Tuesday, August 2, 2016
LOVE ONE ANOTHER REFLECTS THE GOSPEL!
Racial Division & Gospel Unity
by Jeremy Fair, Pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church, Tulsa, OK
Last week I began a short series about issues that divide us and the Gospel that unites us. We are, according to objective research and subjective impressions, a divided nation. Even Christians are divided along political lines, racial lines, and lines that form within culture. We’ve allowed all sorts of isms to define us and divide us, rather than being defined and united by our common faith, common baptism, and common Lord. Our Lord, Jesus Christ, doesn’t play by our rules; he cannot be co-opted by a political party, he doesn’t favor one race over another, he doesn’t give preferential treatment to the cultural elite. He is Jesus outside the lines!
Consider the following: Nearly 70% of Americans think that race relations are very bad; that’s the highest level of discord since the 1992 Los Angeles race riots. A recent Pew survey, just a month old, further illustrates the racial divisions that exist in America. 65% of blacks believe that racial inequality continues to be a major problem, while only 22% of whites believe that racial inequality is a problem. That 43% discrepancy highlights the fact that there is certainly some sort of problem! And, not to focus exclusively on blacks and whites, 70% of Hispanics, the largest minority group in the U.S., believe that major changes are needed for there to be true racial equality.
I could go on and on and cite statistic after statistic but isn’t it clear to all of us that we are a divided nation when it comes to race? Haven’t the events of the past two years made it abundantly clear that things are not they way they ought to be? Next week will mark the two-year anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, which seemed to set into motion a series of events that continue to plague our nation.
Last month I was talking with a black friend who is a pastor and I asked him what it was like for him to be stopped by a police officer. I’m embarrassed to admit this but I get stopped at least a couple times a year for speeding and I have never once gotten nervous or experienced fear; I’ve mostly been frustrated and put out. My friend told me that when he gets stopped, his heart begins to race, he wonders if he’ll be removed from his vehicle, verbally abused, or even worse. I was telling a white friend about that conversation and he said, “If he’s not doing anything wrong then he’s got no reason to be nervous. The only time something bad happens is when you break the law.”
How do we account for those different perspectives between my two friends? What do we do with the experiences and impressions of my black friend? Again, those conversations, in and of themselves, illustrate that there is division…and it’s not just division in the broader culture, it’s division in the church. My black friend is a PCA pastor, my white friend that I was telling his story to is a PCA elder. The church is not immune to the racial divisions that exist in the broader culture; in fact, many times the church is guilty of passively fostering those divisions.
At this year’s PCA General Assembly, a pastor named Duke Kwon gave a speech titled Denominational Diversity and Cultural Normativity. For context, consider this: There are 4,500 pastors in the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America). Of that 4,500, 53 are black and 20 are Hispanic. So, speaking about our denomination’s lack of diversity, Pastor Kwon said, “What keeps folks of color out of our churches is not public racial hostility. And the greatest hindrance to racial harmony in our denomination is not crass bigotry. It’s our shared, institutional blindness to the exclusivity of a white normativity. Indeed, insofar as it devalues, subordinates, and excludes minority culture members—even against our best intentions—and as it overvalues, supra-ordinates, and preferentially includes majority culture members, white normativity is the passive racism of our beloved denomination.”
In contrast to this racial division, the Bible paints a very different picture of racial unity, unity that is rooted in, built upon, and fostered by Gospel identity. Consider Galatians 3:27-29:
27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.
Here’s the larger context of Galatians: The Apostle Paul had previously spent time preaching the Gospel and ministering to the people of Galatia, who were mostly Gentiles, and many of them were converted. However, after Paul left them, they began to embrace a distorted message, a false gospel. The crux of the true Gospel is justification by faith alone. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone but the Galatians had been deceived into believing that faith alone was insufficient. A group of false teachers who were Jewish, whom Paul called the “circumcision party”, taught that faith alone was not enough. They taught that true conversion requires human works and the work they focused on was circumcision. Essentially, they were teaching that in order to become a Christian, one first had to become a Jew and adhere to Jewish ethnic practices. For them it wasn’t white normativity but Jewish normativity.
Thus, the book of Galatians is a treatise on the doctrine of justification by faith alone, but the context of that treatise was racial division masquerading as religious purity. The Galatians had a religious problem and that religious problem was rooted in and built upon racial division.
It is in that context that the Apostle Paul wrote, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Christ breaks down the dividing wall between Jews and Greeks by making us one in him. And Christ breaks down the dividing wall between blacks and whites, whites and Hispanics, blacks and Asians, and every other ethnic/racial category by making us one in him!
There is no excuse for racial hostility and crass bigotry by any group of people towards another group of people. All of us are image bearers of God! And, while there is no excuse, it is somewhat understandable in this world and in our nation. We live in a fallen world where people reject the truth that we are all created in God’s image and when you lose the truth of imago dei, you lose the inherent dignity and worth of all people. While there is no excuse for racial hostility and crass bigotry in the broader culture, it is an abomination to God for even passive blindness to exist among His people. We are one in Christ!
So, I’m going to make a couple of observations from this passage and then offer a few applications for you to consider. First observation, as Christians, our chief identity is Christ not our ethnic or racial identity. That doesn’t mean that we must forfeit or discount or ignore ethnic and racial identity but it means that our chief identity is the eternal, blood-bought, baptism-confirmed, Spirit-indwelt, righteousness-clothing identity that comes from our union with Christ.
