The New Reformation: Finding Hope in the Fight for Ethnic Unity - Summary & Analysis
Our next book in the Gospel & Race Project is The New Reformation: Finding Hope in the Fight for Ethnic Unity by Shai Linne. Shai is a well-known hip-hop artist, church planter, and pastor. In this book, Shai aims to show us shows how the gospel applies to the pursuit of ethnic unity. When it comes to ethnicity, Shai suggests that Christians today have to fight against two tendencies: idolatry and apathy. Idolatry makes ethnicity ultimate, while apathy tends to ignore it altogether. But there is a third way, the way of the Bible. Shai wants to help us chart a new way forward in addressing the critical question of what it means for people of all ethnicities to be the one people of God. In this review, I will briefly outline his main points along with some applications for us as a church.
The first half of the book is focused on Shai’s story of conversion and how he came to embrace reformed theology with all its associated baggage. Shai’s family moved from Southwest Philly to Northeast Philly. For Black families in the 80s in Southwest Philly, moving to Northeast Philly represented moving to the white suburbs where they would have the opportunity for better schools, better housing, better jobs, and an escape from the poor neighborhoods of Southwest Philly that was being ravaged by the early stages of the crack epidemic.
It was in 5th grade when Shai moved to a predominantly white elementary school in the suburbs that he became much more aware of his blackness. He goes on to share many heartbreaking stories of how being black was no longer a simple fact of life, but become weaponized against him by his peers. One painful situation he shares was about kids in a lunchroom huddled together reciting the following poem when Shai walked over: “Roses are big, violets are bigger You have lips like an African nigger!” Shai recounts the humiliation and belittlement he felt at that moment as his peers burst out in uncontrollable laughter. Later, Shai shares a story of walking down the street, listening to his Walkman, minding his own business, when he was grabbed by a police officer who yelled at him to get up against the wall. His belongings were confiscated, he was handcuffed and thrown in the back of the police cruiser. He waited scared out of his mind until a white couple pulled up in another cruiser next to him to identify a suspect in a crime. The traumatized couple ended up letting the officers know that they had misidentified Shai. The officer let Shai go, but not before saying, “See, that worked out well for you, didn’t it?” Nothing was said about Shai’s rights in this situation, the fourth amendment, or probable cause. This is something I have never experienced in my life. Yet, I have heard stories like this from several black brothers and sisters in Christ. Shai later shared some of his thoughts after the death of George Floyd. One can imagine that his own experience ran through the back of his mind when seeing that news story and subsequent trial unfold.
Shai was discipled in many ways by secular hip-hop before he met Christ. It was through the witness of an evangelical Christian girl, Heather, that Shai came to hear the gospel and saw its power demonstrated through her life. He began devouring the Bible for himself. He explains his conversion in his way:
Within a few weeks, I was back in Philadelphia, a completely different person. I had been miraculously transformed. When I left to live with Carlos, I was a Jesus-hating, New Age–embracing, weed-smoking hedonist. When I returned, I was on fire for the Lord Jesus Christ and ready to tell everyone about Him. What I didn’t realize at the time was that God, in His mercy (and with His sense of humor), was about to use the very thing that discipled me in my hatred for Him as the means through which I would help proclaim His supremacy: hip-hop (pp. 35-36).”
Because of his story, Shai, often wrestled with aspects of the black and white spaces he lived in. While Shai wrestled with what aspects of his black culture to retain, he became convinced that he did not have to abandon his culture. He says: “Jesus wasn’t calling me to abandon my culture … at least not the God-honoring aspects of it. Rather, He was calling me to leverage my culture for the glory of God.”
I love hearing about the power of the gospel to transform lives miraculously. Shai’s story made me rejoice in my own salvation once again. It made me realize that I have so much in common with Shai – we are both humans who were both dead in our trespasses until the light of Christ shone in our hearts to rescue us from a sentence of death. For those of us in Christ, don’t we all share the same story? And shouldn’t this cause us to rejoice with one another and share in the joy of the unity we have in Christ? Shai certainly wants us to foundationally see that before we can embark on this journey to pursuit of ethnic harmony.
