Racism and the Power of the Gospel

The events in Ferguson Missouri have certainly sent shock waves through our nation. As a result some very dark and ugly things from our past and in our present have been unearthed – things that many would prefer to remain buried. Regardless of where one may stand with regards to whether Officer Darren Wilson should have been indicted (for the record based on everything I’ve heard and read I respect the grand jury’s decision in this case but please don’t stop reading if you disagree), the reality is that America has a sordid history of racism that needs to be aired out in court, so to speak. We need to have an honest conversation about racism in all its hideous forms and get to the heart of the matter; and hopefully to the heart of its solution.

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As a rural white southerner I am very familiar with racism. I literally grew up in a small country store on a long country road in a community in the hills of North Carolina. Since my mother and father’s store was a community gathering place I heard a lot of things that young ears should not hear I suppose. Some of what I heard was blatantly racist. The N-word was common parlance whether directed toward African Americans or fellow whites as a jovial or malicious insult. Mimicking our superiors we kids, including me, sometimes used it as an insult as well. In “mixed company” however, we knew enough to restrain our use of the word. At school, when tempers flared out of control, however, some white kids would hurl the word toward one of our black classmates. Quite often this resulted in fisticuffs.

Our schools weren’t segregated, but many of our homes and most, if not all, of our churches certainly were. Many white southerners knew intuitively if it hadn’t been stated overtly that having black friends at school was one thing, but bringing one home with you was a different story. To say that interracial dating was discouraged would be an understatement; to say that it could be among white parents’ worst nightmares wouldn’t.

Especially by the time I was in high school, basketball had helped me form closer friendships with African Americans than I ever had before. After a game one Friday night, I invited a black friend to spend the night with me so we could hang out and play some ball together on Saturday. The next morning I could tell my father was not pleased – a fact that he would make all the more evident once my friend was gone.

Why did my father think this way? Was it because he was a mean, cruel, and hateful person? No. While he certainly had his fair share of imperfections, by all accounts he was a kind and generous soul. At his funeral 10 years ago two people stood among the congregation to share their thoughts and sentiments. One was one a Midwestern retired transplant and one of the wealthiest members of the community; the other was a poor black woman named Oka Lee, who drove over thirty miles to attend the service. Oka Lee tearfully spoke of how much she loved my father and how good he was to her and her family when she was growing up. I recognized the dichotomy in my father growing up.

Daddy was probably more concerned about what others might think. He was steeped in a culture of boundaries that for much of his life (he was born in 1928) were more overtly and strictly enforced, but still pervaded the culture even though the lines shifted enough to make room for some official public integration. Yet even though I knew he wasn’t an evil man, he said some things that morning that were quite revolting. In the retrospective light of more life-experience and a better understanding of history, however, it was understandable – not right but understandable. I had broken an unspoken rule, not one of which I was totally unaware. Before I finished high school I would push the boundaries a bit more by showing just an inkling of romantic affection for an African American girl. Some of my white classmates were quick to remind me that she was a n… (well, you know), and that I was encroaching dangerous territory.

Some may feel that I am dishonoring my father by discussing this. I understand some of those concerns. Nevertheless, I am more committed to the truth than I am to saving face for family. I believe Jesus is the truth and he said, “whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” As I alluded above, as with many in America, my father sincerely believed what he had been led to believe by the culture in which he grew up. So for him this was a sin of ignorance in the Biblical sense of the phrase. My commitment to truth and to the gospel of Jesus overrides any family ties; nevertheless what I experienced with my father and with my friends was the resilient power of propaganda. Unjust systems run on lies. One of the biggest and most insidious lies to support racism goes back to the days of the African slave trade and continued long past the Civil Rights struggles of the last half of the last century and lingers among some still today. That is the lie that blacks are not fully human in its most sinister form; or, in its more subtle form, that blacks are inherently inferior, especially intellectually.

It is this lie and the racist ideology that it supports that led to the propagation of slavery, Jim Crow segregation laws in the south after slavery, and in many ways the eugenics movement. This lie also led many to doubt that the Washington Redskins could win the Super Bowl in 1988 with an African American Quarterback, Doug Williams, at the helm. (Not only did they win in convincing fashion; Williams was named MVP after breaking a few Super Bowl records.) The same lie, nevertheless, led a stranger who was talking to me in a Sears store in the late 1990’s to refer to the Book “The Bell Curve” to argue that blacks were simply genetically inferior; although the authors never purported to have solved the nature verses nurture puzzle by stating that it was genetics alone that determined intelligence scores. The Bible too has suffered interpretive distortions because of this white supremacist ideology.

In order to “prove” blacks as less than human in the past some found justification in the story of Noah’s ark surmising that the eight “souls” that were accounted for in the ark were Noah and his family and since blacks are obviously among us, they must have numbered along with the animals! The Canaanite’s relegation to slave status after the flood was also preposterously applied to blacks by wildly concluding that the Canaanites must have had black skin.

