Monday, July 29, 2013

Race Relations and the Gospel: What the Church Needs to Say.

150 years after a bloody civil war and the 13th amendment, 40 years after sweeping civil rights legislation, and 6 years after electing an African American to the most powerful office in the world, one tragic act of violence is all it takes to demonstrate the deep racial divide that still exists in this country.

Truth is, George Zimmerman is the only one still alive who knows for sure exactly what happened on that horrible night back in the spring of 2012.  Apart from context, it would appear that this was a simple case of an incredibly stupid young man choosing to pursue someone who posed no immediate threat to him, and another young man choosing to fight instead of run.  But given the long history of troublesome race relations in this country, there was no way that race was not going to play a prominent role in this trial, and the subsequent public discussion.  There has simply been too much hostility.

Of course, the United States isn't unique when it comes to the struggle for racial peace.  All over the world, people of various ethnicities have profiled, stereotyped, and prejudged each other.  Having traveled much of the globe, I could speak at length about the love lost between Chinese and Japanese, or the animus that is held by Mexicans toward Colombians.  But in our own country, the highest level of racial strain exists between black and white, and anyone even casually acquainted with our nation's history knows why.

The following post is from three years ago, and addresses the racial divide between black and white in light of sin and redemption.  There is a reason that, even at this time in history, rush judgments continue to be made based on the amount of melanin in the skin, and the answer runs more than skin deep.  The answer lies in wicked hearts, and the only ultimate answer is a Savior who died, and was raised so that in the end, there would be no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female..

Reading Leonard Pitts' Miami Herald Column in this past Sunday's paper was especially hard for me. Entitled "A Child's View of Black and White," the article described with painful detail new "doll tests" that are given to children to determine if racism might exist. Pitts, himself an African-American, rightly lamented the predispositions of children, both black and white, toward identifying "darker" dolls as "bad" and "dumb." More specifically, he cited an encounter with a young black girl who "did not think she was beautiful . . . because she is dark."

Concluding this very sad column, Pitts wrote in an exasperated manner that we are "40 years into a future where Michael Jordan is an icon, Bill Cosby is a national father figure, and a Kenyan's son is President of these United States. Forty years, and still . . ."

As should be expected, Pitts claims that such a national racial dilemma begs an explanation. "How do you explain the psychology of self-loathing and the futility of judging oneself by someone else's beauty standards?" This is an excellent question, and as a white son of the south, what made this article hard to read is that I know the answer.

There are many things about my background and upbringing that make me proud. The installation of a strong Protestant work ethic, and cultural emphases on honesty, integrity, and helping one's neighbor are just a few examples. My home culture's attitude toward race relations however, is not on this list. Growing up, I heard all the standard stereotypes aimed at anyone who didn't share my skin tone. I heard interracial dating and marriage condemned. And though I was told "we are all equal, no matter what color we are," I rarely saw this "equality" dealt out fairly in my hometown.

Thankfully, God has redeemed me from these ways of thinking. Yet the problem of racism still exists, and I have discovered that the southern United States isn't the only place where it can be found. Shortly after moving to Maryland nearly six years ago, I was shocked to sit in a barber's chair only to hear the word "n*gger" within the first five minutes from the guy cutting my hair. 40 miles north of the nation's capital, I found a more vitriolic form of racism in the northeast that I had never encountered in the south.

The truth is that racism's origins can't be defined by a region of the country, nor can it be traced ultimately to parental attitudes, cultural prejudices, or even extremist groups like neo-Nazis, the KKK, or the Black Panthers. Ultimately, each of these sources of race-based hatred finds its origins in the Garden of Eden, within the minds of our first parents who sinned out of a self-centered heart that desired the opposite of God's design.

Paul tells us in Acts 17:24 that God "made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth." In other words, God's intent from the beginning was to create a diverse human race that would bring Him glory. The various ethnicities that exist on our planet are not the result of the fall, as is so often contended by some ill-informed and badly-biased interpreters of the text. Each originated in the mind of our Creator for His own ultimate glory. Furthermore, we are told that this divine demand for diverse worshippers all over the globe will come to pass, as that great, uncountable multitude of human beings, "from every nation, from all tribes, peoples, and languages" stand before the throne of the Lamb crying out "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever!" (Revelation 7:9, 12, ESV)

In short, God intends to unite every ethnic group and language on the globe under the Lordship of Jesus for His own glory. As one of my mentors once stated, a unison choir is nice, but a choir that sings parts--the same song sung in various tones--sounds much more glorious. Racial and ethnic diversity exist because God is worthy of so much more than a unison choir at the end of the age. Race matters! And it matters because God matters!