Notice the implication that Paul makes in verse 29, “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” His point is not that we become ethnically Jews when we come to Christ; that is not what it means to be Abraham’s offspring. His point is that, in Christ, we take on a new identity with a common heritage of faith. Just a few verses earlier Paul wrote, “Know then that it is those of faith who are sons of Abraham.” Similarly, Romans 9 tells us, “Not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” Our identity in Christ gives us a common heritage greater than ethnicity or race; it makes us brothers and sisters of faith.
Second observation, Red and Yellow, Black and White, we are precious in God’s sight…all of us, equally, because of God’s love for sinners who are all created in His image. When Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female” he wasn’t simply telling us how God sees us, he was telling how we should see one another.
Remember, while Galatians is a richly theological letter, its first priority is pastoral. Paul was writing to children in the faith whom he dearly loved and he wanted them to know the truth so that they might live the truth! Living the truth and acting in love means that we must see one another as God sees us and we must love one another as God loves us. Our rich theology is meant to find its expression in loving unity and equality!
Reverend Lance Lewis, a PCA pastor in California, writes, “It is imperative that believers joyfully pursue redemptive ethnic unity not because it’s the latest fad that’s sweeping the church, nor as a cave-in to political correctness, but in obedience to God’s express command.” You see, Paul’s statement in Galatians is an indicative; “this is who you are”, but his statement also implies an imperative; “this is how you are commanded to view one another and treat one another.” Regardless of this divisive period we live in where racial unity has become a cultural priority, it should always be a priority for God’s people. It should always be the church’s priority!
Now, in light of those observations, I’m going to make a few applications. First application, we must acknowledge the sin problem, name it, confess it, and seek repentance. To my black brothers and sisters, to my Hispanic brothers and sisters, to my Asian brothers and sisters, to everyone who marks a different box on the census form than I do, I am sorry. I am sorry and I confess my active racist sins and my passive racial indifference. I am sorry and I confess for entertaining jokes that belittle you. I am sorry and I confess for the careless words I’ve spoken that have effectively hindered unity. I am sorry and I confess for the inner suspicions I’ve harbored and the labels I’ve applied. You see, racial disunity is not simply our culture’s problem, it is not simply our nation’s problem, it is not simply the church’s problem, it is my problem, my sin.
I was incredibly encouraged at this year’s PCA General Assembly to hear Dr. George Robertson, the new moderator of our denomination, stand before the assembly, just moments after his election, and confess his own racism. I am encouraged to read my brother Doug Serven, a fellow PCA pastor at City Church in OKC and the editor of this book, confess his own racism in a chapter titled, “I Am Racist.” I am encouraged that our denomination passed an overture this year confessing, condemning, and repenting of racial sins that we have committed as a denomination. I am encouraged by these things because the only way to deal with racial sin is by naming it, confessing it, and repenting of it. Repentance and faith go hand in hand. As we accept, by faith alone, a Savior who died for people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, he stirs within us godly sorrow and true repentance.
There is a difference between worldly sorry and godly sorrow, Paul tells us that in 2 Corinthians 7. There is a difference between general repentance and specific repentance. We can confess and repent of general racial discord by acknowledging that things are not they way they ought to be, or we can confess and repent of specific sins, our own sins, by acknowledging that we are not the people we ought to be.
And to my black brothers and sisters, to my Hispanic brothers and sisters, to my Asian brothers and sisters, to everyone who marks a different box on the census form than I do, I would humbly ask you to forgive me, to forgive us, to believe the Gospel and apply the Gospel through forgiveness.
Nadine Collier, the daughter of Ethel Lance who was shot and killed by Dylann Roof at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, spoke these words these words to her mother’s killer: “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul…You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.” Confession, repentance, faith, and forgiveness, through the Gospel, are God’s means of bringing restoration and unity.
Second application, we must work as individuals and as a church to combat a cultural normativity that excludes people from other cultures and races. I’m reminded of a question that Russ Whitfield asked at last year’s mission conference; he asked, “What will it take for those unlike us to darken our doors? What will it take to regularly reach and engage millennials, minorities, and those who aren’t Reformed?” What will it take? What cultural idols must we destroy to truly reflect the kingdom?
I’m reminded of another question I was challenged with recently; “Is our worship and are our relationships and ministries so defined by the presence of ethnic minorities—so built from the ground up on a racially integrated foundation—that if our members of color were to leave one day, what about our church would never be the same?” Multi-cultural integration is the biblical norm! The eternal fellowship and worship of heaven will not exclude anyone and no single culture or race will have exclusive rights to the dynamics of the eternal kingdom.
When I say that we must work as individuals and as a church to combat a cultural normativity that excludes people from other cultures and races, I don’t simply mean that we should actively include others, I mean that we should fight against the ways that we passively exclude others with our qualifiers. Duke Kwon says, “White normativity is defining ministry to certain communities and contexts with qualifiers—‘ethnic ministry,’ ‘urban ministry,’ ‘international ministry,’ or ‘outreach ministry’—while calling ministry to the majority culture simply, ‘Ministry.’” You see, we must work as individuals and as a church to be Gospel exclusive, meaning we must fight for the supremacy of Jesus and the singular saving message of the Gospel, while at the same time being culturally inclusive.
Third application, we must not allow the divisiveness of our cultural to shape the church but must strive for Gospel unity, through the church, to shape the culture. Like the Galatians, we must guard ourselves against false theological messages that have a way of infiltrating the church and creating division. We must also guard ourselves against false political posturing that uses race and culture as a wedge. Instead of succumbing to bad theology or brazen political spin, we must love one another in such a way that the surrounding culture sees a living demonstration of Gospel unity.
Jesus said in John 13, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” We are loved by a Jesus who is outside the lines. His Gospel love and justifying grace takes natural enemies and makes them brothers and sisters. Let us believe that Gospel. Let us live the truth and act in love. Amen.