The time to abandon racial reconciliation has not and never will come. This ideal is at the very center of what it means to be Christ’s church, as Kenneth Mathews and M. Sydney Park contend in their recent book The Post-Racial Church(2011).
The book is less a how-to manual on racial unity in the church, and more an exploration of the theological history and foundation for such unity, all for the purpose of reiterating the church’s call to welcome all peoples.
Quoting Brevard Childs, Mathews writes, “It is as if each new generation were called upon to re-win the battles once fought or to risk losing its theological legacy.” Has the church forgotten this call? Mathews, a Caucasian, asserts that that white evangelicals tend to minimize the race problem, assuming we left it behind with the twentieth century. It is simply not so, says Park, a Korean woman, who has experienced racism firsthand from both whites and blacks.
If racism is still running rampant in humanity, then the gospel and Christ’s church remain the “first and last best hope for peace in a racially diverse world.” The reason begins with God as Creator who created mankind in His image, giving each human innate dignity and value. God’s master plan included the perfect marriage of diversity and unity. But the Fall caused all manner of distortions to this master plan.
The “tower of Babel” in Genesis 11 perfectly illustrates such distortion. A false sense of unity—based on pride, not commitment to the true God—led the people of Shinar to attempt to build a tower to the heavens. But because their unity was based on something superficial, it ultimately led to their ruin. Mathews explains, “Unity based on the human spirit, without regard to divine accountability, cannot be left to its own devices, lest the world meet with self-inflicted destruction.”
Another distortion of God’s design emerged in more recent centuries through misunderstandings of certain biblical stories. Historically, “Cain’s mark” (Genesis 4) was wrongly interpreted as God making Cain black because he was displeased with his offering (in reality, the “mark” is synonymous with “sad”—Cain became sad because God was displeased with his sacrifice). Linking this account to another wrong view that Ham, the son of Noah, was black and his descendants were condemned to slavery because of his indiscretion (Genesis 9), white supremacists used their misunderstandings to justify the oppression and slavery of blacks.
Despite the enmity that began between the races after Babel, the authors point out that God is the “Great Reconciler” who has worked throughout history to bring all men back into harmony with Himself and with each other. In the Old Testament, God accomplished this by choosing Israel to serve as a “blessing for all nations” (Genesis 12), by offering hospitality and protection to strangers and foreigners in their midst. Such hospitality, as Mathews describes it, is far more than a meal around a table, but an invitation to worship: “Hospitality is to know and worship the triune God—accepting and participating in his transcendent welcome.” Applying this message to the present context, “Christian hospitality means that we are welcomed and we welcome.”
God fulfills His vision for reconciliation through Christ, who both taught and lived out this reconciliation. Park points out that Jesus’ parables of the “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10) and the “Prodigal Son” (Luke 15) particularly illustrated the call for Jews to welcome and receive the Samaritans, those they tended to ostracize. Christ’s final command to His disciples is perhaps the greatest reason for racial reconciliation: “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
Paul continues Jesus’ message of reconciliation, focusing on the tension in the early church between the Jews and the Gentiles. His famous words resound throughout the ages: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This narrative of welcome for all ultimately culminates in the “marriage supper of the Lamb,” as described in Revelation, where those “from every tribe and language and people and nation” will worship Christ together.
This theological foundation has great significance for the church today. Because of the cross, we are both reconciled to God and reconciled to those of other races. Such reconciliation naturally leads to integration, which is where the church is weak, the authors say. They lay out four recurring issues that require consideration and action from the church, if we are to be fully reconciled and integrated.
First, immigration. As touchy as the subject can be across the political spectrum, it is, for the Christian, ultimately an issue of showing welcome. Based on the fact that God called the Israelites to welcome strangers into their midst, and the reality that Christians are themselves “sojourners” in this world (with “citizenship in heaven”), the church is called to embrace the foreigner. How this is done, amidst a complex array of national security issues, is an issue for the church to consider and take seriously.
Second, interracial marriage. Israel’s identity as the people of God was characterized by faithfulness and worship, not racial purity. Hence, today’s Christians should not be tempted toward the false idea that interracial marriage is a deviation of God’s plan. On the contrary, it is an ideal picture of God’s design for unity to meet diversity.
Third, multiethnic worship. One of the main reasons that Sunday is one of the most segregated times of the week has to do with worship style. If we believe that the “marriage supper” will genuinely involve those of all colors and musical preferences, we should work to incorporate such a kaleidoscope into our worship services. Those who do not live in an ethnically or culturally diverse area can make an effort to extend themselves to those beyond their community.
Lastly, evangelism and missions. Park points out that racial reconciliation involves a concern for international missions—not so much in the traditional sense, but in the call to fight for social justice, particularly in the 10/40 window. Because of this, there is a great need for “tentmaker” missionaries.
Stepping aside from these considerations, Park ends the book by telling her own story of racism—both as a Korean in a white community—and her own prejudice toward those who tormented her. After becoming a Christian in early adulthood, the bitter chains of racism began to lose their grip on her. She concludes:
If I genuinely believe that I am saved by the cross, then I must also believe I am saved from my former life of sin for a life marked by God’s righteousness. My prejudices against all those who mocked me and made me feel inferior through verbal and physical abuse and silent disdain come to an end at the cross.
Zoe Sandvig Erler is a freelance writer and editor from Indianapolis, Indiana. She has contributed to WORLD magazine, the Washington Times, and the Indianapolis Star. Most recently, she helped produce a documentary on the 2012 Super Bowl for WFYI, Indianapolis's public television affiliate.
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