Such is the reason why racism is such a deadly and dangerous disease in our culture. When Leonard Pitts describes it, he rightly laments the way human beings created in God's image are mistreated as a result, but he fails to see that the ultimate insult is against God Himself.

All of us are naturally more comfortable around people most like ourselves. When we allow this disposition to evolve into a prejudice, we have at that point made an idol of our ethnicity. When we show a preference for one person over another based on skin color, we are saying to God with our actions, "you are not worthy of ethnically diverse glory."

To summarize, racism is a direct offense against the Creator of all human beings. It represents a denial of and opposition to His aim to make himself known among all peoples so that He receives the glory that is His due.  It is a preference for our own glory--the lifting up of our own ethnic identity and value as created beings over His value as our Creator. This is what makes racism such an abhorrent evil.

And yet, racist attitudes are still "tolerated" among our churches. One recent example is a Louisiana Southern Baptist congregation that rescinded its invitation for an IMB missionary to speak because he and his wife had adopted interacially. I don't know whether such evil exists on a congregational level in any of the churches of the Mid-Maryland Association, but if it does, I'll go ahead now and invite that church to tender its withdrawal from our fellowship--before MMBA takes care of it for you! 

In the end, such a strong stand isn't about being politically correct. Ultimately, it isn't even about the treatment of fellow human beings, as important as that is. In the end, this issue is about whether our churches desire what God desires--a unified universal church where no ethnic or language group is left out! If your church seeks any less than this because of racial prejudice, your church isn't preaching the Gospel and it is very likely that you stand on the brink of being damned for eternity.

But there is yet another side to this issue. As Pitts rightly points out, we are 40 years beyond the civil rights movement--more than 145 years beyond the end of the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th amendment, and the spirit of racism is still alive and well. As a journalist, Pitts seeks, and fails, to understand why this is the case. To Pitts, it seems logical that a bloody civil war, sweeping constitutional changes, and monumental cultural shifts brought on by the Civil Rights Act should be enough to create a culture wherein racism no longer exists. 

And such would seem logical, were it not for the reality of sin. To be sure, all of the above were the right decision. No nation that presumes any moral authority should tolerate involuntary servitude or government-endorsed preference for any race. At the same time, the abolition of slavery, by itself, doesn't stop one from looking with disdain on his darker-skinned brother.  (Just read up a bit on the abuse of African Americans in the "free" states up north after the Civil War!)  Likewise, government emphases like Affirmative Action might help mask the symptoms of racism, but it will never cure what is really wrong with us.

The central problem is that we are in rebellion against our Creator and thus, we hate what He loves, including racial diversity. As such, the solution to racism is the same as the solution to all sin; a bloody cross and an empty tomb. If this message is genuinely preached and lived in our churches, the evil of racism cannot last long.

Pastors and churches overcome this issue by living the Gospel. Churches will confront--and if necessary remove from membership--those who are members of groups with racist ideology. A member of the KKK is no more qualified than a member of the Taliban to be a member of the local Baptist church.  Pastors will openly confront these sinful attitudes and call men and women who possess them to repentance. 

Diversity will be celebrated and reflected in a congregation's leadership, as elders and deacons are appointed who represent and look like the community they are called to reach. Pastors will emphasize the importance of being "equally-yoked" by teaching their people that this means marriage takes place within the same FAITH, not necessarily the same RACE. Interracial marriage ceremonies will be held that give church members a foretaste of the diverse worship that we are headed for in heaven. Interracial couples and families who have repented of sin and trusted Christ will be welcomed as the brothers and sisters in Christ that they are. Families in the church will adopt children from other nations, cultures, and ethnicities, and such will be celebrated in the life of the church. Denominational entities, from the local association to the national SBC, will take a strong stand on this issue, to the extent that churches which refuse to acknowledge God's plan for all nations are removed from fellowship.

A few weeks ago, I visited and consulted with a church in this area that has exemplified this value for years--a congregation of less than 300 people--from 61 different nations!  We need congregations like this one to lead the way.

We are racist toward each other because we have sinned against our God. Thus, the Gospel is the only message that can unite us. Churches that understand this and live it will ultimately heal the scars caused by racial prejudice. This the only context in which genuine racial unity can ultimately be realized. 

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