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Race Relations in the Church (as in Heaven)

Tim Kimberly (TK): Fellas, part of Theology Unplugged is it’s just four guys that love Jesus, that have devoted their lives to God’s word and studying theology and culture, and looking at our Savior. And today we must talk about issues of race and racism. Just so much has happened in America. So much has happened, unfortunately, recently with our dear brothers and sisters in Christ in Charleston, and just all that’s happened there. Sam, how do you even approach thinking about—three of us went to Dallas seminary, where it was not permissible for any African-American man or woman to be enrolled there for decades after the school started. Looking at, yes I mean there’s been so much…

Michael Patton (MP): That’s how it was at every school.

TK: Yes, yeah. I’m talking about the one that we’ve definitely been a part of and, thankfully, have totally recognized that is something we have repented of, and is not right. And thankfully, men like Tony Evans are graduates, PhD graduates, of that school now. But when we look at just everything that’s happening, and I mean, it feels potentially hopeless, feels like maybe there’s never going to be a way forward, and just wrestling with what it means with racism and race, as we talked about—that there is someone who is born a Caucasian that identifies as an African-American. Just all of these issues. Where do you go with this?

Sam Storms (SS): That is a really… I’m not really exactly sure how to go, how to move forward.

MP: Don’t go anywhere. Just open the door.

SS: I will say this—given the tensions and the volatility of this issue in American culture, short of a genuine, God-sent revival, I don’t think it is going to get better. I think the dividing lines are going to intensify. I hate to say that, but I really think that those that are so entrenched in their distrust and their animosity and their sense of racial superiority are just going to be solidified and become more rigid and more dogmatic, and sadly, perhaps even more violent. And until such time as the Spirit of God awakens the Church—let’s just start with the Church, because racism is prevalent in the Church. Until the Spirit of God awakens in us the recognition that all human beings are created in the image of God and have within them, by virtue of that, an inherent dignity and value that skin pigmentation does not affect, we’re not going to see much progress. I hate to be a pessimist in this. I mean, I see wonderful examples, even in what we’re doing at Bridgeway—in the outreach we have in our neighborhood, in the interaction and the increasing numbers of African-Americans who attend our fellowship. Which we want to see more and more and more, and we’re seeing them come in much greater numbers now. So I’m encouraged by that, but I don’t know. Help me, guys! Because I look across the broad expanse of our society, and I’m not encouraged. I’m not hopeful.

MP: Well, what I’m trying to figure out—is this something that has always been, in the history of mankind, that you always see some sort of racism? Whether it be here in America today, or somewhere else in the world today, or just any other time of history. Is racism just a common theme that you find that the Church is always battling against? Or that just culture’s always battling against? I think when I went to Romania so often and went to the church there, and the church that was following the Lord and trying to overcome all the cultural norms that they had concerning coming out of Communism and some of the difficulties they had there.

But when it came to certain issues—like Gypsies—“Oh, that’s right! We don’t talk to Gypsies, and you shouldn’t talk to Gypsies either.”

And it was just this idea that Gypsies were this type of people, this race of people, that were beyond the bounds of cultural acceptance. And so I just see this as something, myself, that is prevalent. Is this something that has always been?

TK: Another example would be Rwanda. I think Rwanda is probably one of the better examples because it’s two people—two peoples—with the same skin pigmentation that in a course of just a couple weeks just slaughtered each other, but their ‘racial difference’ was a manmade construct. It was just Dutch missionaries dividing people based on the way their noses were and stuff like that. You know, and so it was this fake construct that led to hate, that led to murder. But yeah, I think in the New Testament we see with the Samaritans; we see that as a very good example of how the Jewish people hated the Samaritans and Jesus…

SS: And vice versa.

TK: Yeah, and Jesus leaned into it and used it as his example.

SS: Yeah, there was no such thing in the Jewish mind as a ‘good’ Samaritan. Contrary to the way we’ve labeled the parable—that’s a contradiction in terms. And it was basically on three realities, one of which I think was predominant. One, they worshipped in a different temple in Mount Gerizim, not Jerusalem. Second, they only accepted the first five books of the Old Testament as Scripture.

But third, the most important, the Jews said, “You’re of impure descent. You intermarried with Gentiles, and so the blood in your veins is not pure blood. You’re not pure Jewish—you’re half-breeds.”

And so they regarded them with contempt and wouldn’t even travel into their country lest the dust…

MP: They’re worse than the Gentiles.

SS: Soil cling to their sandals. Oh, yeah! Absolutely worse than the Gentiles.

MP: But they also had the Gentiles they didn’t like as well.

SS: Well, sure.

MP: So that was another race.

