The Coming Race Wars, William Pannell. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021.
Summary: A new edition of a book first released in 1993 following riots in Lost Angeles, calling the evangelical church to address the issues of racial justice in the country. The new edition shows the prescience of Pannell’s observations and the even greater urgency of coming to grips with our racial transgressions.
The year 2020 was not unlike 1992 in a number of ways. In 1992 riots broke out in Los Angeles and other cities over the acquittal of officers involved in the beating of Rodney King. In 2020, people took to the streets once more in anger over the police involved death of George Floyd. In 1993, William Pannell, a Black evangelical who taught at Fuller Seminary wrote the first edition of this book as a wake up call to the White evangelical church to deal with the ways it was implicated in the legacy of racism in America. It is a cry of the heart combined with a social analysis of American culture.
This new edition, introduced by Jemar Tisby, a Black Christian leader of this generation, draws the arc between the book’s original publication and the present, noting some of the ways that Pannell’s analysis was prophetic, prescient in identifying both the deepening of our cultural divides around race and the neglect of a prosperous evangelicalism to address these issues. In the first chapter of the book, Pannell extends the arc further back. Evangelicals were largely silent in the years of Dr. King, choosing instead to migrate to the suburbs.
Pannell then discusses the black male, and all the ways black men were excluded from economic progress during the Reagan years. He traces the beginning of Republican efforts to play on discontents of the working class to drive a deep divide between them and Blacks where once there had been shared interest. He describes a multiculturalism that displays diversity without allowing Black evangelical leaders real influence. Against the popular focus on violence in the cities, Pannell decries the psychological violence of the warfare between city and suburb and unequal education systems.
The evangelical church of the 1990’s is a big part of this warfare. Black churches are no less evangelical than their white sisters in the suburbs. He chides Christianity Today as becoming Suburban Christianity Today, reflecting both in the housing patterns of its staff and the network of ministries on which it reports a highly networked suburban evangelicalism far removed from their sister churches in the city. In his original concluding chapter, he asks “where do we go from here?” and in the words of Rodney King, “Why can’t we get along?” He believes that an evangelicalism infatuated with ministry in the countries of the former Eastern bloc ought instead consider its own cities. He calls for reconciliation, and with it a ministry that unflinching speaks against the sins it is politically incorrect to denounce, both personal and social. He calls for a spirituality centered on the development of character. He calls for discipleship.
In his afterword, while not losing hope, acknowledges that white evangelicalism has unraveled in many of the ways he feared, becoming a church that looks for revival in the form of Christian nationalism, where most evangelicals align with “Make America Great” while from across the divide comes the cry “Black Lives Matter.” He leaves open what will become of a race war that already exists in the psychology and structures of the country. What he calls for in the end is the making of disciples. He observes that if we set out to make churches, we may miss making disciples, but if we call people to be the disciples of Jesus who become the “beloved community” Dr. King envisioned, we will be the church, which he believes our only hope.
The striking thing to me about this work is how evangelical it is. It is a call to conversion from affluence and infatuation with the American dream to following Jesus, becoming salt and light. It is Christ and cross centered, a call to a downward journey amid a church infatuated with power and access. It is a call to be shaped by our Bibles and to act in light of them. The most chilling part of the book’s analysis for me was to see his anticipation of what would come to fruition in 2016 and 2020 in the driving of a wedge between the working class and Blacks where once they shared values of both social and economic justice. Pannell also sees through the heady growth of evangelicalism in the 1980’s and 1990’s to its spiritual bankruptcy and questionable strategies of church growth that are now bearing fruit in the unraveling of many of these mega-ministries.
I wonder how Pannell’s words about reconciliation would be received today when the conversation has shifted to reparations, the repairing of the harms done over our four hundred years. Perhaps that is for another conversation. What is striking for me is how much Pannell saw with clarity nearly thirty years ago and how much benefit remains in listening to him today. I’ve seen Pannell compared to Jeremiah. The question is whether we will give him greater attention than the prophet. Let us hope.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.