The national conversation right now is about race. And it seems there are a growing number of people who are tired of hearing about it or talking about it. While I understand this reaction, I think we need to push past it. These conversations need to be had, if they can be conducted in a way that is helpful and useful for building up the hearers. But that’s where we run into problems. Too many people are talking about these issues, but too few are paying attention to how we talk about these issues. Especially in the Church.
So just over a week ago, I presented the following in our Sunday Morning Bible study class. I submit it here for your consideration, and if need be, correction/rebuke.
I want to start by owning what i don’t know:
- I don’t know if Mike Brown was a victim of police brutality or if he was a criminal who tried to attack a police officer.
- I don’t know if the police in New York had justification for trying to restrain and arrest Eric Garner.
- I don’t know what it’s like to be looked at with suspicion by people in authority because of my skin color.
- I don’t know what it’s like to feel like i can’t trust the police or judicial system to act justly on my behalf.
- I don’t know what it’s like to look fundamentally different that most of the people around me. (Except on the train.)
- I don’t know what I don’t know.
I’m not going to speak today about law enforcement or justice or excessive force or civil disobedience or equality. Other people have been writing and speaking about such things over the last several months, some for the better and many more for the worse.
I want to talk about us, church. I want to talk abut how we talk to and about each other, and how we talk to and about our neighbors. How well or poorly we see each other. How well or poorly we listen to each other.
My fear is that our experiences, our ideologies, and our politics are clouding over or crowding out how the Bible says we ought to address the topic of racial diversity in the Church.
Let me take you through a few Scriptures. Again, I don’t claim I’m bringing anything new to the table here–but let this serve as a reminder.
Paul begins this chapter by describing the person each of us were before Christ–driven by passions, children of wrath, spiritually dead. Every single one of us. But God, being rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ, by grace, through the gift of faith. With that understanding that we are all beggars at God’s table who have been graciously made sons and daughters, Paul then goes on to say that cultural separation is obliterated by the Gospel of Jesus–those who are far off sit at table with those who are already near (though all had to be brought by the Spirit). In His body, Jesus has destroyed the inherent ethno-cultural hostility that would separate us, and He makes all of us who are called to be God’s children from every tribe, tongue, and nation into one new man. One new body. With common access to our one Father through the one Holy Spirit, who fills us all and binds us together.
I want to be careful here. The context of Paul’s words in this chapter have to do with spiritual gifts, so I don’t want to misapply the text. However, the metaphor Paul uses can have multiple applications. In verses 12-26, Paul compares the Church to a body. He emphasizes that each part is different, but all have a ministry and a value to the body. They are all chosen by God and placed by God for a specific reason. This should remove favoritism or discrimination. It should kill our pride and stomp out our envy among the brothers. Every member of Christ’s body matters, in other words. Notice verse 26 specifically: “When one member suffers, all suffer together; when one member is honored, all rejoice together.” There is a recognition here that all believers, regardless of where they live or what they look like or what their politics are, are part of the same body, and that the suffering of one should be felt and considered and sympathized with by all, just as the joy of one should be rejoiced over by all.
In the latter half of this chapter, Paul challenges this racially diverse church in Rome to conduct themselves in a certain way. They are to love one another sincerely. They are to persevere together. They are to bless and not curse; to live at peace with everyone (as much as it depends on them); to associate with the lowly; to rejoice or weep with those who rejoice or weep. They are to do good to those who oppose them, and overcome evil with good. Notice in this text that the proper response to tribulation, to suffering, to social separation, to outright opposition is not to attack or accuse or avoid. Their response should be to love, to serve, to give, and to overcome with good. (I feel like this passage would do well to be posted at the top of every Facebook timeline and Twitter feed, as a reminder to all keyboard cowboys of how to respond or not respond to social media–and I include myself in that group.)
So how are we doing with that? Well, here’s what I’ve been seeing in social media from Christians, all over the spectrum of beliefs:
- If you don’t agree with my positions, you are (ignorant/racist/cowardly).
- That person’s actions are just typical of ______ (race/vocation/political group).
- All (specific group) need to be held accountable for this, or need to respond or answer for this.
- This issue doesn’t affect me. It’s not my problem. Everyone needs to get over it.
- We need to listen to each other’s perspective and take seriously the experiences of our brothers and sisters, even if their experiences are much different than ours. I’m not saying we accept every person’s experience uncritically, but rather that we listen with open minds and hearts. Experience and perspective matters.
- We must recognize and reject stereotype thinking in our own lives, when it comes to race and ethnicity. (The only group designations that should matter to the Church are “saved” and “lost.”) I think all people do this, regardless of color or class or background. Each one of us holds broad brushes in our hands.
- We need to examine our reactions to social/racial issues and judge if they are based more on politics or on Biblical principles. The Scriptures present a complex matrix through which to view these issues, one that balances submission to authorities with compassion for the oppressed with personal responsibility with cries for divine justice.
- We should engage in discussions of these sensitive issues humbly, and with the motivation of loving our neighbor and speaking the truth in love.
- We must must MUST remember that the answer to all these questions, the solution to all these issues, is the work of the Gospel of Jesus in the hearts of people. Yes, it is that simple. No, that doesn’t mean it is easy. As people who proclaim the Good News, it is our responsibility to apply that good news to the challenges of racial conflict and diversity–in how we think, how we speak, and how we love. If we are not doing that, we are failing the mission we’ve been given.
Don’t misunderstand me, please: This is not an attempt to jump on the white evangelical “mea culpa” bandwagon. I’m not aiming for PC sensitivity brownie points from anyone. That means nothing, and is a waste of time.
I have a sincere conviction that many of my fellow believers in the United States, on all sides of the ideological spectrum, have gotten our politics so twisted up in our faith that we are forgetting how to love our neighbors who disagree with us, or who are different that us. In our hearts and on our keyboards, the smallness and paleness of our love for others is being revealed through how we are reacting to and speaking about these national events.
We must search our hearts and repent of the sin we find there. Then we must bear fruit in keeping with that repentance. By this, we will demonstrate what Christ has done for us and in us.
I don’t know what that looks like for you. For me, repentance means being quick to listen and slow to speak. Quick to try to understand, slow to assume. And quick to recognize that if i don’t love my brothers, and if i don’t love my neighbors, all my theology is noise and waste, an indictment of my heart and a witness against my profession of faith in Jesus.