TK: Well, and I’d say, they had reason to hate each other. You know, and just as I would say, I think that’s probably a tension that I hear more than anything today, is people give reasons why we should be segregated. And I think that’s what’s maybe unusual in 2015, is like, I think most people know we shouldn’t have racism. You know, I think maybe in other times it was a little bit more ignorance potentially. But I think people know now.

Like, “Hey, I shouldn’t just hate this person.”

But, they’ll go through crime statistics or they’ll go through—like “Hey, this is why I’m afraid at night when I bump into this person, is because I have reason to be afraid of them.”

And I think you could say: well, a first-century Jew could have said the same thing—like “I have a reason to hate Samaritans.”

JJ Seid (JS): To bring it back—we’re in America, we’re in the United States of America having this conversation; and so I think the unique brand of racism that we face here in our country is unique to our culture and our history. And when I try to put Biblical rails on this whole conversation and think about the ways that it derails so quickly, which conversations on race often do in the broader culture and even in the Church. You know, we’re talking about our sins and our sorrows. The moral evil that we’ve committed, and the moral evil committed against us. And those are two big issues, the idea of sins and sorrows. And the Biblical framework runs cross grain to pop psychology and, sort of, popular ideas of ethics.

The Biblical framework steers the ship between all the rocks when it says: “The things that have happened to you are very significant, and yet you’re still responsible for your actions.”

So that avoids a multitude of pitfalls and evils and keeps you out of a lot of ditches. So when people engage in this conversation about race, you know, reparations was the cover story on The Atlantic several months ago. You know, a really well-written article arguing about whether or not reparations is a legitimate idea. So people are still wrestling with Black history in America, you know, the sins done against African-Americans that’s really not that long ago, and still reaches into today. How should we view that? How significant is it? And then you get these really calloused responses—people are bunkered and they’re sort of throwing retorts at each other over the wall.

So it’s just, suck it up, Bill Cosby’s going, “Suck it up and just take responsibility.”

And people are going, “Oh, that’s nice for you to say with your Ivy League education.”

You know, and then you have other people going, “We deserve to be paid back for what’s happened to us.”

And it degenerates really quickly. It’s not really a conversation anymore.

And I think the Biblical framework is very informative, because it says, “The things that have happened to you are very significant and you still have moral responsibility for your actions.”

And so, you see people always trying to diminish one of those two—”The things that have happened to you are not very significant, you just need to move on. That’s ancient history.”

And it’s like, “No it’s not! There are people alive today whose parents were hung from trees.”

You know, and then there’s another sense in which people are saying, “I’m not responsible for what I do. You know, it’s your fault.”

And the Biblical framework comes back to them and says, “No, you can take responsibility for your actions!”

Even in the midst of significant suffering, even in the midst of a very horrific history of racial abuse that’s really not that long ago.

So, I think sometimes I want to lean into the people that like to think of that as ancient history, because I see that a lot in White evangelicalism, where people are going, “Why are we still talking about this?”

And I think we’re a little bit tone-deaf. That wasn’t that long ago, and its effects—socioeconomically and culturally—when you look at the urban core in America, that’s not a coincidence that the urban core in America is Black. And it relates to choices we’ve made historically as a country. So, it’s not going away, and we need to reckon with it.

TK: Yeah, I totally agree too. And I feel like for me, this has been a pretty new thing in understanding that it wasn’t that long ago.

And also understand, one of our elders at Frontline is Black and he said, “I was shocked! I can remember where I was the day that I finally realized not everyone grew up being afraid of the police.”

And he wasn’t trying to, you know, he wasn’t being ignorant or anything.

He said, “It just surprised me when I realized not everybody that I know was afraid of the police growing up.”

And just to realize—that is a reality from my friend’s perspective. Then to see too, like, we were just talking beforehand about someone who is interviewing for a job at a church. And even myself, if I think of hiring someone at Frontline, I just start thinking: who are the people I know and who are the people that might be good at this job? And if I am not personally spending a lot of time with people who are of a different race than I am, then they just don’t even cross my mind. And I don’t even think about that person, then the challenge is that they don’t have the same opportunities, because I’m not doing life with them; and so when I think of hiring someone for an internship or hiring someone for a job I don’t think of that.

And that is a systemic thing because we can say, “Well, I’m not racist.”

But I think this is what has challenged me the most as it relates to church is I think almost every church in America, hopefully—I know this is not true for every church—but every church should want to be racially diversified. If you don’t, you don’t understand how God has made human beings.

SS: So explain that, Tim. I know, because there are people out there listening saying, “Why? Why shouldn’t we gather with ‘our own kind’?” I’m not advocating that, but I’m going to push back. Give an explanation for why. What’s the rationale in the Christian faith that says we ought to be racially diverse.

