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The Race Awakening

kenneth ulmer Dec 29, 2021

Perhaps no topic has dominated our cultural conversation in the last five years more than race. Even when other headlines—such as COVID-19, contentious elections, climate change or the economy—have grabbed our attention, their intersection with race relations has often been part of the discussion.

Church and ministry leaders have been placed in the crosshairs of the media for their statements and their actions, critiqued or praised, depending on which way the cultural wind is blowing at the moment.

Silence is not an option, Bishop Kenneth Ulmer contends. With 40 years of pastoral leadership under his belt, Ulmer has seen the shifting currents in the culture and the church, and his most book on the topic is Walls Can Fall: Race, Reconciliation & Righteousness in a Divided World.

Since 1982, Ulmer has been the senior pastor of Faithful Central Bible Church in Los Angeles. We had the privilege of sitting down with him and discussing the recent challenges the church faces in dealing with racial tension from within and standing for justice and truth in the broader culture.

 

AVAIL: In your book Walls Can Fall, you tackle racism from a theological perspective. Do you get pushback that this really isn’t a theological topic—that we need to talk about it from a cultural, historical, and psychological standpoint? How do you respond to that?

Bishop Kenneth Ulmer: I just heard this morning on a Christian radio program that Jesus’ agenda had no social justice implications. He did not come with any social justice impact, influence and intentions at all in his whole life and his whole ministry

AVAIL: And how did you respond to that?

Ulmer: Well, I turned the radio off. But I think that it raises an interesting issue. The culture has drifted to such an extent of polarization, that it seldom allows “both/and.” It’s usually an “either/or.” I know of a church here in Los Angeles—a very Afrocentric community, politically involved, et cetera. A friend of mine used to go to that church. And one Sunday, I said, “Well, how was church today?” He said, “Oh, it was pretty good.” I said, “Well, what did the preacher talk about?” And he said, “You know, if we could hear about Jesus every now and then, it would be good.” So, his point was that they had shifted so far social, so far activist, that the message of Jesus was lost. Then, of course, I have friends way on the other side like this guy on the radio where it’s not even a part of the agenda—not a part of the conversation.

AVAIL: Tell us a little more how theology fits into this problem.

Ulmer: So was taking a class on the book of Acts at a rather conservative seminary. We were going through the Book of Acts. We go through Pentecost. We go through the history of the church. Nobody ever told me any black people were in there. No one told me that on the day of Pentecost, when they call the roll of the nations that were represented there, that a third of those countries were in Africa. No one told me that, when they had the council, not only were there black people there, they were leaders! What they would say is, “Well, it’s not important.” Therein lies the issue: that there is a people who feel disenfranchised by the vary Bible that they believe.

AVAIL: So, if it’s true that the roots of racism in this country are often linked to the church in many ways—whether it’s twisting Scripture to justify it or perpetuating segregation on Sunday mornings—some people might say the church isn’t in a position to tackle racism, because it has been the source of it in many ways.

Ulmer: From my perspective that legitimizes the church’s voice in it—precisely because it was involved in racism. If anyone can say something about it, it’s the church. We have book after book after book of church history that leave out people of color and leave out how the church has been involved in racism. But also, they leave out how we’ve gone beyond it, to the glory of God. Because, for the most part, we’ve come through it. How do you legitimize the good news if you intentionally leave out the bad? It’s like families that don’t tell all the family secrets, and the secrets leak out anyway, and everyone finds out.

AVAIL: It’s like if the Scriptures were to leave out the embarrassing parts of the stories of the heroes of the Bible.

Ulmer: I know people who have been saved because of the dark stories of the Bible. By that I mean that they can relate. They know David was a great king, a great man of God, but he was also a liar, adulterer and murderer. The integrity of the Bible is that it paints the picture, warts and all.

AVAIL: In the midst of all the arguments in the broader culture about race, do you think the church has become too politicized to have a clear voice in this issue?

Ulmer: I think the politicization of the church has been one of the greater victories of the enemy in modern times. I know churches that have virtually—and many cases, literally—split over a red flag or a blue flag. What’s interesting is this is not the first time we fought over stuff. I remember when churches were splitting over women preachers and the charismatic movement. But this is a toehold that the enemy has gotten that has reaped havoc in the body of Christ. And I don’t think it’s over yet. It breaks my heart. I know a guy who had a significantly interracial church—almost a fourth white, a fourth black, a fourth Hispanic, a fourth Asian. In the last year and a half, the church has become more and more black because he began to say more and more about social justice.

AVAIL: Was that because people of other races left?

Ulmer: They left. They don’t fight. They don’t argue. They just leave. I know a church that was very visible during the election—Trump visited this church. They had a significant number of African-Americans who haven’t been back since Trump. They always knew the church was conservative, but when that happened, I know one couple that said, “There’s no place for us here.” They felt like the church had been a place for them when politics was not front and center. Not anymore.


AVAIL: And when they leave, these people are not like church shoppers or consumers looking for the next cool thing, are they? This is a different category of person that feels like they’ve been abandoned by their church.

