Social Justice, Racial Reconciliation, and the Gospel Part 3: How Do We Move Forward?

Note: This is part three of a series of blog posts dealing with racial reconciliation, social justice, and the gospel. I highly encourage you to read the other two, dealing with social justice and the cross, and false unity and gospel unity. The last two posts in this series were written specifically in response to the racial violence manifesting largely apart from the election, and they were written before Donald Trump was elected on November 8th. Upon rereading them, however, I found myself thinking that the categories and arguments that I set up in those posts were very much how I was thinking about the election itself. This post will be focused on the thread I set out to write before, but will bring into the discussion the scope of argument we now find ourselves in. We’ve now not just isolated ourselves along normal partisan or racial dividing lines, which is what my last post was about; we’re largely separated by gulfs of conflict centered on if you voted for one Donald J. Trump or not. -Joel Stegman

By now, the dust has somewhat settled, and dramatic responses on either sides, at least on my Facebook feed, seem to be dissipating. This doesn’t mean that the storm is over, but it does mean that the reality that Donald Trump will be our next president has started to sink in for people.

My concern in this post isn’t necessarily for the America. If you aren’t a Christian, this post will likely sound like foolishness to you. My concern isn’t for the guy on Facebook who is unfriending everyone who voted for the candidate they hate. My concern here is for the church, the united body that I talked about in my second post who are created by the work of justice performed on the cross, which I discussed in my first post.

In Ephesians 3:10 Paul states that it is the church that will be through whom the “manifold wisdom of God” comes to the world. N.T. Wright talks about how Paul saw the church as part of God’s “solution” to the problem of the fall, to be different, a “new kind of philosophical school, teaching and modelling a new worldview, inculcating a new understanding, a new way of thinking.” 1 How often, however, have we seen the church simply be polarized to either side, spouting the same lines as partisan voices originating from cultural depths rather than biblical ones? I fear that many reading this may find how little has been contributed by them that is different to this discussion.

We’re supposed to be something different!

But have we been? Have we looked different than the other voices in this conflict, this deep divide we find ourselves in? Not often. But we can be. I’m going to walk through several ways we can be different, modelling the One whose image we’re being conformed to, offering a way forward. Those ways are 1) Stopping the cycle of hostility, 2) Repentance, 3) Forgiveness, and 4) Embracing the changing nature of who the church in the world is.

  1. Stopping the Cycle of Hostility

Miroslav Volf speaks about how

“We choose evil; but evil also ‘chooses’ us and exerts its terrible power over us…Carl Gustav Jung wrote, ‘It is a fact that cannot be denied: the wickedness of others becomes our own wickedness because it kindles something evil in our own hearts.’ Evil engenders evil.” 2

The truth is that there is an evil that lurks in our hearts. Think about how the Dallas shooting, an unqualified evil, sprung from other unqualified racist evil. The shooter responded to evil with the same form of evil done to African Americans. We desire to lash out, to respond in the language of which we’ve been wronged. This is because

“In addition to inflicting harm, the practice of evil keeps re-creating a world without innocence. Evil generates new evil as evildoers fashion victims in their own ugly image…The more attentive we are, the more accurate the portrait the Apostle Paul paints of humanity – of “all” from which “no one” is exempt (Rom 3:9, 20) – strikes us.” 3

This is why and how we’ve ended up in the hostile place we are, where people are quick to lash out at each other, why we all feel like as a nation we’re on a knife’s edge. We, as the church, need to step into the gap.

I recently watched Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, and I was reminded of a great scene where Indy and his dad are on a motorcycle. The Nazi’s are chasing them on their own motorcycles, and one gets right next to the Joneses and the rider pulls his Luger on them. Indy grabs a pole and sticks it into the spokes of the motorcycle and the whole bike goes flying in the air. This is a great analogy for stopping this cycle of hostility, because when we don’t respond in the way of the evil coming against us, we throw the whole violent system off. We’re called to do this in the midst of these political/racial reconciliation conversations – as we act differently, as we act like the solution. But how do we do it? By following Christ’s teaching, the bedrock of the church.

  1. Jesus, Repentance, and Forgiveness

Jesus made much of his ministry about throwing off these violent discourses through challenging the terms of engagement in two distinct ways: calling for repentance (from everyone!) and for calling for forgiveness of the those in the wrong.