Over the years I have had to address a few Biblical misunderstandings myself. Even today there are people who believe that the Bible condemns interracial marriage. I saw a video of a white southern preacher ranting against it just a couple of months ago. While some still believe that the Bible condemns interracial marriage, even a cursory reading of Scripture should reveal that it was interreligious marriage that was the concern for the people of God. I have also had conversations with some, who were obviously influenced by the aforementioned lie, who were adamantly opposed to blacks and whites even worshipping together and were genuinely surprised to learn that both blacks and whites, as well as an innumerable multitude “from every nation, tribe, people, and language”(Rev 7:9), will be worshipping God together in the eternal kingdom.

In college heterodox religion (my sophomore year of college I joined an anti-Trinitarian group) brought me into close bonds of friendship with an African American man. We became roommates and the best of friends. He was a groomsman in my wedding and I was the best man in his. He married a Mexican American a fact that stirred up some consternation in whites, blacks, and Hispanics – even among some of his family and hers. He and his wife invited me and my wife to be with them in the delivery room when they delivered their first child, a beautiful baby girl. Obviously we were very close. Over the years I discerned that the misgivings that some had about their relationship were far more visceral than they were Biblical or rational.

Other conversations that I have had have been very telling. Many older white Americans actually consciously recognize the difference between their feelings that are rooted in the aforementioned propaganda and their rational reflections based on other experiences and biblical evidence that contradict those sentiments. I have heard very visceral racist rants laced with choruses of rational reflection that goes something like this: “I know it might just be the way I was brought up that is causing me to feel this way.” But the feelings fueled by the propaganda tend to dominate the song. What is needed is another song – a new song inspired by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
All of these and similar sentiments have exerted tremendous influence over the minds of countless millions of whites throughout America’s history, thereby ironically enslaving them to an anti-Christian racist ideology and blinding far too many to the racial harmony that is to be found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. While some will argue that the Bible is really just altogether a part of the problem, I really believe that in its pages we will not only find part of the solution to racial and ethnic hostilities – I believe we will find the solution. It is only a distorted and ill-informed interpretation of the Bible bereft of the illumination of the Holy Spirit that is part of the problem. Self-interested ideology readily lends itself to cherry-picking and proof-texting, whether it be with regards to science or theology. The Bible actually diagnoses the problem and reveals the solution.

Undoubtedly it is sin that is the root problem. The essence of sin is pride and selfishness. Out of self-interest humans exalt themselves and their own desires above the will of God and the needs of others. Who could doubt that prideful European ethnocentrism mixed with greed in cold and callous hearts propelled the African slave ships longer and farther than the Atlantic breezes? Jesus said that all kinds of evil flow from the human heart, and it is the human heart (a Hebraic metaphor for the essence a person) that is the problem. Sin is more than just the wrong actions that we take, it is also the death-force that inspires and compels us to those actions. The Bible diagnoses the heart as sinful – wicked and deceitful (Jer 17:9) – and the first person it deceives is the person to whom it belongs. Sin compels us to actions that seem right, but in the end lead to disaster. Our sinful hearts compel us to declare war against God, and to hostility with each other. Sin alienated us from God and estranged us from each other.

If Genesis is telling us anything, it is telling us that we all come from one God, the Creator, and that we are all related to each other – all of us. Because of sin we were separated from God in a sea of idolatry and from each other on a battlefield of ethnic hostility. In mercy God devised a plan of redemption and reconciliation. He chose to reintroduce himself to an alienated humanity by calling and commissioning Abraham. Through Abraham’s descendants through Isaac and Jacob, Israel, God promised to bless all nations of the earth. Through Christ, the ultimate seed of Abraham (Gal 3:16), God’s promise was fulfilled and through faith in him salvation and membership in the household of God is available for both Jew and Gentile alike (Rom 1:16; Eph 2). Moreover, through the blood of Christ the long awaited promise of the new covenant was ratified (see Heb 9-10), and along with it the fulfillment of the promise of a new obedient heart (Heb 10:16).

Jesus’ identification of the human heart being the source of evil was and is not incidental to the gospel; indeed it is central to it. The law (Deut 30:6) and the prophets (Jer 31:33-34; Ezk 36:26-27) both attest to the promise of a new heart of obedience, and through faith in Christ all, Jew and Gentile, may receive this blessing through Abraham’s seed. Faith in Christ brings forgiveness of sins and through the new birth a new heart of ever-increasing obedience to God. Being reconciled to God naturally means also being reconciled to others. We have peace with God and with each other. This is good news! And Jesus commands us to share it with all nations and invite all people to be a part of the same family of God in Christ through the obedience of faith. All other distinctions of ethnicity, class, or gender – while not disappearing nor becoming completely irrelevant – necessarily become secondary to our membership as brothers and sisters in the family of God (Gal 3:28) and as vitally connected members of the body of Christ. It all begins with forgiveness and heart transformation. This is not to say that sin is only a matter of individual hearts. While sin flows from individual hearts, it also may permeate the collective consciousness of entire people groups manifested quite starkly in culture; it also may become codified in a nation’s laws. So Christians must seek to preach the gospel to change hearts, teach the word of God with an eye toward transformation of culture, and seek justice by advocating for just laws – “to make disciples for the transformation of the world,” if you will. The later, however, should never replace or even take priority over the former lest the gospel, the word, and the church become domesticated shells – hollowed out of their divine design and intended meaning – to promote an ulterior agenda.

