I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about the race issues among believers that have been seemingly widened this week or probably just uncovered some more via the MLK50 conference. I’ve discovered I don’t have the ability I would like to express what I want to, nor do I have the wisdom or knowledge to solve all the complexities of this sensitive and intensely personal discussion. That goes without saying of course. So why bother trying to say anything? And I guess the best answer I can give is that I love the church – for all of its messiness – I love the body of Christ. So in the spirit of Ephesians 4:2-3 “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” I take up my pen to say what I hope will, by the Spirit, push toward the Spirit’s peace and the Spirit’s unity. I am basically going to express how my thoughts unfolded this week and do my best to draw some concluding thoughts at the end.
- Thabiti’s blog post in relation to the Gospel Coalition’s MLK 50 conference
In case you have not seen it, Thabiti Anyabwile posted a blog entitled “We Await Repentance for Assassinating Dr. King” in which he called for white evangelicals, as a starting point of making amends to the black community, acknowledge that their parents and grandparents were complicit in the murder of Dr. King. Here is the most controversial quote with a link to the whole article.
Until this country and the Church learns to confess its particular sins particularly, we will not overcome the Adamic hostility that infects the human soul and distorts human potential.
“Don’t get me wrong. I know Dr. King’s life was much greater than his death. I understand that his death gives us opportunity to reflect on his legacy. But it also gives opportunity to reflect on that twist in our soul that rose up and killed him. It gives opportunity to repent of the things some have with too much pride too often refused to admit is there.
My white neighbors and Christian brethren can start by at least saying their parents and grandparents and this country are complicit in murdering a man who only preached love and justice.” LINK
It is an irritating and frustrating thing to say that feels borderline absurd. Even if I wanted to comply how would I do it? Would I wear a shirt with mug shots of my parents and a caption reading “complicit in the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr?” My dad pastored a Baptist church in which he started a Hispanic ministry, and my mom would tear up anytime she spoke of the treatment of blacks she witnessed as a kid in Louisiana. These parents are complicit in the murder of Dr. King and should be judged guilty purely on the basis of their skin color and the time frame in which they lived? There are some implications in this quote that I believe are at best unhelpful and at worst contrary to the gospel. Here are some questions.
Many leading evangelicals, denominations, churches and individuals have already expressed sorrow and remorse publically either for overt racism or for not engaging on the issue as they should have during the civil rights movement – how would Thabiti’s requirement be deemed fulfilled?
If every white American Christian were to acknowledge their parents and grandparents were complicit in the murder of Dr. King, then what? What else will be needed before reconciliation can be considered?
Should gospel forgiveness be offered once the perpetrator has made full amends and satisfied our list of demands?
Do whites have a corner on the sin of judging someone based on the color of their skin rather than the content of their character or is this one of those sins “common to man?”
(If you would like to read more, this has been discussed ably by Joshua Sommer at The Baptist Reformation which you can read here
I would also recommend James White’s recent Dividing Line Episodes which you can find here)
Four posts later Thabiti attempts to clarify.
“To put a fine point on it as a closing: When it comes to racism, especially during the original period I was addressing in my first post (1950-60s), white America is Cretan in its understanding and actions. That does not mean every single white American was a racist–“as some people slanderously charge us with saying.” Reasonable people know better and they’ve shown so by other tweets not mentioned here. I praise God for those white Americans who had their consciences awakened, marched for equality, stood against injustice, and even gave their lives in the cause. So far from being guilty, such persons are among the righteous who will be rewarded at the resurrection of the just. “ LINK
This leads to even more questions for me – The first post may not call everyone a racist but it clearly calls every white American to confess their parents were complicit in the murder of Dr. King. Second, while I’m glad Thabiti recognizes that some whites did stand for what is right, I know of no Bible verse that teaches that means they will be “rewarded at the resurrection of the just.” Marching for equality, while admirable, cannot be equated with believing the gospel. I know this seems obvious, and I presume it is a misstatement by Thabiti, but it may also be a misstatement that reveals an imbalance in Thabiti’s theology. Al Mohler says: “In our own context, one of the most seductive false gospels is moralism. This false gospel can take many forms and can emerge from any number of political and cultural impulses. Nevertheless, the basic structure of moralism comes down to this — the belief that the Gospel can be reduced to improvements in behavior.” When “in or out” is based on whether or not I improve my activity level in social justice activities we have missed the radical nature of the Gospel.
