A Starting Point for Christians in a Dialogue about Race (Post One)

I preached a sermon on Acts 15 a little over three years ago. I focused on the question which flared up within the predominantly Gentile congregation of Antioch: how are people saved? All those convened in Jerusalem definitively state that people are saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus. The word ‘grace’ denotes what Christ has voluntarily done for us disadvantaged humans—namely, living and dying in our place.

We easily forget that this story has as much a racial undercurrent as it does a theological one. On the surface it is a story about convening a group of people who are led by the Spirit to unequivocally name the means of salvation. Yet right beneath the surface, it is a story that names and addresses the assertion that Gentiles must become like Jews through circumcision and keeping the law in order to become beneficiaries of God’s grace. In other words: Gentiles – everyone that is not Jewish by ancestry, cultural adherence, and religious observance –  cannot be counted among God’s people without assimilation into Jewishness. It is the bedrock of the gospel—that God accepts people exclusively on the basis of faith in the Son—that silences this notion.

Therefore, God’s gospel of grace directly comes into contact with the subjects of cultural assimilation, ethnic identity, and subconscious and overt racial prejudice and superiority (among other things). My ongoing reflection on grace and its relationship to these subjects has led me to reexamine familiar passages and to thank God for his nondiscriminatory acceptance of sinful people.

The following posts are summaries of my current reflection.

I think a lot about race these days. I think about race because of the presidential election and America’s changing demographics. I think about race because of my former job as a special education teacher in a predominately Black school in South Carolina. I think about race because of the narrative of Black men and police officers. And I think about race because I am a Black man.

I saw a lot of helplessness and hand wringing from multiple pulpits this summer. Many pastors felt they had to break from their regularly scheduled programming to directly address matters of race, power, privilege, equity, and social justice. On the one hand, this grieves me because I think about race a lot these days—it is no longer a pet issue for me or something that occasionally pops to the foreground because of slow news cycles. On the other hand, this grieves me because I always assumed that churches could respectfully, carefully, and intelligently handle tough issues. I was mistaken in my assumption.

My goal in writing this post is to provide the Christian’s reason for eagerly investing in public discourse and allyship when it comes to matters of race in America. My argument can be reduced to the following subjects: the good news and the good consequences of the good news. In other words: Christians come to the table and engage racial issues in America because of the gospel and the consequences the gospel has in the world.

I remember sitting in a professor’s Gospel of Luke class in seminary. This professor often asked the same question over and over again, “What is the gospel?” He asked because for many of us in that room the gospel was an elevator pitch confined to the topics of the sinfulness of humankind, the judgement of God that awaits a person after death, and the self-sacrificial death of Christ on our behalf. But he wanted us to think more deeply and consider the broader meaning (or consequence) of the Son’s arrival for the world.

When I took the time to contemplate the meaning of the Son living and dying and living again for us, I could see four immediate and profoundly good consequences: (1) God has unswervingly and publicly—as public as a cross was back then—announced that he accepts sinful human beings by declaring them righteous on the merit of his Son’s faithfulness and not on the basis of human effort; (2) God has proved to his ancient people that he keeps promises by sending Messiah and the Spirit and by establishing his Kingdom; (3) God has signaled to humanity at large that he is liberating the whole creation from its bondage to sin, decay and death, and the powers of darkness; and (4) God has begun righting human injustice by the power of the Holy Spirit within his Christian community and through the witness of this community to the world at large.

If you and I are honest to ourselves, we do not have to be convinced with book, chapter, and verse on any of the above—including the fourth good consequence of the good news. They ring true with what we have been explicitly taught on Sundays and with what we instinctively hold in our renewed hearts; the Spirit confirms them as true in us. So let’s focus on the fourth one for a moment.

The reason Christians become missionaries and Bible translators, the reason Christians build hospitals and financially support humanitarian aid, the reason Christians fearlessly enter the most dangerous regions of the world, the reason Christians welcome strangers and foreigners, the reason Christians build schools and empower people with the ability to read and write, the reason Christians advocate for the poor, the imprisoned, the suicidal, the drug-dependent, the prostituted, and the defenseless—the reason is because Christians believe deep down that Jesus stirs us to action through his teaching and by the outpouring of his life for us.

Yes, through the death of Jesus, the God of all people calls us to treat every person justly and to actively seek the welfare of every person inside and outside the Christian community. Fellow Christians have become family members in Christ. Enemies and strangers have become neighbors deserving of our love because of Jesus. And this Spirit-empowered love toward our family and our neighbors is a primary force for undoing injustice in our world.

To restate the big idea of this post: the Christian’s reason for entering public discourse and allyship when it comes to matters of race in America is the gospel and its consequences for the whole world. The historical and theological realities behind the message we have received genuinely change everything. And these realities about what Christ has done for humanity inwardly drive us to see and serve every human being currently experiencing injustice or living under the threat of oppression.

For this reason, Christians should meet even the claim of injustice in America with a mindset of openness and not skepticism, curiosity and not close-mindedness, compassion and not defensiveness. A mindset that takes personal responsibility for what is happening right now and does not deflect accountability to former generations.

Christians should meet even the claim of injustice in America with a mindset that is willing to consider facts contrary to their lived experience and unwilling to succumb to false arguments and false dichotomies. A mindset that is willing to identify with marginalized and oppressed people and unwilling to perpetuate consciously and subconsciously marginalization and oppression.

Christians should meet even the claim of injustice in America with a mindset of love without requiring proof and explanations before we give audience and become participants in the struggle for righteousness and justice.

Christians should meet even the claim of injustice in America with a mindset that dignifies people who experience oppression. A mindset that does not reduce people to causes for pity or to labels such as moocher, bottom feeder, complainer, loser, uneducated, unemployed, government-dependent, lazy, disrespectful, noncompliant, and insubordinate.

The atoning death of Jesus on your and my behalf is enough reason for such a mindset. When I talk about the mindset Christians should have toward “even the claim of injustice,” I know it will be harder for some than others. The way we think is deeply ingrained in our upbringing, our values, and our sense-making from lived experiences. Even though I can only speak for myself and do not speak for all people—if you are not a minority, then you cannot fathom the significance of you coming to the table with such a way of thinking. For me, it is the difference between being heard and being automatically shut down and silenced.

I heard and overheard a lot of people say this summer that they felt helpless and that they didn’t know what to do or where to start. If you’re a Christian, then you have a place to start—you have a natural entry point that does not come from long held personal opinions derived from life experience. You can engage racial issues in this country because these issues impact your siblings and your neighbors whom you love and for whom Christ died. It starts with the gospel with its good consequences, and it starts with your mind.

May God increase our appreciation of the sacrificial life of the Son and renew our hearts and minds so that we can identify injustice and identify with those unjustly treated in God’s eyes. Amen.

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