In my last blog post entitled “the gospel of reconciliation,” I explored the theological basis for a gospel that reconciles people to God, people to people, and people to land. Yet, Martin Luther King Jr. declared that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning to be the “most segregated hour in Christian America.” He said this in 1960. Yet, it couldn’t be more true 57 years later in “post-racial” America.
I think the reason most churches don’t spend time talking about the race problem is because they don’t think there’s anything we can do about it. We’re suffering from a great lack of what Theologian Walter Brugemann calls “prophetic imagination”. Without an image of what the Kingdom of God looks like, how can we stand as a city on a hill in a bleak world? It’s time for us to recover our imagination.
Brenda Salter McNeil & Rick Richardson underscore this blind spot in their transformative book, “The Heart of Racial Justice”…
“Most of us don’t even believe that a world where people of different races, ethnicities and nationalities live together in peace is possible. That’s because we’ve never seen it! Regrettably, there are far too few successful models to refer or relate to. As a result some have lost hope that racial reconciliation is even possible and have opted to settle for tolerance and political correctness.”
But some express concern that an over-emphasis on the racial makeup of the church leads to a diminished focus on what is really “the gospel”, namely making sure people are reconciled to God. Yet we have to remember, this is only part of the picture of what Jesus died for. Just like a broken bone needs special attention to heal—sometimes to be very painfully “set” and then secured in a cast for several weeks—the brokenness in our church community needs special attention to be restored.
For those like me who come from a community of privilege (majority white culture), there is little “felt need” for some kind of attention. But indeed, our brothers and sisters of color have been groaning under the pain and pressure for years, we may have just been too ignorant to listen. Once we awaken to the cries of our family members, we recognize something must be done for we are the body of Christ. Paul asserts “there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Corinthians 12:25b-26).
As a diverse, united body of Christ, we must shine the light on the dividing walls that exist so that they can be dismantled. These walls take the shape of institutionalized racism that favors certain ethnic communities over others. We may have abolished “Jim Crow” de jure but we these laws still remain de facto. Why? Because the walls still stand in our hearts. Until we realize this, we have little hope of healing. Yet, as we begin to see the walls, and work together to tear them down, we can build that holy temple where God desires to dwell–a church that really looks like the one in the Kingdom of Heaven!
What does the Kingdom of Heaven look like in regards to culture? The Apostle John was given a heavenly vision and a glimpse into the throne room…
“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. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7:9)
How did John perceive the nations? If I had seen a sea of people wearing white I’d probably think of them as all the same, so uniform… yet despite their identical clothes there’s some distinctiveness about them, some way to identify their ethnicity. Perhaps God cares so deeply about our cultures, that they are preserved forever, even in our heavenly bodies. Perhaps we will worship around His throne in the languages we learned on earth—what a chorus! Perhaps we’ll come with different joyful dances, with drums, and instruments of strings and wind to Praise our God! I’d just want to stay in this place forever, and we will!
But back on earth things look different. Jesus taught us to pray, “Your Kingdom Come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” How do we close that divide? Are we even meant to? It seems that when we pray for something, we are transformed by that very thing we’re praying for. As we pray, we see the existing gaps and we begin the work to build bridges.
Some of Jesus’ last words as recorded by John are about this very thing—UNITY that makes the world stare. You and I could be the fulfillment of his words…
“My prayer is not for [my disciples] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message [that’s us!], that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23)
What is “the world” seeing when they visit our churches? I hope they’ll hear Sunday morning praise sung in several languages? I hope they’ll see worshiping communities in our cities made up of at least 10 cultural groups and with a church staff was as colorful as the congregation itself. Perhaps then we’d look a bit more like the Revelation 7 family of God worshiping around the throne! (Read my blog MLK: A Tale of Two Churches to see a glimpse of a real American church like this.)
In a world as divided as ours, with nations at war and racial strife within countries, what kind of message would the church send as a diverse worshipping community? Reconciliation is possible through Christ! Jesus who died to reconcile us to our loving Creator also paved the way for us to be reconciled to one another.
Let’s exercise our prophetic imagination…
Imagine a church in the Holy Land where Palestinian Christians and Messianic Jews held hands in prayer.
Imagine a thriving congregation in Rwanda made up of Hutus and Tutsis.
Imagine Muslim converts worshiping in the homes of the Iraqi Christians they’d previously tortured in prison.
… can you see it?
What would America say if it saw the descendants of former slaves carry meals to the descendants of former slave owners whose house had just burned in a fire? What if a Chinese immigrant family adopted the daughter of a white teenage mother? What if homeowners in Silicon Valley took in undocumented immigrants who’d escaped gruella warfare in Guatemala? What if all of these were people living out the reconciling gospel of Jesus Christ and catching the curious eye of the unbelieving communities around them? Could their unbelief last?
I’ve encountered stories like these and they fill me with a kind of hope I can’t find anywhere else in the world. It’s the hope of the reconciling gospel of Jesus that not only reunites us with our Father but connects us to brothers and sisters in our global family where everyone’s needs are met and none lack, reminiscent of the Acts 2 community.
I’m honored to be the bearer of an intriguing gospel, one that never quite fits between straight lines or neat quadrants. I’m honored to be part of a diverse family of God that stretches around the globe and offers food, hospitality, and community to one another. When Jesus walked on the earth he declared the Kingdom of God is at hand. Well today, it’s here and its influence is ever-increasing as God’s scattered global family finds each other once more.