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The racial tensions that exist in our culture reflect the deep brokenness of our world. As followers of Jesus, we are to move toward this pain and brokenness in a distinctly Jesus-looking way. As we learn to do this, we have an opportunity to participate in God’s restorative mission of healing as everyday peacemakers.
Note: if you haven’t read our last blog post entitled “The Stuff That’s Shaping Us”, please stop what you are doing and go read that article first.
Race is a hot topic right now. The mere mention of race or racism can turn the temperature up in a room and often provokes a variety of conflicting responses. My aim is not to stir the pot, but rather to contribute to the conversation productively.
So allow me to start by naming an observation that shouldn’t be controversial: Racial tensions exist in our culture.
Note that this is an observational statement about an obvious reality. I am simply naming that racial hostilities in the United States are real and palatable. The murder of George Floyd proved to be a tipping point resulting in protests across our country. We have been living in and are currently living in a culture marked by racial unrest.
We, of course, can have a separate conversation about how pervasive racism is or to what extent it is at work in the world. But my point is to simply establish at the outset that racial tensions exist and are dividing people in our culture.
Moreover, these racial tensions are also indicative of the deep pain and brokenness in our world and point to the much needed healing that is yet to take place.
With this observation in mind, I bring two convictions to the table.
First, the church must be engaged in the world.
The church is a sent community (John 20:21). We are sent by Jesus to engage in what's actually happening in the world. The church cannot afford to stand on the sidelines. We can’t ignore or hive off from what’s happening in the world. We need to follow the God who is on mission by joining the work the Spirit is doing in the world to bring about restorative wholeness. At the very least, this means we should be able to talk about things like race and racism.
We are sent by Jesus to engage in what's actually happening in the world. The church cannot afford to stand on the sidelines. We can’t ignore or hive off from what’s happening in the world.
Second, our engagement needs to look like Jesus.
The church not only needs to engage what’s happening in the world, but must engage in a Jesus-looking way. At the very least, this means that engaging racial tensions will involve lamenting & truth telling, bridge building & peacemaking, all of which must be rooted and grounded in cruciform love. Why? Because this is how Jesus engaged the world and our goal must be to engage in a distinctly Jesus-looking way.
In our last blog post, The Stuff That's Shaping Us, I named three giant cultural influencers that are discipling us as people other than Jesus. One of these influencers is politics.
A significant number of people who identify as Christians are actually being more discipled by their politics than by the person of Jesus. The primary thing shaping and influencing them is the political tribe they belong to. Politics has become the new religion in our culture. While people claim that Jesus is King, in reality politics has become king.
So, if you watch 10 hours of Fox News each day, Fox News is discipling you.
Similarly, if you watch 10 hours of CNN every day, CNN is discipling you.
The result is that almost every topic of discussion gets filtered first and foremost through a political lens. A person’s political convictions often determine their perspective on the most important issues of our day—including how they interpret the life and teachings of Jesus. Rather than filtering our politics through the life and teachings of Jesus, we filter Jesus through our politics.
This is deeply problematic.
It also explains why people can look at the same racial incident and draw drastically different conclusions. Political ideology often determines how one views and engages the racial unrest in our culture. The political right and the political left both view and engage in a particular way—but it is not the way of Jesus.
Now, let me be clear. I’m a pastor. I’m not a political pundit.
As a pastor, what I care about most is that followers of Jesus learn how to give their primary allegiance to the person of Jesus—not the right, the left, or anything in between on the political spectrum.
What I’m most interested in is how to engage the racial hostilities in our culture as followers of Jesus. What does it look like for the church to engage the racial tensions in our culture in a way that looks like Jesus? That’s the question I’m excited about chasing.
What does it look like for the church to engage the racial tensions in our culture in a way that looks like Jesus?
As followers of Jesus, we pledge our ultimate allegiance to Jesus. And nothing should ever compete with our loyalty to Jesus—including partisan politics.
Jesus is not red. Jesus is not blue. Nor is Jesus purple.
Jesus is King and will not be put in the box of American politics.
I think we need to get clear on this because if we don’t, partisan politics will frame up how the conversation on race is engaged. And I think we need a different framework all together— a theological and biblical one.
Occasionally I will encounter people who don’t understand why the church should care about racial tensions. In addition to our missional mandate to engage the world in a Jesus-looking way, here are four biblical and theological reasons for engagement.
John Perkins, in his book One Blood, says this about the Human Genome Project:
“Scientists set out to understand the human gene. What they discovered was that every human being is 99.9 percent identical in genetic makeup. What that means is that all the differences that we can see only amount to .1 percent of our genes. Even scientists have proven that we are one.” 1
As human beings we form one race: the human race.
Even a person who looks totally different than you is still 99.9 percent just like you.
The Bible states that every human being has been created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27), is fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), and someone that Jesus died for in love (1 John 2:2). The reality is that racism distorts all these foundational truths. Racism de-imagio Dei’s the image of God in others, disconnects us from one another, and denies the intrinsic value and worth of those who are dearly loved by Jesus.
Some people I encounter don’t think we should talk about race because race is a social construct. “Talking about race only gives credence to this social construct,” they reason. It is true that race is a social construct, but race is a real construct that actually exists and does bad work, de-imago Dei-ing work, in the world.
As human beings we form one race: the human race.
