Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion, by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion, by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (IVP, 2018)

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, writer, speaker and activist, is the founder of a house of hospitality for the homeless, active in education projects in prisons and neighbourhoods, and is an associate minister in an historic African American church in North Carolina. His Reconstructing the Gospel is a hard-hitting examination of the nature of the Christian gospel in American society. His concern is that white evangelicals have largely overlooked the scriptural mandate for justice, love and care for the poor. The book’s foreword by William Barber II calls this “theological malpractice” and alleges that “they have hijacked the gospel and used it to justify what the Bible calls sin.”

Wilson-Hartgrove draws on his own journey of faith, from what he calls the racial blindness of a white evangelical background in North Carolina to the porch of an elderly black woman, Ms Carolyn, which he said was a truer experience of church than almost anything he had experienced in a house of worship, to helping lead a traditionally black church.

In Part I of the book, Wilson-Hartgrove makes his case that white evangelicalism is institutionally racist, preaching a gospel that is twisted to accommodate what he calls America’s original sin. The white Christianity that advocated, condoned or tolerated owning, using and abusing black human beings in the US’s slave-owning past has never really come to terms with this past, and cannot properly hear the voices of poor black and brown people around them. How, he asks, “did slave-holder religion take a message that calls us out of systemic injustice and use it to subjugate generations of children created in the image of God?” and how does Christianity in America remain captive to such a slave-holder religion?

In the second part of the book, the author examines what is needed for the church to become faithful to the gospel, and focuses on what he calls the gospel practices of confession, resistance and nonviolent love. He calls for white people to both reckon with and then to unlearn whiteness, and to choose solidarity with those whose lives are shaped by injustice. And he points to the “revolutionary love ethic of Jesus” as the key to changing the present racial narrative in America.

Such gospel practices, Wilson-Hartgrove recognizes will cost “everything,” but is no more than the gospel of Jesus demands of Christians.

Reconstructing the Gospel is a short book, nicely presented and easily read, but its message is uncompromising and hard-hitting, and surely sounds a prophetic alarm to white evangelicalism in the United States. It deserves a wide readship.