On July 4, 1776, fifty-six delegates to the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence. Many Americans can recite by memory the most famous words of that document:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
A couple of years ago, I began a conversation with two friends – Eric Costanzo, pastor of a World Relief partner church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Daniel Yang, director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center’s Church Multiplication Institute, the son of Hmong refugees who were resettled to the United States and the husband of my World Relief Chicagoland colleague Linda Yang – about what it means to be “unalienable” – or, to use the more contemporary word that was also the word used in Thomas Jefferson’s original drafts of the Declaration, “inalienable.”
That conversation became part of a new book that Eric, Daniel and I have co-authored, Inalienable: How Marginalized Kingdom Voices Can Help Save the American Church.
Drawn from the Latin word alius, meaning “other,” to call something inalienable means that there is no other: what is inalienable has been established by God and therefore cannot be removed or abolished.
For example, there is no other God (Ex 20:3) and thus we must reject idolatry—whether of our nation, our security or our privileged position in society.
Additionally, in God’s kingdom, while the beauty of culture and ethnicity remain, there is no “other”— neither Jew nor Gentile; male nor female; citizen nor immigrant; White nor Black, Latina/o, Arab, Asian nor Indigenous.
Instead we “are all one in Christ Jesus” and of equal worth and importance (Gal 3:28). Scripture is clear that “God does not show favoritism” (Acts 10:34; Rom 2:11; Gal 2:6) and that faithful discipleship requires us to emulate our Lord.
We chose to write a book exploring what it means to be inalienable because we believe American Christians are at a critical crossroad, and the very soul of the American church is at stake.
While Jesus Christ promised that his church will endure until he returns again (Mt 16:18), he did not make that promise to the American church.
If we are to stem this tide of decline and decay, it will take all of us— women, men, Black, White, Latino, Asian, immigrant and Indegenous — and it will take humility to listen to voices of the church beyond the White American evangelical stream of the faith which has long assumed leadership.
To the extent they think of them at all, American Christians have far too often made the mistake of viewing Christians from other parts of the world as our “little brothers and sisters,” as if they are less equipped by the Holy Spirit because they have fewer resources and smaller theological libraries.
On the contrary, we believe the global church to be among God’s greatest and timeliest gifts to the American church, particularly in this season.
In the course of writing this book, we reached out to a number of church leaders in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe whom we’ve met through our work and travels, asking for their candid perspectives on the state of the American church.
One of those conversations was with Pastor Luis Luna of Honduras, who describes what many global Christians feel the more they engage with American evangelicals:
There is that “go and get it done” mentality that we understand is part of the American entrepreneurial spirit and, in a sense, very much part of the American church. It feels like, “Since we have the money, we have the funds, we have the resources, and we have the structure . . . let’s just go and fix these people’s problems and then get out of here.”
Instead of this approach, throughout this book we have worked to elevate the voices of global Christians who speak prophetically through the Holy Spirit from their own biblical and cultural experiences.
Though many of them have yet to be given the chance to significantly influence American evangelical thinking, we have sought out their voices of discipleship by design.
We have also worked to lift up the perspectives of American Christians of color, many of whom come from communities which have been marginalized throughout American history.
We are convinced that their readings of the Bible, which often come from different social locations than those of most American Christians, provide wisdom and will be a part of the corrective process that reveals our blind spots.
In addition to the voices of Christians from beyond the United States and from historically marginalized communities within, we have also purposefully sought out the voices of women.
Whether intentionally or not, most of us are formed primarily by male perspectives on matters of faith. Though women make up the majority (about 55 percent) of U.S. Christians, they have long been on the margins of influence in terms of how Americans think about our faith.
Just one-quarter of students in evangelical seminaries in the United States, and an even smaller share of the faculty, are female. We would be enriched if we instead followed the model of Jesus, who, as Jo Saxton demonstrates from the Gospel narratives “saw women, their worth and their value, even when they were unseen by others.”
For many of us who are male and who grew up in the White-majority, dominant culture of the United States, it will take humility to look beyond the voices most like our own that have traditionally been the only ones we allow to inform us. We’re convinced that the American church desperately needs to heed these fresh voices.
In writing this book, our goal was not to examine what’s admirable or not in the foundation of our nation, but rather to explore the core, inalienable truths about God that we must recover if the American church is to save our sinking ship: his kingdom, image, word, and mission. These truths are at the very center of the biblical narrative.
This blog post was adapted from chapter 1 of Inalienable by Eric Costanzo, Daniel Yang, Matthew Soerens. Text copyright © 2022 by Eric Costanzo, World Relief, and Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press. www.ivpress.com. Learn more and order your copy today.
Matthew Soerens serves as the U.S. Director of Church Mobilization and Advocacy for World Relief. He began working with World Relief as an intern with World Relief Nicaragua in 2005 and joined the staff of World Relief Chicagoland in 2006. In addition to Inalienable, he is also the coauthor of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate and Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis.