To observe the fact that recent events have highlighted the racial division of our country would be akin to remarking that the sky is blue, water is wet and LeBron James is really good at basketball. As a Christian who has been fortunate to call many people who don’t look like me (re: white) friends, it is disconcerting to hear some pastors and church/ministry leaders attempt to minimize this apparent reality. Worse still is the pastor or church/ministry leader who observes the problem, offers a quick quip that encapsulates his/her thought on the subject, and moves on. It’s almost as if he/she is saying, “Yes, there’s a problem. But on to the more important, churchy stuff.”
Racial discussions are hard. There are no easy answers and it’s impossible to tie the subject up into a nice bow that is palatable to most of the parishioners who line the pews.
I understand the difficult situation many pastors and leaders find themselves in. Racial discussions are hard. There are no easy answers and it’s impossible to tie the subject up into a nice bow that is palatable to most of the parishioners who line the pews like recently happened to one Alabama pastor. A lot of folks simply don’t know what to say or where to start so they opt to remain silent. Others feel that pastors should leave social issues alone entirely and focus on the Gospel, as if the Gospel has nothing to say to society.
Leaders have, generally speaking, one of three options.
- Say something that could be deemed controversial, start a firestorm and potentially lose their job.
- Say something so generalized that it expresses concern without calling for any real action beyond the call to pray.
- Say nothing.
Before digging in, allow me to acknowledge the need for prayer. This is a time of seemingly unprecedented tension and division. While there is a myriad of historical, systematic and interpersonal factors to this reality, I firmly believe that the ultimate cause is spiritual in nature. As God’s reconciled children, we must be driven to passionate, dedicated prayer for the Lord’s intervention and for the changing of hearts in order for our situation to be rectified. My critique of position 2 is not to be taken as a dismissal of the need for prayer. It is, however, meant as a critique of the attitude that the Christian’s only response is to pray and not to practically do anything to meet a need or make a change, re: faith and works (James 2:14-17).
Allow me to bring to your attention that the first and largest issue facing the early church wasn’t primarily theological in nature.
Additionally, allow me to bring to your attention that the first and largest issue facing the early church wasn’t primarily theological in nature but social. Yes, heresies would later emerge that caused division in the church and resulted in theological controversy, but the first major issue in the church had to deal with was a racial matter, specifically how and if Jews and Gentiles, two groups who had a good bit of antipathy towards one another, were going to get along in this new movement in Jesus’ name (Acts 11, 15). This tension became a recurring theme in New Testament writings, most notably Paul’s.
Saying something is dangerous, risky and bold. Saying nothing is safe. Saying something generalized isn’t as risky as taking a stand and prophetically calling for action, but it can be just as damaging to those who are not in the majority of your congregation. Below are 4 generalized statements that I have heard on race and what those on the outside hear between the lines.
- The race “problem” is driven by the media and politicians.— The media profits from eyes on sets and fanning the flames of racial tension brings viewers. Politicians benefit when people are set against one another. It’s hard to argue against these observations in and of themselves, but to say that racial issues are mostly made bigger deals than they really are so that people will profit vastly underestimates the real-world feelings of minorities and reinforces the idea of non-Christians that Christians are paranoid.
- We need to understand both sides.— This view is espoused mostly by people who want to also highlight the injustices committed by those who overstep the bounds of appropriate response, i.e. shooting police officers in response to police violence. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with holding this viewpoint. The critique is that it is often a simple throwaway statement in which the leader will do nothing to further the understanding of his/her people of the alternative viewpoint but wants to acknowledge awareness of the situation. If you’re a white leader it’s probable that most of your constituency is also mostly white and that they are not exposed to alternative viewpoints except those that are unnecessarily inflammatory and easily dismissed, i.e. whatever straw man Fox News decides to put on screen. How will you lead them to develop a greater understanding of the plight of those different from themselves?
- The only thing we can do is pray.— Simply, no, it’s not! Prayer absolutely must be essential but if church leaders in Acts 15 all got together, heard the issues, agreed to pray about it and then went their separate ways you and I probably aren’t here. Instead, they got together, they heard the issue, they prayed and then they acted boldly. I don’t imagine that many Jewish background believers, those who made up the majority of the church at that time, were too thrilled about their leaders’ decision. It undermined their culture and their tradition in order to advance the Gospel and not put up unnecessary barriers. Prayer is an essential response but it is not the only response.
- Over-spiritualizing things.— Yes, there is a spiritual component to the issue. I’ve even argued that it is the biggest component of the issue. But the issues are incredibly complex and nuanced. Arguing that the problem in racial issues is sin or Satan vastly misconstrues the problem and propagates a “devil made me do it” mentality absolving the church from its often failed responsibility to speak prophetically into culture. There are countless other factors to consider in racial discussions. All are important to adequately inform oneself and develop a compassionate, prophetic response.
The church of Jesus Christ stands as the best hope to stem the tide of the racial divide because of our central proclamation that, for all of our differences– and we should not minimize those differences– we all come from the same place, have the same problem and share a common solution. As the body of Christ, we have a grand opportunity to show the world that in Christ there is no distinction, that he has reconciled us to himself and to one another for the sake of the Gospel and God’s glory. May we pursue understanding and unity with those who look different than ourselves and not be content with the status quo any longer.