What's the big deal?

Christ is calling us to unity–Amen!

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Sometimes we argue and take sides over non-essentials. For example, the older I get, the less I care about immersion vs. sprinkling baptisms. I’m just trying to be a decent person on mornings when I’ve run out of coffee, so I really don’t care how much water is involved at your baptism. It wouldn’t be wise to split a church or fight with a friend over that. Better to shut up and drink my miserably inadequate cup of tea.

On the other hand, you’re not necessarily sowing division when you disagree, even when you disagree fiercely, loudly and publicly. 

Paul didn’t hesitate to call out Peter in front of “all the others” in Antioch as described in Galatians 2:11-14.

Paul did not hold back with the Galatians, either. When some church members demanded that Gentile Christians convert to Judaism and be circumcised, Paul wished they would “go the whole way” and castrate themselves. That’s some strong language!

He wasn’t creating division.  Paul was identifying harmful divisions that already existed, and calling for true unity. 

Jewish Christians didn’t think that they were sinning when they insisted on circumcision. They thought they were standing up for God’s ways even if it was unpopular. It didn’t occur to them that their opinions and perspectives were biased. For them, circumcision and Judaism were the norm, a given, obvious.

I don’t know how they reacted when they got Paul’s letter. I bet they weren’t particularly happy. I bet that some got angry and offended, at least at first. It must have been humbling.  I wonder if some laughed over the castration quip. 

Unity during the 1960’s?

Sometime in the 1960’s, my grandma invited a Black congregation to her church for a prayer meeting. This made lots of people in her church very, very angry. If she wanted to pray with a Black church, that was her choice, but she shouldn’t force it onto everybody else.  People showed up to pray, not make a statement about integration, which was a hot button political issue at the time.

Church members insisted that they “believed in equality,” but this was something else. This was controversy and politics, and a distraction from the holy work of prayer.

My grandma hadn’t expected to offend anybody.  She was inviting her church to take the first steps towards meaningful unity with a Black church—and it made people uncomfortable. They said it created trouble, when in fact, it exposed the trouble that had been hiding in church members’ hearts all along.

Afterwards, my grandma encountered so much hostility that she left to attend a different church.

Around that same time, Martin Luther King Jr wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” He lamented the passivity of white pastors who were afraid to engage in the civil rights movement. He wished that they would stand with their Black brothers and sisters.  In saying this, MLK wasn’t creating division. He was calling it out.

For centuries now, Black Christians have asked white Christians to join them in true fellowship and solidarity. They cried out for unity, for in fact, their lives often depended on it. “Hey Christians, people are burning our churches and throwing bricks in our windows. Our loved ones are dying.  Help us out!”

Most white Christians responded with some variation of, “It’s your own fault.  Lay low and quit stirring up trouble. It’s divisive.”  That’s what many Black and white Christians told Martin Luther King Jr.

They preferred the familiar, sinister disunity that was already in place over the loud, upsetting work of calling people to something better. 

Martin Luther King Jr. listened, prayed, and chose to march anyways.

Silence is Not Unity

Jesus’ last recorded prayer before the cross was for unity among believers. Unity is a precious, serious calling.  

Real unity is hard. It takes work (just ask any couple who has been married for more than six months).

Lately I’ve seen people use “unity” as a way to silence those who are calling for repentance and racial justice. Silence is false unity. 

Unity does not mean we dodge hard conversations—in fact, it’s the opposite! 

Christ-centered unity requires greater engagement when we disagree, not less. We must listen before we speak, but we must speak.  We must forgive and ask forgiveness, and give each other the benefit of the doubt. The only way to achieve unity is to dive into Spirit-led conversations and sometimes, admonishments. We must repent and call others to repent.

If we avoid talk about racial justice in our churches, we’ll avoid offending our friends. We’ll have a fun time putting together Operation Christmas boxes.  We’ll happily, easily enjoy our church picnics, worship services, and prayer meetings. 

But we won’t be living in unity with the overwhelming majority of our brothers and sisters of color. 

Unity Today?

Has the majority of the American Church ever once acted in unity with Black Christians?  Some white Christians were incredible allies in abolition and the civil rights movement, but they were exceptions.  Passivity and silence were far more common, and white Christians have always been among the most formidable opponents to racial justice.

