11 Sep 2017

Can I Do Anything about Racial Reconciliation? Yes, if I have Cruciform Love

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Baptism, Barack Obama, Black History, Christian hope, Church, Culture, Forgiveness, Journey, Lord's Supper, Race Relations, Slavery, Unity

For the love of Christ compels us on …” (2 Corinthians 5.14)

All of this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given to us the ministry of reconciliation …” (2 Corinthians 5.18)

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us” (1 John 3.16)

Those who say, ‘I love God” and hate their brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or a sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4.20)

I want to state at the outset that my goal in this post is extremely limited.  My goal is simply to encourage some people who look more like my part of the human race to embrace the notion of racial reconciliation. I do not attempt to address or solve every facet but if we can at least get on the path and start the journey then my goal will have been reached.

Confessing Inadequacy, Finding a Compass Point

“Racial reconciliation.” I hesitate to address this matter. However I have had numerous requests to address this topic, including from some of my African-American friends. So with fear and trembling, I broach the subject.

My perspective is rooted in and shaped explicitly in the fact that I believe the church is God’s new creation placed like leaven inside this rebellious age and Christians act out that reality regardless of anything else.

The deeper the divide the harder reconciliation will be. I believe this is why Paul, who speaks of ethnic reconciliation throughout his Epistles (that Bible students do not recognize this speaks volumes to our failure to listen to the text), begins by demanding disciples have the “mind of Christ.” The division between Euodia and Syntyche was impacting the entire Philippian congregation. It is hard to do nothing out of selfishness but “in humility regard others as better than ourselves. Let each of [us] look not to our own interests but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Messiah Jesus” (Philippians 2.3-5).

If my pride, or ego, refuses to even entertain a point of view that is outside my own experience then reconciliation, as envisioned by the Pharisee who sat with Gentiles, will simply remain a sham and mere rhetoric in the American Christian community. Our self justifications, our defensiveness, our pride in the things of this rebellious age must be crucified with Christ.

In what follows, I have attempted to use analogies to communicate. It is not my intention to suggest any of these analogies are moral equivalents. They are merely an attempt to communicate and lower defenses of people who look like me. I am also speaking explicitly and intentionally from and to those who claim to be disciples of Christ. At the bottom are a few recommended resources.

Reconciliation Begins with Obedience

Reconciliation is not simply saying that “racism is a sin.” Though that needs to be stated boldly and clearly to disciples of Christ. Racism is actually an attack upon God’s own self-expression! Fellow human beings are indeed the “expression” of God, God’s very self-portrait. So we must state that racism is as alien to our walk with God as idolatry itself. Reconciliation, however, moves beyond the mere recognition that racism is spitting at the image of God to the building of genuine relationship and fellowship.

Reconciliation is a matter of obedience to the message of the Messiah those in the church. It is not a Republican, Democrat, white, black, or hispanic issue. Reconciliation is an obligation laid upon disciples of the Jewish Messiah by his Cross and God’s victory in the Resurrection. So with a prayer for the Holy Spirit’s guidance, I begin with this statement:

Reconciliation must be intentional.

Racial reconciliation simply will not happen if “I” do not take the responsibility to act.   How might that happen?

Embracing the New Testament Gospel

American disciples need to finally come to terms with the truth that the Gospel is not Gnostic private piety. When a preacher of New Testament Christianity can say the following words with a straight face something is awry:

Marshall Keeble was a great man, but one of the main reasons why he was so beloved by our Southern brethren was that he knew how to keep his place. He would never have been so un-scriptural as to teach that brotherhood in Christ should pervade everyday life, in such things as schools, jobs, public restrooms, or — perish the thought — calling a black man something other than “boy.”

This is a Gnostic view of Christianity and salvation.  That the Gospel is so disconnected from this world in which we live that new creation can literally be dismissed as having any claim on our lives in the present is the very essence of Gnosticism. As offensive as that may be to some it is the truth.

