When I travel overseas I love coming home. And not just to our house in Charlotte, North Carolina. I love the re-entry area of the Newark Liberty International Airport. You may know it. It’s a cavernous, sterile room where hundreds of people stand in long, slow moving lines to present their passports and visas prior to entry into the US. I’m always excited to be there. How can a bureaucratic bottleneck be a place of inspiration?
Many foreign countries are homogenous. The vast majority of the people who live there look much the same. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I respect and appreciate the places I visit. But every time I return to the United States and queue up in Newark, I marvel at the incredible diversity of the people around me. Skin color, hair, eyes, languages, clothing. The differences on display are irrefutable proof of the multiple brush strokes in God’s creative palette.
The throng in Newark reminds me of the heavenly scene in Revelation 7:9: 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 in front of the Lamb. God loves diversity. And if God loves diversity what should be our attitude toward differences revealed in the people he created?
I’m a lawyer and a novelist. In response to the events that occurred in Ferguson, Missouri, in the summer of 2014 (and many other places since then), I decided to write a story. In doing so, I looked in the mirror and saw a sixty-one-year-old white man raised in the South. I come from an enlightened home, but that doesn’t qualify me to lift my voice above a whisper. Nevertheless, I decided to try. And in doing so, I discovered the message that matters the most when facing issues of race and prejudice, whatever their origin and whoever is involved.
Two of the main characters in the novel, titled A Time to Stand, are predictable: a white police officer and a black, unarmed teenager. The teenager is shot and severely wounded under circumstances that raise questions whether the officer’s actions were justified. When criminal charges are brought against the policeman, the story takes a different twist – the white officer is represented by a young, black, female attorney. Also in the mix is an influential young black minister who is leading the charge for justice in the small Georgia town.
I can’t reveal all the twists and turns the story takes. Otherwise, you might read this blog and skip the book. But I can offer a sample of the voice that impacted me and spoke from a place I want to go personally and with our country. In the final chapter of the novel, the black minister issues a challenge to his congregation that resonated with me, and I hope with you. Speaking to a gathering of both blacks and whites, he didn’t try to summarize race relations in America in a few sentences. Instead, he proclaimed the one, definitive, all-encompassing answer to what divides us and isolates us and causes us to mistrust—transformation of the human heart through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Warming to his task, the pastor opens his arms wide to include everyone within the sound of his voice and issues a call for genuine humility, a prerequisite to receiving the grace of God. And he points out that the fruit of grace isn’t more people sitting in pews on a Sunday morning. It’s more people demonstrating what it means to be a child of God in their lives on a moment by moment basis. It’s more people working toward reconciliation instead of complaining that it doesn’t exist. It’s more people doing the practical things that reveal a changed heart. It’s more people loving God with all their heart and their neighbor, regardless of skin color or culture, as they love themselves. This type of love isn’t a sentimental feeling—it’s the most practical, society changing force that’s ever existed on planet earth. As it says in 1 Corinthians 13, this type of love sacrifices for others, isn’t easily angered, and, importantly, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Slowly but with increasing enthusiasm the people in the congregation begin to stand to their feet. Quoting a famous passage from the book of Ecclesiastes, the minister reminds the congregation that there is a time for everything under the sun. A time to be born and a time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time for war and a time for peace. He then thunders that it’s time to look past differences the Lord created and come together in the unity of God’s Spirit. To stand together on earth as we will one glorious day before the throne of God. To stand in agreement that God’s will be done on earth as it is heaven.
Whether in fact or fiction, the voice that matters most is the voice of God. Unity before the throne of heaven, and in our nation, will occur because of transformation produced in humble hearts through the gospel of grace. Some will doubtless say that’s simplistic. I’m glad it is.
ROBERT WHITLOW is the best-selling author of legal novels set in the South and winner of the prestigious Christy Award for Contemporary Fiction. His new book, A Time to Stand, explores race relations and Christianity in America. A Furman University graduate, Whitlow received his J.D. with honors from the University of Georgia School of Law where he served on the staff of the Georgia Law Review. A practicing attorney, Whitlow and his wife, Kathy, have four children. They make their home in North Carolina.