Ulmer: This is a new category. That particular black family, who left this predominantly white church, would equally be uncomfortable in a black church that is overtly political. So, they’re homeless.

AVAIL: Obviously, we’re talking about relationships within congregations, but have you seen this affect relationships among church leaders?

Ulmer: Battle lines have been drawn. I know friends who have not spoken since the 2016 election. COVID threw everybody a curve because there were a lot of conferences that could not be held, but there are certainly people who won't be invited to conferences that they used to with the debates about CRT [Critical Race Theory]. It's just like slavery used to divide families. Racism has become a weapon of the enemy.

AVAIL: What are your thoughts on the possibility of achieving racially diverse churches in this environment? Should this even be an ideal for every pastor, or are there some that are just called to certain cultural groups?

Ulmer: I have a spiritual sons who pastors a church in the Midwest. His city, in the last census, was 99.2% black. He will never pass the white people. Our church moved from one side of Los Angeles to the other, and we moved to a point where we were more accessible to diverse communities. I still believe to this day that God positioned us there to be located for accessibility to diff different cultures and races. I believe that call is still on our church. I don't know that I'll see it in my lifetime.

AVAIL: Even though—unlike your spiritual son in the Midwest—you’re geographically positioned for it to happen.

Ulmer: Next year, I will have been in our church 40 years. I am in the Moses generation of my life. Moses can see farther than he will go. When Moses stood on the mountain, God said, “Look. You see that? You're not going in. The people are going, but you're not going.” I'm not being overdramatic. It may be the Joshua who follows me, who may see that in terms of integration. It may take another generation.

AVAIL: Do you feel like we've taken a step back in the last five years or so—a regression that’s delayed what could have happened in terms of progress in the issue of race?

Ulmer: Hence, dare I say, my congratulations to the devil. I think the devil has pushed us back. I think we're going to overcome it. I think God's still on the throne. His kingdom will be forever. But I think it's certainly been a setback.

AVAIL: So, what advice would you have for church leaders who are getting pushback from people in their congregation for addressing these issues?

Ulmer: Someone is going to have to make a decision. How much of the whole counsel of God will I declare? Paul said, Paul said, “I have declared unto you the whole counsel of God.” Am I called, appointed and anointed to only reach one color people, one race of people? For some that's legitimate. My friend in the Midwest—he will never reach white people. They're not in his neighborhood. They're not in his Jerusalem.

AVAIL: But wouldn’t you still have to deal with the issue—even if there are no people of color in your community—because everyone is interacting with what’s going on culturally through the internet, social media, television, and so on?

Ulmer: Yes, that’s what I'm saying. But if that’s me, I’ll need to do it in the reality of my culture of where I am. Because the culture is doing a better job at discipleship than the church is.

AVAIL: They just may not be discipling them in the right direction.

Ulmer: Not the right direction. So, I think that there are going to have to be tough decisions made. What is the call of God on this house? What is the call of God for me to lead people in the reality of the cultures in which they live? That's a tough call because that will cost somebody their job.

AVAIL: And it already is for some leaders.

Ulmer: All over the country. There are backroom discussions. Don't preach about this. Don't talk about that. Don't get into this. Don't get into that.

AVAIL: So, if the church can't be prophetic and speak from a biblical worldview when it comes to race, how are we going to have a voice to speak about sexuality and abortion and other things that might be more historically things that the church has addressed? Do you think these are connected?

Ulmer: It highlights our irrelevance.

AVAIL: Because we choose to be silent in some areas, we lose a voice in others.

Ulmer: We have so compromised that we don't have the credibility to comment on these other issues. Many of my friends don't want to admit that the church—especially church attendance—was in decline before COVID. If you look at Barna and if you look at Pew [Research], the church had in many cases leveled off and, in some cases, already begun to decline significantly before George Floyd and before COVID. In many cases, we were in trouble before these things happened.

AVAIL: So, a lot of negative stuff, a lot of sobering news, but what are some bright spots that you see, as you describe yourself as Moses—seeing farther than you will go

Ulmer: I think this is a time for honesty—i.e. the whole counsel of God. I think it's a time for sensitivity to recognize the reality of the pressure that people who—if they come to that pew—face when they leave that pew or leave that church and enter the culture. We must acknowledge the penetrating influence of the culture. We have historically assumed the whole Judeo-Christian myth. That's gone, and we've got to acknowledge that. There's going to have to be dependence and humility on the power and leadership of the Holy Spirit.

AVAIL: So, what are some ways that will affect our ministry?

Ulmer: We're going to have to change many of our wineskins. It’s a time for creative imagination. The rule is there are no rules. Some of the old rules are not going to work—the things that worked yesterday. When David says in Psalm 92, “I shall be anointed with fresh oil,” I think the church is in line for a fresh anointing like never before. That anointing does not mean that the old anointing was a bad anointing. It means that the old anointing was the right anointing for the old season. We’re in a new season. There's a group of a generation of Joshuas and Janices. God is raising up new prophets whose words and declarations and faith cross all of these lines. We've always known the church is going to win.

 

 

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