The Gospel is not merely, or only, or simply, or primarily about my personal sins and their forgiveness so that I can escape the fires of hell and go to some nebulous place called “heaven.” The Gospel is cosmic. It is as broad as divine creation. Every thing, visible and invisible that has been ruined through the horrific impact of Sin is the target of the blood. The Gospel declares that the Cross, the blood of Christ, was shed to deal with suffering of creation. The most graphic symptom is the division of the human race is the warfare we make upon other image bearers (i.e other “races”) as if that particular image is inferior. Read Ephesians 2.11-22, Colossians 1.15-20 and Romans 8.  The “you’s” in Ephesians are both plural and refer to an ethnic category, Gentiles.

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth [i.e. ethnic category] … remember that at that time you [plural, Gentiles] you were separated from the Messiah, excluded from citizenship in Israel, and aliens to the covenants [plural] of promise, without hope and without God in the world.  But now in Messiah Jesus you [plural, Gentiles] who were once far away have been brought near through the blood of the Messiah.

For he himself [Jesus] is OUR peace [Jews and Gentiles, races], who has made the two one [Jews and Gentiles, races] and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility … His [Messiah] purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making shalom, and in this one body [the church] to reconcile both of them [Jews and Gentiles, race] to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He [Messiah] came and preached shalom to you [plural, Gentiles] who were far away and shalom to those who were near [plural, Jews]. For through him we both [Jews and Gentiles, races] have access to the Father by the one Spirit” (Ephesians 2.11-18)

Racial Reconciliation is in fact at the HEART of the Gospel. Jesus shed his blood to reconcile humanity that divided itself along racial lines.

Embracing Baptism

Disciples must decide to be who we are, a baptized Christ follower. If, and when, I decide to take my baptism seriously, then I am immediately confronted with the stunning truth that baptism is not simply, merely, or only, about the infinitesimal debates we have with Baptists over Acts 2.38.

In Paul’s writings baptism, like the cross it preaches, is a socially revolutionary God event. It is not just the forgiveness of past sins but the radical redefinition of the present according to the future. I am no longer defined by the ties of the old world. The Sinful structures of the old world we have died to.

A baptized person is God’s advertisement to the fallen world what the future looks like. We are not defined by, or divided by, the things the fallen world says we are defined by: gender, economics nor race.  Baptism makes us recognize the image of God in every human being. We love each human as a hologram of the Creator God. Creational differences become a matter of joy, celebration and worship to the God who redeems and glorifies the diverse Creation that God himself made.

Baptism redefines the world for disciples. Baptism makes us ambassadors of reconciliation from God’s future. So we must decide to BE what we are. I confess this is very difficult, and we tend to act as if we have never been baptized at all. Prayer, intentional prayer, covers every bit of this. Pray for the Holy Spirit to empower us with courage and love.

In other words we need to actually believe in the baptism we in Churches of Christ have so long professed.  As important as Acts 2.38 is for becoming a Christian, we find Paul applying the message of baptism to Christians themselves (Romans 6.1-4; 1 Corinthians 12.12-13; Galatians 3.26-29; Colossians 2.12, 20; 3.1, 11; See my article The Ethics of Baptism, Colossians 3.1-17).

We Must Embrace Cruciform Love

Jesus said the world will know we are his disciples if we love one another as he has loved us. We must decide to love. Love is hard, especially when we look at ourselves and others according to the fallen world. Christian love is cruciform.  When we look through non-baptized eyes, loving can be almost insurmountable. Love is not a platitude that we toss around. Love, as all baptized people know, is blood smeared on a Cross. This is where Paul took the Philippian church, what he proclaims in the Ephesian letter, and where he grounds the Corinthians as an outpost of the new creation. When I love my black sister or brother enough to die for her or him then I am ready willing and able to give up most anything that divides us (see. 1 John 3.14-18; 4.7, 16).

We Must Practice Cruciform Love in Deed

Cruciform love is something that is done. Loving our fellow humans, divine image bearers, means getting to know them. Is there a man in love with a woman, that does not want to “know” about her family and her “story.” Is there a mother on the planet that does not want to “know” what is going on her children’s lives? Love compels us to know.

If we are going to pursue reconciliation we must love enough to learn about a lived story that is very different than my own story. A wise person once said, “Tell me how much you know about the suffering of your fellow man and I will tell you how much you love him.”

