I’m happy this conference is happening. Yet, I hate talking about race. It has become so polarizing! We talk about it today the way that C. S. Lewis, in his day, said that Christians talked about demons: either with a disbelief in their existence or with an excessive and unhealthy preoccupation with them.
Given the current climate in the evangelical church, one may easily succumb to a kind of racial reconciliation fatigue. And yet, I talk about race because it is directly tied to redemptive history—to God’s plan in Christ to procure his elect from every nation and make one new man out of the many, to gather together one multiethnic family out of every nation, tribe, people, and tongue. So, here are four theses on reforming race relationships in the church.
When Paul says, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18), he is telling us that the cross—shorthand for God’s plan of redemption in Christ—divides us all into two groups, those who are “perishing” and those who are “being saved.” But not only does the cross divide us, it also defines us. It structures our identity and story. Our lives are cruciform—cross-shaped. Like Paul, we have been “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20) and know ourselves as ones who were “buried with him by baptism” (Rom. 6:4).
The message of the cross is on a collision course not only with the ideologies of the world, but with our own pride as well. The cross is nothing if it doesn’t humble us about human ability. In Luther’s “A Meditation on Christ’s Passion,” he writes that we haven’t understood the cross if we only note how bad were the Jews and soldiers, how terrible was Jesus’s experience of injustice. No, we aren’t truly “getting it” until we see the cross and feel its conviction and stinging indictment of us. “When you see the nails piercing Christ’s hands, you can be certain that it is your work. When you behold his crown of thorns, you may rest assured that these are your evil thoughts.” The cross has to kill us before it comforts and consoles us.
Now, consider this in light of Jesus’s second great commandment—which is what we’re really talking about when we talk about race issues in the church. To love our neighbor means that we can and must admit that we’ve failed to love our neighbor as we ought. All of us. Own it. And we don’t just fail at loving people who don’t look like us—we fail at loving those who look just like us! This searing indictment is good news that drives us back to the cross. The ground really is level at the foot of the cross. There is no race privilege there. The stinging conviction of cross-shaped neighbor-loving is no respecter of persons. It doesn’t leave room for one-sided, selective, race-based grief and guilt. We can and should engage each other from places of mutual humility and fearless love, not prickliness, self-defensiveness, and suspicion.
The real issues have always revolved, and will always revolve, around matters of sin and grace, not skin and race. We can say in Pauline fashion, “And sin, seizing an opportunity through differences in melanin content, produces among us all kinds of divisions” (see Rom. 7:8). Our difficulties arise because Adam is our father, not because our skin is colored.
I am not advocating for the misguided approach of a blissful “colorblind” church and society. Arguably the most memorable phrase from the most well-known speech of the most noted black American makes this very point: Martin Luther King dreamed of a time when our children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Of course these words were not intended to say color or difference doesn’t matter, but that other things matter more. (Yes, I quoted King, and yes, I am aware of his failings. The Lord can draw straight lines with crooked sticks!)
Not infrequently in Scripture, when an argument is made for why we should not curse one another or even murder, the appeal is made not on the basis of what is particular about us—like ethnicity, sex, or socio-economic status—but on the basis of what is common to us: we are fellow image-bearers and neighbors. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:6). As part of the church, with one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Eph. 4:5–6), it is our Christian identity and not our sociological, biological, political, or tribal identity that had better be grounding and driving how we relate to one another. Talking this way doesn’t erase race. It puts it in its proper place.
The church is an institution in the world but not of the world, an institution that follows her head, Jesus Christ, who was both a “friend of … sinners” (Matt. 11:19) and “separate from sin” (Heb. 7:26). So, when we’re confronted with the contemporary race discourse, which has made strong inroads into the evangelical church, how do we engage it? It is not at all clear to me that the church, in its pursuit of racial solidarity, needs to appeal to the language of intersectionality, systemic racism, micro-aggressions, or even equality. When you control the dictionary, you have some control over the meaning and the direction of the discourse. Who controls those terms?
The church of Jesus Christ has its own well-developed canonical vocabulary for addressing interchurch conflict and relationships—terms like confession, forgiveness, peace, unity of the Spirit, one in Christ (Gal. 3:28), and reconciliation (both with God and neighbor). This is the lingua franca of the Holy Spirit and it has served the church well through ethnic toil and strife for millennia.
Let me step out and apply this specifically to the notion of white privilege. Though language can be redeemed in its use, I don’t think this term is helpful for the church. It gains its currency within a larger critical, deconstructive ideology that has the aim of conflict, not conciliation. Anecdotally speaking, I’ve never seen “white privilege” function as a conversation-starter, but only as a conversation-stopper. When Christians uncritically embrace it, they have a difficult time extricating the term from the God-hating narrative in which it is embedded. The notion does have a trace of truth in it. But the truth can be better and less acrimoniously conveyed by the use of other terms, like “ingroup bias” or “majority culture advantage.”
Justice is a far bigger subject than race, but when race issues come up inside and outside the church, discussions about justice are not far behind. When Martin Luther King invoked Amos 5:24, he was thinking of justice and race primarily in a socio-political sense. He was endeavoring to answer how civil society could be just to a whole group of people. Does justice mean “being fair to everyone”? What does it mean to have economic justice, food justice, or racial justice?
The Christian who is committed to knowing what Amos means by justice through God’s revelatory work will look to the Scripture (and creation). We will seek to define biblical justice as our starting point, rather than employing the ad hoc, more-intuitive-than-cognitive, emotive ways in which justice causes are taken up today through selective appeals to Moses’s law. Whereas theonomists tend to appeal to the law in a way that sounds like traditional conservativism, social justicians seem to be selective theonomists, looking to Moses’s law to play up matters like Jubilee and treatment of strangers, which are foundational liberal or progressive social concerns. Both appeal to the law of God, but they reach very different conclusions about true justice.
A final word of exhortation to persevere in our pursuit of seeing the ethnic barrier-breaching power of the gospel in our local churches: Our labors are not in vain. Press on through the frustrations and difficulties that arise. Christ will have the church for which he died, and that church will be diverse. I love the deep hope that J. Gresham Machen (a man who, like the rest of us, knew better than he did) has for the church:
Is there no place where two or three can gather in Jesus’ name, to forget for the moment all those things that divide nation from nation and race from race, to forget human pride, to forget the passions of war, to forget the puzzling problems of industrial strife, and to unite in overflowing gratitude at the foot of the Cross? If there be such a place, then that is the house of God and that the gate of heaven. And from under the threshold of that house will go forth a river that will revive the weary world. (Christianity and Liberalism, 152)
The author is a minister in the PCA. New Horizons, May 2019.