Are racial reconciliation and harmony aspects of the Gospel?
Many respected, conservative pastors say yes.
The Gospel Coalition has written about it several times. Radical.net, David Platt’s network, has emphasized it. John Piper and Promise Keepers were focusing on it in the ’90s. Matt Chandler has become very outspoken on the subject.
This article is not about if racial reconciliation should matter to Christians. As Matt Chandler said in the video above:
“This theme of multicultural, racial harmony is really closely tied to the Gospel. It isn’t the Gospel, but it is really closely tied to it. It’s so closely tied to it, that it is an application of the Gospel. And so we can’t be a people who say, ‘It’s only about the Gospel, not about the application of the Gospel.’”
How do we make real progress toward racial reconciliation? One of the best ways to unpack this is by looking at the earliest Christians and what they experienced in the New Testament
The Jewish Christians
The first Christians were almost uniformly Jewish people. They read and studied the Torah, they were circumcised, and they did not work on the Sabbath. Their whole lives were steeped in Jewish doctrine and traditions. We see many hints of this in their stories and letters.
- The story of Pentecost and the flaming tongues is about Peter convincing 3,000 fellow Israelites about Jesus being their awaited Messiah.
- It took a vision from God to get Peter to hang out with a gentile, non-Jewish, man.
- Paul called himself “a real Hebrew, if ever there was one.”
- In Acts 7, Stephen used the Hebrew scriptures to prove that Jesus was God. And he lost his life for it.
- Even Jesus was focused on serving Jews before anyone else sometimes.
What we call “Christianity” really started as a Jewish pseudo-denomination. And it could have stayed that way forever if racial reconciliation and harmony had not been a natural outflow of the Gospel and a central part of God’s plan for His people.
Real racial reconciliation and harmony requires three things: diversity, equity, and inclusion.
So, rather than make another list of things to read, I thought I’d share it in a more condensed form:
This concept is probably familiar to most of us. A diverse group is one with lots of differences between its members. Depending on the context it can include aspects like religion or language, but in this case we’re thinking about it in terms of ethnicity and race.
The early church was Jewish by religion and ethnicity. They were very afraid of outside influences and kept to themselves. They were surrounded by outsiders who ridiculed and tormented them, yet they protected their faith and way of life by setting up very distinct behaviors and communities.
While we modern Americans do not struggle with diversity (in theory), it took decades of God’s direct intervention to get Jesus’s first followers to allow for ethnic diversity. Many Jews, including Peter and James for a time, argued that anyone wishing to follow Jesus must convert to Judaism first.
Paul publicly rebuked Peter for refusing to sit with the Gentile Christians in Galatians. Paul and Peter both eventually travelled the world declaring the Lordship of Jesus to Jew and Gentile, but it didn’t come easy.
Today, we have the benefit of God having worked in our predecessors’ lives to make diversity within our churches more normal, though there is still a long way to go.
Now come the hard parts.
Equity means sharing authority, responsibility, and influence.
America is a very diverse country. We have people of just about every religion, race, ethnicity, and orientation living here. And that’s a good thing.
But imagine if in order to be elected to city council, congress, or as a judge, you had to be an atheist man with more than $1 million in the bank.
Would you trust all of those rich, atheist men to always make decisions that reflected your desires, values, and needs? Or would you prefer that at least some of the people that made the laws and decided how to spend money had experiences, beliefs, and priorities similar to your own?
Diversity without equity is just tokenism. It’s a way to pat ourselves on the back about how racially progressive we are without actually being required to sacrifice some of our own privilege, power, or platform.
The early church had its own struggles with equity. All of its authority was vested in Jewish men that had followed Jesus while he was alive; His disciples made the decisions, set the rules, and were in charge.
It was through Paul that equity really came to our faith. He was still a Jewish man, but he had never met Jesus before the Ascension. He was an outsider that was setting up a new branch of Christianity in a totally different area and culture.
Before we move on, pause and think about Paul’s actions from Peter’s, John’s, and James’s perspectives:
- They had been following Jesus for years. They had been thrown in prison for Jesus. They had founded this new group that was feeding the hungry and clothing the poor.
- Then, along comes this guy that had been throwing them in prison for their beliefs, claiming that God had given him authority to help build the very group he had been persecuting.
- Then, this same guy who is claiming authority in your group, starts telling you all the things you got wrong. He demands that you stop demanding people convert to Judaism before following Jesus.
- He uses his stolen authority to force diversity and openness, even including Gentiles, like Timothy and Titus, and women, like Priscilla and Junia, on his leadership team.
I imagine that caused Peter and the other Apostles a lot of anxiety. I’m sure they struggled with allowing Paul, then Gentiles and women, start making decisions about what it meant to be a follower of the Way.
And their discomfort should be our discomfort. Giving up our authority and power will be very difficult and scary, but it is absolutely essential to do if we want to faithfully carry out the vision of the Gospel.Real racial reconciliation and harmony requires three things: diversity, equity, and inclusion. Click To Tweet
I wasn’t sure if inclusion should come before equity, but the more I thought about it, the more likely it seemed that true inclusion comes last.
Inclusion means creating spaces in which a diverse group of people are not just welcomed, but respected and able to fully engage and participate.
The difference between diversity and inclusion is nuanced and hard to imagine, especially for a majority people group. An oversimplified example might help:
It’s sort of like if you started going to a church in your neighborhood that only spoke a language you didn’t understand. You would probably be welcomed into their gatherings, get to shake hands, and maybe meet some people that can speak your language and make you feel more comfortable.
However, the church would still have all of its sermons and songs in an incomprehensible form for you. Their liturgies and practices would seem strange and unexpected. It would very difficult, if not impossible, for you to really participate in the worship gatherings because there is nothing in them that is translated or culturally relevant for you.
In order to be inclusive for you, this church would hire a translator so you knew what was being said. It would let you speak into the gatherings and incorporate some of your practices. It would not ask you to give up your preferences and adopt only theirs, but it would make room for you to learn from them and for them to learn from your traditions.
We can see an example of this in several of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, but the most obvious one is when Peter refused to sit with the uncircumcised Gentiles. By this point, Peter had already become a believer in a diverse church, and supported equity for the Gentiles.
However, they still felt separate to him, and he was concerned that their “otherness” would hurt his reputation. So he treated them poorly, making them feel like less-than Christians.
Paul confronted Peter to his face for his failure at inclusivity, and his letters still challenge us today to pick up that mantle and carry it forward.
The Christian Church should be a leader in displaying racial harmony and reconciliation. While many Christians have sacrificed for and promoted this cause, many more of us have been critics and doubters that it matters at all.
A diverse, equitable, and inclusive Church body will forward the Good News of Jesus in powerful ways. It will have people of all kinds helping to do the work of Jesus in the world today. It will not expect new and different people to adopt our culture, but instead will promote learning from one another and finding value in differences.