Theology in a New Key: “Bleed the Same”

February 20, 2018
It is no secret that public discourse in America has become more tense and less constructive in the last few years. Despite the many voices, particularly in elite circles, calling for tolerance, Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to get along with one another. As a result, people say and do things that drive a wedge between themselves and their neighbors—even in the church.

In response, Mandisa, with the help of TobyMac and Kirk Franklin, has released a rousing call to unity. Bleed the Same exhorts everyone, and particularly Christians, to put aside those things that divide them in favor of cooperation and mutual understanding. But is “Bleed the Same” a prophetic word for a country that is tearing itself apart or a naive and misdirected anthem that sacrifices truth on the altar of expediency?

Commendable Courage and Consistency

Whatever we think of the final product, we must admit that it took courage for Mandisa and her friends to address this topic. Calling for unity may seem unremarkable in a society that talks about tolerance all the time, but, in truth, the various ideological, ethnic, religious, and other groups in our country do not like or trust one another very much. As such, anyone who urges even the slightest concession to an opposing group runs the risk of being labeled a traitor by members of her or his own group.

Moreover, Mandisa and her friends have managed to produce something that is consistent with the values that it claims to espouse (something that is as rare these days as a conciliatory tone on Capitol Hill). They manage to be winsome without watering down their message. They manage to be critical of destructive trends in society without overstating their case or demonizing their opponents.

This balance of courage and consistency is desperately needed in our current political and cultural climate—especially from those who claim to represent Christ. Look, I speak and write for a living. I know how hard it can be, especially when people treat our sincerely held views with disdain. I also know that sometimes we just want to withdraw from the world. Sometimes, we just want to protect ourselves from the pain of engagement with the Enemy. That is why I admire people who are able to speak the truth in a way that is worth hearing and worth heeding.

A Foundational Claim and a Fundamental Question

Still, I have serious concerns about how “Bleed the Same” goes about addressing the very real problems that we face. The foundational claim made by the song is that we all “bleed the same.” That is, we all possess the same identity as members of the human species. As such, we ought to be able to treat one another in a way that recognizes this common identity. More importantly, we ought to be able to transcend the things that differentiate us from one another precisely because they are not as important as the thing that unites us (that is, our common humanity).

At one level, the foundational claim of the song is deeply consonant with the outlook of historic Christianity (and with the experiences of people from all walks of life). There are no subhuman races; male and female together constitute the image of God. And as bearers of God’s image, all people possess by divine decree a dignity that no one can take away from them. When we are open to it, we can see that dignity made manifest, even in people with whom we share very little in common.

At another level, however, the claim that our shared dignity as humans is the most important thing about us can be attacked from a variety of angles. A number of political ideologies are built on the unique experience of a group of people (e.g., African-Americans, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, etc.) Members of such communities cling tenaciously to these experiences. They are their history, and they define their identity. These histories often involve experiences of oppression, so to ask them to subjugate their particular history for the sake of a common human identity might seem to them to be a violation of their personhood.

Moreover, Christianity itself contends that there is something more important than our identity as heirs of Adam. It is our identity as heirs of Christ (cf. Romans 5:12-21). Indeed, the distinction between those who are “in Christ” and those who are not stands at the very heart of Paul’s anthropology. Or, to put it in Johannine terms, humanity is divided into those who come to “the light” and those who choose to remain in “darkness” (see the next section).

So what does all of this mean? It means that we can stand with Mandisa and her friends when they affirm the gospel’s power to bridge ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic divides (cf. Galatians 3:26-29; Ephesians 2:11-21; Colossians 3:11). The gospel is diametrically opposed to those who would—for the sake of acquiring political power or exercising vengeance—make enemies out of people of different races, sexes, national origins, or socioeconomic statuses. Indeed, Mandisa is probably right to call us together into a “beautiful” unity, much like the “rainbow” that Cindy Morgan prays for in her stirring ballad “Make Us One.”

The picture gets more complicated, however, when we start talking about theological, ethical, or ideological differences. Sometimes people really are wrong about something that they believe. Their error may be sincere, but it can still harm individuals around them or society as a whole. Some of these errors are so serious that they warrant a break in fellowship.

Even distinctions of race, sex, socioeconomic status, etc. must be taken seriously, even as we try to bridge the gaps that such distinctions create. We cannot ignore, for example, the history of sexual oppression that women have experienced at the hands of men, even as we try to teach both women and men that forgiveness is demanded of everyone by the gospel. Unity cannot be a tool that a group in power uses to perpetuate its power. It must be part—and only a part—of an overarching identity oriented around the example and teachings of Jesus.

An Awkward Comparison

To that end, we need to take a closer look at the bridge of “Bleed the Same.” There, TobyMac sings these words:

Only love can drive out all the darkness
What are we fighting for?

It is fair to ask us what we are fighting for. Some of us, frankly, are more interested in controlling the levers of political power than we are in making a real difference in the lives of people. Nevertheless, the contrast presented in these lines just seems a bit off. After all, isn’t it light, not love, that “drives out all the darkness” (cf. John 1:1-5, 3:17-21, 8:12; 1 John 1:6-10)?

The Bible is clear that Christ’s death and resurrection display God’s self-giving love to the world, secure ultimate victory over death, and make it possible for humans to be liberated from sin. But we need to be clear what we are talking about when we use words like “darkness.” As the passages listed above illustrate, darkness was a metaphor for deception and evil. It is normally contrasted with “light,” which (among other things) is a metaphor for truth and goodness.

What am I trying to say? Simply this. Love does not defeat darkness—especially if we misunderstand love to mean unquestioning acceptance. Rather, light is the weapon that we must use against darkness. It reveals evil for what it is (a destructive deception), and it draws people to the One who is the embodiment of both truth and love.

The funny thing about truth is that it tends to create conflict. Sometimes, people just disagree about what the truth is, but sometimes people explicitly reject truth. Hence, we need to keep in mind that conflict per se is not the thing that we are trying to root out. Conflict is simply a symptom of the ignorance and avarice that have too often characterized the human species. Our job is to dispel ignorance and confront evil. If we take our job seriously, we will experience conflict.

Daring to Do Important Things

As public advocates for the gospel, we need to be careful that we are not simply parroting the latest intellectual fads. I fear that “Bleed the Same” falls into that trap. Pleas for inclusion and unity fall quite naturally on our twenty-first century American ears; pleas for truth fall more harshly.

Nevertheless, Mandisa and her friends have tried to do something important, and such an attempt is not without risk. If someone were to pick apart my blogs the same way that I have analyzed this song, it would become immediately apparent that I am just as finite and just as prone to error as anyone else. So, let’s applaud Mandisa, TobyMac, and Kirk Franklin for their attempt, and let’s learn together how we can be more faithful advocates for the gospel in the public sphere.

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