While some doubt it, I believe the gospel is more than enough. “It is the power of God” (Rom 1:16); of it we should not be ashamed. Hasn’t the Bible been used to justify slavery and other bad things? For sure it has, but only by a shallow and superficial understanding of it. John Wesley was adamantly opposed to slavery and the racism that undergirded it; he was also deeply formed and shaped by Scripture. For the Bible he had the highest regard as the inspired word of God, and believed that it should shape every fiber of a Christian’s being – thoughts, words, tempers, and actions. I have no doubt that he was opposed to slavery and racism not in spite of Scripture, but because of it. The New Testament reveals a Spirit-inspired form of slavery that is characteristic of true discipleship that not only delivers us from the slavery of sin, but also witnesses against and undermines the sinful societal systems of domination that stem from the flesh. Jesus calls us into a kingdom in which there are no masters but one, and even he became a slave for others (see Philp 2:5-11). Christians are called to be slaves to one another in love (Gal 5:13) and this turns all worldly relationships based on domination and manipulation on their head – upside down and therefore right side up. This too is central to the gospel (See also Mark 9:33-37; 10:35-45; & John 13).

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The gospel is the power of God unto salvation. It is enough to reconcile us to God and one another. In Jesus we meet a man who was rejected by his own people. They called him a Samaritan (for a first century Jew an insult roughly equivalent to the N-word) and dismissed him as a demoniac (John 8:48). They handed him over to the Gentiles whom they despised who in turn callously crucified him on their behalf. He was despised and rejected by all; yet it is in him and through him that we must receive salvation. The Jew must find salvation in the one that was rejected as a Samaritan; the Samaritan and the Gentile must find it in the one who was ethnically a Jew. In Jesus we find redemption and reconciliation. In Jesus we find God; we also find each other – our long lost relatives from every tribe and tongue.

Churches of all places should reflect most vividly the multi-ethnic, multi-racial reconciled family of God. To say that we haven’t done so well in America would be an understatement! This failure to bridge the racial divide, to heal this damaged relationship, and to genuinely seek forgiveness and reconciliation has left us vulnerable to those who would seek to exploit and stoke racial tensions for ulterior political ends. I suspect the calls for a “new system” arise more from political ideology and expediency than from the gospel. It is the gospel that is the answer, not the political philosophies of the left or the right.

Several weeks ago someone asked me how we should address racism in the church – in our local congregations. I said we should handle racism by preaching the gospel and teaching the Bible – by speaking the truth in love and exposing the lies of the evil one. To seek to justify racial segregation in worship and church fellowship is antithetical to the gospel itself. Paul’s rebuke of Peter for avoiding table fellowship with Gentiles makes that clear (Gal 2). Christ commanded us to go to all nations, all peoples, to baptize and teach and to form faith communities that are a foretaste of the kingdom of God. The gospel is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham and it is a gospel of reconciliation. In Christ Jews and Samaritans and Gentiles of all tribes and tongues are reconciled to the one true God and each other in the one family of God. We all come from one God and we are all related; in the kingdom of God we will all live and worship together. If someone doesn’t want any part of that now, why would they want any part of that for eternity? A gospel with segregation of any degree is no gospel at all! So, how do we address racism in the church?

On a Maundy Thursday several years ago I held the answer in my hand. I pastored a church that was founded in 1762 as an Anglican parish. At the height of the Revolutionary War the congregation joined with the fledgling Methodist movement, becoming one of the Methodist Episcopal Church’s original congregations at the Christmas Conference in 1784. Until the end of the Civil War slaves could come there for worship, but they couldn’t come in. They had to listen to the service from outside the windows as the sanctuary didn’t have a balcony for blacks. After the war someone granted the former slaves their own plot of land just across the road on which to build their own church. Thus was the founding of Union Chapel AME Zion. While I pastored the original church I sought out opportunities to fellowship and worship with our brothers and sisters across the road. Their pastor preached at our church – the first time one of their pastors had ever preached in the church that their ancestors couldn’t even set foot in. I preached at theirs. Both worship services were preceded by fellowship meals. We ate together; we prayed together; we worshiped together. The following year I invited them to join us for our Maundy service. It was at that service that I held the answer in my hand; it was the foot, the black foot that I held in one hand as I washed it with the other. Let’s pray that this becomes more than just an occasional occurrence in an isolated place here and there.

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Amen.

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