“Called to Reconciliation,” a comprehensive argument for a “good gumbo” church (Book Review)
October 18, 2022
In “Called to Reconciliation: How the Church Can Model Justice, Diversity, and Inclusion,”[i] Dr. Jonathan C. “Jay” Augustine offers a compelling and comprehensive analysis, argument, and clarion call for today’s church to “repent of her division,” and return to its “apostolic-era theology” of diversity and inclusion.
Augustine, a nationally recognized social justice advocate, is senior pastor at St. Joseph AME Church, Durham, NC. He is also a law professor at North Carolina Central University, and strategist with the Duke University Center for Reconciliation. He earned a B.A. from Howard University, J.D. from Tulane University, an M.Div. from United Theological Seminary, and a doctorate from Duke University. He’s the author of “The Keys Are Being Passed: Race, Law, Religion and the Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.”
In full disclosure, Dr. Augustine and I are both members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and he serves as the national chaplain. I heard him recently speak about “Called to Reconciliation” at the annual session of the Baptist General Convention of Virginia. C-SPAN was on hand to record the presentation and broadcast it as part of its Book TV series. That presentation immediately led me to purchase and read his new book.
With a nod to his New Orleans roots, the author frames his passionately persuasive argument as—metaphorically— “good gumbo.” “Good gumbo is good,” he asserts, “because it’s made with a variety of diverse ingredients, each one enriching the others” (1). Moreover, he believes that “society is also better when it brings diverse people and diverse groups together in community because our perspectives and experiences are enriched by differences” (1). America as a “melting pot” suggests assimilation (“bland broth”), but “good gumbo” bespeaks a celebration of diversity, he explains.
Drawing from his knowledge and experiences of more than three decades in law and theology, Augustine meticulously connects “theology, legal history, and politics with diversity and inclusion practices” (1) into a relevant 160-page opinion, charge, and challenge for the contemporary church in America, particularly in this polarizing era of Trumpism. On so many levels, this is truly “a season of staggering challenge.”[ii]
The book is divided into five chapters, two parts. Part 1, “The Theology of Reconciliation,” begins with the author’s examination of the term “reconciliation,” and then advances to a discussion on three types: salvific, social, and civil. Using the image of a Christian cross to address salvific and social reconciliation, Augustine explains how the vertical line represents humans being reconciled to God, while the horizontal line represents humans being reconciled to one another (20). The practical implementation of social reconciliation should inevitably lead to civil reconciliation; it focuses on society’s structures, systems, and policies. It’s “putting faith into action in the public square” (72).
Reconciliation is a ministry that Jesus left to the church (2 Corinthians 5:17-19), with forgiveness as a requisite (72), he argues.
Part 2 is “Reconciliation with ‘the Other.’” It refers back to Peter’s revelation of inclusion that came through his encounter with Cornelius in Acts 10, “Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every people anyone who fears him and practices righteousness is acceptable to him.’” (Acts 10:34-35) The “Other” includes everybody— “regardless of race or ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, political affiliation or socioeconomic status” (100).
Augustine presents a critical multidisciplinary analysis of major and controversial civil reconciliation successes, and the political responses to them. He identifies issues and presents relevant examples, from the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter. He asserts:
“In response to the 1960s’ most measurable achievements in civil reconciliation, the Voting Rights Act and the government’s attempts at diversity and inclusion by means of affirmative action, an unlikely alliance began to develop. The Republican Party’s southern strategy capitalized on an anti-progress sentiment, associated with the Black church’s political activism in the Civil Rights Movement, by creating a fusion between disgruntled whites and evangelical Christians. Over the course of four decades, this unlikely alliance became a bedrock constituency of the Republican Party” (91).
In “Called to Reconciliation: How the Church Can Model Justice, Diversity, and Inclusion,” Dr. Jonathan C. “Jay” Augustine writes, “My prayer is that, in the years to come, we will look at America and see that we are all called to reconciliation, with the church leading the way as a model for justice, diversity, and inclusion.” This book is a call to action.
Augustine maintains that the coalescing of these critical conditions resulted in the Donald Trump presidency.
Next, the author looks at God’s intention for the church—the ekklesia—as a community comprised of the “Other;” that is, those “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9). He examines the values of diversity in secular institutions, and then explores examples of church-based reconciliation.
Augustine closes on a hopeful note, explaining how diversity and inclusion moves the church in the direction of authentic reconciliation. He offers his concluding defense with evidence of 900-member Middle Collegiate Church in New York City as an example. Led by the senior pastoral leadership of Dr. Jacqui Lewis, an African American woman, Middle Church was once a predominantly white, conservative congregation that has grown exponentially because it has embraced diversity and demonstrated reconciliation. As Augustine points out, the church’s “Who We Are” section of its website states:
“The diversity of our congregation and staff looks like a New York City subway but it feels like a home full of love. Welcome to church like you’ve never experienced it before.
Middle Church is where therapy meets Broadway; where art and dance meet a gospel revival; where old time religion gets a new twist. We are Bach, Beatles, and Beethoven; we are jazz, hip-hop, and spirituals. We are inspired by Howard Thurman, Ruby Sales, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Martin Luther King. We are on-your-feet worship and take-it-to-the-streets activism. We feed the hungry and work for a living wage; we fight for LGBTQ+ equality and march for racial/ethnic justice. We stand up for the stranger and the immigrant; we care for women’s lives and Mother Earth.
We’ve been to the border, we’ve rebuilt in Puerto Rico; we’ve been arrested while fighting for health care and supporting survivors of sexual violence. From Trayvon to Mike to Sandy to Eric—we know that when Black Lives Matter, all lives will matter.”
Because of Augustine’s academic and professional experiences, he nimbly navigates from legal to theological arguments with ease; this book is particularly well suited for students in law school or seminary. This work reads like both an oral argument in a courtroom and a theological treatise in a sanctum.
The author offers enlightening exegesis of New Testament pericopes, including portions of Galatians, 1 Corinthians, Acts, and Romans. Moreover, he expounds upon the historical and contextual significance of a dozen Supreme Court cases, including Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886), Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), Roe v. Wade (1973), Shelby County v. Katzenbach (1966) and Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978). The end result is a prophetic call and convincing case for the modern church to take its place as society’s exemplar in reconciliation.
This well-researched book, published by Baker Academic, includes an appendix of referenced Supreme Court cases, as well as a Scripture and subject index. These are helpful tools for this heavy and important discussion that reflects “historic Christianity and its contemporary expressions.” This is a must-read for serious students and scholars, professors and pastors, leaders and laity—for those committed to the arduous struggle for social justice, diversity, and inclusion.
Augustine writes, “My prayer is that, in the years to come, we will look at America and see that we are all called to reconciliation, with the church leading the way as a model for justice, diversity, and inclusion” (124). “Called to Reconciliation” is a call to action.
[i] Jonathan C. Augustine, “Called to Reconciliation: How the Church Can Model Justice, Diversity, and Inclusion.” Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022.
[ii] Kim Pearson, “What Does Resistance Look Like?” Black History Bulletin, published by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc., Fall 2022, Vol. 85, No. 2, page 8.