I never heard a sermon that referenced race while growing up in church. What does race have to do with people coming to know Jesus, anyway? Or what does it have to do with the Bible?
When I talk about race in sermons at Crossroads, I think these are thoughts that go through the minds of some. Is church really the place to talk about race? The Bible does lob us a softball on the race topic in Revelation 7:9 when describing what heaven will be like: After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. So with that verse in mind, one ought to feel comfortable talking about race in church and not feel as is they are speaking on something the Bible doesn’t touch on. If we are to bring heaven to earth (Matthew 6:10), wouldn’t we want to see people of all races worshiping together in our churches today?
But outside of this very direct, one-time reference, I’ve noticed something very compelling about the Bible and that is that the entire New Testament is written from a context where race, racism and racial division were huge society-shaping influences, and these influences were what were causing so much conflict in the early Church. Race is one of the most biblical topics there is, if you are reading the Bible on its terms and in its original setting.
Here’s some interesting tidbits about what we call hermeneutics, i.e. how to interpret the Bible:
In the New Testament world, and specifically the first churches, race and ethnicity were huge factors in the not only the overarching theological question of who God was for and who he wasn’t, but they were also the factor that caused the division, quarreling and squabbling that so many of the New Testament letters were written directly toward.
A relationship with God was always found in a Jewish world. Sure, Gentiles had their “outer court” at the temple (see pic), but only Jews had the inner circle with God, as well as 100% of the authority in all things religious. Now all of a sudden, the unspiritual Gentile outcasts are allowed equal access to God and these two ethnic groups, with a history of racial conflict, are in the same churches. Within this tension, one ethnic group (the Jews) had all the privilege as they were the ones in religious power and the Gentiles were overlooked for leadership and basic opportunity (see Acts 6 for a crystal clear example of this). The differences between these two racial groups didn’t start overnight. Each group had centuries of history behind them, and centuries of seeing their way as the best way to do things. Now all of a sudden, they were called to be unified in Christ and to get along and love one another under the same local church roof. And if they did this, it’d be an incredible testimony to a watching world.
Anyone doing exegesis and hermeneutics will easily and quickly realize that these are significant factors that shape the New Testament texts and how we are to understand them.
Yet why is it when we preach about race and ethnicity and how these biblical texts relate directly America’s past and present race issues, white church folk start to squirm and call it out as unbiblical?
Fast forward a couple of millennia from today to around 4014. Imagine it’s your task to exegete American culture from the ancient year of 2014. What factors would you pay special attention to? Would you take note that at the year 2014, overt racism was legal for 93% of this country’s history? (starting in 1492 with “Columbus sailing the ocean blue” and ending in 1975 when laws against redlining were actually enforced) In fact, speaking objectively one could easily say that the country was built on the idea of white supremacy. As a 4014 historian, you do your research through this country’s history and you notice these sorts of laws which were created to shape the country:
- The Naturalization Act of 1790 – Only “free white persons” of “good character” could be US citizens
- One Drop Rule – any person with “one drop of Negro blood” was considered black
- Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787 – For population statistics, slaves were counted as 3/5 of a person when determining how many seats that state would have in the US House of Representatives
- (1863 – the Emancipation Proclamation – when white kids like me were taught that “racism ended and everything was equal now”)
- The Naturalization Act of 1870 – People with African ancestry could become US citizens, though other non-whites remained excluded (including Native Americans!)
- Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882 – Prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers
- General Allotment Act of 1887 – Native Americans who accepted land allotments from the government were granted US citizenship, with the stated objective that they assimilate into mainstream American society. This act allowed the US government to forcibly remove Native American tribes from non-allotted land, a process where scores of Native Americans were killed.
- Plessy v Ferguson, 1896 – It is deemed that racial segregation in public facilities is constitutional.
- Immigration Act of 1917 – “Homosexuals”, “idiots”, “feeble-minded persons”, “criminals”, “epileptics”, “insane persons”, alcoholics, “professional beggars”, all persons “mentally or physically defective”, polygamists, anarchists, anyone illiterate over the age of 16, as well as anyone from much of Asia and the Pacific Islands are all prevented from immigrating to the United States.
- Immigration Act of 1924 – The number of immigrants admitted from any country was limited to 2% of the number of people from that country who were already living in the United States in 1890. This was aimed at restricting the immigration of Southern Europeans, Eastern Europeans, and Jews, as well as Arabs, East Asians, and Indians. The purpose was “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity”.
- Late 1940’s – The G.I. Bill gave federal money to returning soldiers, allowing them to purchase homes and build financial capitol. This money was denied to blacks returning from the war, and banks and mortgage agencies refused to loan to blacks
- 1876-1965 Jim Crow Laws – Inferior conditions for blacks and major educational and social disadvantages to blacks. Segregation of public schools, public places, public transit, restrooms, restaurants and drinking fountains.
- Redlining (legal until 1975) – Blacks are refused loans in better resourced parts of town
What does any of this have to do with church and the Bible? Well if our job is to understand what the Bible meant when it was originally written by looking at the historical context then apply those principles to our contemporary context, it has everything to do with church and the Bible! To accurately apply the Bible to our lives, we have to not only understand 1st century history and context, we have to also understand our own. If we don’t, we can too easily water down the counter-cultural commands of the Bible into something that was for them, but not for us, making us blind to what God’s will for us is. Throughout history, God’s people persecuted and killed the prophets because they didn’t like the truth they were speaking. My hope is that the American Church doesn’t do the same with these truths of Scripture as they relate to our modern day.
Why do we talk about race at our church? Because the Bible talks about race.
Why do we talk about race at our church? Because the Bible was written in an era where race was a major formative factor in society and much of it was written directly at these issues.
Why do we talk about race at our church? Because we live in a society where race has been the major formative factor and whether we like it or not, 7% of our history is not enough to fully eradicate the effects the first 93% had (someone in 4014 might say “not even close!”). To be faithful to the Scriptures, we must apply them with these lenses on, for they are the very rays of hope, reconciliation, forgiveness, grace and selfless love we so desperately need to see Jesus’ Kingdom come and his will be done here in America as it is done in Heaven when it comes to racial division and inequity in both society and the Church.
At Crossroads Church, our mission statement is: Crossroads Church exists to bring the whole gospel to the whole city, with the full spectrum of diversity experiencing the love of Jesus in real ways. It’s in our 5-year-plan to be a fully multiracial church, reflecting the racial diversity of the city of Lansing, as well as having multiracial elders, pastors and worship leaders. My prayer and hope is that we will be a reflection of what God had in mind for the Jews and Greeks of 1st century Corinth and like them, that we will be unified in Jesus alone and as a result, a watching world will see Jesus be magnified and glorified.
See related article: Positioning White Privilege To Where We Can Actually Talk About It