Social Justice, Racial Reconciliation and the Gospel Part 2: False Unity and Gospel Unity

Note: This is part 2 of 3 in a series of blog posts dealing with the issues of social justice, racial reconciliation and violence that has burst upon America the last few months. Click here for the first post and stay tuned for more!

Article by Joel Stegman

In Genesis 11, we are given the account of the Tower of Babel. All humanity comes together and decides that, if they can just work together, they can build a tower to the sky and reach God, basically becoming gods themselves. This seems completely irrelevant to today’s context. What could a story about coming together to build a tower have to say about the state of America today?

We’re more fractured than ever, a hot mess of ethnicism, nationalism and partisanship. The country and the world are in a state of turmoil and upheaval in a way many of us are not prepared to handle. Because this kind of civil unrest and the threat of violence has been so foreign to most people, we are caught entirely by surprise and are completely unaware of how to deal with this issue. This was what I discussed in my last post. However, as a society, we’re not without our narratives about how the problem can be fixed, narratives that constitute a false unity.

There’s basically two narratives of false unity that we’ve all grown up. One says that if we just went back to the way things were, we’d be okay and the world would be a better place. This is the conservative narrative, and you can tell from the simple campaign slogan Donald Trump has been using: “Make America Great Again”. The problem with this notion is that it forces everyone to conform to a certain standard. How does this mirror the Tower of Babel? In Genesis 11:1, we’re told that all people spoke the same language. I want you to join me in an historical thought experiment. Assuming that the people building this tower are as awful as we’re led to believe – so much so that God sees it as fit to punish them – I don’t think that it’s a huge stretch to assume that speaking one language and living in line with this one people group was mandatory. Necessary for inclusion is uniformity with the main group. “Just be like us, and you’ll be okay. And if you can’t, well…” The conservative call back to the past excludes those who can’t journey back to it because you had to be white and male to actually enjoy it. Original sin has plagued all of American history. Why should we journey back to a time marred by sin as much as our own time? There hasn’t been room for people not like white men to live in this world, and this is where I, as a white male, have to admit I’ve been part of the problem because I enjoy this status even though I’ve done nothing to earn it. Yet the world has been made for me to thrive. Saying I want to go back to it is exceedingly safe and selfish for me, but it’s a much more terrifying proposition to someone with skin color different than me.

The other cultural narrative of false unity states that if we can just become less intolerant and put aside our differences, we can find ourselves living in a perfect world, a utopia where everyone is happy and never mean to one another. This is the liberal narrative, and we can find this belief baked into Bernie Sanders’ campaign slogan “A Future to Believe In.” What we need lies in the future; we just need to work together to get there. This mirrors the Babel account in that it wants to push towards a human-centric utopia, relying entirely on people to approach a fully-realized perfect world. In many ways, it also mirrors the Christian narrative for the coming kingdom of God. Yet, the reason it’s no more than a shadow of that new world lies in the fact that it assumes humans are already imbued with the necessary ingredients for this in themselves.

This narrative precludes the fact that the problem isn’t outside of us, found in intolerant systems, organizations or rules. It’s found within each and every one of us. This was the main point of my last post: the problem of original sin, the evil inside of all of us, makes it so that we can’t blame one group of people for the problems. If we truly did try to come together and build a tower in honor of humanity, it would be plagued with all of the same problems every other society has been, even to this day. This is why God was against the tower of Babel; it made a mockery of Him, trying to attain equality with God, evidence of self-idolatry and arrogance and proof that instead of the answer just being humans coming together, the problem was merely compounded.

It’s often been assumed that Jesus was basically living out the liberal narrative as he welcomed all, no matter if they were categorized a “sinner”, “unclean” or made up parts of the undesirable classes, such as Samaritans, women, or Gentiles. The point shouldn’t be missed that Jesus did seek those people out and welcomed them into the fold of God’s people. However, it also doesn’t mean that we should decide that Jesus was simply a modern day liberal born out of time, either. Miroslav Volf, who I referred to in my last post, has written that

“It would be a mistake, however, to conclude from Jesus’ compassion toward those who transgressed social boundaries that his mission was merely to demask the mechanisms that created “sinners” by falsely ascribing sinfulness to those who were considered socially unacceptable. He was no prophet of “inclusion”, for whom the chief virtue was acceptance and the cardinal vice intolerance. Instead, he was the bringer of “grace” who not only scandalously included “anyone” in the fellowship of “open commensality”, but made the “intolerant” demand of repentance and the “condescending” offer of forgiveness. The mission of Jesus consisted not simply in re-naming the behavior that was falsely labeled “sinful” but also in re-making the people who have actually sinned or have suffered misfortune.” 1

What Jesus does is dismantle the equal and opposite errors of the two narratives I just mentioned.

First, Jesus says that the way society has drawn its dividing lines are sinful, and that they need to be changed. This is the conservative error; to the point that it ignores the fact that those lines exist or that they are being mistreated. The dividing lines of race of, say, 1950’s America were not God-honoring. Going back to the way America has been means reinforcing these fault lines, by forcing everyone to act like nice white people from the 50s. I submit that this is sinful.