Race is a construct created by humans to draw lines between people groups–ascribing value to some and devaluing others. In order to dismantle this construct and deconstruct it, we need to name it and talk about how it’s at work.
As Dominique Gilliard points out,“We cannot crucify what we cannot name.” 2
Many people have inherited a very narrow understanding of the gospel. Particularly within evangelical contexts, the gospel is often equated with the message that Jesus died for your sins so that you can go to heaven when you die. The gospel essentially gets equated with the “plan of salvation” often supported by tools like The Romans Road, The Bridge Illustration, or The Four Spiritual Laws.
While personal salvation is part of the gospel, it’s not the same thing as the gospel. The gospel is bigger than Jesus dying for your sins so that you can go to heaven when you die. When people reduce the gospel to a personal plan of salvation, they actually end up distorting it. What’s left is an anemic, reductionistic, gospel.
The gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is cosmic in scope and size.
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross….this is the gospel.
— Colossians 1:19-20
The gospel is that God is reconciling all things through King Jesus—things in heaven and things on earth—through the death and resurrection of Jesus. That’s the gospel. It’s the good news that Jesus is King.
What’s important to notice is that the gospel doesn’t just deal with a vertical problem—namely, our relationship with God—but every type of problem. In the garden of Eden there was a fourfold fracture:
Some of us have been told that the gospel is just about the first one (our relationship with God), but the gospel actually deals with all of these— our relationship with God, our relationship to ourselves, to one another, and to creation. All of it is restored and reconciled and is brought back into right relationship through King Jesus.
So notice that part of the gospel is about restoring our relationship to one another. The gospel is about reconciling us one to another as one new humanity. This is what Paul says explicitly in Ephesians 2.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.
— Ephesians 2:13-17
Part of the cross (Jesus shedding his blood) was to make peace—to reconcile Jew and Gentile, to tear down the dividing wall—forming one new humanity. This is NOT secondary or tertiary to the gospel. It’s not an optional add on. It’s an essential part of the gospel.
Part of the gospel is about restoring our relationship to one another. The gospel is about reconciling us one to another as one new humanity.
The Bible affirms repeatedly that God is a God of justice. Here’s a quick sampling:
Not only is God a God of justice, but we, as God’s people, are commanded to reflect God’s justice in our relationships with others—particularly the poor and vulnerable:
Maintaining justice and righteousness is central to living faithfully with God.
Pretty much all of the Law Codes are intended to establish and regulate justice and righteousness within the community of Israel—particularly with regard to the most disadvantaged (widows, orphans, strangers, and the poor). This is why God is often roused when justice is perverted and issues the strongest rebukes when injustice reigns in place of righteousness (Deut. 25:13-16, Isaiah 1; Amos 5). We are held accountable by God when we fail to practice justice.
Embodying the teachings of Jesus in pursuit of biblical justice will not look politically left or right. It will look like Jesus.
Of course, the priority placed on justice is not just found in the Old Testament. The life and teachings of Jesus, along with entire New Testament, put a profound emphasis on it — Mary’s Magnificat (Lk. 1:46-55), Jesus’ kingdom announcement (Lk. 4:16-21), James’ definition of pure religion (James 1:26-27), and Jesus’ own instructions to look after the “least of these” (Matt. 24:40-45).
It’s important to understand the biblical and theological foundation for seeking justice. Without it, any emphasis on justice or righteousness can easily be dismissed in the name of being politically “liberal” or “woke.” But caring about justice isn’t liberal, it’s just plain biblical. It’s also an essential part of Christian discipleship. Moreover, embodying the teachings of Jesus in pursuit of biblical justice will not look politically left or right. It will look like Jesus. The gospel is political, but it is not partisan.
At the heart of the racial tensions currently residing in our culture are concerns about the lack of justice and righteousness. Rather than dismissing justice as liberal, the church should be embodying the best practice to move toward it and establish it. As Cornel West famously said: "Justice is what love looks like in public."
The kingdom of God is a place of diversity without human hierarchy.
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
— Revelation 7:9-10
This is a future vision of God’s kingdom. Notice it’s a place of diversity without human hierarchy. It is a place of diversity because it includes people from every tribe, tongue and nation. These distinctions aren’t eliminated, but are preserved. However, at the same time, these differences don’t create hierarchies that fuel inequality, favoritism, or partiality. The kingdom of God is a place of diversity without human hierarchy.
One implication of this is that we can’t afford to ignore diversity.
Sometimes I rub up against a colorblind theology that basically says, “I don’t see differences in skin color. Everyone is equal in God’s eyes.”
Yes, we are all equal. Of course. However, we are also different. And affirming the first while denying the second won’t work. If we actually value equality, then we will need to confront any human hierarchy that is preventing equality from becoming a reality.
The church is to be a sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s future kingdom. We are to put on display the future God is working toward right now! This means that we, as a church, have an incredible opportunity!
If we actually value equality, then we will need to confront any human hierarchy that is preventing equality from becoming a reality.
In a broken and fractured world, a world full of human hierarchies that are fueled by prejudice, we have an opportunity to manifest something different—namely, a place where differences aren’t minimized or ignored but celebrated, a place where hierarchies don’t exploit or oppress, a place where justice and righteousness are championed in the way of King Jesus.
What would happen if the church became the alternative the world needs to see?
1 John Perkins, One Blood (Moody, 2018), p. 20.
2 Dominique Gilliard, Subversive Witness (Zondervan, 2021), p. 186.