A Black and White Issue?
Written by: Dave Martin
The American Civil War ended a century and a half ago, yet we remain a nation deeply divided over race. What’s more, the church of Jesus Christ is one of our society’s most segregated institutions—segregated not just in physical terms, but in terms of attitudes and perspectives.
When another young black man is killed by a white police officer, the contrasting reactions are predictable from white Americans and African Americans. Sadly, the reactions of Christian whites and Christian blacks mirror those of the culture in general.
How can this be? Doesn’t the Gospel do away with racial alienation and make us all one in Christ? If the Gospel is not the answer, then there is no answer. However, the Gospel does not appear to be the answer in this situation.
Pastor Bob Bixby sums up the awkward tension succinctly in his thought-provoking article, “The Gospel in Black and White: A Missiological Perspective on Ferguson” (http://redeemerfremont.com/app/blog/home/1651089):
Why is the common ground so elusive? Why is it that sincere Christians, white and black, instinctively analyze a crisis like Ferguson along color lines when they both love the same Lord? Many white Christians sincerely wonder how any sincere black Christian can take offense at their calls for delayed judgment “until all the facts are out” while seemingly ignoring the alleged bad behavior of the victim that put him into conflict with a police officer in the first place. And many black Christians wonder how any sincere white Christian cannot see the obvious problem of prejudice and white-on-black abuse of authority that exacerbates tension and escalates any confrontation between black youth and white authority in ways that are manifestly unfair. And so the churches meet separately. The whites pray for the officer who is a “good man” who risks his life daily to fight for crime. The blacks pray for the family of the victim who is a “good boy” who was unjustly and prematurely cut down by white privilege. While neither side will go out into the streets and throw Molotov cocktails at each other because they are law-abiding Christians, their sympathies which are visceral and spiritual come together like the repulsive force between two north pole magnets. In other words, it is in crises like Ferguson that a repulsive force of seemingly opposing sympathies is most felt between white and black Christians.
I have been on a personal journey for the past several years, seeking to understand God’s will for the unity of the body of Christ in the midst of the most diverse society in history. I do believe that the Gospel is both a vertical reconciling force between us and God and a horizontal reconciling force that smashes all barriers alienating humans from each other. In a multiethnic culture we should expect that reconciliation to produce multiethnic churches that amaze the world with their deep, genuine, Christ-centered unity.
In trying to educate myself, I’ve read many books (ask me for summaries) and articles on multiethnic ministry, attended a number of conferences, seminars, and workgroups, and engaged in conversations about the issues. Recently I’ve read a number of Christian African American blogs representing a spectrum of opinions on the Ferguson situation. I don’t have a lot of answers, but here are a few things to think about:
As a white Christian, my silence is deafening to many black Christians when a Trayvon Martin or a Michael Brown is killed. African Americans, as a minority culture that has suffered the injustice and humiliation of slavery and Jim Crow, have a collective consciousness that is affected whenever an unarmed young black man is gunned down by a white law officer, regardless of the “facts” of the case. It’s another tragedy that’s happened to “one of us,” and when whites show no empathy or compassion, or smugly say “Let’s wait for the facts to come out,” it’s seen as devaluing black life.
We whites like to think that we are not racist because we bear no malice toward blacks, and that’s true. But having a black friend does not mean that you understand black culture, and if you are not willing to do the hard work of understanding the culture, you will not be able to bridge that racial divide—the barrier will remain. Minorities are more or less forced to understand the majority culture, but those in the majority culture have no need or motivation to understand minority cultures, so most of the time we don’t make the effort. But we Christians, of all people, should be motivated! Didn’t Jesus make the supreme effort to come and immerse Himself in our alien culture out of love? 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 is just one example of how Paul gave up his cultural privileges and perspectives for the sake of the Gospel.
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
The vision of a multiracial, multiethnic church is a heavenly vision! Many churches are on this road. Take a look at this video of multiethnic baptism celebration—I dare you not to get a lump in your throat and feel homesick for Heaven: http://www.churchleaders.com/worship/worship-videos/162452-baptism-celebration-at-transformation-church.html.
This barely broaches the subject, but I hope others of you will chime in. Let me emphasize that when I speak of “whites” or “blacks” I’m not denying the uniqueness of individuals or suggesting that there is a “typical” white American Christian or African American Christian. I’m simply using these terms in the same way that results of opinion polls and surveys are reported.