Christians who talk about racism today aren’t creating disunity. The disunity is already there. Sunday is still one of the most segregated days of the week. Anti-racist Christians are starting a conversation about this division, and insisting that we address it. They’re trying to do what Paul did with the Galatians.

It’s sure unpleasant. It requires a lot of humility to change. We’re saying, “yeah, what we’re doing isn’t working anymore, or maybe it was wrong all along.” 

It doesn’t feel good to be singled out, for someone to look you right in the eyes and say, “that’s sin!”  Ancient Israel hated it so much that they usually stoned the prophets who called them to repentance.

But the person correcting us isn’t the one splitting the church. Our sin is the problem, not the fact that they’re naming it.

We’ll only achieve unity in the American Church if we talk about racism openly and often. We must prioritize learning how to stand in unity with our Black brothers and sisters–and it will be uncomfortable. We must lovingly call out our friends’ and church members’ mistakes, just as Paul did with Peter. We must live in grace!

One of the most important things you can do immediately is start reading and listening to Black Christians. Re-read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone is a tough but compelling read.  Next, talk with your family and friends about what you’re learning–even when it’s uncomfortable.

Jesus prayed for “complete unity” so that “the world will know that You sent Me.” What a testament to God’s power if Christians across the country become a driving force for healing, reconciliation, and unity today!

Read more:

Click to read Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Order The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone. Or check the library!

What's the big deal?

Why Prayer Isn’t Enough

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While discussing Black Lives Matter protests, several beloved Christian friends tell me, “Protests won’t change people’s hearts.  Laws and policy can’t fix the sin of racism.  We just need to tell people about Jesus and pray—we need Him to change us!”

         I understand where my friends are coming from.  But I think racism requires action, not just prayer.

         When my 2-year-old throws a spectacular punch at her older sister, the deep, underlying truth is that my child needs Jesus.  But I’d be an irresponsible mom if I prayed, read some Bible stories, and waited for Jesus to transform her heart.  There is a lot I need to do to bring Jesus’ justice and love into my home!  Even though my responses are flawed, I need to stop the toddler blood-bath.

         This analogy is imperfect—white Christians fighting for racial justice definitely shouldn’t think of themselves as parents swooping in to take charge.  My point is that prayer, sermons, and evangelism alone aren’t solutions to brokenness here on earth, and we are commanded to do more.  

Jesus cares about every part of our lives, not just “spiritual stuff.”  He fed the hungry, healed bodies, and condemned exploitation in the Temple.  In Matthew 25, He tells us to care for the sick and visit prisoners.  It’s not a question of whether to care about eternal life or people’s lives on earth–it’s both.  As Christians, we must share the Gospel and fight for justice now. 

Yes, we need to tell people about Jesus.  But because we are sinful, we need laws and systemic changes, too.  Here’s why:

Justice is good, in and of itself.  God loves justice!  The 13th Amendment probably didn’t change the hearts of anyone who owned slaves.  But ending slavery was still a good thing. Would you tell an enslaved person that being freed wouldn’t “solve the sin problem,” and to wait until slave-owners are convicted of their sin?  Addressing systemic injustice won’t end all racism, but would be fundamentally good.

Christians have hard hearts, too.  George Whitefield and Jonathon Edwards were two of the most incredible Christian preachers ever, and they owned slaves.  When I read their sermons, I’m convinced that they loved Jesus deeply–but they still hardened their hearts towards Black people.  Robert E. Lee was a devout Christian and particularly vicious to his slaves.  

Some Christians believe that slave-owners weren’t really “saved,” but I think it’s more complicated than that.  Christians can quench the Holy Spirit.  My own life is proof that someone can love Jesus and still be a pretty messed-up sinner (or total idiot, depending on who you ask).  Therefore, increased evangelism is good–but it won’t end racism.  We need to oppose racist systems, structures and norms so that justice doesn’t depend on how well Christians are following Jesus that particular day.

Just laws can change hearts over time.  In 1967, my mom’s 10th grade social studies class discussed interracial marriage.  Out of 30 students, only 3 of them were in favor of legalized interracial marriages: my mom, her best friend, and a boy who had a crush on her.  And this was a class full of church-goers in the relatively progressive state of Minnesota!

