There is no room for racism, hatred, or violence in the church of Jesus Christ.
It’s hard to believe that this sentence still needs to be written in 2017—and yet it does, because the demonic power of racism, hatred, and violence still knows how to cloak itself in respectable clothing that wouldn’t look out of place in a typical church pew on a typical Sunday morning. The New Testament warns about the pernicious influence of false prophets who come, says Jesus, “in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-16a). The apostle Paul echoes this warning in 2 Timothy. “Wicked people and imposters will go from bad to worse,” he writes “deceiving others and being deceived” (3:13).
That’s how Satan works most effectively, by persuading us that his lies are the equivalent of gospel truth and have God’s blessing. Lord only knows how long the list is of the lies that Christians have told—and believed—through the years to justify race-based slavery, segregation, and supremacy. As the old saying goes, the devil knows how to quote Scripture, too. We’re foolish if we think otherwise. Wherever these lies continue to be told—and believed—in the name of Jesus, Christians have a moral obligation to tell the truth: There is no room for racism, hatred, or violence in the church of Jesus Christ.
As a pastor colleague of mine in Tennessee recently wrote, telling the truth like this ought to be an ethical layup. It shouldn’t be hard to say that racism is wrong. Speaking as a white Christian, though, what is difficult for me, on a daily basis, is the question of how I can, in the words of the Old Testament prophet, Micah, “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” (6:8) when it comes to the persistent racism that haunts this country like a restless, malignant ghost. I have never once, in my life, felt like I was being followed by a security guard as I browsed through a store at the mall. I have never once, in my life, seen people cross to the other side of the street or clutch their handbags to their side when I approached them on the sidewalk. I have never once, in my life, heard my fellow college students whispering about whether I really deserved to be their classmate. I have never once, in my life, watched couple after couple after couple get seated at a restaurant while my wife and I stood waiting to be acknowledged by the hostess.
I have never once, in my life, hit a glass ceiling at work while younger and less-accomplished co-workers continued to rise into upper management and beyond. I have never once, in my life, had any doubt in my mind whatsoever that the police are my friends and I can trust the justice system to deal fairly with me.
As a white man in the South, I’ll readily confess: The toxic, destructive effects of racism are not part of my everyday experience. If racial prejudice means that people of color often end up on the short end of the stick, then I have benefitted significantly from the fact that my whole life has been spent on the opposite end of that stick—which makes it hard for me to appreciate just how much poison still remains in our culture.
Probably no conversation has changed the way I think about race more than a casual exchange I had with a fellow Duke divinity student some twenty years ago. Now the pastor of a prominent African-American church in North Carolina, my friend mentioned that he was on his way to get a Duke sticker for his new car. It was actually his dad’s old car, but it was a Mercedes, and he didn’t feel comfortable driving on the interstate without the sticker. In fact, whenever he drove home to Atlanta, he always wore some sort of Duke apparel. I asked why. Here’s what he said: “So that when I get stopped, the state trooper will see that I go to Duke and maybe not think that I stole the car.”
I was stunned. I never imagined such precautions could possibly even be necessary, much less routine for a fellow divinity student. So, I asked around. Other black men at Duke said much the same thing. Not if I get stopped, but when. They just assumed that it would happen. It almost always did. That conversation gave me a small window into a different world, one in which the courtesy and respect that I receive and take for granted as a citizen are, for people of color, often replaced by feelings of suspicion and fear. I’ve never forgotten that conversation. I’m grateful for it. It helps me understand, for example, that when people say that black lives matter, they’re not saying that black lives matter more than other lives. They are, rather, simply saying that black lives do, in fact, matter. Period. This truth has not, tragically, been self-evident throughout our nation’s history.
That needs to change—and it will begin to change, I believe, when people like me can find the grace to listen to people of color and their stories of pain and frustration without getting defensive. It sounds like such a small step, but it’s a crucially important—and, these days, altogether too rare—first step forward, cultivating the kind of compassion and empathy that allows us to understand better the path that someone else has walked. I’m convinced that people of good will in this country want America to be a nation that lives up to its most noble ideas for all its citizens. A lot more hard work remains to be done before we get there. Listening graciously—with empathy and without getting defensive—will, at the very least, move us in that direction. It’s much easier to do justice and love mercy when we can appreciate what these words mean to those who have experienced too little of both.
We believe that Jesus Christ is the one in whose flesh the dividing walls that once divided us have now been abolished (Ephesians 2:14). With that in mind, then, this much is clear: The church of Jesus Christ should be leading the way in doing justice and loving mercy, not bringing up the rear.
May the peace of Christ be with you!