Everyone knows Jesus spent most of his time with the disenfranchised, the lowest of society. They were the ones who were taken advantage of by the Roman leaders, and the Jewish ruling class, political and religious leaders – the “false shepherds” of God’s people (Ezekiel 34 and John 10:1-13). No one could dispute that they were the ones Jesus was focusing on, the ones who he sought out as the first recipients of his gospel. Yet, he still called them to belief and repentance (e.g., Mark 1:15 and Luke 5:32), all the while claiming that “theirs was the kingdom of God” (Matthew 5:3). Jesus called all to repentance, the poorest and mightiest.

We’re a culture that has a hard time repenting of anything, as we’re told from a young age that doing what feels best is what is right. How could we ever be wrong about anything? So we have an especially hard time repenting when we’ve felt we’ve been wronged.

I know it’s one thing for me – a white male who has largely been a beneficiary of a system that is geared for my success – to say this. But that’s the thing about the gospel: it’s supposed to be a challenge to the commonly accepted norms. What do we repent from? I, the white male, have to repent from the fact that I am oftentimes all too glad to reap the benefits of the system we live in, all the while knowing many people don’t have the luxury of doing so.

But what about the person who has been legitimately wronged? Where does repentance come in for the person who has been the victim or racism, in small and large ways? First, we must grapple with the reality of ‘original sin’, the subject of my first blog post. But second, we must reflect upon a deep truth about the nature of repentance. Again, Miroslav Volf is excellent here:

“Envy and enmity keep the disprivileged and weak chained to the dominant order – even when they succeed in toppling it! All too often, of course, they do not want to topple the dominant order…they “demand the reshuffling of cards, not another game”…The dominant values and practices can be transformed only if their hold on those who suffer under them is broken. This is where repentance comes in. To repent means to resist the seductiveness of the sinful values and practices and let the new order of God’s reign be established in one’s heart…For a victim to repent means to not allow the oppressors to determine the terms under which social conflict is carried out, the values around which the conflict is raging, and the means by which it is fought. Repentance thus empowers victims and disempowers the oppressors…Victims need to repent of the fact that all too often they mimic the behavior of the oppressors, let themselves be shaped in the mirror image of the enemy…Far from being an acquiescence to the dominant order, repentance creates a haven of God’s new world in the midst of the old and so makes the transformation of the old possible.” 4

Repentance frees the disenfranchised from the violent cycle. It keeps their hearts from the desire to not see the “dominant order” of oppression done away with, but worm to turn; for them to be on top for a change. Repentance by the people is proof that God is with a group: that they can lay aside the sin inside them that they know if, left unchecked, would create a system that was just the same as the one they find themselves on the bottom of. I’m calling for my black brothers and sisters in Christ to do this as a show that they won’t be a part of the system that my white ancestors set up; it’s a chance for them to be better than we were and have been.

Which brings us to forgiveness. One may not imagine that forgiveness is possible (or right!) when so much evil has been done. How can forgiveness really be enough, when so much justice is needed? The answer is again a big flashing sign pointed at the Christ. The most unjust sufferer in history, the one truly innocent human to ever walk the planet, begged God to forgive his oppressors: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34). That statement is a fierce challenge to all who would follow him, and a threat to the modus operandi of normal, worldly culture. The Lord’s prayer calls for us to “forgive us of our debts, as we’ve forgiven those who’ve trespassed against us.” (Matthew 6:12) We need the power that animated Christ to forgive on the cross to also animate us now as we forgive those who’ve wronged us – the power of God’s own Holy Spirit.

Once again, this is difficult for all involved, and may seem like an acquiescence, a tacit approval for the oppressors. And once again, Christ and his desires for his followers cut through the ‘normal’ way of thinking about such things:

“In the framework of strict restorative justice, no reconciliation is possible. On the contrary, the pursuit of such justice will deepen the conflict and reinstate the ‘compulsion to evil deeds.’ Hence the need for forgiveness…Only those who are forgiven [by God] and who are willing to forgive will be capable of relentlessly pursuing justice [and reconciliation] without falling into the temptation to pervert it into injustice…For the followers of the crucified Messiah…rage belongs before God…Hidden in the dark chambers of our hearts and nourished by the system of darkness, hate grows and seeks to infest everything with its hellish will to exclusion. In the light of the justice and love of God, however, hate recedes and the seed is planted for the miracle of forgiveness…In the presence of God our rage over injustice may give way to forgiveness, which in turn will make the search for justice for all possible.” 5

When we forgive those who have committed evil to us, we break their power over us and the trenches of evil dug within our own hearts. It forbids us from going the route of vengeance, the will to avenge evil done to us and to wrestle away justice from God (Rom 12:19). God will be the one to bring about justice on earth, whether that is through justice systems or in the final judgment. Until then, we can live in Christ’s example and forgive as we’ve been forgiven.