As I considered Thabiti’s initial post over the course of the week I found myself trying to understand why Thabiti would make such a statement. Regardless of my reservations about his comments, there are a number of realities that should be acknowledged.
- Over the course the history of our country blacks have been grossly mistreated.
- The ramifications of slavery on the family unit sowed issues that are still being reaped today http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/freedom/1609-1865/essays/aafamilies.htm
- The post-Civil War treatment of blacks via segregation, discrimination and Jim Crow laws continued the abuses of the previous era. Jim Crow laws stayed in force until 1965.
- Redlining and financial discrimination from some financial institutions continued into the 1980’s ensuring the road to financial stability continued to be unfair.
- Some of the church defended these practices to their shame. Many churches did not speak out or ignored the issue. This was wrong. This was damaging to the name of Christ and undermined the truth of the gospel.
If there are churches or institutions or individuals that have not acknowledged these truths, they are irrefutable and should be acknowledged. The ramifications of these actions despite significant reforms in America since the 1960’s have ongoing implications today on family units, relationship with whites, and the finances of the black community. It is neither accurate nor appropriate for white evangelicals to dismiss the hurt of blacks under the guise of “it is all better now.” There are ongoing ramifications from the past and ongoing incidents of racism and discrimination that rip the scab off again. We must do a better job of applying I Cor 12:24 “If one member suffers, all suffer together.” The ongoing indifference to both the past injustice and continuing incidents of racism I think cause Thabiti to cry out, “Can you just at least acknowledge the guilt of white America – of white evangelicalism – can you not dismiss our suffering because you don’t want to look at it?” If this is part of the underlying heart of Thabiti’s original post I can better understand while not agreeing with how it was expressed.
- Adamic Sin and Victimization
As Thabiti rightly states in a couple of spots in his sequence of posts – sin infests the heart of every child of Adam. Sin knows no color boundaries, and because of that no race has a corner on any specific sin. “No sin has overtaken you except that which is common to man.” There are people of all races who judge others on the color of their skin rather than the content of their character.
One of the great challenges to believing the gospel is the requirement that I come horrifyingly guilty before God. Paul said in Romans 7 “Oh wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of sin?” and he says to Timothy, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am chief. “ And one of the great challenges for true victims of any crime is recognizing their desperate need to turn in repentance and faith to a mighty Savior because it is easier to see the sins of those who have trespassed against them. Phillip Yancey references in What’s So Amazing About Grace the reality that there is no one so self-righteous as a victim. Having one’s core identity be “victim” creates a reality where that individual or group can participate in almost any manner of sin without compunction because no matter what I do it is always less than what has been done to me.
It is understandable why this would be the case with many in the black community, but it is a roadblock to the gospel for individuals and gospel-based race relations. The reality is that everyone on the planet is a victim of others’ sins. For some the wounding is cuttingly deep and for others it is lighter, but the omnipresent reality is that the heart of every man is sinful and sin is devastating in its effects on others.
However, when God speaks to us it is rarely on the sin of others because though we are all victims of sin we are also all perpetrators. And of the two, God desires that we recognize at a level deeper than anyone else’s sin that “I am a sinner in need of the grace of God.” Not my brother. Not my sister. But it is ME oh Lord… As long as we say “yeah, yeah I know I’m a sinner, but not like those black people or those white people” we are the lost ones. And we are holding ourselves up like the Pharisee looking down on the publican. Oh let us beat on our chest, not daring to look to heaven and say together “God be merciful to ME a sinner” and see if God will not meet us there.
