“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). This is wisdom that rings true for much of life. But when it comes to race relations, particularly in my United States of America, I pray (and know confidently from Scripture) that one day those words will no longer describe the racial climate I find myself immersed in. For me to feel the intensity of it all is really something. I’m a white male, and I have the privilege of being able to put thinking about my skin color to bed most days, while those of another ethnicity are kept awake at night. I am never subjected to criticism, slander, threats, or violence on the basis of my whiteness. I don’t fear for my life when pulled over. There are no pictures of my ancestors being treated inhumanely.
RECONCILIATION: ESCHATALOGICAL IDEAL OR PRESENT DAY REALITY?
“Racial reconciliation” has for a long time seemed a nice thought that makes sense on paper. I read it implicitly in Scripture and wholeheartedly agree:
- David writes about the pleasantness of Christian unity (Ps. 133:1).
- Paul tells of Christ’s breaking down the dividing wall of hostility (Eph. 2:14), and
- John foretells the forthcoming multitude of nations and tribes and peoples and languages, present before the Lamb of God himself (Rev. 7:9).
These are common Scriptural principles, but they’ve always seemed like an ideal. Racial reconciliation has always been something I’ve had more of an eschatological hope for, an eager anticipation to see take place one thankfully glorious, but sorrowfully distant day.
Martin Luther King Jr., the prophetic leader of the Civil Rights Movement, did not see racial reconciliation in the same light. Of course, he looked forward to the day when the sins of racism, prejudice, and ethnocentrism would pass away forever, but Dr. King never viewed racial reconciliation as limited to the future—he saw it as a mission for the present day. Dr. King’s words, penned in the famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, highlight King’s focus on the need for current reform:
“In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues with which the Gospel has no real concern.’ . . . The judgment of God is upon the Church as never before. If the Church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early Church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”
I am horrified to ponder what Dr. King would say of our churches today.
THE TIME IS NOW
In the wake of the hate and vitriol spread by White Supremacists in Charlottesville, the innocent people dying in the name of protest, and the hostility surrounding our administration’s action/inaction over that weekend, the burden for those unlike me in ethnicity is heavy. Yet, I can only imagine how heavy their shoulders must feel.
There is no more time to sit on our hands or pontificate. This is our moment: will we be people of the gospel, or will we become the “irrelevant social club” King lamented?
At a practical level, how do we foster gospel-driven racial reconciliation in our churches today? How do I, as a white pastor, move my thinking about such matters from an eschatological ideal to a present reality I am pursuing, in the flesh, in real time?
I don’t have a manual. There’s no silver bullet to right race relations. These matters are complex and built over time—but this shouldn’t discourage us from getting to work.
A ROMAN ROAD TO RECONCILIATION
Fortunately, Paul has given us a “manual” of sorts in Romans 12. Though it is not exhaustive, Paul’s words in Romans 12:9-21 offer plenty of places to start for how we should pursue racial reconciliation in our churches and beyond:
“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” – Romans 12:9-21
Below are some reflections on this passage, as well as some shifts and ways in which pastors, elders, and church bodies can work to implement these principles real-time.
#1 – Be with, listen, and learn
We have a wealth of opportunities to be people of the gospel in racial reconciliation when we commit to simply being there. We are to “seek to show hospitality . . . [weeping] with those who weep” (12:13, 15). Notice there is no emphasis on providing answers or offering insight. Those of us who are not living the reality of racial discrimination are well-served to take a posture of humility, seeking to learn and understand, valuing our minority brothers and sisters enough to be taught by them. An easy way to do this? Invite them to preach, lead panel discussions, or conference sessions at your church.
#2 – Condemn racism from the pulpit
The pulpit is a primary avenue through which we should talk clearly and honestly about the sin of racism. Church leaders, we shouldn’t expect people to believe we are a church that cares about this issue if we make no attempt to formally and routinely address it.
#3 – Make racism a church discipline issue
Practice what you preach. We are called to “abhor what is evil” and to “not be slothful in zeal” (Rom. 12:9, 11). When it comes to racism within the church, it is often sadly overlooked, shrugged off, or swept under the rug. This is pastorally lazy. People of the gospel cannot, and must not, stand for such adamant and explicit rejection of man’s dignity under the banner of the gospel. Churches must be willing to protect the flock enough to enact church discipline for overt, unapologetic racism. We should have nothing to do with such activity (Eph. 5:11).
#4 – Pray for the marginalized, and those who marginalize
Paul's petition to be “fervent in spirit” and “constant in prayer” (Rom. 12:11-12) cannot be overstated. One crucial way for churches to commit themselves to racial reconciliation is by tenacious, tireless prayer for change in the body, the city, and the nation.
We are compelled by the gospel to “love one another with brotherly affection” (Rom. 12:10), to take it upon ourselves to make their issues our issues and their prayers our own. Even in an area where there is little racial diversity, prayer for the nations is an easy way to practically address these issues. Not only should we commit to praying for those who are oppressed, but the oppressor as well, in hopes that he will repent and believe in the gospel of reconciliation by God’s grace.
#5 – Serve beyond your church walls
We “outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10) to those unlike us, not out of pity or out of a desire to be seen, but out of a conviction that we have been made one in Christ. Partnering with churches that look ethnically different but share a common vision for gospel reconciliation is an easy way forward. Getting involved locally or globally with those of different ethnic backgrounds is another to work towards reconciliation.
#6 – Don’t limit activity to online engagement
One of the easiest ways Satan would love for people of the gospel to approach racial reconciliation is to think of it only in the realm of social commentary and never in terms of actionable steps. If all we do is lament the state of American race relations from behind a screen, we will never truly effect change in the real world. The lives and souls of image-bearers are too important to leave all of this to mere talking points. Paul, again and again in this passage, is pointing to physical and incarnational relationship.
Paul calls the gospel “the power of God,” good enough for Jew and Greek alike (Rom. 1:16). We have a significant gospel moment before us. This is the time for each of us to grab a chisel and hammer in the name of Christ and begin to chip away at the wall of hostility racism has built in this country—and one day the wall will break.
Inaction when it comes to racism and prejudice stinks before God. It repulses him. Racial reconciliation is a great idea—and an even a better mission.
Zach Barnhart currently serves as Student Pastor of Northlake Church in Lago Vista, TX. He holds a Bachelor of Science from Middle Tennessee State University, and is currently studying at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, seeking a Master of Theological Studies degree. He is married to his wife, Hannah. You can follow Zach on Twitter @zachbarnhart or check out his personal blog, Cultivated.