Back in the ‘90s, I entered the river of grace through an evangelical tributary lined with impassioned altar calls and communion bread so sweet one could only hope for crumbs at the end of the benediction. Ushered into its headwaters by fire-and-brimstone revival preachers, Bible drills, and youth rallies, I learned to love God from a small southern town of people who unhesitatingly called me theirs and still do.
I preached my first sermon in this context. I figured out that I could pray and dream here. I let the scriptures imprint onto my soul, forming a foundation that could hold the evolution of my understanding over the next 20 years. Down those aisles and around those tables, an insatiable curiosity grew within me for Jesus. I heard him call my name.
Is there a gift that has meant more?
But I have long felt a war within me between a faith that first put my hand in the hand of the man who calmed the waters and a faith that has for so long been utilized to oppress. In the same era of my baptism into a called life, I found myself on a football field one Friday night after my high school’s victory. Swimming upstream against exhausted and muddy friends, I — the unathletic water girl — hugged a number of players, congratulating their successful pull-through in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, in the middle of the stands waiting near a family member of mine was a church man leaning over to warn her about my generous affection with darker skinned folks. There were names for people like me if I wasn’t careful.
It was among church people that I first wondered if I might live for God forever. And it was among church people that I first learned a Bible-backed racism. How could I not be a woman divided? A woman confused and wordless when it comes to what grapples with itself inside of me, aching to make its way out of the peripheral of my comprehension and into the forefront. Why do I feel so torn?
Much to my gratitude, someone found resonant language for me to better process my reality. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion is the book I didn’t know I needed to read. Ultimately an exposé of his own faith, Wilson-Hartgrove’s chapters invite the reader into a reconstructed gospel by way of a deconstructed gospel which looks honestly at the pasts of our country and church.
It is a timely work — the sort of writing that makes one look at the world around us, recognizing that its pages were years in the making, and sigh with thankfulness that some things truly are here for “such a time as this.” We are not alone. God’s spirit goes before us and behind us, desiring to reconcile us to ourselves, to each other, and to the holy.
And reconciliation starts with confession. This book is confessional and invitational, ushering us through well-researched accounts of how, somewhere along the way, the Good News of Love Incarnate was weaponized for the oppression of many and the prosperity of few. Journeys into ourselves such as these are where we must begin: looking backwards and letting those divides into the faith we’ve inherited lead us to discussion and consideration, admission and prayer— “that we,” as James 5:16 says, “may be healed.”
From political podiums to passionate pulpits, the world watches as the message of Christ (who came to “proclaim good news to the poor” and “freedom for the prisoners”) is wielded to keep border walls militarized and nonviolent protests of Black people demonized. Something is wrong, and we know it in our bones if not clearly in our minds. Something’s been wrong for a long time.
For these reasons, I want to invite you — any of you reading this or those whom you hope would read it as well — to join us for an online book study of Reconstructing the Gospel. We’ll read. We’ll discuss. We’ll confess (our theologies, our pasts, our grapplings, our fears) if we so feel convicted. We’ll pray. Lord willing, we’ll heal.
Each Monday, throughout the month of July, questions will be posted to an online Facebook group where participants will be encouraged to answer and engage with each other in thoughtful, merciful ways. A discussion will take place throughout the week; and each Friday, a reflection piece written out of that discussion will be shared here on Red Letter Christians. At the end of the month, we’ll gather questions for Jonathan to do a Facebook Live Q&A.
To join us, get your hands on a book before July 1st, and go to Facebook to request to join the group “Reconstructing the Gospel Book Study.” Invite your friends. Offer a book swap with someone who may likely disagree with the message and/or be skeptical of engaging with it. Share with your churches and communities whose small groups may be interested in taking this opportunity to grow together.
“How had I missed this?” Jonathan writes. “How have so many sincere Christians confessed and practiced a religion that made them worse than they might have been otherwise? How, I had to ask, did slaveholder religion take a message that calls all of us out of systemic injustice and use it to subjugate generations of children created in the image of God?”
How, indeed. Let’s talk about it.