TK: My quickest would be that Jesus prayed that it would be done on earth as it is in heaven. That’s my quickest, is that I think the bride of Christ is a, just a brief picture of the kingdom of God. And in order, if you have, basically you are going to —heaven will be a shock when you are surrounded by people that are racially different. Now there are other things, but because people are made in the image of God we should, as a church, lead the way that people would see all the ‘one anothers’ in Scripture, that churches should be diversified. Now, yes there are like where the church shootings were—that was a predominantly Black church, but they invited this young man in there. They were not a segregated church; they were predominantly a Black church, but they were seeking racial diversity and they were okay with racial diversity.

MP: Would you say diversity in general, not just racial diversity?

TK: Yeah, yeah. I would say, in general, that the kingdom of God is very diverse and we should act the way that God is building His kingdom.

MP: But let me do the pushback as well. Sorry. Can we expect every church to be diversified in every way? Like, there may be personality differences and preferences that will keep the church segregated, if you want to put it that way, on Sunday morning. And what if there are cultural differences within different communities and types of people, whether say Black or White or any type of culturally embedded type people that do things differently, and have grown up differently and have different preferences. Because, we’ve got a guy here at work that is, he talks about it all being preferences and growing…

I said to him one time, “I used to wait tables. Why do Black people always order catfish?’

And he cracked up!

I mean he was just laughing, saying, “That is a cultural thing!”

I said, “Is that why they…”

JS: And it’s a terrible stereotype too. Why do White people keep wearing loafers with no socks? And khaki shorts in the summer?

MP: He acknowledged that here in Oklahoma that everybody orders catfish and it’s not because they have a taste preference difference, it’s because of cultural preferences.

SS: I’ll tell you what Michael, I’m going to stick my foot in this one. I think that the majority of professing Christians who would use the kind of defense that you just articulated—I know you’re just setting it out there; it’s not necessarily your personal opinion—but that in order to kind of justify or find a rationale for segregation in the church, even though they’d never use that word.

“Well, it’s just a matter of our cultural differences and they’re more comfortable with them and we’re more comfortable with people like us.”

That’s just a veil to cover a racist mentality, which basically says, “I really don’t value you as much as I value people who look like me. And I really am suspicious about your integrity because your skin color is different from mine. And I’m really concerned that you might end up buying a house in my neighborhood and driving down the value of my property. And I’m really suspicious about whether you’re honest and whether our womenfolk can be trusted in your presence.”

That’s the venomous, sinful mindset of countless individuals, who then want to somehow justify, they want to use euphemistic language or cultural distinctives as a way of hiding, to cover over, what really is going on in the human heart. And, you know, I just have to keep coming back to Revelation 5 (emphasis added).

I know we talk about this passage in this context a lot, but when Christ is being extolled and praised in the heavens; and it says, “You were slain, and by Your blood you ransom people for God from every tribe, every language, every people and every nation.”

And I love this: “You make them a kingdom.”

Not “You make those a white kingdom and they’re White Christians; You made Hispanic Christians; and you made African, Black Christians. You made all of them together—one unified kingdom—all of whom are equal, priests to God, and they together will reign on the earth.”

That’s the driving force that we have to bring to bear on this subject in the local church. And, again, I’ve just been around long enough—and I’m suspicious enough of human depravity—that when I hear excuses made for why diversity won’t work, I fear that it’s a cover for deep-seated distrust and disdain, and a fundamental sense of: “You’re just not where I am. You’re not my equal. Why don’t you go be with your own.”

TK: And it makes people build their kingdom and not God’s kingdom. What they’re doing, we have to realize that the church in America, a huge default for us if we don’t fight against it, is individualism. That it’s all about me—you like, man I didn’t like the coffee they served, let’s find a different church; or the music was just slightly too loud, let’s find a different church; and…

MP: Well, let’s do it this way. When I go to certain Black churches they’ll have a certain culture to them, and what style of preaching and style of worship. Now, I’ve grown up differently.

I haven’t grown up in that environment, and so when I go into that environment I say, “You know, this is cool. And it shows the diversity of the body of Christ and I’m glad they love Christ, but this is not my style.”

