With Tears: On Racism and the Gospel

reconciliationLike many, I have been deeply saddened by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. I have wanted to carefully think through these matters. We feel great pressure today to speak instantaneously and with maximal depth about current events. I found that I needed to listen, learn, and hear my brothers and sisters speak–particularly my African-American brothers and sisters, whose reflections have been moving, instructive, and invaluable to me.

The deaths of both men are complicated in different ways by legal and civil matters. The deaths of both men are tragic. In pondering them, I am reminded of how Francis Schaeffer urged fellow evangelicals to engage the culture: “with tears,” he famously said. In other words, we must always search in our interactions for the evidence of the imago dei, and we must remember that we are not dealing with names on a page, but human beings like us who will live or die eternally.

This is poignant when we consider Brown and Garner. We do not approach these men as statistics, as pins on a statistical graph. We recognize them as created by God, fallen because of sin, and now mourned by loved ones. We listen to the African-American community respond to these deaths, and we hear a collective wail. Their young men bleed on the street, but help seems far off. A church built on the back of holy prophets struggles to respond. Many people told by an Apostle to weep with those who weep feel numb, even indifferent, in the face of suffering. The world is broken, and no one seems able to fix it. We are divided.

The Most Segregated Hour in America

Billy Graham was famous for saying that there is no more segregated hour in America than Sunday at 11am. He was right. To a large degree, he still is right. Why is this? It is because we have not grasped the transformative nature of the gospel.

This was the scandal of the early church. Conflict between peoples with different ethnicities climbed like destructive ivy all the way up to the peak. Peter, the apostle, was leading his fellow believers in separating from the Gentiles because they did not adhere to Jewish practices. This was not a problem, like we often address it. It was not an issue. This was a scourge. This was sin, raw and festering. This was Satan, whispering in the ear of an apostle just as he did a curious woman. This was not a dividing line for early believers; it was a gulf in the earth, a crack in the surface that threatened to swallow the church whole.

The solution to this disease of the mind was not empathy, important as that is. It was not more dialogue, needful as that is. It was justification, grounded in Christ crucified and risen. So said Paul in responding to Peter’s sin of shaming the Gentiles in Galatians 2:15-16.

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

So it is for us. We must grasp in our day the transformative nature of our justification. It is our very identity: we are those who are justified by faith in Christ. This is the supreme truth of our lived Christianity. We retain our background, personality, and connections, and they are important to us. We need not minimize them or blind ourselves to them. But above all else, we are the people who are justified (Galatians 3:27-28). All of us: every tribe and tongue.

This means two things, practically. It means that we recognize our unity in Christ, first. There is much that white Christians can do to foster unity; one of the first steps seems to be seeking to understand what life is like for minorities in majority cultures. Second, our justification means that we plunge into our world as those who now have a foretaste of heaven. We are living, right now, in the kingdom of God. In this kingdom, every wall breaks down. Outside of it, every wall stays up. We cannot content ourselves with the status quo. In our local churches, we actively pursue justification-inspired racial reconciliation.

We Must Reckon with Our Past

We cannot singlehandedly reverse the course of the world. Our realm is in flames. It may well get worse rather than better. But that must not constrain our moral imagination. Wherever possible, we work to reach those who are lost and in eternal danger. We tackle the epidemic of fatherlessness and familial breakdown. We speak frankly about the failings of many past Christians, far too many Christians, who not only thought that slavery wasn’t forbidden by Scripture but actively used it to justify slavery, the slave trade, and a million awful outworkings of a system built on nothing but unbridled racism straight from the pit of hell.

We do not sidestep this history. We do not act as if it is a small thing, a historical curiosity, one that used to be a big deal but is not any longer. We look into our heritage, and in places, it is ghastly. Satan whispered in the ears of countless believers, encouraging them to abuse their fellow man and make hash of the imago dei, grinding it into the dust by the heel of their boot. Like Adam and Eve, and like Peter, they not only heard him, but they liked what they heard.

Reckoning with this history and its ongoing ramifications is not “white guilt.” White guilt is silly. It prostrates itself and narcissistically makes itself the end of the grieving process. What I am speaking of is altogether different. It is cruciform honesty. It does not minimize, explain away, or cheerfully ignore slavery in America. It does not grovel. But it is self-aware. Cruciform honesty is sorrowful. It understands why merely thinking of slavery would enrage African-Americans. There is no justification of any kind, biblical or otherwise, for slavery and the slave trade.

Hatred of such injustices does not necessarily evaporate when an event is past. Would we assume that Jews would simply “come to terms” with the Holocaust? Would we expect that the Chinese would one day forget the Rape of Nanking? Augustinian depravity reminds us that sin not only corrupts, it wounds. It leaves scars. The African-American experience has been shaped by slavery. You can not unsee it. You cannot undo it. Only the gospel can bring healing to such wounds. With tears.

Our approach as best I can conceive it is many-sided. We remember the past. We uphold the rule of law. We do not gloss over brokenness. We support police and seek to build trust in them. Too often, they are the only people beyond residents who enter urban communities. We target racism wherever we see it. Any problem that is systemic must by definition be local; in order for fire to spread in a forest, it must consume 10,000 individual trees. There may well be broader measures we can take, but there certainly are localized ways we can fight racism.

I am struck by how small, incremental, and insufficient such efforts may seem. I want to learn more and hear more about bigger projects to address sin in our country and world. I want to learn more and listen more to African-American brothers and sisters on these matters. It does seem that, in addition to broader initiatives that may emerge in coming days, the small things matter. Mentoring one–just one–young boy or girl matters. Calling out a racist classmate matters. Getting rid of a Confederate flag matters. Telling the truth about Jonathan Edwards, slaveholder, matters. Befriending your seatmate at church whom you have nothing in common with matters. A biracial marriage in a region that is outwardly accepting but inwardly resistant matters. Preaching a six-part sermon series on how the gospel unites all peoples as one new man (Ephesians 2:15) matters. Pray for massive change; expect it. But do not ever stop working in smaller ways for the same end.

Pray globally, and be aggressively local.

Racism Is a Gospel Issue (But it Stands No Chance Before Christ)

Above all, know that the gospel is designed, fashioned, and calibrated for this. The word of Christ is the destroyer of racism. Nothing is more equipped to overcome it. The cross is the avenging angel of ethnic hatred. It is the conciliator of the aggrieved, the justly aggrieved. It is the spring of our tears. Without the gospel, we cannot mourn for those who mourn. With the gospel, we can mourn. We can unite. With tears. 

Many evangelicals have a mis-weighted eschatology. Too much “not yet,” not enough “already.” Yes, heaven will feature all the people of Christ worshipping at his feet. But let’s not wait until the new heavens and the new earth to taste the goodness of Christocentric diversity. Let’s be greedy. Let’s open our eyes. The kingdom of God is here. It has come. The dividing walls of race and class and party seem sky-high, reinforced by granite, unyielding and foreboding.

But you know what? You venture toward those immense walls by faith, a faith that came down to you like a blanket from the sky. Others are looking at you funny, but you keep walking toward them. You have a fire in your bones, even as you feel a fear that you can’t describe. Tentatively, you touch those walls of hostility, light as a feather’s kiss. By the power of Christ, they do not hold fast.

They crumble.

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Image: Johnny Nguyen

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