- Some Answers
The task of reconciling the races seems an impossibility. The complexities are too great – the emotions too high. I am too messed up. I cannot fix myself much less the human race. Yet in the acknowledging of our weakness as believers, we are able to fix our eyes on the one who declared, “It is Finished.” Even though I am speaking to believers I fear this answer may be skipped past as too simplistic. But if we continue to argue amongst ourselves where the blame lies and who did what to who and castigate those with whom we disagree and continue to say “I’ll do X if you do Y” I fear we will continue to live separated. But in Christ the impossible becomes possible.
Ephesians 2:13- 22
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
Truth begins with, we are fallen. Not just Satan is fallen, or the world is fallen, or the United States is fallen or even the church is fallen, but you and me – we are fallen. We are sinful. We are broken. Not just that we are fallen, but that we can’t fix ourselves. Sometimes I think we get in our minds that if we could just read one more book, find that magic principle, finally turn over that new leaf, we could fix what is wrong. But we can’t. Scripture tells us there is none righteous, no not one – we are in desperate need of something we cannot provide for ourselves, and to keep trying is futile. The “wrongness” is too much. We need something greater than ourselves. We need a Savior.
And the alienation that was between a holy God and ourselves far exceeds any alienation between the races. But GOD!! Christ Himself is our Peace! Through HIM black and white have access to the same grace, the same forgiveness, the same Lord, and through Him we are joined into one body. And God Himself is building us – Black and White and everyone in between, from every tribe, nation, and tongue into a dwelling place for Himself. There is something more core to our identities than our race for those that are in Him. For those that are in Christ he has become our peace. My identity in Him is no longer what I deserve – to be alienated – to be condemned – to have the bondage of sin define me – NO! With my Father there is peace because of the blood of the Lamb who has satisfied the justice of God for me and for you. No longer must I demand my rights be served – No longer must I demand that justice be given to me – instead I am free to lay down my life for my friends, for my enemies, for my neighbors and coworkers without regard to race, culture or creed. In Him I have been given far more than I could give.
Ok, you say, sounds great but it sounds a bit pie in the sky. Maybe that can happen in the future but seems unlikely right now. And yes, there is a now and not yet aspect. Nevertheless, I believe God is able to do miraculous things in our relations with each other right now. Even as you are reading this.
My wife and I watched “I Can Only Imagine” over the weekend. And the whole movie brought me to tears. The film tells the story of Bart Millard, lead singer for Mercy Me. His father was, in Bart’s words, a monster. He beat him up physically and emotionally from a young age. So as soon as he is able, Bart leaves his father’s house. But sometime later Bart randomly returns and finds his father is different. As they sit down to breakfast his evil father’s scowl is gone. He bows his head and prays – something Bart had never seen. His tone is not angry. He mentions that God answered his prayer that his son has returned. Bart is unwilling to accept his father’s change. The past injury is too much. Where is the justice? His father has not grovelled. He has not begged for mercy. So Bart in anger leaves only to discover a note that says his father is dying of terminal cancer. And God begins to make peace. God begins to soften. God begins to dissolve the indissoluble. And something beautiful and spectacular happens. Bart turns with love to his father – the mean, angry, vindictive, abusive dad, now precious in his sight. This is the power of the gospel. And my brothers and sisters I am begging and praying that in our hearts – the hearts of His children – we would find a way to love each other that reflects how we have been loved. Let us submit to the work of God to build US into a dwelling place for him.
I have one last point I want to share. God created the races. God delights in the people he has made in their differences. Races are not going away in the new heaven and new earth. I had a picture as I was dwelling on this of God delighting in the colors and cultures of each race and tribe. Look! I made a black people group! Look at my Asian people groups! Look at my Hispanic people groups! When God makes us one he does not eliminate our ethnicity! When God says in Colossians 3 “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, Slave, Free – he is not saying all physical and cultural identities are removed – They are not…. Ever! He is saying that at our core we are no longer Greek or Jew, or Black or White, or outcast – No! Christ is now all in all!