Is Reformed Theology The Problem?
Shai goes on to share how he began to embrace Reformed theology as he attend Tenth Presbyterian Church, which was predominately white and reformed. He began to grow in his faith as he benefitted from the expository preaching of Dr. Phillip Ryken. However, Shai also struggled with the history of Reformed Christianity in America that defended slavery and segregation and was largely silent in the civil rights era. He wrestles with the complicity of his own church, Tenth Presbyterian Church, in the racism of the past. He wrestles with the complicity of Jonathan Edwards in slavery while being hailed as a theological hero on Sunday mornings from the pulpit. Shai then explores the history of the Protestant Reformation intending to answer a simple question: Is there anything inherent in Reformed theology itself that would produce blind spots in its adherents concerning “racism” or ethnic sins?
Shai then puts forward a theory of why the issue of race, racism, and racial injustice received little to no attention in the writings of the early Reformers or its later adherents. He suggests that there is nothing in Reformation doctrine that would cause those in the tradition to be blind to the issues of injustice for the poor, but it could potentially be their social status that causes them to ignore these issues. He points to the fact that due to low literacy rates during the reformation, it is likely that Reformed theology was primarily embraced by wealthy and powerful Christians who were content with the social structure of their day and did little to address the application of the gospel in the realm of oppression/injustice toward the poor. I am not a historian to assess the validity of this argument, but I do see some of this reality today in how Reformed theology appeals much more toward the highly educated and thus socially wealthy which can cause us to neglect the needs of the poor and oppressed. Regardless of the reasons, Shai suggests that both the historical and present-day landscape of the Reformed tradition needs a new reformation regarding ethnic unity in the church.
Between Two Worlds
When Shai entered a predominately white reformed church, there were many things he loved and embraced about the new culture he entered. But in a sense, he always felt like he was between two different worlds culturally and even politically. This tension he felt was being experienced and exacerbated throughout America as Black and White Christians began to have sharply divergent views regarding high-profile police shootings of unarmed Black people over the past decade. For many Black Christians in white spaces, the presidential election was the last straw that caused them to return to the Black churches they had left when they sought to unify with their White brothers and sisters years before. Here is how he summarizes these divergent views between Black and White Christians:
“For many Black Christians in the Christian hip-hop community and beyond, there was a feeling of betrayal that many White Christians couldn’t understand. That feeling was something like this: Black Christians had made the effort to leave churches that were culturally familiar for the sake of the gospel and our theological like-mindedness. It had been an adjustment and a sacrifice for many Black Christians to worship in churches where the music style wasn’t culturally familiar, the preaching style wasn’t culturally familiar, the way community was done wasn’t culturally familiar, and the social dynamics of the church itself weren’t culturally familiar. But we were willing to do so because we had the gospel in common. And White Christians were happy to have us as long as we just rapped about the gospel and kept quiet about the things we talk about among ourselves all the time that deeply affect us. But the moment we expressed the pain we felt about “racial” injustice, many White Christians were quick to dismiss us, rebuke us, or silently ignore us. If this was how we were going to be treated, we’d rather go back to the churches where the theological agreement may not have been as great, but at least we knew we’d be cared for, heard, and understood (p. 81).”
“For many White Christians, there was confusion about why Black Christians were so affected by these killings, many of which involved people with criminal backgrounds. Especially because the way Black Christians processed the shootings seemed as if they were buying into the narrative of the liberal media, which does everything it can to stoke the flames of “racial” tension and make everything about “race” when it’s not.
Shai goes on to suggest that the common ground between Black and White Christians will continue to remain elusive until one or both groups are willing to enter into the other’s world in order to develop the empathy that nurtures the pursuit of true understanding. I’m thankful that Shai has stuck around a mostly white reformed church to be a bridge and help others in this culture grow in understanding of what many experience in the Black community. One of the things I most appreciated about this book is that Shai begins with the premise that Scripture is authoritative and sufficient for all things concerning faith and practice. The rest of the book lays a biblical foundation and wise application of biblical principles to the issue of ethnic harmony.
