On Race and the Gospel: Pastoral Reflections
I’m no expert on racism and reconciliation. I don’t claim to understand all the nuances of the Civil Rights movement or the latest unrest of racial tensions in our country (Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, Charlottesville). It’s a painful and explosive topic. It’s easy to say something ignorant. It’s hard to say something winsome and thoughtful.
Yet Christians can – and should – be able to say without hesitation or equivocation that racism is sinful. This is not the way it was supposed to be.
We are all created in the image of God. “Let us make mankind in our image and after our likeness…” Gen 1:26-27 // “And he made from one man every nation to live on the face of the earth”, Acts 17:26). Racism in any form, including the recent uptick of white supremacy in our country, is an affront to our shared humanity because we are all created in the image of God. Humanity always has more to unite us than divide us because of the beauty and good news of our shared imago dei (the image of God).
The cross of Christ is the great equalizer and the Holy Spirit brings us into one family of faith. (“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all,” Eph 4:3-6 // “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them [Jews and Gentiles] to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility…For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit, Eph. 2:15-19). The beauty of the cross and the gospel is that they provide the means for which we are united into one family of faith.
We will all worship around the throne of God for all eternity with people of every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. (“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb,” Rev. 7:9). The church is a harbinger of the kingdom of heaven where every tribe and race and people are welcomed through the blood of Jesus Christ.
I have no wish to make politics the tail that wags the church. I believe this is an unfortunate misstep for the cause of the gospel. Politicians often suffer from a messianic complex: “vote for me because I alone can save you”. Quite frankly, this is idolatry. Yet, we hear these sentiments on a regular basis from politicians on both the right and the left. The biblical witnesses tells us that there is no area of human life where the sin of idolatry cannot raise its ugly head – and politics is no exception. The messianic nature of politics and its demanding claim of total allegiance upon our worldview should make us pause reflectively and discerningly as Christians.
The church should be a model of charity, empathy, and love in our discourse. Listen to what Kevin DeYoung writes: “The model of discourse we see on television is impatient, defensive, and rude. As Christians we need to be patient, understanding, and kind. Instead of going on the attack, we can ask genuine questions. Instead of bristling when our narrative is summarily dismissed, we can carefully explain our way of seeing things. And when we are wrong, we won’t be afraid to say so.” News stations are big businesses intent on making big money; they do not exist to bring people together over cups of coffee to sing Kumbaya. Facebook posts typically go viral because an “in your face” tone and tenor not because of their ability to reflect on complicated issues in a way that reflects grace and truth. The church has an opportunity in our divided world – to be a different voice that communicates in tones and hues qualitatively different than our world.
So how are Christians to respond to this moment of time where racial tension, white supremacy, and events like Charlottesville are happening in our neck of the woods?
1. Talk with your kids. Begin where you can. Talk to your kids at home. It may not seem like much, but as I see these acts of violence and racism in our country, I often wonder: “Who raised these people? What messages were being communicated at home?” We have a responsibility to raise a generation that sees clearer and thinks deeper about the common humanity we all share across racial lines.
2. Be Informed. I recognize that I have a lot of “catch-up” to do along these lines, as I’ve been overseas for the last 11 years. In Central Africa, I utilized a chapter From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race by Daniel Hays (for a seminary class on “Contemporary African Christianity”). Next, I will be reading John Piper’s Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian. I recognize that these books are only the tip of the iceberg; I will need to have others on my plate. How about you?
I’m interested in hearing what an African American pastor says to white Christians in Tears We Cannot Stop (Michael Erik Dyson) as well as how poor, working class whites are feeling marginalized in today's economy in Hillbilly Elegy (J.D. Vance) -- both are NY Times Bestsellers.
3. Be Teachable, Be Humble, and Do Some Listening (Not only Talking). In my experience, almost every minority can recount with vivid details the history of unfairness, discrimination, and racism that exists in our country. Because they have experienced it personally first-hand. As part of the white majority, I have a lot of listening to do when the opportunity presents itself. Now is one of those times.
What about the events surrounding Charlottesville? Here are what some prominent Christian leaders are saying:
Rev. Tim Keller, Reformed pastor, author, and Vice-President of The Gospel Coalition:
o “Christians should look at the energized and emboldened white nationalism movement, and at its fascist slogans, and condemn it—full stop.”
o “The conservatives are using the events to prove that liberal identity politics is wrong, and liberals are using it to prove that conservatism is inherently racist. We should not do that.” (See: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/race-the-gospel-and-the-moment)
Did you know that before Charlottesville, the largest protestant denomination in the United States – the Southern Baptist Convention – condemned the alt-right movement with this language in June 2017? The declaration reads:
o “WHEREAS, Racism and white supremacy are, sadly, not extinct but present all over the world in various white supremacist movements, sometimes known as “white nationalism” or “alt-right”; now, therefore, be it RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, June 13–14, 2017, decry every form of racism, including alt-right white supremacy, as antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and be it further RESOLVED, That we denounce and repudiate white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as of the devil; and be it further RESOLVED, That we acknowledge that we still must make progress in rooting out any remaining forms of intentional or unintentional racism in our midst; and be it further RESOLVED, That we earnestly pray, both for those who advocate racist ideologies and those who are thereby deceived, that they may see their error through the light of the Gospel, repent of these hatreds, and come to know the peace and love of Christ through redeemed fellowship in the Kingdom of God, which is established from every nation, tribe, people, and language.”
o For a denomination whose strongest pockets of attendance lie in the southern part of the US, this was a case of Christian leaders clearly recognizing the evil of white supremacy as a contradiction of the gospel of Jesus Christ. (See: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-faqs-what-christians-should-know-about-the-alt-right)
Dr. Albert Mohler, Reformed Baptist president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, makes the following observations:
o “Among those who attended the demonstration on Friday night [in Charlottesville] were self-identified neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Photos quickly appeared in Berlin, showing protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia -- in the United States of America -- offering the raised arm of the Nazi salute.”
o “We must see claims of racial superiority–and mainly that means claims of white superiority–as heresy. That is not a word we use casually. Heresy leads to a denial of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the eclipse of the living God as revealed in the Bible. A claim of white superiority is not merely wrong, and not merely deadly. It is a denial of the glory of God in creating humanity—every single human being–in his own image. It is a rejection of God’s glory in creating a humanity of different skin pigmentation. It is a misconstrual of God’s judgment and glory in creating different ethnicities. (See: http://www.albertmohler.com/2017/08/13/letter-berlin-lessons-history-heresy-racial-superiority/)
I bring up these points not to cause needless controversy, but to remind us that Christians have clear biblical reasons to stand up against racism. This is not a grey area. Historically, Christians have always been on the forefront of social justice issues: from the transatlantic slave trade (William Wilberforce) to treating leprosy patients worldwide (Leprosy Mission) to the 2014 Ebola outbreak (where Christians were on the front line in offering courageous and compassionate service).
I pray that TWC will always be a church where all races and nationalities find an authentic, loving community under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Celebrating the beauty and implications of the imago dei with you today,