The Gospel vs. Ethnocentrism: Jesus Wins
Readers may have noticed a bit of a trend in the last few quotes I’ve posted here: they orient on race. I’ve been increasingly aware of the role of race in our churches – and particularly, of just how poorly American evangelicals have handled race issues – over the past year or so. PJ King tackled the topic for Pillar on the Rock back when we were still writing regularly there, and I think his thoughts on history and trajectory are accurate and important.
In the interval between then and now, I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading various books and blogs that have highlighted in equally various ways just how central the issue of ethnic diversity is to true gospel ministry. On the one hand, I’ve had a good amount of push from N. T. Wright in reading The Resurrection of the Son of God, which is great scholarship and great apologetics, but also includes some of Wright’s really solid thinking on the ways that the gospel undercuts any claims of ethnic superiority. On the other hand, I’ve been reading Thabiti Anyabwile’s blog for a couple years, and he’s had multiple occasions to tackle racially charged issues in our own very modern theological and cultural context in the last 15 months. It’s been helpful for me to get perspective from a theologically conservative black pastor who does not hesitate to identify strongly with the broader black community. (If you’re interested, some of the articles I found most eye-opening were Collateral Damage in the Invitation of T.D. Jakes to The Elephant Room, This Black Leader or That Black Leader?, and Where Does Blackness and Whiteness Come From?”) A number of other sources have prompted me to be thinking about this more, from a conversation with dear friends and mentors working as college ministers at OU to the recent and ongoing furor about the death of Trayvon Martin.
I’m increasingly convinced that white evangelicals have turned a blind eye to the facts that white racism still exists, albeit in subtler ways than it once did, and that we have just as great a responsibility as our black brothers and sisters to mend the damage done by our forebears. No doubt some will be quick to point out that there is plenty of black racism against white people, to which I simply say: yes, and so what? What has that to do with you? Others’ sin does not excuse our failure to fully pursue the sort of ethnic reconciliation and unity that are – or at least, ought to be – characteristic of Christians.
When Paul wrote, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11) and again, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:28-29), he certainly did not simply forget to add “except where it’s made humanly impossible because of the effects of sin in our history.” To the contrary, his audience was composed of a mix of Jews and Gentiles; that is, people who rather famously despised one another. Jews had long considered themselves religiously superior to Gentiles, and observant Jews would not even eat with Gentiles. (Sound familiar?) Gentiles, meanwhile, considered Jews culturally backwards and religiously odd, and generally wanted nothing to do with them.
In other words, Paul wasn’t writing to people for whom ethnic reconciliation was easy. It was hard, and it caused enormous conflict in the early church as godly men and women worked through the travails inherent in overcoming centuries of resentment and hatred. Even Peter fell prey to peer pressure to conform to old ethnocentric patterns of behavior.
So the fact that there is plenty of racism coming from blacks toward whites – and there is – means not a whit more from a gospel vantage point than the quiet racism so many whites maintain, consciously or otherwise. And yes, to top it all off, we have our own sometimes overlapping and sometimes wildly divergent theological, ecclesiastical and cultural practices which can make building an ethnically diverse community vastly more difficult than attacking the same problem with a more homogeneous group of people. Again: so what?
God has not given us a choice whether to work at ethnic reconciliation. The particular history of skin color-based slavery, discrmination, and prejudice we encounter in the United States does not trump Scripture’s declarations and commands. God has not left the hard work of building ethnically integrated churches – and not just black and white mingling, but Latinos and Koreans and people of every skin color and every language – for places where it is easy. To the contrary. Where would the glorious, all-reconciling love of Christ be more powerfully displayed than in the places where the sinful hate of fellow men has been most pronounced?
White believers must work, and work hard, to understand that the minority experience is not the same as the majority experience (and that this difference is not necessarily the fault of the minority!); that white attitudes toward other people often remain intellectually or emotionally paternalistic; that what may seem a harmless gesture in white culture may seem hostile, rude, or simply ignorant in other cultures; that by dint of being a majority we are often blind to the particular oddities of our own culture. (Fish, as it turns out, do not particularly notice water as they swim in it, any more than you or I notice air – or our own culture – unless we are paying unusually close attention.)
We need to stop seeing our own culture as paramount and embrace the diversity God intended the church to represent. We need to have the humility to ask for help from our minority friends, and then to take it when it is offered. We also need to recognize that there are theological reserves of wisdom born of the suffering that minority groups have endured from which we could benefit enormously. We need to learn to speak other cultures’ languages – both literally and metaphorically. We need to persevere through our own mistakes and through those of other cultures; no more taking studied disinterest or even as an excuse to take our ball and go home when Christ has called us to play ball until he comes back for us all.
On the flipside, minority groups need to recognize that racial or ethnic identity must come second to identity in Christ. The natural response to a minority position in society is to hold tightly to that identity. (Plenty of white people really can identify with this experience, albeit to a far lesser extent; nearly everyone has experienced the pain of being excluded or overlooked on the basis of some characteristic and bonding with others who share that experience.) The biblical response is to reject that sort of insularism. Whereas our majority culture needs to take off its blinders and see that other cultures not only exist but are equally valuable, minority cultures must recognize that the majority culture, too, has something to offer – and that in Christ, differing cultures are no longer at war, but mutually work for the glory of God. Minority culture believers must be patient with majority culture believers as they struggle to gain a new perspective.
More than this, minority Christians in the US need to examine their own hearts on the question of ethnic relationships as whites do. It is too easy to simply blame the majority for every ethnic conflict, but the reality is that ethnocentrism is a ready temptation for black people just as certainly as it is for white people.
Above all, we all of us need to get one thing clear: Jesus trumps ethnicity, old wounds, and history. The price he paid to unite us is too great for us to simply dismiss real ethnic reconciliation and integration as “too much work.” The gospel leaves no room for racism. And yes, it is hard work – impossibly difficult for mere men and mere women to accomplish, but praise God that we are no longer mere men and mere women. We are indwelt by the same Spirit that raised Jesus Christ from the dead, who has already regenerated our dead and rebellious hearts, and who will some day raise our bodies to glory as well. His power is more than sufficient to accomplish the reconciliation that lies so far beyond our reach.