This is where many will throw up their arms in revolt and the old way of thinking of this fallen world raises its head. Yes we will want to know that woman’s story (or a man’s) but the story of people who do not look like me!? What nonsense! Why should I have to learn “black history” or “native American history!” And the justifications just keep coming. Without the previous bedrock truths we will simply not embrace a walk that says “seek not our own interests …” But cruciform love will indeed seek to know.

And getting to know the story of African Americans or Hispanics or Native Americans can be daunting. There are names we do not know. Places we do not know. And more importantly language, code words, emotions … that I do not know.

But the LOVE of Christ in a baptized believer COMPELS us to carry the burden of getting to know.

Getting to Know, What I Can Do

It has been my experience that many of us simply are not willing to make the effort, to go the second or third or fourth mile to do what it takes to learn. But love that looks like the Cross has mettle and will not shy away.

If we are shaped by the themes sketched above and are compelled by love to learn, what can I do, where do I go?

Practice hospitality. This is a requirement of elders (1 Tim 3.1-2; Rom 12.13; etc) and a genuine Christian trait (Hebrews 13.1-2). Cultivate friendship with people that do not look like us. When was the last time an African American, a European American, a Mexican American sat at our table in our home?

Learn to listen. Most of the time we want to defend the status quo, defend the past, say it isn’t so. But we do not tell our wives or daughters what their story must say. We listen because we love. Even when they say that we have hurt them, we listen. As another wise person once said, our reply should be “tell me more, I want to understand you because I love you.”

When we want to learn (because we love) we do not complain when our wives or our daughters pull out photo albums, shares the names of people we do not know or are introduced to a new language. The same is true in learning about the African-Americans, Native Americans, Hawaiian Americans, etc. Read a book. Watch some movies.

Get to know something about American culture that is not Europeanized. If Martin Luther King Jr is the only black hero we can think of, and all we know about him is he had a dream of some sort, then we have not learned much about our neighbors. So if you do not know the significance of the following then practice some love. To paraphrase Jesus in Matthew 9.13, “GO LEARN what it means to have lived with blackness in America.”

If you are unable to make a meaningful statement about the following and why they may matter a great deal to African Americans then let these be a basic beginning homework assignment. Cruciform Love will learn and go the extra mile but these, honestly, are just skimming the surface. Literally go learn please.

Three-Fifths Clause.
Plessy v. Ferguson.
Middle Passage.
James Meredith.
Linda Brown.
Ruby Bridges.
Benjamin Banneker.
Langston Hughes.
Duke Ellington.
Slave Codes.
Stono Rebellion 1739.
New York City Conspiracy 1741.
W. E. B. DuBois.
Gabrial’s Revolt 1800.
“German” Coast Revolt 1811.
Nat Turner.
Jim Crow.
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
Harlem Hellfighters.
Tulsa Race Riot.
Jack Johnson.
Thurgood Marshall.
Harlem Renaissance.
The Crisis.
Tuskegee Syphilis “Experiment.”
Charles Drew.
Ida-Wells Barnett.
Lynching.
Literacy Tests.
NAACP.
The Grandfather Clause.
Summer of 1919.
We Shall Overcome.
Cornerstone Speech.
Thirteenth Amendment.
Frederick Douglass.
Marian Anderson.

These are just events/persons off the top of my head and are by no means exhaustive but suggestive. “Negative Discovery,” is a term coined by Daniel Boorstin for the “discovery of realms of unknown ignorance.” In my own life, learning about the my black sisters and brothers “story” has been certainly “negative discovery” because I was utterly ignorant. Yet my ignorance still impacted how I live and how I listen and how I love. I was, and often still am, blind and could not see.

If I cannot utter the name “Obama” without abject contempt or as if it were a curse word, then I have a lot of loving yet to embrace. If we can (and Americans have routinely done it) embrace deeply flawed humans with enthusiasm (i.e. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, George Custer, Robert E. Lee, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, etc) then it follows we can at least try to understand why millions radically disagreed with Obama on things yet have embraced him as a genuine American hero.  And until we learn that that embrace has nothing to do with politics but rather the story others have lived then we will never come close to racial reconciliation.