Second, to Jesus, grace and tolerance are two very different things. This is the liberal error: failing to make the distinction. Tolerance accepts because it believes the person you are accepting is basically alright. They are in themselves worth accepting and left the way they are. Grace accepts in spite of the prickles and dirtiness of the other, but it’s not the kind of thing that is content to leave someone where they are for, because we actually aren’t basically okay, and not capable of entering a new, tolerant and inclusive society on our own. We need the work of Christ and the Spirit to form us into something new, and to incorporate us into a new body, a new culture, a new worldview.

*   *   *

At creation, God ordered the world in a way that was called ‘good’ and ‘very good’. Everything that was ordered was done in a way that was best. That meant that some barriers were good. The land was divided from the sea, and that was good. Man was meant to be distinct from the animals, and that was good. The birds of the air and bird of the sea were to be separate from each other, and that was good. Life was precious, and the taking of it was seen as a disordering of God’s world. What sin did–and continues to do–was to violently blow up the order God had put the world in, and then reassemble it in it’s own ugly image, worshipping creation rather than the Creator (Rom 1:25).

We’ve not graduated from this. We never figured it out back in the 50s (contra the conservative belief) and we’re not on the precipice of moving beyond it now (contra the liberal one). Society is still arranged along certain cultural fault lines. We’re divided by race, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, religious groups, interests, age, whether we live in the city or in rural areas, and on and on and on.

In my last post, I talked about how on the cross, Jesus provides the justice we need in this society. Specifically, I talked about how it condemns the sin social justice cries for, but it provides for justice, or justification, that comes with those who turn to Christ crucified. In condemning sin but in also naming those in the light righteous, the cross creates a new people group who are defined by their inclusion in Christ’s body and their justification by their faith. This new group of people, the church, has an identity that transcends all other identity markers. In Ephesians, this is one of Paul’s big points in the flow of things. When they read Ephesians, most people go immediately to chapter 1 and the beginning of 2 and then skip to the spiritual warfare section in 6. But there’s a lot of stuff in between those about the implications of the gospel for people groups.

For [Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Eph 2:14, 19-22)

The gospel tears down these old barriers–the ones imposed by sin and the fall, built out of the rubble of the good order God had initially established in the garden. Now, God has built new dividing lines out of what is to be identity markers for us: are you justified, a member of the church, the people of God, in the light of Christ? Or are you outside of that? This is the only barrier that matters.

The ultimate goal of all of this is found in the book of Revelation. In chapter 5, John has an apocalyptic vision of the people of God, assembled together because the Lamb on the throne was worthy to break the scroll of God’s will to be instituted on earth:

“and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” (Rev 5:9-10)

Notice how this view of the one people is different from the one we saw earlier in the Tower of Babel. Everyone does not come from the same stock. They do not speak the same language, and are not all from one people or nation. There is a variance to them. To say to them, upon entrance into the people of God, that they must all look and act the same is to say that their culture or race or whatever that they come from is evil. This is not the picture I’m trying to cast: “Shed your blackness or whiteness. Cast the idols from your heritage into the furnace and accept the new uniformity of the church!” The picture that the Bible gives us is of a body of many unique and different people and groups, all coming together in their uniqueness and together creating something bigger and better than their culture alone because of God’s work in Christ. These are faultlines that God has deemed good. As long as we focus on the larger picture of the puzzle, and on our individual puzzle piece, we can also celebrate the unique way in which we contribute to the puzzle because it contributes to that bigger puzzle 2.

I’m going to refrain from talking much about the way in which this looks like practically because it’s supposed to be the focus of my next post, but I wanted to offer one quick way that the church proclaims this unity to the world. In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, Paul is appalled to learn that some of the Corinthians have celebrated the Lord’s Supper without the others. To Paul, celebration of the central sacrament of Communion is of paramount importance, and symbolically shows the unity of the Corinthians as they all together eat and drink from the same body, Christ’s. The Lord’s Supper is done in remembrance of the cross, and the justice and justification that takes place on it. If we are to do it to symbolize and reflect on that portion of the gospel, we must recognize that it also symbolizes and reflects the portion of the gospel that declares that we are united, one body and people within the faultlines God has ordered in Jesus.

This means that when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper together, with others comprising that united body, we declare to the world that we are one in Christ, that the gospel is the answer to the disunity we now face. As you go out, as you partake in the Lord’s Supper, reflect on that. We’re all surrounded by Christians at work who may not go to the same local church as us. We may have neighbors who are in different ‘tribes’ of Christianity than us. Find ways to commune with Christians from all over, whether it’s in actual Communion, or communion that reflects the unity you have with them. And finally, find ways to reach out across cultural barriers that may divide Christians despite the reality of our oneness with them through the gospel. If we can find ways to do this, we can accomplish what humans have tried and failed to do since Babel, yet we will do it in the only way that will succeed, the one that brings glory to the Creator who “makes two groups one.” (Eph 2:14)


Footnotes

1 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace 72-73
2 This is the same way that the body of Christ is presented in passages where it describes the body made up of people with different gifts. It’s the same concept, applied to race or other cultural dividers.

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