Two open letters addressing racial injustice were recently published in the Christian Chronicle:
- An open letter to members of the Churches of Christ -ministers, scholars and thought leaders within the fellowship
- Speaking Up on the Issue of Race in America – from Harold Shank and Robert Solomon
These were accompanied by an article including interviews with some of the authors.
The letters were, of course, inspired by the current controversy regarding the Black Lives Matter movement.
Before discussing such a controversial issue, I thought it might be helpful to deal with some over-arching concerns.
Our responsibility for the sins of our ancestors
The scriptures are fairly clear that we’re not responsible for the sins of our ancestors.
(Deu. 24:16 ESV) “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.
(Jer. 31:29-30 ESV) 29 In those days they shall no longer say: “‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ 30 But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.”
(Ezek. 18:2-4 ESV) 2 “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? 3 As I live, declares the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 4 Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.”
God damns those who sin for their own sins — unless they find grace in Jesus.
So if that’s true, how can we be charged with sin because our ancestors divided the church over race and we did little to undo the damage? Are we duty bound to fix all the sins of our ancestors? Surely not!
Well, look at it this way.
You visit an unfamiliar church. It’s 100% white in membership, in a town that has 30% black residents and 70% white. Two blocks down the road, in a much more poorly built building, is a 100% black church.
You walk into the white church, and up over the baptistry is a sign saying “Coloreds Not Welcome Here” — just above the Jordan River wallpaper baptismal scene and behind the communion table saying “Do this in remembrance of me.”
You ask one of the members about the sign. He says, “What sign?” You point to the words above the baptistry. The member replies, “I guess it’s been up there so long I don’t even notice it. It’s been there for decades. No one pays it any attention. It’s not who we are today. It’s just a sign that’s been long forgotten.”
You ask another member about the sign. He says, “Well, I certainly didn’t hang it up there. It was here before I even joined this church. I didn’t hang it, and so it’s not my fault that it’s up there. Don’t blame me. Besides, blacks should judge our hearts, not our signs. If they were more God-like in their discernment, they’d not see any problem with the sign since it’s not who we are today.”
“Then,” you ask, “why not take it down?”
“Well,” a deacon now enters the discussion, clearly tired of these kinds of questions, “it’s a part of our heritage. My granddaddy carved those letter by hand, and when I see that sign, it reminds my of my late PawPaw. I just couldn’t bring myself to tear down what he worked so hard to build.”
An elder happens by. He adds, “If were you, I’d worry about my own sins, not the sins of the ancestors of other people. I agree that it was wrong to hang the sign up like that, and I certainly would oppose it if it came up for discussion today, but what’s past is past. Let’s leave the past in the past!”
What do you conclude about this congregation? Are they racist? Are they just too lazy to take down the sign? Or are they too in love with their own past — engaging in something akin to ancestor worship?
Who would argue, with a straight face, that these members are followers of Jesus who want to be just like their rabbi? Who would argue that their behavior is based on the gospel?
Some scriptural arguments
- Paul (and the rest of his generation) did not create the Jew/Gentile divide or the racism of the Jews against the Gentiles. I mean, the Torah nowhere declares Gentiles unclean, and yet the Jewish rabbis had for generations said that Jews must not associate with Gentile “dogs” because they are unclean.
- Phillip (and the rest of his generation) did not create the bigotry of the Jews against the Samaritans.
And yet such men dedicated their lives — at great personal risk — to unite Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles into a single church.
The gospel compelled the church to take the gospel to the Jews, the Samaritans, and the Gentiles. It was the church’s charge to correct the racial and ethnic divisions even though the church did not create the divisions. After all, the gospel’s promise of unity of all peoples, races, nations, and ethnicities is not about whose fault these separations are. The gospel requires the church to overcome these divisions, by the power of the Spirit, because that’s the nature of the Kingdom that God wants to create. Our mission includes working with God to heal these rifts — not just to heal the rifts we are personally morally responsible for, but to heal all such rifts.
Ultimately, the race issue has nothing to do with whose fault the separation of the races is. Fault-finding and blame-placing are a distraction from the gospel. It’s human excuse making, not real theology. What matters is what the gospel calls us to be and to do.
What is that?
(1 Cor. 1:13a ESV) 13 Is Christ divided?
(1 Cor. 12:13-16 ESV) 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit. 14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.
(Gal 3:28 ESV) 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.
(Col 3:11 ESV) Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
(Eph. 3:6 ESV) 6 This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
(Eph. 4:1-6 ESV) I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call — 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
(1 Pet. 2:9-10 ESV) 9 But you are a chosen race [singular], a royal priesthood, a holy nation [singular], a people [singular] for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
And then there’s the OT.
(Ps. 2:8 ESV) 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.
(Dan 7:14 ESV) And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
Notice that Daniel prophesies a single “dominion” and a single “kingdom” in which the Ancient of Days (God) will be worshiped by all peoples, nations, and languages. That is, the nations will be joined into a single Kingdom.
Ps 8 says the same thing, as there will be but one King who rules over “the nations.”
(Rev. 5:9-10 ESV) 9 And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, 10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
People from many tribes, languages, peoples, and nations become, in God, a single “kingdom.”
The early church
The early church called itself a “third race, ” meaning (a) a single race that (b) was neither Jewish nor Gentile. And yet we know from scripture that the early church included Jews, Samaritans, Ethiopians, Romans, Greeks, Galatians (Celts), and many other races — all of which became a single race through Jesus.
My church may not have a racially offensive sign above the baptistry, but it may be just as offensive because only whites are ordained as elders or deacons, only whites lead communion meditations, only whites teach Bible class, and only whites make announcements. Do that, and you’d may as well hang a sign over your baptistry saying “Coloreds Not Welcome Here” — even if your members have no objection to letting black Christians join — so long as they know their place.
But white churches aren’t the only ones with this problem. I know of a white congregation that approached a black congregation with a merger proposal. The white church felt that racial division was plainly anti-gospel and so they wanted to merge to honor the gospel.
The black church declined, saying they felt they had a mission to the black residents in their neighborhood that couldn’t be fulfilled as a racially mixed church. The white church offered to assure the continuation of their ministries. The black church still declined. It seemed clear that they feared being absorbed by a larger, white church — and they’d lose their identity, their positions of influence, and their control — which was a very legitimate possibility. A smaller church merging into a larger church will struggle to maintain the feel of a small church. Leaders will shift from control to mere influence.
And yet it was, I believe, plainly the wrong decision. The gospel says to unite. The gospel says that we are but one race and should not divide along racial lines. All that is anti-gospel is sin — no matter how natural and ordinary anti-gospel feels.
No one promised an easy gospel.