Racism or Ethnic Sins?
When it comes to the issue of ethnic harmony, Shai wants us to begin with the Bible rather than culture to guide us in how we think about it. One of the clearest ways in which he wants Christians to distinguish themselves in this conversation by being more biblically precise in their language. Shai wants Christians to reject the term “race” and calls Christians to adopt the term ethnicity as we engage on this issue. Instead of the term “racism,” Shai gives us different types of “ethnic sins” that Scripture helps us identify.
Ethnic Hatred - An active, passionate disdain for another person or group based on their ethnicity. Modern examples of this are the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis. Biblical examples of this would be Haman toward the Jews (Est. 9:24) and Jonah toward the Assyrians (Nineveh was the capital of Assyria). Jonah had so much contempt for them that he couldn’t even find it in his heart to rejoice when Nineveh repented at his preaching (Jonah 4:1).
Ethnic Pride - is when a person has feelings of superiority concerning the ethnic group they belong to. Modern examples of this are as blatant as the Black Hebrew Israelites or as subtle as a condescending comment made by an American homeowner to the immigrant worker who does her landscaping. Biblical examples of this would be Goliath concerning Israel (1 Sam. 17:8) and the Jews concerning Gentiles (Rom. 2:17–29).
Ethnic Favoritism (or Partiality) - is the practice of giving unjust preferential treatment to one person or group on the basis of their ethnicity. A modern example of this is Wells Fargo Bank settling an $8 million lawsuit in 2020 from the US Department of Labor due to charges of discriminatory hiring practices that proved detrimental to thousands of Black applicants. As part of the settlement agreement, Wells Fargo admitted no liability but also agreed to provide job opportunities to 580 impacted applicants.
Ethnic Oppression - is the unjust or cruel exercise of power or authority toward a person or people on the basis of their ethnicity. Modern examples of this are the displacement of Native Americans in the US and the mass incarceration of Black men in America during the “War on Drugs” in the ’80s and ’90s.9 Biblical examples of this are the oppression of the Hebrews by the Egyptians (Ex. 3:9) and the oppression of Israel by the Midianites (Judg. 6:1–10).
Ethnic Idolatry - is elevating one’s own ethnicity (or someone else’s) to a place that causes the person to break the law of God. A modern example is the Christian parents who forbid their Christian child to marry another Christian because of their ethnicity.
Ethnic Neglect - is a sin of omission (Proverbs 3:27). It occurs when a person fails to care properly for another person because of their ethnicity. A modern example would be White police officers who stood there while Rodney King was being beaten and did nothing to intervene. Related to that case was the case of Reginald Denny, the White truck driver who was pulled out of his truck during the L.A. riots and viciously assaulted by a group of Black men. The other Black people who stood around and watched (or worse, laughed) were guilty of ethnic neglect.
I appreciated these helpful biblical categories as well as modern-day examples. While most people are quick to reject the label “racist” for themselves, these categories cover a wide range of heart dispositions, thoughts, and actions that likely indict most of us. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ who covers all our deepest sins!
Does our Ethnicity Matter?
Shai helps us see God’s purposes for the nations in his plans of redemption. I won't rehash his argument here, but he traces the theme of ethnicity from Creation, Fall, Redemption to Final Consummation similar to Daniel Hayes in his book, From Every People and Nation (See my review here). Shai thank goes on to answer an important question for those of us who are tempted to colorblindness (e.g. “I don’t see color.”) He answers the question about if ethnicity should matter for Christians in the following way:
“So to the question, does ethnicity matter? I respond with another question. Does it matter for what? For salvation? Absolutely not! But in order to display the glory and wisdom of God, it definitely matters that God made you Jamaican or Italian or Irish or Korean or Polish or Turkish or Taiwanese or Nigerian. Like everything else in the world, ethnicity exists for God’s glory (p. 132).”
