he’s going to save us from the judgment because Christ took the punishment upon himself, and he’s going to fix us. That’s the wonderful news of the gospel. Now, what we need to do then as those who are part of the body of Christ, what we need to do is approximate what it’s going to look like under cosmic justice. We can’t do it perfectly. It’s going to be imperfect, but we can approximate it and at the same time point toward the absolute consummation of it all. That seems to be the role of the church. The role of the church is not to go out and reform society. The role of the church is to live a lifestyle and think in certain ways that are an indictment to the world as we point to the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is the only solution.
I really have problems when people say, “Well, since we can’t solve it, let’s not do anything.” That’s not it either. Because it’s one of the things that God calls us to do. What motivates us to do good works? Jesus says, “Let your light so shine so others may see your good works and glorify your Father who lives in heaven.” But doesn’t the Bible say that we are not saved by works? We are saved by grace. So what’s the point of works? Well, the reason I do good works has nothing to do with my salvation. The reason that I do good works has everything to do with the glory of God. It’s doxological. I do good works to glorify my Father who is in heaven. The reason that I like to glorify my Father who was in heaven is because I have great gratitude for what he’s done for me. So the Christian community, the body of Christ, then needs to be an alternative society as it were that indicts the larger society and points the way toward the ultimate solution, even though we are imperfect at it. That seems to be our role.
But we’re not doing that. The problem is that we have conformed to the culture around us. When you enter into cultural captivity, then you end up participating in cultural sin. And that’s the problem with the church in America. That’s the problem with the church all over the place. If you look at the Bible itself, look at Israel. Those are the people God, and look at the mess they made of things. God had intended Israel to be an international body of people because the temple was supposed to be a house of prayer for all nations. And what do they do? They turned it into a Hebrew holy hill. They were discriminatory against immigrants and the poor, the widow and the orphan, and all the rest of that. So if we in the church can get that vision to say we need to look forward to the cosmic justice that’s coming, the ultimate cosmic justice that Jesus is going to bring but live on that basis today, and so be a witness to who Christ is, then we will be functioning correctly. The reason we need to do that, like I said, is not because our salvation depends on it but because it is related to the glory of God. If I don’t show gratitude for something, then maybe I don’t have something that I claim to have. It seems to me that that’s where we need to be, and we need to contextualize it, too.
So, yeah, racism is a horrible thing. The church, the body of Christ, should not participate in racism, whether it is individual racism or institutional racism or systemic racism or whatever. That should not be where we are. But our problem goes all the way back to the early days, back to the Old Testament. We are absolutely saturated with idols. It’s the idolatry that gets in our way. We like our style of music. We like our way of doing things. We like our order of service. We don’t want to change. You see this all the time. People come to church, and they sit in the same place all the time, all the time. If anybody sits in their spot, some people get incensed about that. When I was a pastor, often before the service started, I would make everybody get up and go to the other side. Make everybody switch seats.
Holmes: I could totally see you doing that.
Ellis: But Calvin said that we are idol making factories, and that’s our problem. That’s where our problem is. The best way to protest is to live a life that’s contrary to the sin that surrounds you. That seems to be the approach that we should take. Karen and me, we go around trying to help people understand that, that it’s all about being the people of God and approximating and demonstrating what the ultimate solution is, even though we do it in an imperfect way. We’re not going to be perfect; we’re going to have a lot of failings. But we should be redemptive though. That’s the thing.
Holmes: So I fear that—this is sort of summarizing our conversation—unless we become Bible people and we understand how to use the Bible to answer the core concerns of the oppressed as well as the oppressors . . . . Many people were born into a world where they were part of the dominant culture, and they have questions about what does that mean regarding their status with the holy God, and their status with their relationship with those who are in the subdominant culture, who might be marginalized or oppressed. They’re trying to figure this stuff out, just like those who are a part of the subdominant culture and are marginalized and oppressed. When you have earnest people who are asking questions, we have to make sure that we’re pointing them to Scripture first and foremost.
I had a brother when all of this went down, a white brother, a good friend of mine. He reached out to me and he said, “Hey, I’m preaching on racism tomorrow. Any recommendations?” My recommendations were simple: stay close to the text.
