I have writer’s block. I hate it but it’s fitting for this post. Today’s national dialogue on racial tension finds the Christian church at a loss for words. For my part, the writer’s block carries with it an element of fear. Race talk is risky because it can be divisive talk.
Is there racial tension in America? People disagree. What is the source of our racial tension? Pick your side. What’s the solution? The op-ed pieces in the New York Times and Dallas Morning News will be at odds with each other. And these differences have the energy to create deep divisions.
But the Christian message is woven with threads of reconciliation. Silently withholding how the “message of reconciliation” informs our current racial challenges only allows the divide (and fear) to grow. We call that a vicious cycle. And, as a conversation with my friend Johnny reminded me, it is a cycle that only the gospel can break because 1) the gospel powerfully bridges every divide and 2) it gives us room to fail and forgive.
Bridging Every Divide
Many know Pastor Johnny Square as the chaplain of the CSU Rams football and basketball teams and the pastor of Iasis Christ Fellowship here in Fort Collins. I know Johnny as a dear friend and mentor. Through him, I have seen that the good news of the Kingdom is truly “for all the people.”
He was raised in Houston, Texas in the 50s and 60s. I grew up under the guidance of Garrison Keillor in a small town south of the Twin Cities in the 70s and 80s. In Johnny’s words, he grew up in “Chocolate City.” Me? Well, I can’t even say it was “Vanilla Town.” Vanilla has some
color to it. Johnny has coached his children about how to deal with retail clerks asking for their ID when no one else in line gets asked. He recounted a general dread he felt toward police as a child. In my town, the cops used to give us baseball cards.
In America, it would be hard to find two more divergent contexts. Thankfully, God loves to be bigger than our differences — for reasons more grand and powerful than we could imagine. Seeking to maximize the glory given to his Son, the Father sends him to save every
people group (Isaiah 49:6). God, through his Son, brings unity out of human diversity by providing a salvation common to all (Revelation 7:9).
This is expressed again in the New Testament letter of Ephesians. In Ephesians 2:11-13, the apostle Paul opens up an old wound. The Gentiles had been categorized
by the Jews. They were “the uncircumcision.” The derogatory term stood as a painful reminder that they were different.
By the way, we do this all the time. We “file” people to make sense of our world. And when we label people as “black,” “white,” “latino,” “old” and “young,” we fool ourselves into believing that race, age or gender separate us when, in fact, we are separated from God and each other by sin.
So, into this wound of feeling “other,” Paul speaks a cleansing hope.
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone. (Ephesians 2:14-20)
Johnny and I have always enjoyed oneness. Not because we have learned to be good to each other, but because God has been good to us. Jesus’ blood brings near to God all who are “far off” — both Jews and Gentiles, black and white. It brings us into the same family. Johnny and I have in common the same joy; we delight in a shared Savior. Our differences, though definite, are small.
Room for Failure and Forgiveness
Last week, Johnny and I spent a few hours in the car together. In that time we agreed that the church needs to be a voice for finding harmony in the midst of racial tension. Great. There was a slight problem, though: Johnny and I had never discussed it. We needed to go there and, though we love each other, it was a little awkward.
I didn’t even know how to start. My mind was full of questions. Should I ask what he thinks about Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Gardner and Tamir Rice? Is that a good idea? Is it racist to say that I’m troubled that Summitview is so white? Is it offensive to ask Johnny to share what it is like to be black in Fort Collins?
The truth is, if I’m going to step into the fray, I’m going to make some mistakes. I’m going to get writer’s block. I’m going to offend and I’m going to misunderstand. If that possibility dominates my thinking, I will withdraw in silence or only speak within a safe echo chamber. But, under the cross, we can live differently. Forgiven, we can forgive. Our miscues do not need to end the conversation.
Regardless of your opinion on the details, recent events have spurred a national discussion on race, and this discussion is a scalpel capable of removing shrapnel or inflicting a deeper wound. The humility and ability to forgive that springs from belief in the gospel is the only thing that can steady a hand.
The Christian message provides every resource to build a bridge and have awkward conversations. We cannot be afraid. The dividing wall has been torn down. Walk across the room. Seek out friendships with those of different ethnicities and cultures. Ask questions. Listen carefully. Empathize. Seek to understand the differences. Seek forgiveness. And if we do, the wisdom of God to save all through one cross will shine.
As a first step, I would strongly urge you to engage with this panel discussion
hosted by the Kainos Movement. It includes a host of biblically informed voices on racial reconciliation and reveals the power and unity of the cross to provide a safe place for honest discussion.