  1. Embracing the Changing Nature of the Church

The landscape of the church is shifting beneath our feet. All across the world, the church is becoming less and less white, even here in America. Russell Moore, writing in The New York Times, says that

The center of gravity for both orthodoxy and evangelism is not among Anglo suburban evangelicals but among African Anglicans and Asian Calvinists and Latin American Pentecostals. The vital core of American evangelicalism today can be found in churches that are multiethnic and increasingly dominated by immigrant communities…The next Billy Graham probably will speak only Spanish or Arabic or Persian or Mandarin…The thriving churches of American Christianity are multigenerational, theologically robust, ethnically diverse and connected to the global church. If Jesus is alive — and I believe that he is — he will keep his promise and build his church. But he never promises to do that solely with white, suburban institutional evangelicalism…The question is whether evangelicals will be on the right side of Jesus. That will mean standing up for the church’s future leaders, and for our mission, especially when they are politically powerless.4 (emphasis mine)

The church is changing. Those who assume the church must remain as it largely has been through its history – dominated by white men – will alienate themselves from the places that the Holy Spirit is moving. Tim Keller speaks about how white America is becoming increasingly secular, yet minority Christian groups are exploding in number. Basically, leadership in the church will also begin to look less and less white. And it’s time for us to start anticipating that.

Traditionally, in America, the evangelical, orthodox church has taken its cues from white theologians and leaders (e.g., Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon, A.W. Tozer, C.S. Lewis, Billy Graham, John Piper, Tim Keller, Matt Chandler, to name but a few). This is a reflection of a largely white evangelicalism, or at least a perceived one. Yet, if this trend is going to continue in America (and it is), we need to reposition ourselves so that minority brothers and sisters are in positions to lead, so that the church can adjust to the changing demographic and be representative of the people in the actual pews. If not, we’ll ask for a racial oligarchy to be formed, where we expect white leaders to lead in the church and for those who are to remain orthodox to follow them, regardless if most of them are of a different skin color.

What I’m actually calling for is nothing other than to be willing to expose yourself to leaders that are black, Hispanic or Asian, and to be willing to let them share the spiritual authority of those white spiritual leaders you look to. I could – and maybe will – write more on this, but for now, begin to embody Paul’s words and truly allow for there to be ‘one new humanity where there was once two, thus making peace’ (Eph 2:15).

***

In the movie Hacksaw Ridge, a young soldier named Desmond Doss, motivated by his Christian convictions, refuses to even hold a gun as he tries to serve his country in the Pacific theater of World War II as a combat medic – saving lives while others are taking them. As he’s pressed by his superiors – who fear he’ll be a liability – to be willing to fight, he makes a statement that has lodged itself in my brain as being highly relevant to us today.

He says that “With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it don’t seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together.”

As we circle back around to the idea that the church is supposed to, in some strange way, be the “solution” in the world as it carries the message of the gospel, I can think of no better mission statement than the one given by Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge. The world is intent on tearing itself apart. It has been since the fall of Adam and Eve.

The goal of God in sending Christ was to reconcile the world back to himself and to undo the fall through the God-man. The goal of Christ was to create in himself a people who be a “city on a hill”, inviting the world to ‘come and see’ what the gospel is all about.

Those inside the church, living in a way that is different, stopping the cycle of hostility, repenting before God and forgiving as we’ve been forgiven, along with being willing to live in a way consistent with the gospel by accepting that the Spirit is moving in all over the world outside of the traditional white church, we can do as Doss seeks to do: put the world back together a little bit, piece by piece.

 

Footnotes:

1 N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God

2 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace

3 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace

4 Russell Moore, A White Church No More, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/06/opinion/a-white-church-no-more.html?_r=0


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