Ellis: That’s it. Peach the Word.
Holmes: Stay close to the text, talk about it, deal with it. But make sure you’re dealing with it within the context of Scripture. Otherwise, if you start pulling on Dr. Ellis’s book, your people in the church don’t know Dr. Ellis. I often find my white brothers and sisters, when they’re trying to address these issues, they’re always quoting these other books. Don’t get me wrong: extra-biblical material and resources are profoundly helpful. But when you are teaching other people, especially Christians, you need to go at them with the Scriptures. They need the text.
So Dr. Ellis, in all of those final words, what are some of the things that came to mind as I was kind of talking through some of those things.
Ellis: You said it all. The Scriptures has got to be where we start. Everything that we do and think and say has got to be disciplined and critiqued by the Scripture. It shouldn’t be the other way around. If you’re not biblical, then you’re not sound. The Bible is God’s Word for crying out loud. It’s the ultimate in wisdom. God wouldn’t go through the trouble of giving us a Word that would have mistakes in it and all the rest of that. It is where we need to be. It is far more radical, let’s say, than all of these ideologies out here. There’s nothing more radical than transformation, and the Scripture has a transformative message. And we just have to do that.
I get the question, some people say, “Well, do you believe in white guilt?” Of course I believe in white guilt. You know why? Because the Bible says all of us are guilty. There’s black guilt, there’s green guilt and brown guilt. One of the things I have to tell my brothers and sisters who are in the “dominant culture” is that there’s no sin in being born in the dominant culture. Some people want to make that a sin in and of itself. No, the real issue is: you have no control over where you were born. The question is, what are you going to do with it? As an African American, I have certain advantages that my white brothers and sisters don’t have. So how am I going to use those advantages? I’m going to use those advantages for the glory of God. That’s what I’m going to do. Whatever situation I’m born into, in a sense, it’s a gift that God has given me to use for the furtherance of his kingdom. If we don’t do that, then we are squandering what God has given us.
We have to think of ourselves as the body of Christ, and that supersedes every other affinity group we have.There are people that I needed to talk to that I couldn’t talk to. A white person could do it, but I couldn’t do it, because of the situation. And vice versa: there are some people that they wanted to talk to, but they couldn’t because I had the inside track and they didn’t. So we worked like that. We worked together that way for the furtherance of the kingdom of God, not for the furtherance of any earthly cause. It’s for the kingdom.
Now, we have to be careful, though. We have to think of ourselves as the body of Christ, and that supersedes every other affinity group we have. My ultimate ethnicity, if you want to call it this, is that of being in Christ. My blackness, as wonderful as it is and everything, my ultimate identity is my identity in Christ. My Black identity, like I said, it’s a wonderful thing. I’m very proud of it. But it can only have fulfillment as a secondary identity at best, because blackness cannot bear the full freight of my humanity. There’s a whole lot more to me than my blackness. But being in Christ, he’s the perfect human being, and if my identity is in him, that identity carries the full weight of my humanity. It’s the fulfillment of what my humanity is all about. It’s bigger than me.
That’s one of the problems today: we get into these limited identities. We try to make them absolute, and then we build politics around it. We get identity politics. I understand what identity politics is all about, but it’s inadequate if we’re going to make any progress and bring glory to God. We have to be very careful about that.
Now, there’s a lot of times that people in the dominant group will say, “OK, yes, we need to be the body of Christ, as long as you follow the dictates of the dominant culture.” Well, no, no, no, no, no. That’s not the point. I’m not going to conform to a particular culture. I’m going to conform the truth of the Word of God, whether it agrees or disagrees. There are things that some of my Black brothers or sisters or some of my fellow African Americans are into that I’m not into because it disagrees with Scripture. There are some things that I’m into because it agrees with Scripture. It’s the same thing. If it agrees with Scripture, I’m with it. If it disagrees, then I’m not. So that’s my ultimate reference point.
Holmes: Dr. Ellis, thank you so much for joining us today. I always enjoy talking to you and always enjoy learning from you.
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