Eight years ago, our nation elected our first Black president, Barack Obama. Even for those who did not share his politics, it was easy to appreciate the historic nature of this election: Here we were, not even a century and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation, and a Black man was sitting in the White House. For many, this was enough to prove that we were living in (or at least approaching) a post-racial America—an America that really was capable of moving beyond racism. Perhaps we had not fully atoned for what Jim Wallis called “America’s original sin,” but at least we did not need to live in its thrall.
Today, this optimism seems naïve. Our most recent election revealed that, far from being post-racial, we face deep fissures in American society. Most have heard that 81% of White evangelicals voted for President Trump. While pundits and statisticians quibble about the fine points, that number stands in stark contrast to the mere 8% of African-Americans—a large portion of whom identify as Christian—who voted for him. Latinos, another disproportionately Christian ethnic group, voted for Trump at a 29% clip.I rejoice in gratitude that the class of 2020 is our most ethnically diverse and that the previous high was the class of 2019.
Anyone who takes seriously Jesus’ prayer “that they may all be one” (John 17:21) should be alarmed at those statistics and the wider reality they represent. Broadly speaking, White evangelicals and Christians of color see our President-elect differently, see America differently, see the world differently. In many ways, this is because our separation has helped us to see the church, worship and God differently. This division sits heavily upon us—and it should. While some are using this post-election season to retreat to our various corners, lick our wounds and be thankful that presidential election season doesn’t come around again for at least a couple of years, Christians don’t have that option. We have a Savior who wants us to be one, and we have evidence—hard data and painful bruises—that we are not yet there.
But here and there, we see glimmers, little lights in the nighttime sky. These fledgling stars give us hope and help us chart a course toward healing. I rejoice in gratitude that the class of 2020 is our most ethnically diverse and that the previous high was the class of 2019. I like to think the Houghton Gospel Choir is another one of these little stars. Jerome Bell (’15, MM ’17) directs the choir with grace and professionalism. For some, the choir provides an outlet to sing songs that sound and feel like home; for others, it serves as a way to learn about a musical tradition they know very little about. Many of our students grew up in churches defined by the “worship wars” and come to Houghton with very clear expectations about what worship should be, and they can be very critical about worship that doesn’t measure up. The worship wars’ turf is well-worn: Depending on our perspective, we argue that music is too tradition-bound, fusty and aloof or that it is too repetitive, culture-captive and emotion-driven. Many students (and many faculty and staff!) have chosen their sides, and we either prepare for battle or settle into cold détente. But the Gospel Choir winsomely shows a way forward: music that is fresh but connected with a tradition, that is buoyant and intense but not market-driven, that uses repetition and volume to joyfully connect the head and the heart without being pedantic or sentimental.
The choir has its share of ups and downs; often, there is tension between exploring the depths of the music with people who have grown up singing it on the one hand and welcoming people for whom it’s brand new on the other. But, in all, the choir is a great sign of hope, a reminder that, in welcoming those who stretch us, we often entertain angels unawares.
Each class day, the campus community is invited to morning prayer at 7:30. (Next time you come to campus, you should join us!) I often pray that we will be a sign of hope to a hopeless world—that the world will see Jesus in us. Sometimes, I think that means that we have some important idea to teach the world. But more and more, I think we have something to teach about unity. We’ve become convicted that the world is hopeless in part because it is divided, because we are increasingly isolated from God and from each other, that we live in a world in which “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). So for the world to see Jesus in us is not just a matter of preaching the Gospel; it is a matter of demonstrating genuine Gospel unity in a fragmented world. If we can live as a truly unified community—a community that is learning to dialogue well across racial lines and to take real steps forward together—that will be a tremendous prophetic sign of God’s hope in a hopeless world.
J. Michael Jordan ’99 serves as Dean of the Chapel and Chair of the Department of Biblical Studies, Theology and Philosophy.