And so, I don’t integrate into their diversity. I go find something that is more like mine—whether Black or White, but normally it will be more of a White-type culture because that’s what I’ve grown up in…

JS: I think you could argue when the Church is at its best, it looks more like fusion cooking. In other words, people are esteeming each other highly in love, they’re putting each other’s preferences above their own. And when you do that—then you get a tapestry, then you get diversity, then you get multiculturalism. Because the Church is, by definition, multicultural as Sam just read. So, not everybody’s able to achieve this with equal success, but it’s something we should aspire towards. And when you talk to pastors and parishioners in churches that have achieved some measure of this, they’ll talk a lot about the blood, sweat and tears that are involved. There’s self-sacrifice, there’s death to my comfort and preference, and out of it comes a deeper joy; but it doesn’t come easily. And so, in this way it’s very, very hard. There’s nothing trite or frivolous about anyone who’s pulled it off. They had to willingly make themselves uncomfortable in order to achieve a greater good, and so in that sense the Church has to function as a counter-culture. That is how the broader culture works—socioeconomic and ethnic divisions will rule the day in America, but the Church is expected to look counter-cultural and swim up stream.

MP: Well when you guys got hired on to your churches, I imagine when you did it, it was fairly easy because it fit within your cultural norms.

But if you would have been hired by a Black church, or somebody would have approached you from a deep-cultural Black church, you probably would not have immediately said, “Hey, this is great! This is the body of Christ. This is the diversity.”

You would have felt a little bit more uneasy about going into such a situation.

JS: Let me take what you’re saying and deepen it: you’re right, on the surface—uneasy, knee-jerk reactions, unfamiliarity, difficulty—that’s right. And to take that deeper, it’s called counting the cost. To achieve multiculturalism in the church, you’re going to have to count the cost—it doesn’t happen by accident, and it’s going to come at great personal sacrifice and inconvenience. But the people who’ve done it, when you talk to them, they’re going to say it was worth it.

MP: And you don’t find many who have done it because it’s always better or easier to take the easy path.

TK: But that’s gotten us to where we are today. And so I would say: is that working? Is this working for us, or should we be more intentional?

MP: Well, that’s why we’re having this podcast.

TK: And what I would say, this struck me when I heard it, is that the church on Sunday morning will not be racially diverse unless we are racially diverse on Saturday night.

So if you say, “Hey! Let me just invite a bunch of Black people to church on Sunday,” instead of saying, “Hey, I need to invite my neighbors over to dinner and get to know them, and find out about their story, and become friends with them.”

If the church is not being diverse on Saturday night, it’s not going to be diverse Sunday morning. And if it is, it’s not going to be truly diverse.

JS: And that’s why Sam’s comments were so helpful, because racial divisions, unfortunately in America, tend to run along socioeconomic lines. And so it triggers all sorts of American fears about who I gather with, what neighborhoods I live in, how I spend my time, what I do with my money, what safety means to me, what my status is, you know, and those kinds of things. And so, you’re right, if you’re going to actually make your life multicultural and multiethnic and multi-sociocultural, that’s going to require sacrifice; that’s going to require you to swim upstream and maybe vacation differently, spend your money differently, take your kids to do different things. You’re going to have to live differently if you’re going to live a truly multicultural life.

TK: But we’re following the most sacrificial human being that’s ever lived on the face of the earth—Jesus. And so it should not surprise us that following him requires sacrifice.

JS: And I want to make a plug for some books. I think people should read John Piper’s book Bloodlines, I think it’s very well written and thought-provoking.

And he basically says, “I was a racist.”

He talks about his experience growing up and how God renewed him.

SS: In South Carolina.

JS: That’s right. Yeah, what it’s like to grow up in the South. And then another book that I think more people need to read is called Divided by Faith, by two famous Christian sociologists—one of them is Christian Smith; I can’t think of the other author’s name. But that’s a very good book.

MP: He’s not that famous then.

JS: That’s my memory problem, with two one-year-olds. But that’s only 140 pages and they’ve done a lot of really good research into the questions you were asking, Michael. And sort of taking the pulse of American Christians—why are we still divided by faith? I think that’s a very good starting point for people to read those two books.

MP: How intentional do you have to be, Sam?

SS: With regard to…?

MP: Making this happen. I mean, is it just going to happen?

SS: No, it’s not just going to happen. You have to be strategic—you have to prioritize this as something of preeminent value. And say, ‘We have to be willing to be uncomfortable, to sacrifice, to go contrary to what may be our instinctive inclination would be. Like I said, short of a genuine, heaven-sent Spirit-prompted revival it’s only going to get worse. Christian men and women, even short of a genuine revival, have to make up their minds individually and collectively. Churches, elder boards, pastoral teams have to say: this is of such preeminent value, it is so important to the heart of God, that we’re willing to make whatever personal, financial, cultural, social sacrifices need to be made to reflect in the life of the body of Christ, as Tim said earlier, what we know is reflected in heaven.

Disclaimer: All quotations are transcribed as spoken by the participants. They have not been checked for accuracy.

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