Embracing Truth

Forgiveness and reconciliation are not synonyms. Truth is essential to reconciliation. Forgiveness is an essential component of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We are called to forgive. We are called to cruciform love. But Truth is also a part of the Gospel message. Truth is as difficult as cruciform love. The truth of the Gospel shows that we are sinners, that my personal sin is part of a cosmic alienation from God. The Gospel truth reveals that I have been complicit and even benefited, even when unaware, from injustice. Love, Truth, Forgiveness and Reconciliation go together throughout the Story of God in the Bible.  Embracing truth is part of accepting the other person’s story.

If our love for our neighbor is as deep as a blood stained cross then I will want to eradicate my realms of ignorance of their story. Learning that my experience is hardly that of millions of not only African Americans but Native Americans, Asian Americans, Mexican Americans can help me love more deeply, be committed to the truth more honestly, seek forgiveness from our failures, and to invite reconciliation.  A woman who has been emotionally, physically or sexually abused by some one important in her life may find the grace to forgive the perpetrator but reconciliation is impossible apart from truth. And the perpetrator must embrace the Gospel truth of his actions.  This is no easy task.  Apart from God’s Holy Spirit it just may be impossible.

Embracing God’s Beloved Creational Diversity, the Memorial of the Kingdom

I mentioned baptism at the head of these thoughts. But what about communion? Baptized people, those who are God’s advertisement of the future, do not celebrate monuments whose purpose is to proclaim that the fallenness, the division, the hates of the world are good.

The “memorial” of the Kingdom of God proclaims the opposite of such monuments and graven images. The Memorial of Christianity is that all human beings sit as equals at the Table in the Presence of the Messiah. Our Memorial preaches to the fallen world that there is no class, race, gender that is segregated off, subservient too, inferior too another.

The memorial of Christianity proclaims to the fallen world and its monuments to oppression, racism, division have been destroyed as enemies of God’s redeemed Creation at the Cross of the Jewish Messiah. God set us free from those kingdoms of hate and graciously sat us at his Table … a table of grace, a table mercy, a table of justice, a table of equality. It is the Table of Fellowship of God’s redeemed beautiful multifaceted creation.

I struggle with how we can sit at that Table and and offer an olive branch to any sentiment that even hints that part of the human race is not worthy. Do we understand what we are preaching to the world when we dare to sit at the Christian Memorial. The table is not about ME! The table is about US, God’s redeemed creation. The Memorial of the Blood Stained Messiah who created and redeemed every black person, yellow person, tan person, and yes white person.

We Must Embrace Justice and Mercy

When cruciform love is the our baptismal identity that is confirmed in our practice of the Table of the New Creation, then we will practice Justice and Mercy. Justice is simply grace in motion. It is unfortunate that most Americans, including Christians, think the word “justice” is equivalent to punishment but this is far from the case. The main notion of “justice” is to do the right thing for the circumstances, it is to set things right. The word justice is not a synonym for law either. The right thing at a given moment may not be what the law says in actual ink. Any serious Bible student knows this.

Justice is GRACE and Cruciform LOVE in motion. Reflection on the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Mt 20.1-16) pays rich dividends for those with eyes and ears to see and hear. Some time with the prophet Amos will reap rich rewards.

Resources that have Spoken to Me:

Martin Luther King Jr., The Strength to Love

John Perkins, Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win

Ta-Neshi Coats, Between the World and Me

Lerone Bennett, Jr, Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America

Tanya Smith Brice, Reconciliation Reconsidered: Advancing the National Conversation on Race in Churches of Christ

Films:

12 Years a Slave

The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross

Slavery by Another Name

Soundtrack for a Revolution

White Man’s Burden

And a Link for another article here on my blog:

Learning & “Thinking” about Race as a Southern White Disciple of the Jewish Messiah

Social Concerns in Churches of Christ, Trends from 1950 to 2000

One Response to “Can I Do Anything about Racial Reconciliation? Yes, if I have Cruciform Love”

  1. Ron Says:

    I would add the book Hidden Figures to the list of resources. The movie was good, but the book really explores the barriers that these women had to overcome over a much longer time frame. One of the things that really struck me throughout the book was their involvement in church. The author doesn’t speak directly about their faith, but I was struck by how often church came up.

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