For some of us, Monday represented no more than a three-day weekend. If you’re a Christian, however, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day ought to carry far more significance. Why do I say that? Because the legacy of Dr. King’s work toward racial reconciliation touches on an issue that lies at the heart of the gospel.
Ephesians 1:9-10 speaks of the “mystery of [God’s] will…which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” Long before unity became a talking point for American politicians, it thrived within the eternal purpose of the triune God. God’s unifying purpose certainly isn’t limited to racial reconciliation. The death and resurrection of Christ achieves first and foremost unity between a holy God and sinful men. But when that work of vertical reconciliation takes place, something else takes place as well. A new, horizontal unity is forged among men.
Just as alienation from God produces alienation among men, so too reconciliation to God enables reconciliation between men. In this regard, the measure of our willingness to take the work of racial reconciliation seriously reflects the measure of our faithfulness to take the work of the gospel seriously. It’s an issue that reveals whether we’re willing to align our hearts with God’s eternal purpose in Christ.
The fact that all we need in order to be reconciled to one another is found in Christ does not guarantee that we are living in the good of it. We cannot forget that the American church, by and large, supported the racial oppression and violence inherent in both the chattel slavery of the 19th century and the Jim Crow laws of the 20th century. Even during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the response of mainline protestant denominations was mixed. Christians cannot claim the moral high ground on this issue from a historical standpoint. To the contrary, we have often preached the truth of the gospel while passively ignoring or actively resisting the relational entailments of the gospel. That temptation is not unique to issues of racism and racial reconciliation, but it’s certainly a compelling (and sobering) example.
Our national history proves that the reconciling power of Christ’s unifying work must be embraced and applied by faith if the divinely intended effect of the gospel is to be achieved in our relationships. Racial reconciliation requires intentional work. It’s not easy to resist our natural, sinful tendency to think of one another primarily in terms of external characteristics, including the color of our skin. It’s not easy to relate to one another first and foremost as fellow image-bearers of God or fellow citizens of the household of faith.
Now there’s as healthy tension here. As the blood-bought people of God, we ought to be both color-blind and color-conscious. We ought to be color-blind in the sense that when we see another human being, whether or not they profess faith in Christ, we should not first see them as black, white, rich, poor, etc. but rather as an image-bearer of God. The foundation of our dignity and identity as human beings is not the color of our skin. It’s our status as image-bearers of our Creator King. I am not first and foremost a white man. I am an image-bearer of God. We have to start there in the way we perceive and relate to one another. For then and only then do we realize that our commonalities far exceed our differences.
At the same time, however, we ought to be color-conscious. Why do I say that? Because the Creator himself is color-conscious. Having created us in his image, he doesn’t look at us and see a bunch of generic people. He sees men and women from every tribe, tongue, people, and language and he delights in what he sees because our diversity reflects the manifold splendor of his glory that could not be displayed through a single tribe, a single tongue, or a single language. Indeed, heaven itself is remarkably color-conscious.
Revelation 5:9-10 declares, “And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
Because heaven is characterized by racial reconciliation and the gospel is designed to achieve racial reconciliation, the church of Christ in our own day must be earnestly committed to the work of racial reconciliation. Now some might say, “Why should we talk about race? Shouldn’t we just focus on Christ and race issues will work themselves out?” My response is simple. If you’re a Christian, I hope that’s not the way you apply the gospel in other areas of life. Would you actually tell a married couple, “Hey, don’t bother hashing out all the details of how Jesus work transforms the way you love your spouse in the nitty gritty of daily life. Just think about Jesus and all your past conflicts and present troubles will sort themselves out.”
That’s terrible counsel. Why? Because learning to follow Jesus in any area of life takes a tremendous amount of work. If you’re married, you have to wrestle with hard questions like, “How can I reflect Jesus’ sacrificial love in deciding how many hours I’ll work?” Or, “What impact should the humility of Christ have on the sexual expectations I bring to the marriage bed?” Figuring out how the gospel applies to your relationship with your spouse takes work. Learning how to live out the implications of the gospel in the way you relate to a member of another race takes no less work.
As a pastor of a predominantly but (thankfully) not exclusively white church, I have a lot to learn. I’m learning that there are struggles my African American brothers and sisters have that I don’t have. I’m learning that there are challenges their children face that my children don’t face. I’m learning that there are current events in our nation that trouble them in ways they don’t trouble me. And I’m learning that a big part of that is because I’m white and they’re not. Now does that mean all I should ever discuss with a non-white church member are race-based issues? Of course not. But it does mean I need to learn to ask the sort of loving questions that reflect a humble refusal on my part to assume that their spiritual challenges and struggles are no different than my own. If we’re willing, the color-consciousness of heaven itself should push us to do otherwise.
So take a moment this week to pray, “Lord, help me to see the people around me the way you see them. And then give me the courage to learn how the ethnicity that you assigned to that brother or sister in your perfect wisdom impacts their need for you, their experience of the gospel, and the way I can practically love and care for them on this side of eternity.” And if you’re looking for a place to learn more on the whole topic of racial reconciliation from a Christian perspective, check out the Race and the Church video lectures, one of which I had the opportunity to attend last year. May God make our church a place where a Spirit-born passion for loving one another as God created us drowns our innate fear of having the not-so-easy but absolutely critical conversations that build a genuinely gospel-centered community.