The Church, Society and Race: Part 8b (Moving Forward)
This is a multi-part series. Read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, and part 8a.
In part 8a, I attempted to capture the eschatological and glory-filled vision for the diverse unity of the church. But the question remains: what now? Here and now, for the sake of time and concision, my focus is on what the average church member can do.
1. Start Seeing Color
One of the great misguided ideas of our day is the suggestion that we must approach culture with “colorblindness.” That is, in contradistinction to our forefathers who made color the basis of value, we must go the other way and choose not to see color at all.
The problem with this idea is that it doesn’t work. It might in an idealized society, untouched by our particular past. But we cannot ignore our past. Indeed, colorblindness often mutates into a white majority culture refusal to care about the wounds caused on the basis color. So it’s not that we need to stop seeing color; it’s that we need to see color with the right eyes. Instead of seeing difference as something to be feared or discriminated against, we need to see difference as part of God’s design; as something to be known, treasured and delighted in.
So rather than being colorblind, let’s be color-aware. This is especially important in light of what I’ve just said. For if we are living in Christian community rightly, we are able to see the glory of God in bringing us together. And because we treasure the main commonality (Jesus), we are freed to discover and delight in our differences as expressions of God’s creative glory. Those differences do not divide us; they become the gallery exhibiting God’s masterwork, redeemed in Jesus, held together in His embrace.
2. Take Jesus’ Incarnation Seriously
In Philippians 2:1ff, Paul writes,
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Phil. 2:1-4, ESV)
He then goes on to give us a model for this kind of living by pointing to Jesus, who thought not of His own security and safety – when I had every right to – but of the people He was going to save.
If we are to pursue the unity we have been talking about, then we must move toward one another. But in order for us to move toward those who look different, have different stories or experiences, are from different places, we must clothe ourselves in humility. Humility, of course, is a matter of of simply thinking of ourselves in right proportion to others. Pride places us at the forefront; prioritizes “me” over “you.” Humility sees the richness of “you” and frees me to move toward you with genuine concern, because I see the importance of all that you are, your story, etc. Cultural comfort and isolation can be a sign of pride, because it believes that my normal and my comfort is more important than our relationship in Christ.
So if we are to be faithful to this call to be diversely unified Christians in community, we must start by following Jesus.
3. Fully Participate in the Community of Christ
Now, I need to point out that this bit is aimed at primarily at white Christians who are members at predominately white churches.
We need to be careful to fully participate in the community of Christ because Christian community is not something we create; the Holy Spirit creates it. It happens simply by virtue of being in Jesus together. Our job is to maintain it. To participate in it. And when we keep some within the community of Christ at arm’s length – or when we keep ourselves distant from others – we are not fully participating.
So we must not only see difference with humility, we must also intentionally enter into, cultivate and maintain deep and genuine relationships with people who are “other” than us.
Now, a practical point: we can’t put this full weight onto people of color. As a white person, I have sometimes (erroneously) thought that those who are different than I must adapt to my culture to get into relationship with me, to access relationship with me. But this is pride.
And, let’s not lose sight of this reality: simply by virtue of their membership in a predominately white church, people of color are are already entering into community in a self-sacrificing, other-focused way! It is imperative that white Christians, as members of predominately white churches, living in a majority white culture intentionally steward their time and energy to develop real, humble relationships with people of color.
But what does it look like to do this? In order for these relationships to work well, we must not only come with an explicit awareness of our mutual identity in Christ, but we must also be careful to learn from one another. Listen well. Get to know not just the actions and words of those who are different than you, but hear their stories and experiences in culture. Show that you can be trusted. Honor others’ experiences just as you would want others to honor yours.
Moving out from here, it is right and good for us to show solidarity with the experience of racial injustice by grieving with one another. If we hear stories of racial profiling; if we learn of family histories afflicted with racial wounds; if we hear of loss of opportunities because of structural wrongs, in listening humbly, we should grieve with our brothers and sisters. As a white male, I do not often feel or perceive the landscape of injustice in our culture, because it was designed to benefit people like me. In many ways, I rely on the testimony and experiences of my black, Latin or Asian brothers and sisters. I see only as I hear through his hardship and her pain.
Of course, as we develop authentic relationships with one another and learn about the racialized experience of our brothers and sisters, we may discover that we have harbored genuine prejudice in our own hearts. This has been true for me. And it can exist on both sides of the fence. We may also discover that we are willing participants in a system that benefits us, to the exclusion of others. And – because we’re talking about reconciliation – on the other side, there may be a need for us to forgive those who have wronged us. So in these relationships, we may discover that we need to repent of attitudes, avoidances, apathy, aggravations, or anger that we hold towards “the other.”
Moving from Our House, to the World
There is much work to do. And I am convinced that this is not merely an appendix to church life. There is something central to God’s design for the church. There is much more to say. But we will not be able to address inter-church unity, the church’s involvement in speaking truth into unjust societal structures and the great opportunities for influence held as people of the kingdom unless we get our house in order first. We must pursue racial reconciliation in and through the gospel, with the integrity that comes from doing it well here first.