Interracial marriages became increasinlgy common after the 1967 Supreme Court ruling, and our hearts (and churches) have gradually changed for the better as a result.  Just policies today would likewise push hearts in the right direction.

Christians fought for justice in the past.  Throughout history, Christians didn’t just pray for justice–they did something achieve it.  Some examples are William Wilberforce, Charles Spurgeon, John Wesley, Corrie ten Boom, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela.  Their stories should inspire us to take action today.

Jesus commands us to take action.  Guided by the Spirit, we are Jesus’ hands and feet on earth–and we should not be idle in the fight against racism.  What can you do right now?  Start a weekly Bible study to read and discuss Jemar Tisby’s How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey Toward Racial Justice.  His first book is also a great place to start: The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.

What's the big deal?

Go ahead, Call me racist!

I’m one of those people who takes the Bible seriously. Every word. I believe that I’m made of flesh and bone and sin, saved and redeemed by grace through faith.

When I attended a racial reconciliation forum in college, I wasn’t offended when Black students talked about white people’s racial bias.  I was confused, because I hadn’t noticed any racism on campus, and I certainly believed that all people should be treated equally.  But I didn’t argue my innocence, either, even internally.

That’s me on the left during my sophomore year of college with my amazing friend, Leslie. Hi, Leslie!

Apparently racism is like every other sin—sneakier and more prevalent than I’d thought!  From what I understood about sin, I was probably guilty one way or another.  

I’d never even kissed a boy, but lust makes me an adulterer.  It doesn’t make me like an adulterer–Jesus says it actually makes me guilty of adultery.  I’d never punched anyone (little brothers obviously don’t count), but my anger and spite make me a murderer.  

Some people think this is too extreme and will tell me to go to therapy.  But it’s actually pretty freeing–my identity in Christ doesn’t falter in the face of my worst imperfections.

Anyways, if I’m already a murderer and adulterer, being racist isn’t much of a stretch.  In fact, it fits perfectly with what I already know about my sinful self.  “The heart is deceitful above all things,” so it was a safe bet that I was missing something.  More importantly, a lot of my Black classmates were hurting, and I wanted to love them better.  So I got to work.  

A lifetime of Sunday school lessons, sermons, and Bible studies gave me a head-start on prayer, sexual purity, and the perils of secular worldviews.  But I couldn’t remember a single sermon or study focused on racial reconciliation.  (Vague allusions to loving and respecting all people weren’t specific enough to be helpful).  I had to start with the basics.  

To learn about godly dating, I listened to older Christian women and read a few books.  To learn about racial justice, I listen to Black people (and others who are committed to racial reconciliation!) and read lots of articles and books.  There are so many resources!  Tons of Christian pastors are  at the forefront of racial justice teaching and organizing.  In fact, the entire concept of “racial reconciliation” is unapologetically centered on Christ.

Learning about racism is hard and uncomfortable, but it gets easier the more you do it.  And good theology is very practical here.  I won’t be hurt or angry if someone calls me “racist,” because what am I defending?  My own self-righteousness?  

Since Christ smashed my shame into smithereens, I’m not afraid of “saying the wrong thing” and making people angry at me.  I know I’m going to “say the wrong thing” eventually, but I’m accustomed to asking for forgiveness and repenting.  After all, I’m a Christian–I do that everyday already!  I apologize, listen, and lean into my identity in Christ.  I throw off shame and try to honor and learn from Black friends, writers, and speakers.

Do you believe Jesus’ assessment of your heart?  Do you really believe you’re a sinner?  If so, why do you think you’re completely free of racial bias?  Racial reconciliation is love and justice–are you perfect in both?  

Start listening, reading and studying, as you would with other sins and harmful cultural norms.  Combatting racism and pursuing reconciliation is lifelong work–just like every other spiritual battle.

Pastors, Bible study leaders, parents–why aren’t you studying racial reconciliation with the souls entrusted to your care?  I know from experience that the n-word is whispered in the halls of local Christian schools as students of color walk by.  Racism is in our communities.  Nobody likes talking plainly about greed, lust, or selfishness, either–but we do it.  If we love people, we must talk about racism and how to turn towards love and justice together.  Obedience to Christ requires it.

Ready to get started? Order Beyond Racial Gridlock by George A. Yancy and read the online article “The Sin of Racism” by Tim Keller.