He goes on to encourage Christians not to ignore ethnicity, gloat about it, or be ashamed of it. Instead, he encourages Christians to thank God for it and leverage it for the glory of God. He encourages White brothers and sisters who might be tempted to ignore the entire category of ethnicity. He says,
“To my White brothers and sisters in Christ, please don’t tell me that you don’t see color. I know what you mean. You’re trying to communicate that you treat all people equally and that you judge people based on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. That’s great. We should all do that. But God was intentional when He gave me brown skin. He didn’t give it to me that it might be ignored. He gave it to me that it would be appreciated and that He might be praised for His creative genius. So don’t rob God of His praise by ignoring it! (p. 133).”
If we are to biblically think about ethnicity, we must give it proper attention. Not by elevating it above everything else, nor by ignoring it, but by recognizing it as one of the expressions of the manifold expressions of God’s plan for creation and redemption.
What is the Outcome of Ethnic Harmony?
Many passages speak to the desire God has for the unity of the church despite our many secondary differences. Shai focuses on Jesus’ high priestly prayer in the gospel of John to help us see the desire Jesus has for unity, harmony, and ‘oneness’ among his people.
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (John 17:21-26)
From this prayer of Jesus, there are several insights we can see. The oneness of the church is based on the oneness of God (John 17:21). We can see that all Christians, are in spiritual union with Jesus Christ (John 17:23,26). While the church is united to Christ, there is a sense in which the church is being progressively being made one with Christ and with one another. (John 17:23). Finally, we see the outcome of this outward manifestation of God’s glory seen in the growing unity in the church – so that the world may know! (John 17:26)
If the unity of the church is one of the chief means by which God uses to compel unbelievers to trust in the gospel, unfortunately, a divided church casts doubt in the mind of unbelievers about the authenticity of the gospel message. Whatever our differences might be, God’s glory through our witness to the world is at stake in our conversations regarding race and ethnicity. This is sobering and ought to be one of our chief motivations to strive hard to see progress toward ethnic harmony.
Where do we go from here?
Shai concludes with eight exhortations to us on how we can make progress in ethnic harmony. He fleshes out these in much more detail in the book, but here are the high-level encouragements he gives us.
- Let us wholeheartedly embrace a new “we.”
- Let us keep the gospel central.
- Let us be countercultural in how we pursue unity with Christians whom we disagree with.
- Let us assume the best about our brothers and sisters.
- Let us enter each other’s worlds.
- Let us deal graciously with each other’s faults.
- Let us persevere.
- Let us remember Jesus Christ.
These exhortations are biblical, grounded in the gospel, and hope-filled. There is a lot in the book that I appreciated. Shai’s perspective is helpful to me because he is a Black pastor, in a predominately reformed church, who has dealt with the past failings of the reformed church, and continues to remain and labor in the church and strive for ethnic harmony. He admits the challenges, the acknowledges the differences of opinion that remain. In doing so, he doesn’t paint some rosy utopia that is right about the corner if we just adjust a few things. Rather, he brings us back to Scripture, to first principles, to our common union in Adam, and our common union in Christ as the basis for progress toward ethnic harmony. None of this is easy, and all of it requires an immense amount of humility, patience, forbearance, gentles, and love. I’m so thankful that all those resources are available to us through the gospel, and that is a good reason to endure with hope.
- What were some helpful insights for you from this book?
- How are Shai’s definitions of ethnic sins helpful in assessing your own heart and actions?
- How does Jesus’ prayer for the unity of his people compel you to be eager to pursue ethnic harmony?
- For the Lord to give us a hope-filled vision for ethnic harmony
- For the Lord to help us see and repent of ethnic sins that may have a hold on our hearts.
- For the Lord to help us endure with hope in the pursuit of ethnic harmony.
Take a listen to the theological depth and lyrical skill Shai incorporates in some of my favorite songs by him – The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Glory of God
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